Symbolic Substitutes

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A woman with her hands raised in the sky watches the waves crash on the shore.

There’s a fundamental paradox in human nature that you may have noticed by now: a part of us wants inner peace, and another part of us actively fights against it. We want to eat right, but we also want to break all the food rules. We want love, but we love to look for it in all the wrong places. Each of us instinctively intuits our prior wholeness, the spiritual source that lies hidden within.

Like it or not, we’re born with an evolutionary impulse that drives us towards the fulfillment of our greatest potential. If you’ve ever felt a calling, an inner urge to be something more, it is the evolutionary impulse sparking you towards your destiny. But how can we get there when another part of us is fighting against the things we supposedly want most?

Let’s answer this age-old question by first considering how our human software seems designed to run us, and see if we can do a simple software update to make life a little easier. Because of this basic dichotomy of life on planet Earth, because we have a part of us urging us towards wholeness and another part wanting some down and dirty time in the gutter, the result is that oftentimes, we seek health and harmony in ways that actually prevent it.

In other words, when we want something that’s a bit too difficult to attain, we’re hardwired to reach for the closest approximation, a “symbolic substitute.”

A symbolic substitute is the best stand-in for the thing we really want.

So for example, if we lack personal power, we might go after money and influence as a substitute for this quality. If we lack stability and roots, we might build a lavish home to feel some security. And if we feel a lack of meaning or excitement in life, or if we don’t have the love we want, we can turn to food as the best available substitute.
But please don’t look at this as something terribly broken about our humanity. It’s actually a brilliant strategy of the mind to reach for substitutes when we can’t acquire what we really want. Why not reach for food when we’re feeling lonely, or search through the refrigerator when life is a little dull? Substitutes can serve a useful purpose in our day-to-day existence. We need to feel the goodies, to have some relief from life’s toils and challenges. We’ve got to have some pleasure to continue onwards. And yet, symbolic substitutes can surely work against us when we hold to them exclusively as a means for true fulfillment.
It’s easy to fall asleep at the wheel of life and forget that food isn’t the “true love” that we’re seeking. It gives us the momentary surge of intimacy and fulfillment, but around the corner from a symbolic substitute that we overuse is guilt, shame, and even self-abuse.

A part of us knows that our deeper desire is not being met.

Symbolic substitutes are often experienced as intense desires, something we believe we must have for peace of mind. For example, we may desire particular people, possessions, or experiences. Such desires are often born out of the belief that only something “outside” can complete us. In other words, the mind projects our innate sense of wholeness outward. It says: “If I am un-whole and separated, then my missing pieces must be somewhere out there.” So we embark on a mission to recapture our missing pieces in other people, places, possessions, food, and anything that gives us the temporary experience of wholeness.
Of course, the desire for a symbolic substitute carries a hidden promise. If it’s fame we want, the hidden promise might be “When I am famous, then people will finally admire and see who I really am.” Or if we desire an ideal body, it might be “When I’m thin, then people will love me and my life will truly begin.” These false hopes and promises are seldom in our conscious awareness. However, they tend to reveal themselves once we actually achieve what we desire. So for the people who finally do become famous, they may feel even more alone and misunderstood, and for the people who do lose weight, they may find themselves to be no more happy or in love with life. Just thinner.

When we let go of the intensive use of our favorite symbolic substitutes, something interesting happens.

We feel pain. Or uncomfortable feelings. Or sadness. Or a deep longing. People who give up alcohol, tobacco, or sugar often go through withdrawal symptoms, painful physical manifestations of the emotional suffering we experience inside. The relief we believed we were receiving reveals itself only as a shadow, and the pain lying beneath is finally exposed. The good news is that these withdrawal symptoms must make their way through the body to release the biological craving. This allows the heart to experience the discomfort it secretly held, and to let go of it once and for all.
So, if you ever feel you’re fighting against yourself when it comes to food, consider calling a cease-fire. Embrace both sides of yourself. Meaning, sometimes, it’s fine to go for the food when what we really want is love and intimacy and excitement. We need our symbolic substitutes. They serve us well. Forgive yourself. Acknowledge your fragile humanity. Relax, eat, and enjoy. But accept the other side of you as well. Listen more deeply to what your heart and soul truly crave. Own your desires, your dreams, the inmost parts of you that need a little airtime. Push the pause button on the eating experience every now and then, and listen into the silence. You’ll hear something very compelling. It’s your Life. And it’s calling you.
Have you ever tried calling a cease-fire? What was your experience?

A woman with her hands raised in the sky watches the waves crash on the shore.

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