Not everybody believes in God, the divine, or the supernatural. Some people believe that this physical existence is all there is; when a person dies, that’s it – there is nothing more. However, some people do believe in the divine and the supernatural; they believe that there is more to life than what can be seen. They believe in miracles and that the divine or the supernatural seeks to have a relationship with them. The dialogue that the divine or the supernatural opens to initiate this relationship manifests itself through signs. This raises the question of whether or not humans are always looking for signs, such as red cranes, dragons, or through divination. The quick answer is no; humans are not always looking for signs, since signs imply some divinity or something supernatural does exist, and not all humans believe in these things.
I chose this topic not necessarily because I believe in the divine or the supernatural but because I believe that people do seem to be looking for signs, often as part of their spiritual practice or journey or as a way of understanding their lives. This looking for signs manifests in ideas like “bad things come in threes.” This notion of bad things (like death) coming in threes is a way of people understanding or making sense of things they may find it difficult to process. People also look for signs as proof of the divine and as proof that the divine is seeking and sustaining a relationship with people. People want existence to be something they can control; if they believe there are signs, they can believe that things are not as chaotic as they appear. Consider the signs and visions had by countless religious figures; consider the signs and visions sought by figures like King Arthur and Joan of Arc. Seeking for signs appears to be something done by historical figures, human ancestors, and even now in modern society. And in terms of divination – trying to penetrate mysteries in some ways, or see the future in others – is another way of trying to control events which in reality are beyond control.
In their article “The Eight Trigrams of the Chinese I Ching and the Eight Primary Emotions” authors Warren D. TenHouten and Wen Wang write extensively on how the eight trigrams of the Chinese I Ching, a divinatory practice, connect with the eight primary emotions of Plutchik’s psychoevolutionary model of primary emotions. Plutchik’s work characterizes emotions as “adaptive reactions to the positive and negative experiences of four existential problems – identity, temporality/reproduction, hierarchy, and territoriality” (TenHouten and Wang 185). The authors determine that the trigrams and the emotions “exist as four pairs of opposites” meaning that both constructs can be seen as “adaptive reactions to the four basic problems of life” (TenHouten and Wang 185). This connection between emotion and divination as adaptive reactions to the experience of life echo my belief that signs and divination function as ways of people trying to make sense of life and cope with events beyond their control. Using the I Ching to penetrate life’s mysteries or the future represents a way in which people open a dialogue with the divine and hope to anticipate (and potentially avoid) bad situations. That the eight trigrams seem to correspond with the Plutchik’s model of primary emotions suggests either that Plutchik might have been influenced by the I Ching or that the authors saw a similar pattern between the two constructs – people looking for signs.
Emma Scott, in her article “The Visionary Psyche: Jung’s Analytical Psychology and Its Impact on Theories of Shamanic Imagery,” assesses the work of Noll and Winkelman on shamanic visionary encounters through a framework of Jungian archetypes, the collective unconscious, and individuation. In essence, Scott looks at how the work of Jung has helped scholars who study shamanism understand the imagery associated with shamanic visions. Jung’s archetypes are signs which represent certain universal experiences and beliefs of human existence. Divination can be used to understand one’s self just as it can be used to understand the world. The purpose of the shaman is to connect with the divine. In these cases, the images the shaman sees on their journey serve as signs as well. The shaman seeks signs in the inner world (the psyche) and the outer world (in nature) on behalf of others who are also seeking. The existence of shamans suggest that some people believe that signs can be found but that not everybody has the ability; yet people seek anyway, and they get shamans to seek on their behalf. Either way, for themselves or others, people seek signs.
Stephen Karcher, writing in “Re-enchanting the Mind: Oracles, Reading, Myth, and Mantics,” notes that he believes that the “purpose of divination is…not prediction or problem-solving but to weave a spell, to re-enchant the mind, luring it into the realm of the Others and opening a place for them in our imagination and perception” (198). He asserts that divination and oracular speech represent “a language and a mirror” existing in “the mysterious liminal realm between rational thought and the…psyche” where the Others can communicate with us (Karcher 198). In other words, divination serves as a means of opening a dialogue with the Others which may be understood as the divine or the supernatural. As I wrote earlier, people regard signs as a means of conversing with the divine or the supernatural. Karcher’s work seems very much in line with what I wrote: signs and divinations serve as means of connecting people with the divine. And people look for signs and use divination to open that dialogue and make that connection.
At the beginning of this paper, I wrote that the short answer to the question of “are humans always looking for signs?” is no. However, it is clear from the rest of this paper that the long answer is yes: humans do seem to be always looking for signs. Across cultures, religions, and societies, there seems to be a seeking for evidence of and a connection with the divine.
- Karcher, Stephen. “Re-enchanting the Mind: Oracles, Reading, Myth, and Mantics.” Psychological Perspectives 50.2 (2007): 198-219.
- Scott, Emma. “The Visionary Psyche: Jung’s Analytical Psychology and Its Impact on Theories of Shamanic Imagery.” Anthropology of Consciousness 25.1 (2014): 91-115.
- TenHouten, Warren D., and Wen Wang. “The Eight Trigrams of the Chinese I Ching and the Eight Primary Emotions.” Asian Journal of Social Psychology 4.3 (2001): 185-200.