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Infinity symbol April 8, 2009

Posted by David Pierce in Uncategorized.

Why is infinity denoted by a lemniscate?

Lemniscates (figure-eights)

In a recent talk in Ankara, Sasha Borovik used a photograph like those in his post Manifestation of Infinity. How does infinity appear in a picture of a ferry approaching a dock? One person in the audience suggested that a pair of tires on the side of the ferry formed the infinity symbol.

I speculate that the lemniscate is the simplest shape suggesting endlessness that will not be confused with the symbol for emptiness: the zero. That the zero is naturally a symbol for emptiness is suggested in the eighth Oxherding picture, Bull and Self Transcended:

[picture: an empty circle]

Whip, rope, person, and bull — all merge in No-Thing.
This heaven is so vast no message can stain it.
How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire?
Here are the footprints of the patriarchs.

Comment: Mediocrity is gone. Mind is clear of limitation. I seek no state of enlightenment. Neither do I remain where no enlightenment exists. Since I linger in neither condition, eyes cannot see me. If hundreds of birds strew my path with flowers, such praise would be meaningless.

(English text by Reps and Senzaki.)

How significant the lemniscate may be in the East, I do not know. I was able to find, on one yoga website, a suggestion to visualize a figure-eight while practicing Spinal Breath:

There are a variety of practices with awareness moving up and down the spine with the breath. One may do this practice between particular energy centers (chakras) or form different shapes of the visualized flow, including elliptical or a figure-eight…

The most straight forward, and yet completely effective method is to:

  • Imagine the breath flowing from the top of the head, down to the base of the spine on exhalation, and to
  • Imagine the flow coming from the base of the spine to the top of the head on inhalation.
  • This may be done lying down, or in a seated meditation posture.

One may simply experience the breath, or may be aware of a thin, milky white stream flowing in a straight line, up and down. This practice is very subtle when experienced at its depth, and can turn into a profoundly deep part of meditation practice.


1. Vishal Lama - April 8, 2009


Just out of curiosity, do you practice Zen or any other form of meditation?

2. David Pierce - April 9, 2009

Perhaps the only kind of meditating I have done is of the kind described by Descartes in his Meditations on First Philosophy. As a child, I found the Buddha to be most congenial of all religious teachers; and I am a fan of the Reps and Senzaki book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. But I keep in mind Christopher Hitchens’s observations in God is not Great, to the effect that adherents of Eastern religions can be just as evil as those of Western.

3. mariana - April 9, 2009

A stranger’s strange stare, looped into infinite repeat. That’s where the shape comes from.

4. David Corfield - April 28, 2009

According to this, the first use is by John Wallis:

This symbol for infinity is first found in print in his 1655 publication Arithmetica Infinitorum. It may have been suggested by the fact that the Romans commonly used this symbol for a thousand, just as today the word “myriad” is used for any large number, although in the Greek it meant ten thousand.

Now here:

In Zero to Lazy Eight, Alexander Humez, Nicholas Humez, and Joseph Maguire write: “Wallis was a classical scholar and it is possible that he derived \infty from the old Roman sign for 1,000, CD, also written M–though it is also possible that he got the idea from the lowercase omega, omega being the last letter of the Greek alphabet and thus a metaphor of long standing for the upper limit, the end.”

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