Don’t look for me in a human shape.
I am inside your looking. No need
for form with a love this strong.
The lines above from Rumi can be interpreted in more than one way. As I teach courses on the psychology of metaphor, to my mind, Rumi’s lines refer to the power that metaphors have on our ability to see the world around us. Using Rumi’s words, metaphors are “inside our looking.” Metaphors don’t have a physical form (“don’t look for me in a human shape”) and our primary metaphorical images come from something that has moved our hearts (“no need for form with a love this strong.”) Let me give you some examples.
I am the daughter of an Iowa farmer and I spent my early years watching my dad plant things. Planting, growing, and digging my hands into rich soil are images that lie deep within my personal psychology. They are the source of my inner nourishment and replenishment, and they are in many ways who I am, despite the fact that I’ve spent most of my adult life living in the city. In my heart, I will always be close to my farming roots. A friend of mine, on the other hand, grew up near the sea in England. She’s a scientist of sorts, and woven through all her writings is the notion of oceanic waves. The writer E.B. White was fascinated by spiders webs as a child. He spent years musing about spider webs, going on to write the bestselling children’s book Charlotte’s Web. Images from the physical world are so strong when we are young that they form the “key images” that we hold in our hearts for a lifetime. As the poet Walt Whitman once mused about a child going out into the world: ”the first object he looked upon, that object he became.”
Carl Jung believed that the psyche consists essentially of images—at our soul’s core we are images. By that he did not mean images that are simply psychic reflections of external objects. His definition of image was more poetic, more imaginative, and only indirectly related to external objects. My love for planting has as much to do with my love for my father, his physical body, and his ability to “work the soil,” as it does with the technical definition or image of planting that you may find in a horticulture book. The archetypal psychologist James Hillman proposes that life can be defined as the “actualization over time” of the images that we hold, that our unique images are the essence of our life and they “call us to a destiny.” Like my father who worked the soil, we spend our lives “working” our key images. These images are the primary metaphors of our lives.
While we traditionally think of metaphor as something that writers use to spice up their writing, in fact, we are born into a metaphoric world. Scholars from Gregory Bateson and George Lakoff to philosophers such as Martin Foss have all suggested that our lives are lived within an unconscious metaphoric process. The metaphors that we subconsciously hold shape and define us; they give us the lenses through which we look at the world around us. Seeing the world as a hostile force, viewing other cultures as “enemies.” or believing that life is about making lemonade out of lemons are all examples of metaphoric lenses. We see life through these metaphors.
In addition to the primary images that “choose us” when we are young, the significant events of our lives evoke fresh metaphors that influence how we see the world around us. We humans naturally draw on metaphor to help us understand and communicate difficult or abstract experiences. A friend of mine just lost her father. Two days after he died, she rented a U-haul truck to bring some of his office furniture back to her own home 500 miles away. She’s barely 5 foot tall and she wondered, as she struggled to crawl up into the cab, “am I going to be able to drive this thing?” When she relayed the story to me later, it was clear that driving an oversized truck on a long-distance trip was not merely a transitory image. It was a metaphor for approaching the next phase of her life without her beloved father. How will she be able to “drive” without him? When my own father died prematurely at the age of 57, the image that came to me was that I was a player on a baseball team and a key player was no longer on the field. The game I was used to playing was in total disarray.
The late philosopher Marshall McLuhan borrowed the terms “figure” and “ground” from gestalt psychology, expanding these concepts to refer to human perception and consciousness. He believed that all situations are comprised of an area of attention (the figure) and a larger area of inattention (the ground). McLuhan wrote: “the left brain with its sequential, linear bias, hides the ground of most situations, making it subliminal.” For our purposes here, we can view our internalized metaphors as “ground.” All of us hold an infinite variety of these metaphoric lenses, and many if not most of them are unconscious. In fact, metaphors are so embedded in our thought processes that it is impossible to become conscious of them all. As Aristotle said, “The soul never thinks without an image.” George Lakoff has studied this phenomenon for years, calling our thinking process “imaginative rationality.” The imagination and its imagery forms the foundation of our thoughts and feelings. Metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but also in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.
Marshall McLuhan’s most iconic phrase was “the medium is the message.” If this is true, metaphors are much more than interesting or quirky forms of expression. As the ground of our thinking, they are the “medium” through which we filter our thoughts and ideas. By extension, they play an important role in both individual and social change. It’s likely that real change happens on a metaphoric level, only later becoming evident on the physical level in the occurrences of daily life. Thus, when we notice and change our metaphoric pictures, we subsequently alter our thoughts and actions.
Last year I attended a prestigious conference that is one of the premiere leading-edge forums in the world for social and cultural change. While most of the conference was quite inspiring, I was shocked to hear one of the keynote speakers consistently speak of his work in the Amazon rain forest as a battle against the large corporations who are destroying it. He was pumped up and aggressive, literally describing his mission as one of amassing “guns” and “tanks.” This man may have thought his message was rebalancing the ecosystem in the Amazon. But on a much more penetrating level, his message was war.
Two years ago, Barack Obama inspired the world with his message of hope, unity and change, but the feelings of renewal and inspiration weren’t just in his words. He himself as a mixed-race American offered an inspiring image of unity. The son of an African father and a white mother, he embodied his own message. We could see it. An inspiring metaphor moves us to reach beyond ourselves, helping us to embrace a greater vision for being human on this planet.
I would like to propose that the real “work” that we are doing in life is happening at our metaphoric “ground.” So rather than berate the fact that nothing ever changes in the entrenched systems of modern society, we could shift into the metaphoric level and examine what images we are living by. Carl Jung wrote, “concepts are coined and negotiable; images are life.”
As George Lakoff has elegantly described, for most of us, the Republican party tends to conjure up images of security and family, while the Democratic party brings to mind protest marches and rallies for individual rights. Which images are more compelling to you? The politicians who are able to master metaphor are the ones who make an impact. Here are some reasons why metaphor has such an important role in social change:
• Metaphors provide concrete imagery. In his book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip and Dan Heath write that a primary quality of an idea that sticks is that it embodies a concrete image. For example, in religious proverbs abstract truths are often encoded in metaphoric language, such as the phrase: “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” “Sticky” ideas are full of concrete imagery.
• Metaphors make something universal. We live in a somatic world—we all have bodies that feel and senses that see and smell and hear the world around us. When someone says, “he was as cold as ice” we immediately understand what is meant in a visceral way. Metaphors facilitate our understanding.
• Metaphors suggest a story and/or felt emotion. Advertisers know that if they want to sell us something, they need to make us feel something. Deep down, we all want to feel currents of life moving through us.
• Metaphors satisfy our heart’s longing for beauty. Metaphors are aesthetic; they’re like little pieces of art. Wouldn’t you rather hear about a “bird in the bush” than hear a series of projected numbers?
• Metaphors offer shades of gray. When you frame something metaphorically, it can be interpreted in multiple ways. It is likely that what the world needs now is not black-and-white ideas like capitalism and communism, but more creative combinations of ideas and methods. Metaphors take us into a creative realm.
• Metaphors “work” us. Metaphors are fuzzy and open to interpretation. Meaning is communicated in a less precise way, which in turn initiates a process of learning in the listener. Since metaphors are not literal, they force us to search for meaning.
• Metaphors surprise us. Eckhart Tolle called metaphors a way to “awaken us from the old grooves of repetitive and conditioned thinking.” A good metaphor offers something fresh and renewing.
• Metaphors are inherently democratic. A good metaphor is not “flat” — it invites us to participate in it and offers a gamut of possibilities. We can find our own interpretation within it—there is no single “truth.”
• Metaphors are powerful. Metaphors are capable of creating new understandings and therefore, new realities.
For most of the thorny social issues that confront us in modern society, it’s perhaps most useful to shift our focus to the metaphoric level. Nearly all religious and political conflicts, for example, happen at the symbolic level of metaphoric images.
When you speak or think about your vision or current plan, what image does it evoke? When most of us think about fomenting social change, we might not think that the creative process is in any way relevant. Rather, our focus is probably on the letter-writing campaign or the protest march, on the plans and numbers, or on the research that we need to do to find the most effective biodegradable alternative. But underneath those plans lies an image of what we are truly creating. Is this image inspiring and expansive? Does it ignite creativity? Does it inspire feelings of moving beyond ourselves, into a greater vision of being a human on this planet?
Every idea or solution that you propose embodies a way of seeing. Reality is always coming through a pair of glasses, a point of view. Reality is inherently creative.
For an experiential exploration of the special role that metaphor plays in personal and cultural change, please join me at Esalen Institute for a weekend workshop: “Getting Messy: Creative Process and Social Change” March 4 – 6, 2011. To register, go to the Esalen website http://webapp.esalen.org/workshops/9329 or call Esalen at (831) 667-3000. Hope to see you there!