A new client whom I’ll call Alice came to me recently in a desperate financial situation. The work she’d been doing as a book editor had dried up over the past year, and she needed to find some other work quickly. She had decided to apply for a position as Project Manager at a non-profit. Her decision made rational sense—as a book editor she was already doing project management work, and the non-profit happened to be in the same field as the books she had edited. Rationally, it was a good way to transfer her skills and content expertise into a paid position.
The rational mind acts like an efficient computer—it gathers all the facts and information that are in sight, piles them all together, and construes a solution from this information. Our rational minds make “binary” decisions—at a surface level they are logical and make sense. They are also simple—we can explain our reasoning to someone else or program into a computer. Ninety-five percent of career counselors would tell Alice she was making a wise decision.
But there is another level of wisdom and intelligence, a level that all of us have accessed at one point or another. Some might call it “heart wisdom” or a “felt sense”—those moments when we know something on a gut level, even though what this “knowing” is telling us does not make logical sense. From my experience studying how adults learn over the past 25 years, I believe the most direct way of accessing this other level of intelligence is through image and metaphor. Images are non-binary—they work on all levels at once. Depth psychologists say that images are how the heart perceives. This level of intelligence is dark, rich and messy. It might not make rational sense, but when we discover it, we feel it on all levels—we might feel a shiver, or a bolt of electricity, or simply a deep sense of peace. This deeper level of wisdom, what I call the metaphoric level, offers insights and “doors” that we cannot see with the rational mind.
On a metaphoric level, I saw Alice sitting inside of a drawstring bag, desperately trying to get the drawstring above her head to open. Again, this made rational sense. If we are—metaphorically speaking—“inside of a bag” (or any other tight situation) our instinct will be to try to open it. But what I saw was that the bag wasn’t ever going to open—the bag was shut tight and would stay that way. But that didn’t mean Alice would (again, metaphorically speaking) “suffocate and die.” Our creative process is always in movement, and it’s always in movement toward the place that holds the most growth and vitality. In Alice’s situation, the creative movement wasn’t in trying to open a bag that was never going to open, it was in the opposite direction: the creativity vitality was to be found in the foundation under her feet. The image that revealed itself showed that the rich, dark, messy, unknown place below her feet was where the creative possibilities lay; it was the creative solution. Her potential and future lay not in using logical decision-making to try to get out of the bag, but in a direction that seemed messy and non-rational, but was rich with possibility.
Research has shown that the most impactful and creative people are often those who have overcome severe limitation. Think of Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Helen Keller, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Winston Churchill to name a few. But all of us have limitations, and nearly all of us experience moments in life when we are “up against a wall” or trying to get out of hole or simply stuck. In those moments, our rational thinking does not help us, and for that reason, these are precisely the moments where creativity and creative thinking have an opportunity to show us a new way. Our growth lies in allowing this deeper, creative intelligence to show us possibilities that our rational minds would never come up with on their own.
Let me give you two other examples of how the metaphoric level demonstrates greater wisdom that is both non-rational and complex. Another client, whom I call Mary, spoke in our first session about the tension that she was experiencing in a personal relationship. The image was that of a rope—she was holding one end of the rope, and other person was holding the other end. I asked Mary what she thought her next action should be and she said, “I need to let go of the rope and not pick it back up again.” In her mind, she needed to give up the struggle. Of course, that’s the rational solution, isn’t it? Counselors and therapists are frequently instructing us to “let go”—forgive others, drop the power struggles, walk away from conflict. But in this situation, the metaphoric level revealed that Mary’s rope was her own power—the thing that she was holding onto belonged to her, not to anyone else. Letting go of it would literally be letting go of her own life force. What she needed to do instead was snap the rope and shake off the people who should not be holding onto it. She needed to claim the rope as her own.
A third client had frequently been told by health practitioners that she was “ungrounded” and she had spent years learning and practicing grounding techniques to try to resolve this aspect of her personality. But what the metaphoric layer revealed was that it was her nature to be “in the air.” The image at her core was that of a “weaver”—weaving and connecting diverse things, people, information, and relationships together. And the fact of the matter is, weaving does not happen in the earth—it happens above the ground. She was making connections between things that were all over the place—she needed to be in the air. While spiritual counselors and health practitioners often cite the importance of “being grounded,” the metaphoric level revealed deeper wisdom. The truth is, some of us need to be grounded, and some of us don’t.
Our natural tendency as humans is to make choices that are logical and rational, or that follow the dictates of experts, culture or community. So metaphorically speaking, we try to open up the drawstring bag, force our vehicle to move, push the rock up the mountain, let go of the rope, strive to be more grounded, and so on. But following the reasoning of our rational mind or even our wisest spiritual teachers, might actually diminish our life force and vitality. Again, our rational minds are built like computers—they are not designed to open up new creative options and possibilities, they are not designed to move outside of the box. Our rational minds are very adept at processing the information inside the box –whether that box is scientific research or spiritual principles—as efficiently as possible.
But below this level of efficient processing, there is a metaphoric level that is rich, deep and full of messy images that our rational minds cannot see. And this rich metaphoric level is not woo-woo, new-age fluff. Cognitive scientist George Lakoff has spent thirty-five years studying the foundational role that metaphor plays in our cognitive system. According to Lakoff and Johnson in their best-selling book Metaphors We Live By, “Metaphors structure our thinking, our understanding of events and consequently our behavior.” Metaphorical thought is “unavoidable, ubiquitous, and mostly unconscious.” It is our task to become conscious of it.
You may feel like you’re slapping a brick wall, trying to get it to move. Or you may feel like an iron wall is pressing down on you, squeezing and suffocating you. These images are not something to be avoided or pushed aside. They’re gold. If you stop and tap into them, they will show you creative solutions—the direction that will give you breathing room, new options, or a path of rich expansiveness.
How about you? Do you have something in your life that’s not working? Do you feel stuck? Are you yearning for movement? There is likely a door that lies under the surface and you just haven’t seen it. It’s a door that you can’t access with your rational mind, because your life is a creative work of art and you are one-of-a-kind.