In a meeting in late December 2006, the President of a small university asked me what course I wanted to teach in their Ph.D. Psychology program. Instead of responding with the curricula that I was already prepared to teach, to my surprise I found myself blurting out… “metaphor.” The topic was right there; there was no thinking involved. It seemingly came out of nowhere. At the time, I had no idea how metaphor related to Psychology, and I’m certainly not a linguist. Something was speaking through me. He replied, “Great! We’ll call it the Psychology of Metaphor” and I walked out of his office wondering what I had just gotten myself into.
That conversation initiated me on a journey, one where out-of-print books about the role of metaphor in human consciousness would appear out of nowhere on my study table at the local library. And while teaching the course, I had the strong sense that there was a realm of beauty that lies “under the surface” and we humans just don’t see it. I spent these months gazing at the world around me, trying to find the “way in” to this place.
Two months after the class ended, I had a visionary experience. For the sake of space, I will simply say that in this vision I saw and experienced that realm of pulsing beauty that I had been searching for. And as I experienced this breathtaking beauty, a voice said “THIRD SPACE” and I bolted awake.
For years I had been using the term third space to describe the phenomenon in teaching when the polarity between teacher and student is bridged and the group reaches a palpable place of expanded knowing and intuitive wisdom. Of course, if third space is the place we come to when a polarity is bridged, metaphor is by definition a third space. Metaphor bridges two disparate things to create a third thing, or third space. And so, metaphor is also the creative process. The noted philosopher Martin Foss (whose books showed up on my study table) would say that metaphor is the “process of creation” itself.
Over a century ago, Rudolph Steiner said the greatest discovery of 20th century science would be that the heart is not a pump but vastly more, and that the great challenge of the coming age of humanity would be to allow the heart to teach us to think in a new way. And how does the heart speak? The heart speaks through metaphor.
This wisdom of the heart is not “new,” it is ancient. It’s just that we have long forgotten it. The earliest humans did not have words—they used their physical bodies through gesture, facial expression, sounds, and posture to convey messages to one another. They painted pictographs on cave walls, communicated through visual signs, and learned by sensing, seeing, and touching the world around them. Thunder, rain, wind, plants and animals were all sources of learning and knowing. As James Hillman writes, “Metaphor was then the primary mode of knowing and understanding the world. The world was interpreted animistically—thunder was a God, and reality was structured in accordance with myth. Metaphor wasn’t understood to be a figure of speech, it was a vital means for understanding the world.”
I believe it is our next evolution as humans to bridge this polarity—between the mind and the heart, between the “real” world and the “world behind this world”—by tapping into the transformative power of metaphoric image. It’s the doorway to our genius.
If you’re interested in exploring third space or metaphor in more depth, you might want to check out my book Getting Messy (I discuss metaphor in chapter 3 and third space in chapter 6). I’ll soon be starting a group for therapists on the role of image and metaphor for transformative change. (CEU credit is available for MFTs and LCSWs.) I am also available for individual Doorway” Sessions where you can experience third space through the simple power of metaphor operating in your own life.