My work with metaphor chose me; it was not my expected path in life. Through a series of experiences—harrowing, mystical, and profound—I came to be an advocate for a non-ordinary realm of profound beauty that we access through metaphor.
Metaphoric images are the heart of the creative process and…
I grew up in a family that (like the culture at large) valued science and dismissed creativity as unimportant and frivolous. It was certainly not “real work.”
So my brother became an engineer, my sister a radiologist, and I went into the computer science field.
In my mid-20s, working for a large fortune 500 company in downtown Chicago, I took a weekend trip with my boyfriend and had an experience that changed the course and direction of my life. We had traveled to the upper peninsula of Michigan and while cruising down a highway at 65 miles per hour, a car crossed the centerline and hit us head on. I was wearing a seat belt but because of the position I was sitting in the car and the force of the impact, I was critically injured. I broke T-12 in my back and my spinal cord was displaced by 40 degrees. After being airlifted to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, I was given less than 5% chance of walking again.
I did recover from the accident, and there are two parts of this story that are important. First, I was in excruciating pain and traumatized when I arrived that night at a county hospital in the middle of the night. I knew my back was broken, I had no feeling below the waist and I was facing the very real possibility that I might spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. The nurse saw my condition, walked over to me and whispered in my ear, “Imagine that you’re floating on a cloud.”
So I closed my eyes and imagined myself floating on a cloud, and that shifted everything. It relaxed my body, it was comforting. That imaginary—yet very real—cloud got me through the trauma and shifted me into a state of peace.
That was my first encounter with the power of metaphor and how central it is for shifts, breakthroughs and healing.
The second part of the story that I want to share is this: the main reason I recovered from the accident was because my body was in top physical condition. For some unknown reason, I spent the months leading up to the accident intensely exercising several hours per day. I’ve never done that before or since. It was like some unconscious part of me…knew that the accident was going to happen and was preparing for it.
After the accident I was in recovery for a long time, so it gave me a long time to reflect on my life and what lit me up, and I realized that I loved learning. I was working in the artificial intelligence field, trying to be “close” to my passion by working with “computer learning.” But I wanted the real thing. I had become disillusioned with artificial intelligence, realizing that there was no way computers could replace humans at their best—their most creative, most realized selves. The creative is where we are most alive.
So after months of recovery, I became a PhD student at the University of Chicago.
Before the accident, getting a PhD was completely outside of my realm of possibility. For one thing, I had $40,000 of debt from my Master’s degree and taking on more debt was out of the question. For another, no one in my family nor anyone else I knew had ever gotten a PhD. I knew nothing about academia.
The accident bumped me…from one track to another, from one life path to a very different life path.
I received a PhD at the University of Chicago in adult learning. I was lucky to have Mihaly Cskiszentmihalyi, the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, and many other books, agree to be my advisor. He was very busy and in another department of the school (I was in the Education department, he was in Psychology), but I wrote a paper on learning in everyday life and it intrigued him. He agreed to meet with me, and subsequently agreed to be my advisor. Later on, he asked me to co-author a couple of articles on learning in museums. For those of you who are interested, here’s a link to one of them: http://goo.gl/J6prDi
I was honored by the job recommendation he wrote for me when I applied for my first teaching position:
“Kim is an exceptionally smart, thoughtful, and well put-together person. Her doctoral dissertation of how and what adults learn in informal settings was a pioneering study with all sorts of immediate implications for creativity and adult learning. The field needs the information she has collected and her insights about it. Personally, I feel proud to have been the supervisor of her thesis.”
But unfortunately, I was not in good shape after graduate school. I had entered with a real desire to understand how adults learn in life, and I graduated unable to read words without feeling nauseous. My left brain was fried. (This had nothing to do with Mihaly’s work; he was definitely a bright spot in my education. I was supremely grateful to be able to work with him.)
Words on the back of a cereal box would swim in front of me and make me feel ill. So for lack of anything better to do at the time (since I couldn’t read or write), I started giving psychic readings at the Berkeley Psychic Institute in Berkeley, California.
Giving psychic readings at the Berkeley Psychic Institute turned out to be an important part of my life path, not just a crazy thing to do, although I didn’t know that at the time. For myself, I was just looking for adventure and new experiences.
To me, giving psychic readings was fun and offbeat…taking me far, far away from the land of anything serious or academic.
What I noticed was that during the readings I wasn’t predicting people’s futures. I was going “under the surface” and reading what I would come to call the “metaphoric realm.” I wasn’t telling someone they were going to meet a tall dark stranger. I was looking at whatever they were asking about and looking under the situation at the metaphoric image that lay beneath it. I might say something like, “you’re in mud right now, but you can move, it’s just taking longer than you expected,” or “that direction is closed to you, but there’s an opening to your left, what does the left direction mean to you?”
I was looking at their creative process…metaphorically.
This space that I was reading, this non-ordinary dimension, is pre-cognitive. It’s the place where we can see things before they manifest in the ordinary world.
We can tap in and work with that energy and…
THAT is exciting.
I did psychic readings professionally for awhile, but when I came to a point where I was ready to get serious about my career, I dropped all that and began teaching. I taught in the teacher credentialing program at UC Berkeley, and taught various courses on teaching and learning at a few other universities.
I thought I had left metaphor and psychic readings far behind.
After a few years, I moved to the mountains of northeast Montana because I needed wildness. I’d spent my life growing up in a conservative Midwestern family, then following corporate rules as a computer scientist at a large Fortune 500 company, and although I loved graduate school…there had just been too many words for me.
I needed wild.
I moved to the mountains, moving in with a long-haired hippy who lived in a teepee on 200 acres. My dog and I could hear the wolves howl at night, we crossed paths with bears during the day. I was enchanted…immersing myself in the beauty of the wild with its craggy mountains and deep dark winters.
Several years later I returned to the Bay area of California to teach. While I was interviewing for a teaching position at a graduate school of psychology, the president of the school looked at me quizzically and said, “Instead of trying to fit you into our program and have you teach something on our roster, why don’t you tell me what you’d like to teach?”
It was a prophetic moment and a prophetic question because Spirit spoke through me and said, “Metaphor.”
I was in shock. I didn’t know anything about metaphor as an academic subject, nor how it related to psychology. And while I was in a state of shock, the president of the school picked right up on it like nothing out of the ordinary had just happened and said, “Great we’ll call it the psychology of metaphor.” I walked out of his office not knowing what I was doing or what was going on. The first class I would be teaching was a class of PhD students…and the class was scheduled to start in 2 months.
But not surprisingly, since Spirit was speaking through me that day, Spirit developed this class for me. In uncanny ways, out-of-print books about metaphor and the psychology of metaphor would “appear” in front of me at the library where I like to study. One of these books, the most remarkable of them, was by a man named Martin Foss, who wrote a book called Symbol and Metaphor in Human Experience that had been published in 1949 and had been out of print for many, many years. This book was extraordinary, about how metaphor is the creative process of life itself. No one I knew had ever heard of Martin Foss, and I established a Wikipedia page for him: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Foss.
Teaching this course on the psychology of metaphor was an awakening experience for me, causing me to look at the world differently. It was obvious to me that there was some realm of beauty that we couldn’t see with ordinary eyes—it was there beneath the surface. I kept looking around me asking, “How do we see the beauty? How do we see the beauty?” I was frustrated.
I wanted to be able to see it, but I didn’t know how.
Two months after the metaphor class ended, I had a profound, totally life-changing visionary experience where I was shown this realm by Spirit and it was urgently made known to me that guiding people to this realm would be my life’s work. I had had experiences throughout my life, the first one when I was 13, of being touched by a dimension of non-ordinary beauty. But as I mentioned before, I grew up in a conservative, Midwestern family that prized academics and science. “Spiritual” experiences didn’t have a place in my frame of reference. Rather than share them, it was easier for me to dismiss these experiences. So I did.
I’m an academic, I’m introverted, I love research and writing. I am not by any means, a spiritual guru. Talking about anything spiritual or other-worldly is far outside of my comfort zone.
But the truth is… this realm of profound beauty urgently wants to be known.
I know others that have had experiences of beauty in non-ordinary reality. These experiences of other-worldly beauty need to be valued and honored, not swept under the rug or dismissed.
As I did for so many years.
They need to be in mainstream conversation. They need to be integrated into the culture as a central way of learning and knowing.
I love this statement by Gregg Braden in his book Secrets of the Lost Mode of Prayer:
…the power of beauty is real. In its presence, we are changed…the power of beauty appears to be dormant until we give it our attention. While it may very well have the power to change our world, that power is asleep until it’s awakened. And we are the only ones who can awaken it! As the only form of life with the power to experience beauty, it is awakened only when we acknowledge it in our lives.
We need to acknowledge beauty in our lives.
In his book, A Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer uses the phrase “divided no more” to name the point at which we can no longer live in disharmony within ourselves. My work in adult education was solidly based in traditional ways of knowing, but my visionary experience was clearly showing me something new.
I myself have come to a point where I am no longer willing to live “divided.” I know that there is much more to human learning and knowing than we acknowledge or know. I am no longer willing to dismiss experiences of divine beauty. It may not yet be known or valued in our culture, but I can value it.
Here is my pledge:
- I will no longer allow cultural or social norms to dictate what is “acceptable” and what is not.
- I will no longer dismiss powerful experiences of other-worldly beauty or discount non-rational experiences of learning and knowing.
- I will no longer allow Beauty to be marginalized. I know that it is a source of great power.
It’s amazing to me that the metaphoric realm is untapped in our culture. We spend billions of dollars on outer space exploration, and yet…a very real realm of creative potential is there for us to tap into and explore. It will open up our lives and our world if we let it.
And it urgently wants to do that.