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Metaphorical Life: Part Two

A continuation of the page Living the Metaphorical Life.

In the areas of spirituality and what we might call self-work metaphors provide insights which might not otherwise sink in, and as such can be powerful tools for motivating us toward positive change. I collect examples of these kinds of metaphors, and some of my favorites have come from author and self-realization teacher Guy Finley. Here is one short quote from him:

Your true nature is something already greater than any self-compromising state, much in the same way as the ocean shoreline is greater than the waves that pound it. Your True Self is the unshakable Ground over which all "waves" of thought and feelings both move and break.

What a great way to think about the dark states we sometimes experience. They are just waves breaking on the beach and dissipating their energy, while we remain whole and undamaged since we are the beach or the underlying earth itself. Finley has also used the wonderful metaphor of one's true self being the sky, which remains there even when we cannot see it behind all the clouds which pass through. Life metaphors like these really make it possible to understand important lessons on more than just an intellectual level. They make them more "real" to us.

The metaphor of awakening is perhaps one of the most powerful ones in the area of spirituality, even if it is a cliché by now. It immediately suggests that in our ordinary life we are asleep, but that we will eventually awaken to the truth. We live a dream, but the dream will dissipate with the opening of our eyes. Awakening and the related metaphors resonate with almost everyone.

Awakening is not the only metaphorical perspective available, of course. A spiritual "journey" is almost as common. In our self-work we travel closer to our destination, which is enlightenment (yet another metaphor; one that associates truth with light). Then there is the less common but perhaps still useful, "treasure hunt." Spiritual treasure is hidden, and it is your job to find it. In spiritual writings these metaphors are developed more fully to better explore the truth they point to and to make them more motivating (think of all the wonderful metaphorical language in the Bible, for example). In the case of "treasure," we might tell a story of it being hidden in a wilderness…

The paved roads are the religions and spiritual practices of the world, which are relatively easy to follow, and used by many. Dirt roads are the lesser-known or less-practiced parts of the spiritual traditions. Few people will join you for this part of the journey. The footpath is the subtle trace of where others have gone before, and of course, once you leave that, as you must, you are on your own entirely. This trail blazing is the deepest inner work for which there is no authority to follow but your own desire for truth.

Does this process of choosing and developing metaphors actually help us understand better, or does it simply shape the way we explain things internally and to others? As I've said, my own experience shows that using different metaphors does make a difference in mental state and does alter behavior. But we can be misled by metaphors, or we can adopt ones that are not very useful. It is also true that all metaphors have their limitations.

For example, a spiritual awakening resonates, but if we try to draw parallels with other aspects of sleep, dreaming and waking up, we don't find as much resonance. After all, when we wake up we eventually go to sleep again, which would suggest that enlightenment is a temporary state which comes and goes. That might be an interesting perspective, but it doesn't sound very inspirational. We hope to never return to ignorance and suffering once we escape them, after all.

A spiritual journey suggests a destination and an end to the journey. The idea that we will at some point have nothing left to learn and no further to go with our spirituality doesn't sound quite right, does it? Finding a treasure is also an end of a journey or of the process of seeking something. We might relate to the idea of leaving the paved paths and entering the wilderness to discover the truth, but is there such a treasure chest of all necessary knowledge? It seems ridiculous when looked at that way.

What's useful here is not the creation of fun comparisons, but the exploration of these matters by way of metaphors, and the development of different perspectives and insights we get with each. When we talk of a “higher self," for example, it reminds us (or just suggests) that there is something inside of us which is more important than personality or our momentary states of being happy, upset, jealous and so on. "Submitting to a higher power" suggests that the important part of what makes us spiritual is somewhere outside of us; a view favored by most religious people. Although submission to a higher power isn’t something which resonates with me, it could be a useful perspective for the overcoming of ego, which has truly practical implications for living peacefully on earth with other people.

Not all understandings or perspectives are valuable though, and like many powerful tools, metaphors can be dangerous. We metaphorically call people “monsters,” for example, as a way to make killing them easier on our consciences. Despots routinely call groups of human beings “vermin” and “rats” in order to make a populace willing to target them as scapegoats for their problems. Or, for a more mundane example, consider what the metaphor “waiting for my ship to come in” does to a person’s approach to life. Instead of waiting for opportunity, other people are out there "building" their ships.

Metaphors are a part of our lives whether we notice them or not. They affect business, religion, politics, and almost everything we do, because they affect almost everything we think. It makes sense then to become more consciously aware of the ways in which they influence our thoughts and actions. It makes sense to use every good metaphor we can to better understand and relate to the world and to life. At the same time, though, we shouldn’t be too devoted to mere words. We risk stagnation in our thinking and lives if we get too hung up on particular metaphorical understandings.

We may as well choose to use metaphors wisely, because we can’t escape them. I certainly won't in my last sentence: We should remember that words are not truth, but are places from which to see what is true, and so like a man knows a mountain better by seeing it from near and far and here and there, we too should look at life and the things in it from the perspectives provided by many different words.

This was from Sky Child, by Steve Gillman, which is available as a Kindle e-book from Amazon, along with the other books of the At Your Own Risk Series.

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