When I was 26, I traveled to the upper peninsula of Michigan with my boyfriend to see the fall colors, but we never saw them. An hour after landing at the airport, while driving at the highway speed of 60 mph, a car crossed the center line and crashed into us.
I tried to move my legs to get out of the car, but they were lifeless. I then noticed the sharp pain in my back and realized I had no feeling from the waist down. My back was broken, my spinal cord displaced by 40 degrees. Eventually, I was airlifted to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota where the doctors gave me less than a five percent chance of ever walking again.
We all have defining stories that shape our lives. For me, it wasn’t the collision. It was something a nurse whispered before the air ambulance arrived. I was terrified. I knew my back was broken—and I was in excruciating pain.
She whispered: “Imagine you’re floating on a cloud.”
So, I closed my eyes and imagined I was floating on a light, soft cloud…
I don’t know if the nurse was an angel who came to bring me a message, but I once heard an interview with the novelist Stacey D’Erasmo, who said, “When we humans have more than we can bear, the Gods take pity on us and change us into something else.” In those excruciating minutes after the collision, the Gods took pity on me, and I became “something else.” I imagined the lightness of a cloud and I shifted into being a cloud.
This was my first profound encounter with metaphor and its astonishing ability to take me into visionary places that would heal my body. What I glimpsed is this: When we’re in the right energetic vibration, we can heal. For me at that moment, I needed lightness. I needed to be a cloud.
After doctors at the Mayo Clinic patched my back together with two metal rods, I spent a few weeks in their rehab facility and then returned home. A year later, I was playing soccer. Today, no one would guess that I’d been in such a terrible accident. Over the years, those moments that allowed me to come back to myself became the source of my life’s work.
Stepping Onto My New Path
After the car accident, the apparent miracle was that my life could return to plan. I attended the University of Chicago to get a PhD in adult learning, and I was fortunate to be advised by the late Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow. Mihaly and I co-authored an article on learning in museums and a couple of book chapters. I graduated and went on to teach at a few graduate schools, but the circumstance of my healing still nagged. Finally, 10 years later, when I interviewed for a teaching position at a graduate school of depth psychology, the president of the school looked at me in a puzzled sort of way and said, “Why don’t you tell me what you would like to teach?”
I didn’t respond with a topic related to my expertise. To my great surprise, a voice spoke through me and said I’d be teaching a class on metaphor.
“Great!” he said. “We’ll call it the Psychology of Metaphor!”
I walked out of his office having no idea what had just happened. I knew nothing about metaphor as an academic subject, not even what the “psychology of metaphor” might mean. Yet my class for master’s and PhD students was scheduled to begin in a few weeks. I tried not to panic.
My favorite place to study and write was the San Francisco Theological Seminary Library in San Anselmo, California. I’d sit down at one of their long, heavy, wood tables, work on my laptop a bit, and then look up, and…
There in front of me would be yet another invalu-able book to help me understand the psychology of metaphor. I’d swear the book wasn’t there when I sat down.
One of those fortuitous books was Martin Foss’s long-forgotten work, Symbol and Metaphor in Human Experience (1949), which the American Scholar listed in 1956 as one of the most important and neglected books of the twentieth century—and which had been out of print for decades. (If you have a moment, please check out the Wikipedia page I created for Foss.)
Foss was writing before we knew much about the different functions of the right and left hemi-spheres of the brain, and while that new knowledge is enormously helpful (see box), neuroscience can also be used to explain away our experience without revealing much or honoring what happens. Foss’s view of metaphor, however, begins with its ancient roots and meanings—and the profound difference between a symbol and a metaphor.
The word symbol means linking together two dissimilar things (coming from the Greek roots syn which means “together” and ballein, which means “to throw”). But the word metaphor comes from the Greek roots meta (“across” or “beyond”) and pherein (to “transfer” or “change”). With metaphor, we are carried beyond.
In other words, unlike the symbol, metaphor is not just a reference or link to something else; metaphor actually has the power to take us somewhere. Metaphor is a vehicle for traversing realms. It instigates change and movement. It’s not merely a tool for our rational minds to play with—it is shamanic territory for transformation. Foss writes:
“[Metaphor is]… a process of tension, energy, and creative destruction; one that begins with symbols but transcends and transforms all symbolic fixations and reductions… metaphors break up instead of fixing, keep us on the move instead of letting us settle down… [metaphor] widens, transcends, overcomes; it gives birth to the new.
Metaphor, compared to the clear, exact, and useful symbol, seemed unclear, complex, and useless—even as a superfluous luxury in the economy of the human mind. It was regarded as an ornamental addition. But what soon came to puzzle thinking men was how a supposed ornament could exert so dynamic a power in myth and artistic creation.”
Other books I found at the library included Metaphors We Live By and Philosophy in the Flesh, both co-authored by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. The two books are based on Lakoff’s exceptional 40-plus years of research on metaphor and how profoundly it shapes our world. Lakoff argues that metaphor is not only the basis for how we think and learn; it’s the language that allows us to have a conversation with something Other. Foss actually went further. He wrote that metaphor “is the secret of all life. It is the innermost secret of the life of God himself.”
Collectively, reading these books and others lit something deep inside of me. To my mind, they pointed to great beauty under the surface—a beauty I knew was there because I had glimpsed it and believed it was at the root of what allowed me to get up and walk. But I didn’t have a clue how to get back to it.
I didn’t wait long. Two weeks after the Psychology of Metaphor course ended—while grading final papers—I was yanked into the sky during a profound visionary experience and shown the exquisite beauty.
At the start of the vision, I was surrounded by the flower gardens that my mother grew in Iowa when I was a child. But this was not ordinary beauty—all around me was exquisite, mystical, non-ordinary beauty—this beauty was alive. It was pulsing. I was then yanked into the sky and whisked at high speed toward a distant mountain.
It’s hard to describe a visionary experience in words because it’s not so much about what happened but about what I was viscerally experiencing. The otherworldly, vibrational energy coursing through me was urgent.
And it was dead serious—it was clear I was going to crash into the mountain and die. I was going to be pulverized.
But… at the very last second before my certain death, I was whisked into a train tunnel going through the mountain. I looked out the train window, and there once again was the exquisite, pulsing beauty. The moment I saw the otherworldly beauty, a voice said, “Third space,” and I was bolted into ordinary reality. (“Third space” is a term I’ve written about in both of my books—Getting Messy and Deep Knowing—that refers to that non-cognitive place of inner vision, inner knowing, and Divine beauty.)
I’ve heard stories of Native American youth going on vision quests where they receive a simple image or vision that they’ll go on to spend the rest of their lives trying to understand and grow into. This was mine. I would spend the rest of my life trying to unpack it.
All I knew for certain was that I was being called. Spirit had spoken the word “metaphor” through me—telling the school president I would be teaching a course on metaphor. Spirit brought the specific books for me to read, which would open my mind and touch my heart, giving me a deep yearning to see the beauty. Then Spirit literally yanked me into the experience of beauty that I yearned for. By speaking the words “third space” to me, Spirit connected my course material to a direct experience of the Divine, allowing me access to a realm that I had no way of accessing any other way.
This vision was an experiential demonstration of what I’d been teaching and what I sensed was true, but I hadn’t known how to get there. Spirit was directly teaching me how metaphor is the vehicle to take us to the other side.
A Tale of Two Hemispheres
In his brilliant book The Master and His Emissary, neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist reviews decades of research on the differences between our left and right brain hemispheres and probes the emerging neuroscience of metaphor. He writes that “the difference between the hemispheres is not in the ‘what’ but in the ‘how’… The right hemisphere is concerned with ways of being.”
In other words, while both hemispheres are involved in thinking and feeling, the right hemisphere is the only part of our brain that cares about who we are being in the world.
For me to shift into being a cloud, I needed to step out of my thinking and into the imaginative capacities of my right hemisphere. I needed to be something else.
McGilchrist writes: “It is the task of the right hemisphere to carry the left [hemisphere] beyond to something new, something ‘Other’ than itself.”
Clearly, both hemispheres have important roles to play. We can’t function in the world without a sense of time, linear order, and the clarity and definition provided by our left hemisphere. But I love McGilchrist’s use of the word “Other.” What he means is Spirit, the Divine, Nirvana, the Universe, or whatever you want to call the greater wisdom that’s beyond what we humans can know. McGilchrist writes, “We are currently in thrall to the left hemisphere’s view…. As a society, we are becoming more like individuals with right hemisphere deficits.”
Along the same lines, Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who studies the brain, beautifully demonstrated the right hemisphere’s capacity for transcendent spiritual experience in her book My Stroke of Insight. Taylor suffered a massive stroke that temporarily incapacitated her left cerebral hemisphere.
During that time of only having right brain consciousness, she was in a state of mystical oneness with the Universe that she describes as Nirvana. She writes, “I was completely entranced by the feelings of tranquility, safety, blessedness, euphoria, and omniscience… Deep inner peace flooded the core of my being.”
Palpable spiritual connection happens when we silence the left cerebral hemisphere. Taylor explains: “From a neuro-anatomical perspective, I gained access to the experience of deep inner peace in the consciousness of my right mind when the language and orientation association areas in the left hemisphere of my brain became nonfunctional.”
Because our culture lives in left hemisphere ways of knowing, for most of us, moments of higher connection happen by chance. We may be suddenly struck by a gorgeous sunset, moved by a piece of music, feel deep love move through us when we gaze at our child, or find ourselves unexpectedly transported into another realm when we witness something of great beauty.
The left hemisphere is very good at “trying” and striving for something. But when we try to reach oneness or Nirvana, we won’t get there. Consequently, spontaneous moments of higher connection are special. They stay with us. We never forget experiences of touching Something greater than ourselves.
Why We Don’t See the Portal
Most of us typically associate metaphor with the flowery language that poets use or with things that are made up: “That’s just a metaphor.” In other words, we typically treat metaphors as outside of ourselves, when in fact they are the deep, sensory, intuitive language of the feeling center of our brain. To say that metaphor is “the sea we swim in” is not so much a metaphor as an observation of reality.
When we’re confused, uncertain, or going through change, we draw on metaphor to help us understand what’s happening: “I’m in over my head.” “That job feels too small for me.” “I’m on a new path now.” “He’s putting pressure on me.”
Metaphor is both an image and a feeling. When someone says, “I’m on fire with my work right now,” we can imagine an image of fire, but we can also feel fire. We can feel what this person is experiencing.
When someone says they’re under pressure, that something is too small, that they’re on cloud nine, or that they’re depressed, we can feel what they’re saying. We understand their experience in a way that’s more than just cognitive. Thus, metaphor is a language that’s both compassionate and intimate.
Metaphor is also directly connected to our intuition and higher knowing. We may leave a conversation with someone and feel “lit up” or “down.” We might walk into a building and notice that it feels “heavy” or “light.” A project may feel “stuck” or “flowing.”
So a first step into conscious metaphor is simply to notice the presence of metaphor in your everyday life. In other words, pay attention to the metaphors that you use when you describe situations and people in your life. These are ties to your own hooked-up deep knowing.
But here’s what’s most remarkable and is not commonly known: Metaphor allows us to enter potent visionary spaces where we can connect with something greater than ourselves. In this non-cognitive intelligent field, we unlock our greatest gifts and human capacities.
When my clients and I draw on metaphor to enter the Other side, mystical worlds open up. We meet power animals, Spirit teachers, sacred gifts, and ancestral and tribal beings. We experience a shift of being and the profound vibrational energy of the Divine—or perhaps it’s what one client called “the experience her true essence.” It’s easy to try.
5 Steps to Get Out of Your Thinking
(People find these challenging because the left hemisphere is so controlling. Letting go is a real breakthrough!)
1. Pick a Simple Image
Any image will do, but the most powerful metaphors come from the natural world: the sun, a lake, a horizon line, a rabbit, a cluster of daisies, a cliff. Just notice something.
Keep the image simple—the realm of Divine knowing isn’t cognitive. Complex images keep us tied up in thinking and analysis. They don’t shift us into greater wisdom.
2. Notice One or Two Simple Qualities of the Image
The sun is big and round. (Circular shapes bring a sense of wholeness or fullness.)
A horizon line is flat and expansive. (Horizontal lines are restful. They show up for me when I need to rest.)
A rabbit is small and has good form. (In other words, a rabbit isn’t formless like water, mud, or air. It has edges and boundaries like many things in our world, including people.)
A tree is strong, sturdy and grounded. The sky is expansive.
These are just examples; you may notice different qualities.
3. Become Your Image
Being the sun or a tree and feeling its qualities brings us into our bodies, into the present moment, and into connection with Something Greater than ourselves.
To get there, we need to let go of our thinking and our natural desire to create a story about the image. Here’s a hint: My 10-year-old niece Greta is playing the lion in her school’s production of The Wizard of Oz. She wasn’t instructed to think about the lion, or “meditate” on the lion, or “sit with the message” of the lion, or create a story about the lion. When Greta is on stage, she is the lion. It’s not cognitive. She can’t be a great lion through her thinking.
Again, the story of my niece is just a hint on how to be your image, rather than make up a story about your image. But you’re not going on stage to act your image. Instead, you are becoming your image to allow the image to act on you.
4. Notice What Your Metaphor Is Asking
Metaphors have shamanic power to shift who you are being. For example, my client Maryann is frightened about getting older and has no close family. She needs to move to another state and doesn’t have a lot of support. The image that arrived for her was a mountain. Her place of connection and higher knowing will come when she shifts into the strength, sturdiness, and higher vision of the mountain.
Maryann is a mountain.
(Notice how being a mountain is very different from being a cloud.)
Dawn is a newly divorced woman in her 40s. The image that showed up for her was mud: messy, rich, and wild. She said, “I’m tired of worrying about others and trying to please or trying to make others feel okay. It’s time for me to be wild. I’m tired of not being myself. I want to unleash my messy wildness.”
Can you feel the organic, sensual wildness of mud?
But the only way we can experience that organic, sensual wildness is to shift into being it. In other words, there’s a distinct difference between sitting on the bank of a river and watching it flow by… and being the river.
Our analytical left brains don’t want us to jump into another realm (which my 10-year-old niece knows how to do). They want us to sit back and observe. Our left brains are more comfortable with detachment.
I invite you to jump in.
5. Accept That Whatever Quality You’re Noticing Came to You for a Reason
We all need different things at different times in our lives. Sometimes we need to let go; sometimes we need to be strong and hold our boundaries. Sometimes it feels good to be rooted (like a tree) and there are other times when we need freedom or lightness. Sometimes we need to be gentle or flexible or expansive.
When I need to pull back from responsibilities, small images show up. As I mentioned above, when I need rest, I usually get a horizon line. When I need to have better boundaries or get out of overwhelm, I get an image with clear, defined lines. (A square is one of the most helpful metaphoric images for that reason.) When I’m creating something new, I see something with form (when we create, we put something into form.)
A friend of mine in Montana has lived for many years in the home her husband built in the woods. What appeals to her isn’t rootedness (she already has that)—it’s freedom, lightness, and the ability to move. Her metaphor right now is sky.
What feels good to you right now? Don’t ask your thinking. Instead, see how you feel.
Why We Don’t Change
So many clients say to me, “I’ve spent a lifetime in therapy—I could write a PhD dissertation about my issues. But I’m still the same. I haven’t changed.”
Why? Because understanding our problems doesn’t change who we are being. Thinking harder or better, or valiantly trying to understand the intricacies of our issues, doesn’t connect us with the greater wisdom that lies beyond our thoughts. At least in my experience, a sense of meaning, life purpose, and important social change won’t come from logic. They come from our visionary capacities when we meet our metaphors head-on.
3 Tips for Tapping the Power
1. Keep it simple. Detailed images with lots of elaborate moving parts and characters are like candy for the mind, keeping it happy creating stories. But powerful metaphoric images are neither complex nor pretentious. The metaphoric image doesn’t want you to figure it out; it wants you to shift into another place. The fewer associations you have with a metaphoric image, the better. When you work with images that don’t have personal meaning, it’s easier to notice their primary qualities. As Einstein once said, “When the solution is simple, God is answering.” Keep it simple.
2. One image is not better than another. The image isn’t who you are. The image is bringing a shift of being. The metaphoric image doesn’t have the same meaning or significance as everyday images. A castle is not better than a spoon. A tree is not better than a tumble-weed or an ant. A jar of mayonnaise, a cartoon character, a small little rock—all have important metaphoric qualities.
3. Play with different metaphoric images. See what takes you into another place, another way of being. And if a particular metaphoric quality doesn’t feel right or helpful, try something else. Every image has vibrational qualities. When you’re in the right energetic place, you’ll feel freedom. As a client recently said, “I feel free…. I feel like chains are falling off of me.” When we’re in our aligned place, the Divine can work with us. We can heal and connect to Something greater than ourselves.
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