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Posts Tagged ‘myth’

Another asked why the teachings of all religions are expressed largely by parables and metaphors and not in the plain language of the people.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá replied:—“Divine things are too deep to be expressed by common words. The heavenly teachings are expressed in parable in order to be understood and preserved for ages to come. When the spiritually minded dive deeply into the ocean of their meaning they bring to the surface the pearls of their inner significance. There is no greater pleasure than to study God’s Word with a spiritual mind.”

(From ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London – pages 79-80)

We stopped last time at the point where Lakoff and Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By mention the metaphor of the mind as a machine.

This idea, and the more pervasive variations of the mechanical model of life, the universe and everything, could not help but call to mind Iain McGilchrist and his brilliant analysis in The Master & his Emissary.The conclusion he reaches that most matters when we look at our western society is on pages 228-229:

The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity. This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth. . . . . .

There is a huge disadvantage for the right hemisphere here. If . . . knowledge has to be conveyed to someone else, it is in fact essential to be able to offer (apparent) certainties: to be able to repeat the process for the other person, build it up from the bits. That kind of knowledge can be handed on. . . . By contrast, passing on what the right hemisphere knows requires the other party already to have an understanding of it, which can be awakened in them. . .

On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, and perhaps also because it is more easily communicated than the subtle, nuanced, tentative, fluid and directly sensed approximation of reality that constitutes the right hemisphere experience, the left hemisphere view becomes the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships though are far better understood by the right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a rich morality, whereas the left hemisphere tends in its black and white world fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.

It is ironic, in the light of this discussion, that mechanistic reductionists, who mostly dismiss poetry as flaky, probably don’t even notice most of the time that they are using metaphor, that key poetic device, to describe their view of the world, with all the reservations about objectivity that this should imply. More on that later.

The other metaphor Lakoff and Johnson mention is equally pervasive (page 29)

. . . Metaphors like THE MIND IS A BRITTLE OBJECT are an integral part of the model of the mind that we have in this culture; it is the model most of us think and operate in terms of.

And seeing our mind as an ‘object’ has other implications that they pick up on later when they write (page 58): ‘We experience ourselves as entities, separate from the rest of the world – as containers with an inside and an outside.’ This cuts across the sense of connectedness that more accurately captures our real situation.

They explore in considerable detail how metaphors are elaborated into coherent and complex systems (page 71):

All such metaphors imply further elaborations which can be experienced as a gestalt, a ‘complex of properties occurring together’ which is ‘basic to our experience.’

So far they had focused primarily on metaphors used so frequently we never experience them as imagery at all. Later they go on to consider the power of creatively generating different metaphors (page 139):

We would like to suggest that new metaphors makes sense of our experience in the same way conventional metaphors do.

But with interesting consequences.

They illustrate this by offering an alternative metaphor to describe problems. They are not puzzles which have a single solution which, once found, fixes the problem forever. They are more like elements in a chemical brew (page 144):

To live by the CHEMICAL metaphor would be to accept it as a fact that no problem ever disappears forever. Rather than direct your energies towards solving your problems once and for all, you would direct your energies towards finding out what catalysts will dissolve your most pressing problems for the longest time without precipitating the worst ones.… we see this as a clear case of the power of metaphor to create a reality . . .

They acknowledge that it would not be easy to integrate a radically different metaphor into our default operating system (page 145):

So much of our unconscious everyday activity is structured in terms of the PUZZLE metaphor that we could not possibly make a quick or easy change to the chemical metaphor on the basis of a conscious decision.

The impact of the metaphors we use extends beyond abstract issues such as how we approach problems (page 146):

Not surprisingly, the social reality defined by a culture affects its conception of physical reality. What is real for an individual as a member of a culture is a product both of his social reality and of the way in which that shapes his experience of the physical world.

They also affect how we behave (page 156):

Metaphors may create realities for us, especially social realities. A metaphor may thus be a guide for future action. Such actions will, of course, fit the metaphor. This will, in turn, reinforce the power of the metaphor to make experience coherent. In this sense metaphors can be self-fulfilling prophecies.

And that is a key point, which makes the idea that we might need to modify our metaphors sometimes hard to access.

Power differentials don’t help (page 157) because ‘whether in national politics or in everyday interaction, people in power get to impose their metaphors.’

Basically, (page 158) ‘In all aspects of life, not just in politics or in love, we define our reality in terms of metaphors and then proceed to act on the basis of the metaphors,’ and in consequence (page 159) ‘. . . truth is always relative to a conceptual system that is defined in large part by metaphor.’

Which may explain why Pilate did not stay for an answer. As with most people trapped in a cultural trance there was no other truth worth considering, if there was any truth at all.

Personal Mythology by David Feinstein and Stanley Krippner covers similar ground using different terminology. I’ll deal with that more briefly. In her introduction June Singer writes (page xi):

If we are unacquainted with the contents of our personal mythology we are carried by it unconsciously, with the result that we confuse what exists objectively in the world with the image of the world supplied to us by our own distorted lenses.

The authors reinforce the same point right from the start (page 1):

Your personal mythology acts as a lens that colours your perceptions according to its own assumptions and values. It highlights certain possibilities and shadows others.

They express more forcefully the dubious effects of blindly following our myths (page 6):

The myths operating in modern societies tend to support material progress and the control of nature, rather than the attunement and participation with natural cycles that characterize more classical mythologies.

Metaphors We Live By also brings in the concept of myth late in their treatment of the issue (pages 185-86):

Myths provide ways of comprehending experience: they give order to our lives. Like metaphors, myths are necessary for making sense of what goes on around us. All cultures have myths, and people cannot function without myth any more than they can function without metaphor.

They clearly share my earlier expressed distrust of those who feel they can access absolute truth with no sense they are also operating from the perspective of a myth (page 186):

The myth of objectivism is particularly insidious in this way. Not only does it purport not to be a myth, but it makes both myths and metaphors objects of belittlement and scorn…

They also have reservations about objectivism’s opposite, subjectivism (page 188-192), and feel there is a need for a third way to avoid the deficiencies of both. They call this ‘experientialist synthesis’ (page 192 passim). They contend that metaphor ‘unites reason and imagination,’ an idea that is music to my ears. They echo McGilchrist in saying (page 193):

Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally; our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness.

In the end, they feel that (page 233) ‘much of self-understanding involves consciously recognising previously unconscious metaphors and how we live by them’ and ‘engaging in an unending process of viewing your life through new alternative metaphors.’

So Why Dreamwork?

It seems to me that dreamwork is important because it is likely to be the most readily available signpost to show the nature of our own subliminally seductive metaphors. Not until we recognise them can we make wise and conscious decisions to replace them with more constructive ones. Also dreams are rich in suggestions about what metaphors we might be wiser to choose instead as part of our operating system.

Take for example my recent dream about playing squash, which I think was a message from my dreaming mind to confirm I was consolidating the change of direction that was first triggered decades ago with my Dancing Flames dream, one that sent a strong message that I needed to blend more poetry into my life and take my foot of the mechanistic accelerator that was driving too much of what I did as I combined a fulltime job with studying psychology part-time.

The dream was short and initially seemed quite baffling.

Two of us are playing squash with forks for rackets and a boiled egg in its shell for a shuttlecock. I do a really hard return and the egg bounces back off the squash court wall broken and coming out of its shell.

Interestingly, some of my associations took me back to Birkbeck and studying psychology there, which suggests the theme is related to the same conflict or dilemma as before. I haven’t played squash more than about twice since I stopped studying psychology. Court had implications of prison. Squash could relate to suppression. I concluded that the dream was very forcefully pointing out how NOT to do things. An apparently exciting, even seemingly enjoyable but ultimately sterile competitive game is shown for what it really is. Given A Walk in the Park, the poem I wrote recently, it was perhaps not surprising that an association with egg took me straight to Magritte’s painting Perspicacity, an object lesson in creativity and how to do it better.

I’m not quite sure why my dreaming mind felt it necessary to remind me of this right now, as I’m not aware of being under the competitive pressure of exams any more, though the todo treadmill remains a problem. It was clear though that letting such pressures impinge too heavily is incompatible with the kind of reflective creativity I value highly.

Another dream I had on the same night seemed to point in the same direction.

I am holding a long set of wooden portable drawers which I clutch/clasp close to stop the drawers opening and the contents spilling out.

When I was originally thinking about this image I used the expression ‘nest of drawers’ as something smaller than a chest of drawers, not that chest is irrelevant, given that it contains the heart. I Googled it and realised this phrase was not the right expression in terms of conventional usage. So, for a time I backed off from the dream in puzzlement and couldn’t really work out what it meant.

But of course this image is my symbol and the word nest is a key to unlocking its significance. I can call it what I like.

So I did.

The nest of drawers is where my creative ideas incubate. I store all the fertile material I discover in these drawers, and at the right time they produce something original of value. I’m mainly a reader. Paper lays the eggs that hatch in my heart. I noted in my dream diary that ‘a full understanding of this dream depends upon the squash dream.’

This was an important realisation because the time it takes eggs to incubate from laying to hatching is considerable. It takes trust and patience to keep them warm and close enough for the bird of a new insight to emerge. Sometimes, perhaps too often, I give up on them too soon.

In terms of dreams, there is also a post on this blog that records how a dream directed me to a deeper understanding of what the word ‘heart’ means in terms of personal development. It was perhaps triggered by my prolonged exploration of what Bahá’u’lláh meant by his phrase ‘the understanding heart.’ I feel that this provides a useful example of how shifting the metaphors we use can make a radical difference to how we take action to tackle the need for personal change. I will be re-blogging this sequence in the coming days.

This clearly indicates that dreams are of course not the only source of life-enhancing metaphors that we can use to replace our default ones. Take for example this quote from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá which I’ve described elsewhere on this blog as completely overturning my existing paradigm (Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 316-317):

. . . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit, and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

I had spent so much of my life thinking bottom up about this issue that the idea of working top down seemed initially absurd. There wasn’t a top to work down from in the first place, as far as I saw it to begin with. The brain made the mind, and that was it. Consciousness was an epiphenomenon, just a side-effect of the brain’s complexity, or at best an emergent property, an unexpected and not quite explicable benefit that we would learn to explain in the end.

Although I absolutely trusted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to be stating what he knew to be true and, because of all that I had read about his life, I believed that what he thought was true was more likely to be so than my version, I realised that this was something that required a thorough investigation of the empirical evidence if I was to bring my sceptical head on board alongside my accepting heart. It took several years of intense investigation before my head came fully on board with these metaphors – the light from a lamp or the fruit of a tree, where both lamp and tree are immaterial, spiritual.

Doing so changed the whole way I approach many aspects of the human predicament, not only in terms of death, and of illnesses which lock the person away behind walls of poor communication, but also in terms of understanding the full extent of our connectedness with other human beings and with nature – it was a life transforming shift.

Either way, whether through dreams, poetry, art or spiritual writings, I am in no doubt that recognising the metaphors we live by and learning to enhance them is a key skill to develop.

I’m pretty sure there will be more about that on this blog in the course of time.

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