Rumi wrote, “Don’t look for me in a human shape. I am inside your looking. No need for form with a love this strong.” To my mind, Rumi’s lines refer to the power that metaphors have on our ability to see the world around us. Metaphors are “inside our looking.” They don’t have a physical form (“don’t look for me in a human shape”) and our most primary metaphorical images come from something that has moved our hearts (“no need for form with a love this strong.”)
Forty years of outstanding research by George Lakoff and others has demonstrated how metaphors form the basis of our cognition, shaping how we think, speak and act in everyday life. We cannot think or speak without using metaphor; metaphorical thought is “unavoidable, ubiquitous, and mostly unconscious,” writes Lakoff in his seminal book, Metaphors We Live By (272). No matter what the situation, there is an underlying metaphor that is providing a perspective or frame. Metaphor is not what we see; it is the means by which we see. When we examine and shift these underlying metaphors, we see things differently and consequently, change our world.
A few years ago I attended a prestigious conference that is one of the premiere leading-edge forums in the world for social and cultural change. While most of the conference was quite inspiring, I was shocked to hear one of the keynote speakers consistently speak of his work in the Amazon rain forest as a battle against the large corporations who are destroying it. He was pumped up and aggressive, literally describing his mission as one of amassing “guns” and “tanks.” This man may have thought his message was rebalancing the ecosystem in the Amazon. But on a much more penetrating level, his message was war.
We humans are storytellers, and the stories we tell about our lives always belie some sort of underlying perspective. This perspective might be positive: “when life presents problems, make lemonade” or “there’s always another opportunity around the next corner.” Or fearful: “the world is a scary place, best to stay on the straight and narrow.” Seeing the world as a hostile force, viewing other cultures as enemies, or believing that life is about making lemonade out of lemons are all examples of metaphoric lenses. These unconscious metaphors guide our decisions and actions, and dramatically influence how we respond to others.
Metaphor mediates the interface between the conscious and unconscious mind. In fact, they are so embedded in our thought processes that it is impossible to become conscious of them all. In Mirror and Metaphor, Robert Romanyshyn writes, “Focusing on what we see, we forget how we see. And in this forgetfulness, what originally matters metaphorically is taken literally.” It is not a stretch to realize that religious wars and political conflicts happen when the underlying metaphors are taken literally.
Twenty years ago Donald Schön wrote a book chapter entitled “Generative Metaphor” in Metaphor and Thought, edited by Andrew Ortony. Schön wrote:
Problem settings are mediated by the ‘stories’ people tell about troublesome situations – stories in which they describe what is wrong and what needs fixing …[T]he framing of problems often depends upon metaphors underlying the stories which generate problem setting and set the directions of problem solving. One of the most pervasive stories about social services, for example, diagnoses the problem as ‘fragmentation’ and prescribes ‘coordination’ as the remedy. But services seen as fragmented might be seen, alternatively, as autonomous…Under the spell of metaphor, it appears obvious that fragmentation is bad and coordination [is] good. But this sense of obviousness depends very much on the metaphor remaining tacit…We can spell out the metaphor, elaborate the assumptions which flow from it, and examine their appropriateness in the present situation. (138
For most of the thorny social issues that confront us in modern society, it’s useful to shift our focus to the metaphoric level. Before making high-level executive decisions that affect millions of people, or beginning political debates that serve no useful purpose, or creating policy decisions that may affect the well being of entire countries, we might want to take a look at the lens we are looking through. And this lens will naturally be a metaphor.
Images are more powerful than words. When we think in images, our brain needs less time to reach a conclusion, relive an event, or rehearse a skill than it does when we think in an ordinary way. It’s believed that this short cut happens because thinking in images involves greater use of the right hemisphere of the brain, which does not process time in a linear, one-thing-after-another fashion. One needs only think of advertising, war propaganda, or the other terrible tragedies of our history to see how central the image is to moving and shifting large groups of people – for good or for bad. And on an individual level, once we get an image stuck in our minds, it can be etched there forever. Words simply do not have that kind of impact.
When Barack Obama was running for president, he inspired a new collective vision throughout the world – a vision of different races and peoples coming together, uniting for the same shared purpose. What he stood for when he first ran for president spoke to many people. And the reason his message of unity was so powerful was because as a mixed-race American he embodied that message. It was not mere words – the son of an African father and a white mother, we could see this image of unity in him. Obama has admitted that after he became President he focused on setting policy decisions rather than continuing to share a larger vision with the American people, and this decision to focus on policy cost him support. Whether or not he made the right choice, it’s a clear example of the fundamental level on which metaphorical images operate. Images touch our hearts and move us into action in a way that nothing else can even touch.
Carl Jung wrote, “concepts are coined and negotiable; images are life.” (CW vol.14, para. 226). Images have a presence, energy, and an ability to transform or shift people and organizations. For many years I facilitated creative writing workshops. I soon noticed that some writing prompts kept people firmly entrenched in their analytical left-brains. Exercises that used a group of words or a newspaper headline for inspiration were in that mode. The writing that was produced might have been slick or even witty, but was rarely deep or soulful. When I brought in images, on the other hand, it opened up a whole other space. The writers found their depth. It’s like they didn’t need to find their words; they needed to find their image. Once they did, their writing was rich and often profound. I felt nurtured listening to it.
In The Invisible Dragon, art critic David Hickey wrote:
I am certain of one thing: images can change the world. I have seen it happen…I know that images can alter the visual construction of reality that we all inhabit. They can revise the expectations we bring to that reality and the priorities we impose upon it…these alterations can entail profound social and political ramifications. (34)
I feel kinship with social change activists who are on a mission to transform the world. Regrettably, I often don’t feel kinship with their methods. Like the rest of us, social change activists focus on particular solutions that our minds can clearly and rationally stand behind. It’s natural to put our attention on practical problems and solutions, such as reducing the number of plastic bags in the ocean or providing eyeglasses to children in poor countries. Of course these are worthy issues. But it would be more useful to address the metaphorical images that underlie environmental problems, poverty, hunger and human rights abuses. What kind of thinking, or better, what kind of imagining, underlie these troubles? And what new metaphors might offer a profound shift of perspective?
Etymologically, metaphor has to do with “changing form.” When we tap into our metaphoric thinking process, we are entering transformative territory. Metaphors are capable of changing the world.
Hickey, D. (2009). The Invisible Dragon. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Jung, C.G. (1956). The Collected Works of C.G. Jung (vol.14, para. 226). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Ortony, (1993). Metaphor and Thought. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
Romanyshyn, R. (2001). Mirror and Metaphor. Amherst, NY: Trivium Publications.
About the Author
Kim Hermanson, Ph.D. is a coach, consultant, and founder of DoorwaySessions.com. She is adjunct faculty at Pacifica Graduate Institute and the Sophia Center at Holy Names University, and she has led workshops at Esalen Institute. Her most recent book is Getting Messy: A Guide to Taking Risks and Opening the Imagination for Teachers, Trainers, Coaches and Mentors. Other noteworthy publications include a popular article and book chapter on learning in museums “Intrinsic Motivation in Museums: What Makes Visitors Want to Learn?” with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the classic Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience; and an article/book chapter on educational indicators Review of Research in Education, Volume 19 with Tony Bryk, the current President of the Carnegie Foundation. She received her PhD in Adult Learning from the University of Chicago.