Creating a Metaphorical Understanding

Creating and using a metaphorical understanding is one of the primary ways we communicate a new idea. The process is very apparent with scientific knowledge. For example, we explain an atom using the metaphor of a little solar system in which the nucleus sits like the sun in the middle and the electrons and positrons orbit like planets. Atoms – and many things in science – probably appear nothing like the metaphorical models we invent, but we have to have some way to mentally “see” these things.

Interestingly, after using them for a long time, we often forget the metaphorical nature of our understandings and expressions. For example, we give no thought to our description of temperature as being “higher” or “lower.” What does it actually have to do with elevation? Nothing perhaps, but comparing hotter with higher and colder with lower is a useful perspective for understanding and talking about temperature. It also obviously started as a metaphor, which we can see if we think about it for a moment.

We can see that metaphors are an essential part of how we explain, understand, and communicate things. We can also see that in time the metaphorical basis is forgotten – once our “knowledge” is old and accepted. But what about creating new metaphors to gain new understanding and insight? Some examples that I have found useful follow.

Dark Thoughts are a Storm

Often our thoughts torment us, but are they just a storm which will eventually pass by? Is the “sky” (our peace of mind) always there waiting to reveal itself once again? It seems to ring true, and as soon as we remember this the clouds begin to clear more quickly. And don’t think that because it’s a metaphorical understanding it’s just an invention. All good metaphors point out some true aspect of reality.

When we explore our minds we find that negative thoughts, for all their insistence that we pay attention to them, move on when we allow them to. Of course we often forget this and ascribe them more permanence and importance than they have in reality. When we see them as passing storm clouds that eventually dissipate to reveal the sky that has always been there – that idea points to a valuable insight, doesn’t it? It’s a reminder that loosens the hold those thoughts have on us.

The Beast That Feeds On Attention

From a biological or evolutionary perspective, fear is just a warning (but notice that even this is a metaphor). From a personal perspective, though, we can see that it becomes a little beast growing in us as we feed it with too much attention. We work ourselves into a more fearful and non-productive state by “feeding the beast” with our attention to every thought it holds up about what has gone wrong, is going wrong or can go wrong – and what we might lose as a result. Such a metaphorical understanding of a real phenomenon suggests that we stop feeding our fear.

Reality is an Enemy

Suppose reality points to the failure of a man’s ideas. Often his ideas then demand that he attack the accusing enemy. You may have noticed this in some people, maybe even some friends or acquaintances. Some people have many ideas about how things “should be” and are always stumbling over inconvenient truths as a result. They argue more fervently then about how stupid things are, and yet do not fully accept that they really are that way. This, in a real sense, is how we make reality an enemy.

Ego the Slave Master

Think too much about yourself and follow your own thoughts without reflection, and you become a slave of who you think you are, of your own self image. The ideas and opinions that you call yourself become your master.

What we know of life and the world can be understood in more than one way, seen from more than one perspective. Each way of looking at things can possibly provide a bit more to advance our understanding of reality. That suggests that it can be very productive to play with metaphors from time to time. Every new and different metaphorical understanding has the potential to give us new insights and new ways to deal with ourselves and the world.