Saturday, June 2, 2012

Shake Your Meaning-Maker

Looking in Mirror of Aging Beautifully


Thanks to a recommendation on Havi Brooks' ever-wonderful Fluent Self blog, I recently read How to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable by Suzette Haden Elgin.

One of my fave examples in the book describes a conflict between coworkers following a successful sales meeting. The woman is furious with her team member because she sees him as having lied when he claimed to have confirmed with a key supplier. Worse, she thinks he made her complicit in the lie because she couldn't correct him in front of the client.

From the man's point of view, he didn't lie at all. He had a good-enough understanding with the supplier, even if it wasn't in stone. At the most, he shaded the truth in an acceptable, even necessary, way.

The underlying problem? Though neither knows it, they each perceive the situation through the framework of a different metaphor, with a different set of implied rules.

Hers: Life is a Traditional Schoolroom--in school, if a statement is literally false, it's a lie. His: Life is Football--it's ok, even skillful, to pretend you have the ball when you don't or to fake a pass--all part of how the game is played.

It was like they were speaking entirely different languages.


What Language We're Speaking to Ourselves

We often don't notice that we've assigned meaning to a situation within a metaphorical framework, much less what that underlying frame is. Our unconscious imagery can seem like the only neutral, realistic way to see a situation, and we don't realize how it has influenced and limited our perception. Metaphor can be like water to fishes--we don't notice what we're swimming in.

For instance, we may live by the metaphor Time is Money. Or Time is a Thing (which can be divided into bits, quantified, allocated in various ways). How different the perspective offered by Time is (infinite) Space, or Time is an Ocean without a Shore! Not necessarily a better, or more accurate perspective. But by including other ways of seeing it, the experience of time opens into greater richness.  

My idea of a good time: consciously playing with the metaphors we're using to organize our perceptions. This limbers up the ever-creating mind, giving us the joyful flexibility of seeing that we're making things up all the time. Which can free us from blocks and conflicts, external or internal.

Star Mirror (fabric, paints, mirror)


Messing with Metaphors

Metaphor was the topic for our most recent Truth and Dare (Occupy Your Creativity) group call. The day before the class, I needed to make some decisions about money. I started to notice a vague anxious discomfort. I couldn't identify quite what was causing it. So I tried out a version of an exercise I'd designed for the group. What if this weren't about Money? What if it were about School, for instance?

What kind of School story might fit this situation? 
I thought I already took the test and aced it, but now I find out it hasn't happened yet, and I forgot to study for it at all.

If this were like a Journey, what aspect would it be?
It's a dark and stormy night and no room at the inn.

What if this were a Place? What would it be like?  
A sinkhole.

If it were a Game?
Tennis, except I'm trying to play both sides of the net.

How about a Relationship?
A child who has angered an adult and doesn't know why or how to fix it.

Scanning for the most resonance, I picked the sinkhole image.

What does this remind you of? What's the association?

That teaching story about someone falling into a hole in the road a bunch of times, but getting out of it quicker each time, and then going around it, until eventually they take a different road that doesn't have a hole in it.

I looked for how the money situation matched this. What was familiar? What hole had I fallen into again even though I tried not to?

Now the tennis-on-both-sides-of-the-net image was tugging on my sleeve. My association was about trying to manage what other people think and feel about me instead of just attending to my own business and giving my best game. That was indeed a hole I have some practice falling into and trying to go around.

I felt something click into place. Suddenly I could see that I had been making myself nervous about what another person might think and feel, as if I must be a bad girl if they felt displeased. Instead of looking out at others and worrying about their reactions, I could really check into where I might be out of integrity. I found it! (a way I hadn't communicated clearly). Easy to own up to and correct. Liberation! Out of the sinkhole for now.

Money had been a dream image, a clue, a breadcrumb dropped by the psyche to follow home.

"Metaphors: knowledge existing 
in several states simultaneously 
and without contradiction"
–from the novel Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson

Phoenix Mirror (fabrics, thread, paint, mirror)


A metaphor is a mirror showing you an image of your truth. (That would make a mirror a metaphor for a metaphor ;-)).

Metaphorical description can bring poetry and fresh perspective. And a metaphor can sometimes take us beyond description. You can unpack its rules and different aspects to inform and expand what you see about whatever you assigned that metaphor to. It can point you to the wisdom available in peripheral awareness that hides if you turn full frontal logical attention towards it.

This kind of meaning-making works a bit like dream interpretation, or consulting an oracle. It calls for associative, fluid, creative interpretation.



As it happened, I consulted the I Ching just before leading that Truth and Dare Group on metaphor. I got hexagram 51 (Shock) changing to 41 (Decrease).

This seemed to predict something disturbing about the class that would lead to diminishment of some kind. I furrowed my brow. The group had been going so well. Was it time for a pendulum swing, for it to fizzle in some shocking way? Was it time for some ego-decrease for me?

Maybe I could see this as a wake-up call to shake me out of identifying so much with whether the group seemed to be thriving. I utterly, completely, wholeheartedly love this group. But if I were making it mean something crucial about my own success/failure, I was certain to experience shock and loss if things didn't go the way I expected and wanted.

So why not drop the framework that I'd be evaluated on my teaching/facilitating, or even on my degree of ego-attachment–-as if this were some make-or-break final exam? Why not drop even the familiar Life is School metaphor that supported that frame? I breathed a relief sigh, and launched into the group happily, riding a metaphor of adventure, or surfing, or maybe yeeehaw meaning-wrangling rodeo.

When 2 people unexpectedly had to leave early, I thought, Oh! That kind of decrease!


Want to play? 

Pick a metaphor, any metaphor, (or a few) for a situation that you'd like to see freshly.

Answer some of these questions, or find others that intrigue you. What if this concern were some kind of a dream, or a house, an animal, a game, illness, weather pattern, building trade, relationship, country, food, family connection, terrain, body part, music, job, picture, journey, school, sport? 

Let the answers be brief stories or phrases. Write quickly, grabbing the first thoughts that come, especially the quirky or unexpected. Most important: leave interpretation for later. Don't stop to make sense out of what you find. Just check into another possibility, make up another image. Keep answering until you feel a bit of relaxation of your mental grip/attention on the concern or situation you started with.

Then choose an image that feels mysterious, confusing, intriguing or resonant, and investigate what your associations are to it. Forget completely about the situation you started with. What does this image mean to you right now? What does it remind you of? How would you define it? If you had to explain the meaning of this phrase or image to someone from another planet, what would you say? Repeat with other images that call to you. Don't skip over this step as it can really pull out the less-obvious significance in your metaphors.

Finally, look in a non-literal way for what this meaning sparks as a connection to the concern you wanted perspective on. Does it give you a different language for it? Does it shift things, or bring an aha?

I'd love to hear what you find out.

Angel Mirror (fabrics, paint, thread and mirror)

I tried this out at the end of the day, looking back on it. What if the kind of day I'd had were a country? Poland.

Poland? How would I describe what Poland means to me? That despite centuries of various kinds of oppression and hardship, people there have a gutsy, grounded love of life that shines through.

Huh. I had felt ill and heavy in the morning, out of sorts with myself. But there had been a love of life shining through, all day. Nice to notice!

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