The Mindful Metaphor

Miss Stevenson, my grade 11 English teacher, was quite the marvel. She somehow kept us engaged as we plodded thru’ Great Expectations, struggled with ‘that Scottish play’, and drafted précis after précis as she prepared us to distill lecture content into succinct points that wouldn’t produce writer’s cramp in the first ten minutes. But her real achievement was to instill a lifelong love affair (well, at least for some of us) with grammar. The marvelous structure on which (diminishingly, in our world of Twitter) our ability to communicate is built. Parsing sentences, identifying parts of speech, regretting the dangling participle, eschewing the one-sentence paragraph. While the synecdoche’s  and the oxymoron’s have largely slid off my radar, metaphor has remained.
Humbly, by definition: a ‘figure of speech wherein a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it does not literally apply’.  What I’ve come to realize and appreciate over the years, however, is that metaphor is not just some esoteric figure of speech used by authors and abused by sports analysts. It’s a tool crucial to our understanding of circumstance and process, when the content is often too complex or abstract or unfamiliar to enable us to grasp a concept. A well-turned and appropriate metaphor makes accessible to an untutored mind the wonders of the quantum physics on which our universe is thought to depend, the nuance of symphonic music, the workings of a disordered mind — all without a whiff of an idea of calculus, harmony, or psychopathology. It brings things ‘down to our level’, at once simplifying and elaborating in accessible and understandable terms.
Therein lies both its utility and its risk. In short, use of metaphor should perhaps be a ‘protected act’. (It’s OK — two sentences.)
Consider, if you will, the content of the world’s best selling volume — right behind Fifty Shades of Gray. That would be the Bible.  Metaphor all. Little did the authors, millennia ago, conceive for one minute that a) anybody would actually assemble these writings into a semi-coherent whole, b) use them as a basis for two of the world’s great religions, or c) and this is the big one — take it as literal truth. Sadly, not at least until the recent writings of Marcus Borg or John Spong, did it occur to an unsuspecting public that 7 days, 40 years, virgin birthing, burning bushes, angels, heaven, hell, and everything in between were ‘phrases applied to objects and actions to which they are not literally applicable‘. No waiver on the flyleaf; centuries of abuse and literal interpretation to follow.
And then there’s the poorly conceived metaphor. I had occasion to read a transcript of a lecture given recently wherein the church is compared to a parent, its sheep (oops, there goes another one) to children. Seemingly all a-OK as we conjure up the wisdom, experience, guidance, morality, teaching points, and generally just good stuff to live by — associating these with the parent and its propagating institutions; the rebelliousness, experimentation, challenging, mistake-prone, impulsive behavior — attaching to the child. The intention of the ‘implied comparison’, of course, is to portray the institution as patient and tolerant; the sheep, as it were, as wayward and misguided, but soon to come to its senses and ‘return to the fold’.
Sadly, again, metaphor, once ‘let out of the barn’, has the annoying capacity to be carried by those on the receiving end to a more extended and, in this case, unanticipated conclusion. After all, the intent is to make a relationship fully understood and ‘manageable’ for the audience. Right? Ah, but the child does not simply wake up one morning, post-adolescence, and ‘realize’ its mistakes; and come groveling back to a forgiving parent. The child is, in fact, ‘paid’ to individuate, to develop its own ideas, and to continue to foster a completely independent identity that — wait for it — is intended to change and evolve and extend the ideas of the parent; not simply to parrot what mummy and daddy have so fondly hoped would become the mantra of said child. In fact, it is the psychologically unhealthy (or at least, incomplete) child that returns, chastened, to the corral. 
And so what begins as a half-baked metaphor, emerges from the oven, fully risen and ready to convey the very opposite of that which its designer had in mind. We’re in it this far. Let’s just give it a tug and see where the metaphoric thread, when pulled, might lead us — as we watch the intended sweater unravel and resolve into a pile of tangled yarn on the floor. Could it possibly be — praise be — prophetic, not pathetic? Could the lecture have been intended to float the concept of the need for complete revision, the dissolution of such anachronistic institutions; to be not merely redesigned or redecorated, but wholly supplanted by an emerging spirituality of the individual — capable (not unlike our maturing child) of thinking for himself, without benefit of an intermediary to ‘interpret those really tough bits’; tired of caring for the aging, demented parent with its rants and entitlements. Hmm? Or is it just another case of playing with a loaded metaphor and shooting oneself in the foot?

Ego and the Morality of Misrepresentation

What is it with the need to be seen for something we’re not? Or at least aren’t quite? In the political forum, it’s called spin doctoring. Not outright lying. Just putting a bit of undeserved polish on last Fall’s apple. I suppose it started with a chance encounter between my wife and an old acquaintance not seen in several years. Predictably ‘catch up’ was initially the order of the day’s chat. Exchanges of who was doing what, where one now resided, how this member or that of family had managed. . . and so on. The talk for my wife, ever the good and modest listener, evolved into something of a monologue; the theme seemingly to persuade her or at least portray for her an intervening life of successive successes, fortuitous marriages, real estate and neighborhood upgrades, and . . . well, just a very shiny apple. As the conversation was shared and processed over dinner, we were left with a few abiding queries: what’s this need to convince, to compare so favorably, to be seen as. . ?
Clearly that dinner time conversation had made its mark as a similar theme presented a few more times in my experience over the ensuing few days. Next up: Little Dorrit, the typically fascinating and (always) convoluted Dickensian tale of rags to riches to rags (depending on your moral compass) of this family. Midway thru’ the story, patriarch, William Dorrit is released from debtor’s prison where he has resided — and held something of a fool’s court — for much of his later adult life. His fortunes have changed courtesy of the intervention of a family friend who has befriended his daughter, Amy and
unearthed the presence of the family’s entitlement to a large fortune. The transformation is, however, one simply of fortune and residence.  The patriarch’s values remain unchanged, driven by a need to be seen as ‘what he has ever been’: a gentleman of great importance and influence, as he adopts (or rather maintains) his sense of superiority, need for deference and homage, and very (very) quickly dismisses his benefactor as of no further interest to him. Most repellant to him is to be reminded of his time in Marshalsea, the debtors’ prison; his most constant reminder, daughter Amy and brother Frederick who are very content to portray their grounded constancy, eschewing of the ‘airs’ so speedily embraced by William. A sort of 649 winner set in the 19th century.
‘Can you tell me what a philosophical psychologist might be?’, my wife’s query as she hit the back page of our local newspaper over the weekend. Curious, I scanned the column of this sometime ‘writer and academic’ — and up popped the final entry in the ethically challenged sweepstakes for the week! To the lay person, adopting such a moniker is often no more than an easy shorthand or label, useful in conveying a sort of general concept or idea or suggestion of something or other. And therein lies the problem: the adopted title does indeed convey an ‘idea of something’; in this instance credentialing that carries with it a certain expertise, a weightiness to one’s words and opinions. The very reason such titles are protected under the law in Ontario. Which begs the question: ‘why attach it to one’s writing — in the absence of entitlement to it?’ Hmm, indeed.  To be charitable, there’s the outside possibility that said columnist is simply unaware of the protected status of said title. Bookkeepers refer to themselves as accountants, lay clergy as vicars, law clerks as lawyers. In ignorance of ‘the rules’, the forgiveness of ‘no harm, no foul’ obtains. We can only hope that our ‘philosophical psychologist’ is, indeed, ignorant. For if not. . .
In mindfulness tradition, the view of ego and its appetites may offer some measure of insight into the questions at the top of this piece. In our western culture, ego is a highly valued commodity. Possessing ‘ego strength’ is typically seen as a ‘good thing’. It conveys a measure of self-confidence, certainty, poise; lacking it, suggests ambivalence, self-doubt, marginalization and functional invisibility.
Mindfulness teaching, however, takes a very different view of ego.  In his chapter entitled ‘Deconstructing the House That Ego Built’, Lama Surya Das (Awakening the Buddha Within) associates ego-ism with what he calls the three poisons; the activities in which the ego needs to engage to feel vital and alive. Again, these activities are familiar to students of mindfulness practice: like and dislike, attachment and aversion, greed and hatred — essentially the ‘enemies’ of equanimity, balance, non-judgment, letting go. The fear or anxiety of not being valued or liked, not being held in high esteem or worse, being hated or dismissed, of not having the power to influence outcomes, not being ‘picked for the team’ — all sources of ‘ego-angst’ — may underlie some of the compulsion to engage in what I’m calling the (a)morality of misrepresentation.

Images from Little Dorrit (2008) BBC production.


Seeing Without Observing; Hearing Without Listening

Maria Konnikova is the author of a new book on mindfulness: Mastermind: How to think like Sherlock Holmes. In it she explores, among other things, the apparent paradox contained in the title of this piece. Just how is it possible to see (and not make note); to hear (and not absorb any of what’s being said)? Easier than you’d think! Ms. K. (in an excerpt from her book available at the link below) begins with a seminal quote from a Conan Doyle mystery wherein the long-suffering Watson is embarrassed yet again with Holmes pointing out something that Watson himself had ‘seen’ hundreds of times — but had never ‘registered’; something elementary, my dear Watson, in Holmes’ oft repeated put down of his bright, loyal, well-educated partner in crime solution. Something that was right under his nose, yet never noticed.
At the very core of mindfulness practice is a cultivation of the observer self. This rather elusive aspect is very often overshadowed and out-muscled by his mindless sibling, the sensorially-deprived, participant self. The latter laddie, this would be Watson, quite blissfully, sometimes judgmentally, and most often obliviously engages in his daily routines, quite ‘insensible’ to what’s going on in the present moment. He finds himself being carried along on long trains of thought, leap frogging free-associatively from one experience, opinion, plan, anxiety, regret, or fear to the next — generally missing the immediate (and obvious, to Sherlock) content of the right now.
My wife and I had occasion to join my daughter and her partner for a Sunday brunch in London this past weekend. On the three-block walk from apartment to restaurant, pausing at a traffic signal, we all noticed the week’s old lab puppy, none too patiently waiting across the intersection — but fortunately held in check by his owner’s leash. Light changes and we all proceed. In that brief crossing, I watched as the puppy was greeted and scratched by my daughter, sniffed at the pant leg of another pedestrian, attacked and subdued an errant piece of ice in the roadway, and was surprised by a puddle forming in gutter. I noticed as well that, each of these ‘events’ were followed by a gentle tug from the owner’s lead, pulling our puppy back to present focus — getting safely across the street in the time allowed by the signal.
I could readily see the ‘participant puppy’ (although at perhaps 8 weeks of age, he might be forgiven) being swept along by a sequence of, to him, random events, streaming into and out of his consciousness at mind-boggling speed. The tugs on his leash pulling him back (for the moment), before being carried off yet again. Noted meditation teacher and writer, Jack Kornfield devotes a section of his book, A Path With Heart, to training the puppy as follows:
Meditation is very much like training a puppy. You put the puppy down and say ‘stay’. It gets up and runs away. You sit the puppy back down again. ‘Stay’. And the puppy runs away over and over again. Sometimes it jumps up, runs over and pees in the corner. Our minds are much the same as the puppy, only they (can) create even bigger messes.
For me, a second case in point occurred this past weekend — on one of those rare, sunny winter days. A mid-morning trip to a nearby town, took me across a dam near my home in Stratford where I noticed several ice fisherman and their shelters scattered across the frozen surface of the adjacent lake. And made a mental note to return late in the day when the sun’s angle would provide better photographic light. The sun held sway and I was back out with camera in hand. I’ve travelled that ten-kilometer stretch between home and lake hundred’s of times — in ‘seeing but not observing’ mode — typically (near always) on ‘my way somewhere’. Maybe it was ‘a trick of the light’ or the presence of the camera on the seat beside me, but this time, on the return trip, I ‘observed’ things — a long-disused windmill, kids playing road hockey in an alleyway (on ‘hockey day in Canada!) that I can safely say would have just  been part of peripheral events, seen but not noted on any other day.

Mindfulness practice is just that — a practice. We are, in the words of Mark Muesse, another meditation teacher and lecturer, typically in a default mode of mindlessness. Most of us, cruising along in participant mode, rarely have the ‘Sherlock experience’ of seeing what is before us. If we cultivate a regular practice, train the puppy, we have the capacity to become Sherlocks, to truly live mindfully.