For the video introduction to the next topic (metaphors!), please click here:
This week, I’ll be discussing the questions: What is a metaphor? And what do I mean when I say Choose Your Metaphor?
My fascination with metaphors started as a teenager watching Joseph Campbell’s “Power of Myth” series on PBS. I remembered him speaking about the civil war in Lebanon and saying, “people are killing each other over metaphors.” I didn’t quite understand what that meant at the time, but the phrase stuck in my mind.
A metaphor is a part of speech that uses an concrete image to convey a less-tangible, abstract image or idea. They are used to suggest resemblances between two things whose similarity might not be apparent (David Brooks has a wonderful piece describing this, which you can read here).
For example, when Shakespeare said “All the world’s a stage,” he wasn’t suggesting that the earth is one large place where drama is performed day and night (this would be taking the metaphor literally). He simply used this image to suggest that the world is like a stage, “and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances…” In a sense, all language is metaphor, since words are merely sounds meant to point to something beyond themselves. As the Zen saying goes, “All language is a finger pointing at the moon.”
What Campbell was speaking about is that whenever we try to describe the totality of existence (God, Being, the Universe, etc.), we have no choice but to use metaphor. As Alan Watts said, “you can’t say something specific about everything.” So we create descriptions, images, and concepts to help us wrap our little minds around this universe’s existence. There’s nothing wrong with this at all- metaphors give us a little mooring in the ocean of incomprehensibility. Metaphors can even help us to understand that the ultimate understanding consists in knowing that you don’t know.
The problem comes when we forget we’re using metaphors, and think that our religious symbols, images, and stories are literal truths. Mythological and religious imagery was never intended to be subject to the same proof and logic as science; conflict arises when people insist on reading their religion’s descriptions as indisputable, objective fact. This is what Campbell was speaking about: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism all use slightly different ways of describing what can’t be described, when in actuality the difference between Allah and Yahweh is the difference between a house and a maison. Choose your metaphor.
Each tradition has something special and unique to offer us in the ways it has chosen to speak about life. There are some days when I really identify with the Hindu way of reminding us that the divine wears many masks.
Then Friday evening comes along, and I really enjoy participating in the Jewish sabbath, with its emphasis on recognizing the holiness of time. There are other points in the week when I really think that Islam had a really good idea when it described shaytan (satan) as the force that pulls us away from our natural center of love and godliness. Then there are days when I meditate on the crucifixion, and ponder how it can teach me to recognize the divine even in suffering (even speaking about “the divine” is a metaphor). And after all that reflection I just sit on my meditation cushion and let my mind clear itself and settle like the lake described in Buddhist literature.
Meditation: In which ways have images and metaphors helped you to understand something about yourself or the universe?