How Metaphors Convey Meaning

I think people are used to hearing the word metaphor, but I’m not sure how many people take the time to think about them.  Probably writers do, and maybe people in advertising.  Metaphors are pretty darned useful.  I’m not sure if they’re properly appreciated in our society.

Metaphors are capable of doing two powerful things:

Connect you with a sense of meaning

Show you or lead you to something you didn’t know


I think we have a bias in our society about what is real and what is not real.  If the story happened it has more value than one that is fiction.  We tend to ask: did that really happen?  And sometimes I see people say derogatory things like: that’s just a story.  I’m not saying this is everywhere, artists and writers probably place a higher value on stories than an engineer.   But there does seem to be a value system that we need to become conscious about.  In certain quarters, stories and products of the imagination are less than, and facts and truth are more.

Meaning and some of the deepest concepts of spirituality are hard to convey with facts alone.  These things are hard to put into words.  The shamanic world is also like this.  You are dealing with things that are behind and beneath, enigmatically interconnected.  Only the spout of the whale can be seen, the wondrous bits are below the surface like jewels in a deep ocean.

You should think of a metaphor like a car.  You are over here and you don’t know what I think and feel.  I’m over there knowing what I think and feel.  However will we meet?  I will send my metaphor off like speedy transportation and you will ride it back to me.

And this isn’t really far off from the origins of the word metaphor, which meant to “transfer, or carry over.”  Whenever you are trying to understand something there is a gap, or an empty space between where you are and the thing that you do not yet know or understand.  Sometimes, the path to understanding is short and well worn.  I don’t know the meaning of this word, I look in the dictionary, wallah – I understand.

For some things there is more of a leap involved.  The bigger the leap the more likely you are to need a metaphor, or a story to help you make that leap.  This is because you need something that’s a little closer to your understanding to bridge you to this place that you’ve never been to.

Metaphors in Action

The more obvious value of a metaphor is when someone who has some sense of what they are trying to say and seeks to find an image or an experience that they know another person can relate to.  This is a case where the person consciously seeks out a metaphor to communicate something they know or want to express.

There is another way a metaphor can be used and that’s to discover things you do-not-know that you do-not-know…  You didn’t even know what you were trying to find.

When these metaphors come to you, they often arise spontaneously.  An image or idea presents itself, or catches your attention.  It’s only later that you realize see why it applies to your quest for understanding.  There are times when you are searching and you don’t know why or what for.  On the surface of things you might think its well being you want, when you are actually seeking connection.   We don’t always understand what it is we are looking for, because often we don’t know what is missing.

I have a simple example when this happened to me.  I was given a short essay to write for school “my life as a writer thus far.”  The main thrust of the essay was that I didn’t feel I could call myself a writer. The idea of a tattoo came to me.   Writers who are true writers have something that marks them as a writer.  I went with that.  But then the metaphor surprised me, coming in the last line of the essay:

The great writer stands before me, mocking me with the tattoo showing plainly on his writing arm…Maybe each story that you complete marks you like the prick of a tattoo needle, blood coming to the surface, showing what is inside.

This was the surprise.  I realized that I did not consider writing worthwhile unless it reveals a deeper truth.  An image from a movie came into my head, someone getting tattooed and how the blood comes to the surface of the skin.  This was something I didn’t even realize that I knew about tattooing.  But with that image I could see clearly how my desire to get at some deep unseen inner thing and bring it to the surface was a defining characteristic as a writer.  This is not true for everyone who writes.  Many writers are passionate about describing scenes, and buildings and all sorts of outer things.

Since then I have come to understand myself as a writer, but at that time I realized I didn’t value what I’d written if it wasn’t deeply revealing.  That was a good insight, and something I’d never understood about myself until I wrote that line.

When you work with metaphors in this way, you don’t really pick them.  Not the way you go to the store to pick a blue bedspread.  They come to you, or you are drawn to an image or an idea.  You keep going back to reread the same poem or story.  You keep thinking about that movie.  It stays with you and you begin to sense that it has something to show you.

Once you realize what’s happening, you work with the metaphor.  If you’re writing you see where it comes into the story.  If you’re not writing, bring it into your reflections, as you think about the topic at hand, or the search that is at hand.  Let it sit, then come back to it and look again.  Trust that because it popped into your head, or keeps showing up, or that you feel drawn, trust that it has something to show you.  Follow and see where it leads.

When I was writing my master’s project I kept thinking about the movie The Matrix.  It shows up in my notes, but not in the final project.  The story ended up helping me to understand: the concepts of choice as it relates to spiritual transformation, the concept of the union of opposites, and also opening one’s spiritual eyes to see in a new way.  I didn’t question how I was going to use the movie, or if I was going to use it in my final project.  When it arose I looked at it, and sometimes noted insights. But in the end it was a stepping stone that helped me bridge a gap to what I was trying to understand.

An example of my notes:

Creation it seems to me depends on the existence of opposites, or rather the existence of differentiation. So to lose a sense of differentiation, is to lose the world of the creation.  Although you can still become one with it all, and doing so you influence it, because you are inside everything.

In the end Neo merges with everything that is and the creation, the matrix itself continues to exist with its inhabitants apparently more deeply empowered.

Does that exclude the concept I am trying to find? Creation remains creation.  You remain created.  Do you need to remain created?

Working with Metaphor

Working with metaphor can be as simple as valuing metaphors, rather than dismissing them.  In this case you notice when they come up and allow your thoughts to lead you where they will.  You can also do what I did in my notes, and speculate on the different things the metaphor/image/story might mean.

If you wish to seek out metaphors, you don’t have to wait for them to come to you.  Contemplate the problem, or that sense that you’re missing something and begin to look around you. Note what draws your attention.  This could be something in nature, a picture in a magazine, a story, a poem.

Once you have something to work with you can be creative with how you explore it.  You can write about it.  You can take the image and make a collage.  You can get a deck of tarot cards out and put cards down with the intention of illustrating the metaphor.  You can do a web search and see if any of the results give you some insight.  You can journey on it.

The goal of working with the metaphor is to allow it to help you go “around the unknown curve.”  It is an inner tube which can buoy you as you swim for a new shore.  It is the eagle that can pick you up and drop you off in place you haven’t been before.

Lauren Torres – Lansing, IL
Copyright © 2011 [Lauren Torres]. All rights reserved
Do not reproduce with out express written permission.


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