Myths and metaphors reveal all

Metaphors, like myths, stimulate feelings and thoughts that the mind can comprehend, clarifying concepts that would otherwise be difficult to understand.

Metaphors, like myths, stimulate feelings and thoughts that the mind can comprehend, clarifying concepts that would otherwise be difficult to understand.
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‘To grasp the full value of the mythological figures that have come down to us, we must understand that they are not only symptoms of the unconscious (as indeed are all human thoughts and acts) but also controlled and intended statements of certain spiritual principles, which have remained as constant throughout the course of human history as the form and nervous structure of the human physique itself. Briefly formulated, the universal doctrine teaches that all the visible structures of the world—all things and beings—are the effects of a ubiquitous power out of which they rise, which supports and fills them during the period of their manifestation, and back into which they must ultimately dissolve.

The apprehension of the source of this undifferentiated yet everywhere particularized substratum of being is rendered frustrate by the very organs through which the apprehension must be accomplished. The forms of sensibility and the categories of human thought, which are themselves manifestations of this power, so confine the mind that it is normally impossible not only to see, but even to conceive, beyond the colorful, fluid, infinitely various and bewildering phenomenal spectacle. The function of ritual and myth is to make possible, and then to facilitate, the jump—by analogy. Forms and conceptions that the mind and its senses can comprehend are presented and arranged in such a way as to suggest a truth or openness beyond.’

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Metaphors make abstract concepts concrete by providing a rich verbal context that evokes thoughts, feelings, and behaviors similar to those evoked by the client’s actual situation.

The story-like quality of metaphors has the advantage of providing instructive lessons that are rich in emotional and perceptual detail, mimicking direct contact with the environment and making the experience more memorable. Metaphors create a verbal world where clients can explore new behaviors and discover the contingencies for themselves, circumventing the potential traps of learning by rules. Metaphors also draw attention to salient features of a situation that may go unnoticed in clients’ real-world environment, thus liberating them from the cage built by language.

Matthieu Villatte, Jennifer L. Villatte and Jean-Louis Monestès, in The Big Book of ACT Metaphors. A Practitioner’s Guide to Experiential Exercises & Metaphors in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy. (Jill A. Stoddard and Niloofar Afari (eds.).


* In a series of posts I call mythology Monday, I look at quotes from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and consider them alongside extracts from books and papers on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and related publications.

Observe your river of thoughts

Take time to observe your thoughts, to listen to them and watch them as they pass by. Try not to get caught up in them, or let them pull you away into their stream.

Observe your river of thoughts
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He began to pay careful attention to his thoughts and ideas, and to admire them. For example, it occurred to him that if he were to die, the world in which he had been living would cease to exist. At first, this thought just flashed through his mind, but aware now of his inner originality, he did not let the thought escape as so many other ideas had done earlier. He grasped it, observed it, examined it from all sides.

He was walking along the river; now and again he would close his eyes and ask himself whether the river existed even when his eyes were closed. Of course, every time he opened his eyes the river continued to flow before him, but the remarkable thing was that this in no way proved it was there when Jaromil was not looking at it. This seemed extremely interesting to him, he spent the better part of a day on this experiment and then told Maman all about it.’

Milan Kundera. Life is Elsewhere. Translated by Peter Kussi.

‘As you observe thoughts or feelings, you’re separate from them in a sense, because you’re watching them. It’s like sitting on a riverbank as the water rushes by rather than being in the river itself. As you watch the water (emotion or thought) pass by, you may sometimes feel like you’ve been sucked into the river and washed downstream. But you’re not the river itself. You can simply step back out of the river again. De-centring is an important aspect of mindfulness.’

Shamash Alidina and Joelle Jane Marshall. Mindfulness Workbook for Dummies.

Dig yourself out of the avoidance hole

When we deal with uncomfortable thoughts by only avoiding them, we can make the problem even bigger. A little like digging a hole you’re already in.

Dig yourself out of the avoidance hole
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The night is still young, and as I lie here in bed looking up into the darkness, a darkness so black that the ceiling is invisible, I begin to remember the story I started last night. That’s what I do when sleep refuses to come. I lie in bed and tell myself stories. They might not add up to much, but as long as I’m inside them, they prevent me from thinking about the things I would prefer to forget. Concentration can be a problem, however, and more often than not my mind eventually drifts away from the story I’m trying to tell to the things I don’t want to think about. There’s nothing to be done. I fail again and again, fail more often than I succeed, but that doesn’t mean I don’t give it my best effort.

I put him in a hole. That felt like a good start, a promising way to get things going. Put a sleeping man in a hole, and then see what happens when he wakes up and tries to crawl out. I’m talking about a deep hole in the ground, nine or ten feet deep, dug in such a way as to form a perfect circle, with sheer inner walls of dense, tightly packed earth, so hard that the surfaces have the texture of baked clay, perhaps even glass. In other words, the man in the hole will be unable to extricate himself from the hole once he opens his eyes. Unless he is equipped with a set of mountaineering tools—a hammer and metal spikes, for example, or a rope to lasso a neighboring tree—but this man has no tools, and once he regains consciousness, he will quickly understand the nature of his predicament.’

Paul Auster. Man in the Dark.

‘Imagine that you’re placed in a field, wearing a blindfold, and you’re given a little tool bag to carry. You’re told that your job is to run around this field, blindfolded. That is how you are supposed to live life. And so you do what you are told. Now, unbeknownst to you, in this field there are a number of widely spaced, fairly deep holes. You don’t know that at first—you’re naive. So you start running around and sooner or later you fall into a large hole. You feel around, and sure enough, you can’t climb out and there are no escape routes you can find. Probably what you would do in such a predicament is take the tool bag you were given and see what is in there; maybe there is something you can use to get out of the hole. Now suppose that the only tool in the bag is a shovel.

So you dutifully start digging, but pretty soon you notice that you’re not out of the hole. So you try digging faster and faster. But you’re still in the hole. So you try big shovelfuls, or little ones, or throwing the dirt far away or not. But still you are in the hole. All this effort and all this work, and oddly enough the hole has just gotten bigger and bigger and bigger. Isn’t that your experience? So you come to see me thinking, “Maybe he has a really huge shovel—a gold-plated steam shovel.” Well, I don’t. And even if I did I wouldn’t use it, because digging is not a way out of the hole—digging is what makes holes. So maybe the whole agenda is hopeless—you can’t dig your way out, that just digs you in.’

Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., and Wilson, K. G. Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change.

Don’t abandon your life’s journey

In those moments when, like Oblomov, you feel like you’re getting nowhere, try to find the will to continue. Don’t let life’s swamps keep you from following your path.

Don't abandon you life's journey
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‘Twas as though some one had stolen from him, and besmirched, the store of gifts with which life and the world had dowered him; so that always he would be prevented from entering life’s field and sailing across it with the aid of intellect and of will. Yes, at the very start a secret enemy had laid a heavy hand upon him and diverted him from the road of human destiny. And now he seemed to be powerless to leave the swamps and wilds in favour of that road. All around him was a forest, and ever the recesses of his soul were growing dimmer and darker, and the path more and more tangled, while the consciousness of his condition kept awaking within him less and less frequently – to arouse only for a fleeting moment his slumbering faculties. Brain and volition alike had become paralysed, and, to all appearances, irrevocably – the events of his life had become whittled down to microscopical proportions. Yet even with them he was powerless to cope – he was powerless to pass from one of them to another. Consequently they bandied him to and fro like the waves of the ocean. Never was he able to oppose to any event elasticity of will; never was he able to conceive, as the result of any event, a reasoned-out impulse. Yet to confess this, even to himself, always cost him a bitter pang: his fruitless regrets for lost opportunities, coupled with burning reproaches of conscience, always pricked him like needles, and led him to strive to put away such reproaches and to discover a scapegoat….

Once again Oblomov sank asleep; and as he slept he dreamed of a different period, of different people, of a different place from the present. Let us follow him thither.

Ivan Goncharov. Oblomov

If a person is wholly committed to not experiencing any unpleasant or difficult thoughts, feelings, sensations, or images, then that person will be unable to commit to and maintain a course of action because every course will eventually evoke something that is unpleasant. With valuing love comes the experience of loss, with valuing community conies the possibility of rejection, with valuing creativity comes a negative evaluation of one’s abilities. Metaphorically, it, as if you were on a journey called “living well” and you ran into a swamp that stretched as far as the eye could see. Swamps are no fun. They, smelly, they, icky, they, scary, and yet swamps are part of the journey. Life asks, “Will you wade into the swamp or will you abandon your journey,” In order to choose to act on our values, willingness to experience difficult events is necessary. This action of willingness has the quality of a leap of faith. The job of the therapist is to create situations in which clients engage in a leap of faith into a future that is unknown and—to the best they can tell—in the direction of their values. A leap of faith implies the willingness to have whatever happens when one makes that leap, to touch down wherever one lands. We are looking for this quality in client commitments.

Jason Luoma PhD, Steven C. Hayes PhD and Robyn D Walser PhD. Learning ACT: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Skills-Training Manual for Therapists.

Be the chessboard, not the pieces

Our thoughts can be like a chess game, a constant battle between two sides. We could also choose not to always play those pieces and be the chessboard instead.

Be the chessboard, not the pieces
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I set out the chess board. I filled a pipe, paraded the chessmen and inspected them for French shaves and loose buttons, and played a championship tournament game between Gortchakoff and Meninkin, seventy-two moves to a draw, a prize specimen of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, a battle without armor, a war without blood, and as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you could find anywhere outside an advertising agency.”

Raymond Chandler. The Long Goodbye: A Novel (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)

The Chessboard Metaphor, a central ACT intervention, connects the client to the distinction between content and the observing self:

Imagine a chessboard that goes out infinitely in all directions. It’s covered with black pieces and white pieces. They work together in teams, as in chess—the white pieces fight against the black pieces. You can think of your thoughts and feelings and beliefs as these pieces; they sort of hang out together in teams too. For example, “bad” feelings (like anxiety, depression, resentment) hang out with “bad” thoughts and “bad” memories. Same thing with the “good” ones. So it seems that the way the game is played is that we select the side we want to win. We put the “good” pieces (like thoughts that are self-confident, feelings of being in control, etc.) on one side, and the “bad” pieces on the other. Then we get up on the back of the black horse and ride to battle, fighting to win the war against anxiety, depression, thoughts about using drugs, whatever. It’s a war game. But there’s a logical problem here, and that is that from this posture huge portions of yourself are your own enemy. In other words, if you need to be in this war, there is something wrong with you. And because it appears that you’re on the same level as these pieces, they can be as big or even bigger than you are—even though these pieces are in you. So somehow, even though it is not logical, the more you fight the bigger they get. If it is true that “if you are not willing to have it, you’ve got it,” then as you fight these pieces they become more central to your life, more habitual, more dominating, and more linked to every area of living. The logical idea is that you will knock enough of them off the board that you eventually dominate them—except that your experience tells you that the exact opposite happens. Apparently, the white pieces can’t be deliberately knocked off the board. So the battle goes on. You feel hopeless, you have a sense that you can’t win, and yet you can’t stop fighting. If you’re on the back of that black horse, fighting is the only choice you have, because the white pieces seem life threatening. Yet living in a war zone is no way to live.

Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl, and Kelly G. Wilson. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change

Failure is only a word

Frustrated by rejection, new authors can feel like failures. Their feelings of impatience, even anxiety, can lead to bad career decisions. Or to even give up on their dream.

Failure is only a word
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Frustrated newcomers can begin to do silly things to get the attention of publishing pros. A friend who edits romances for a major paperback publisher told me how at one conference an overeager author followed her into the ladies room—right into an empty stall—in order to pitch her manuscript. Did it work? No way!

Typically, authors express their anxiety in more subtle ways.

What is this anxiety really about? It can be experienced as the desperate feeling that no one in book publishing cares a damn about you or your manuscript. One can feel it as anger over slush piles (stacks of unrequested, waiting-to-be-read manuscripts), fury over long response times, frustration with uncaring editors or agents—one can even begin to resent the success of others. What began as bliss can turn to utter misery.

I would like to suggest that these overt signs of anxiety actually mask fears of a more fundamental sort. One is the fear of failure, the terrifying possibility that one has wasted years of one’s life. A second is the fear of humiliation—so many expectations to fulfill!
Especially one’s own!

Most fundamental of all, I believe, is the anxiety that derives from the need for validation. Above all things, writers want acceptance. They long to be judged worthy of publication. They want to be assured that they are not crazy. They need to know that all this time and effort have not been for nothing. If the breaking-in period becomes too lengthy or too frustrating, most writers will sooner or later get desperate. Some will start to avoid the whole process, refusing to push themselves. Others will keep at it doggedly but cynically, losing all excitement and hope.

That is too bad, because that kind of burnout can lead to ill-considered career decisions. And, these days, there is little room for error in the big, bad world of book publishing.

Donald Maass. The Career Novelist: A Literary Agent Offers Strategies for Success

James, a single, 31-year-old Caucasian male, is an aspiring actor and screenwriter…It became clear during the initial treatment sessions that it was his dissatisfaction with the current state of his life that was most distressing for James. He was frustrated with the lack of progress in his career and was struggling with thoughts of not having accomplished enough to this point in his life and fears of being a “failure.”

Through a series of direct experiential exercises in session, James gradually became less emotionally reactive to the word “failure.” For example, when presented with the word “failure” written on a flash card, James reported wanting to rip up the card and throw it in the trash. The therapist then asked James whether he was willing to put the card in his lap, simply read it, let it be, and have the card touch him as a thought. James agreed and was surprised to notice that he could do this without getting tangled up in what the card says. He was also willing to take the card with him over the next week everywhere he went. In addition, James and his therapist did an exercise in which they rapidly repeated the word “failure” for approximately 30 seconds while observing what happens to the quality of the word when doing so. James reported that after saying the word repeatedly “failure” was reduced to merely a string of almost unrecognizable sounds and he could see that it was ultimately just a word.

Exercises such as this helped James to become a better observer of his own thinking and he learned that he does not have to take his thoughts, even historically difficult thoughts, so seriously and do what they say. For example, during the course of treatment James completed his screenplay and put together a team of actors to present his screenplay to an audience for the very first time, despite experiencing occasional thoughts of failing throughout the process.

Georg H. Eifert, John P. Forsyth, Joanna Arch, Emmanuel Espejo, Melody Keller, and David Langer. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: Three Case Studies Exemplifying a Unified Treatment Protocol.

The power of metaphors

Metaphors offer clarity, a way of seeing old things in a new way. This is true of writing as well as in life.

On Writing by Stephen King
On Writing

When it’s on target, a simile delights us in much the same way meeting an old friend in a crowd of strangers does. By comparing two seemingly unrelated objects—a restaurant bar and a cave, a mirror and a mirage—we are sometimes able to see an old thing in a new and vivid way. Even if the result is mere clarity instead of beauty, I think writer and reader are participating together in a kind of miracle. Maybe that’s drawing it a little strong, but yeah—it’s what I believe.’

Stephen King. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

‘Metaphors are not simply logical, linear forms of verbal behavior: they are more like pictures. The point of the ACT metaphors is often hard to capture in a simple moral or verbal conclusion. Instead, metaphors present a picture of how things work in a given domain. Carefully presented metaphors can be a kind of experiential exercise—as if one had actually experienced the described event or story. The event is verbal, and thus the experiences are derived and not direct, but the impact of the talk is still more experiential because the talk used is not linear, analytic, or proscriptive. This is advantageous inasmuch as ACT is attempting to ground client action in the direct experience of contingencies and in rules that track those contingencies. Metaphors help set a social/verbal context in which overreliance on rationality is questioned and where the wisdom of directly experienced contingencies is more highly valued.’

Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl, Kelly G. Wilson. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change

Passengers on a bus

French author, Céline, experiences his own version of the famous ‘passengers on the bus’ metaphor used in acceptance and commitment therapy.

Celine Castle to Castle

When I think of the people I hear talking politics, I can see them in a bus…a real bus! with real gratings, jam-pcked with criminals like you!…not criminals à la Charlie Chaplin! honest to God criminals with handguns and straitjackets! guarded by a dozen Tommy guns…what a show!…the passersby weave and waver, cling to the shopfronts…for fear this might happen to them…their consciences quake! scared shitless!…memories…it’s a rare passerby that hasn’t got a little abortion tucked away…a little theft…nothing to be ashamed of! the only thing to be ashamed of is poverty! the one and only! Take me, for instance, no car, a doctor on foot! what do I look like?…’

Céline. (1957). Castle to Castle (French Literature). (R. Manheim, Trans.) Dalkey Archive.

‘The bus metaphor casts the relationship between a person and thoughts or feelings the way one might cast a social relationship between a person and bullies. This reframe is useful as a motivative augmental in seeking freedom from literal language. Some of our past efforts to gain social independence can be used to stimulate a similar independence from the hegemony of our own verbal systems: our own minds. However limited our social independence is, independence from our minds is usually much less. This makes sense in another way inasmuch as the source of verbal relations, after all, is dominantly social and external in any case (What are the numbers?). The bus metaphor also nicely structures how the illusion of language works and what the cost is in terms of loss of life direction.’

Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl, & Kelly G. Wilson. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change