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Comments: Entrapment by competing metaphors

Human Development Project

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There are a number of metaphors of human development and consciousness (Valle and von Eckartsberg, 1981) and various authors point to the dangers of being trapped by them. A related problem has also been explored by theologians (S McFague, Metaphorical Theology, 1982).

1. Technical metaphors

Stephen Batchelor (1989), a Buddhist author, argues that Buddhist understanding in the West has suffered from a superficial dependence on techniques at the expense of meditative attitude. Since a technique is the result of a technology, "any spiritual path that speaks of a series of interconnected stages leading to awakening...has a technological aspect." Entrapped by this technical metaphor, "preoccupation with technique gives rise to a technical attitude. It assumes that reality is reducible to a certain number of elements which each have a particular place and function. Once the location, duration and type of elements have been established, then it is possible to reorganize them into another order, or even to change them into something else. With faith in guidelines and instructions, we can then project an alternative reality and proceed to realize it through applying the correct techniques. A technical attitude is thus a calculative one."

2. Temporal metaphors

The temporal metaphor emphasizes progress, journey, and moving from one state to another. The descriptions may in fact be more about the movement than about the states themselves. This perspective is important in focusing on growth, maturation and human development and provides insights in responding to a person's needs at a particular stage in that journey. The implicit bias is moralistic with excessive concern about progression through stages.

3. Spatial metaphors

In contrast, the spatial metaphor emphasizes the state, content, and quality of experience. The importance of this metaphor is in the description of the breadth of the state and its place in relationship to other states in the whole realm of consciousness. The danger of this metaphor is the tendency to reinforce static ("state") experience, stagnation and complacency toward individual development. An interesting compromise is in metaphors of alternation. Here there is a constant shift between states, but any progress can better be conceived in terms of increasing complexification of that pattern, as well as detachment from it.

4. Topological metaphors

An interesting approach to these contrasting perspectives is provided by Alexander Piatigorsky (1984) in discussing the classification of modes of awareness from a Buddhist perspective. He argues that the set of such possible modes "can be regarded (if taken as a whole) as a space where all possible (not only actual, that is) types of thought are present synchronously....So in trying to show the essential difference between the Buddhist theory of thought based on the principle of rise of thought and the theory of thought in European psychological tradition, I would emphasize that the latter commences its investigation of mental phenomena when they have already formed their sequential combinations with one another, assuming therewith the character and form of temporal causal processes....So, strictly speaking, each separate case (and/or type) of thought constitutes its own unique spatial configuration within which no temporal event is possible. Given that there can be no psychology whatsoever without temporal interpretation of the inner causality in an objectively observed process, we may go even further and assert that the Buddhist typology of thought, being par excellence a topological typology, cannot be psychologically analyzed." (pp. 150-151).

Piatigorsky goes on to suggest that this topological character seems to constitute a kind of periodic system of modes of awareness, analogous to that for chemical elements, where the possibility is always implied, that however many or few of them are possible, each element, when and if it appears, would invariably be positioned in its own place (pp. 167-168). There is much in his detailed study which could be used to further clarify the relationships between the entries in this section.

5. Vertical vs. Horizontal metaphors

As noted earlier, Morris Berman (1989) draws attention to a fundamental distinction between the vertical, "ascent experience" (by which spiritual development is most frequently understood) and embodied or "horizontal" consciousness. He sees much current interest in "spiritual development" to be basically an effort to escape the body rather than to work through it.

For Berman: "The cognitive insight of the ascent experience is extremely powerful. Purely intellectual or analytical knowing is revealed as being hopelessly incomplete...The event is so numinous, so meaningful, that one's relationship to the world, and to oneself, will never be the same, and thus to talk of abandoning this kind of experience would seem to be a great mistake." But he then goes on to point out that such ecstatic dissolution of the self is "just a bit too wonderful". He argues that much of the "consciousness revolution" of the 1970s and the 1980s has amounted to little more than a flight from the body. "If we have any hope of getting out of this trap, it will be because of clarity rather than charisma; for we are going to have to distinguish between an embodied holism -- one that is sensuous and situational -- and the cybernetic holism, or abstract "process reality", that is being advanced by many New Age thinkers."

Citing Jacob Needleman, he argues that true enlightenment is to really know, really feel, one's ontological dilemma, one's somatic nature. Whereas the mystic seeks to ascend, to abandon the body, greater insight may be achieved through horizontal consciousness. In Buddhism he notes that the ecstatic ascent experience is even considered as an obstruction to enlightenment. "The real goal of a spiritual tradition should not be ascent, but openness, vulnerability, and this does not require great experiences but, on the contrary, very ordinary ones. Charisma is easy; presence, self-remembering (Gurdjieff's term), is terribly difficult and is where the real work lies." As in the Tibetan saying that "The highest art is the art of living an ordinary life in an extraordinary manner".

Berman looks to the possibility of this being the modality of an entire society, with a shift away from ascent and toward bodily presence in the world. All of life is then sacred, not just "heaven". For him: "a much deeper life lies beyond that of the ascent structure, which is finally about salvation, or redemption, for the ultimate heresy is not about redemption but...about redemption from redemption itself. It is to be able to live in life as it presents itself, not to search for a world beyond."

6. Competing metaphors

The fundamental problem of entrapment by a particular metaphor is that some alternative, competing metaphor has to be used to gain release. The release is then accompanied by such an upwelling of insight that there is a major danger that the metaphor catalyzing the release is perceived as so fundamental that it itself becomes a trap. Just as geese imprint on the first moving object they see on leaving the egg, here there is a form of "imprinting" on the reality disclosed by the metaphor of release.

Advocacy of a particular developmental metaphor, as in the case of Berman, or opposition to a metaphor, as in the case of Batchelor, reinforces the assumption that people all face the same developmental challenges and can benefit from the same metaphors in responding to them. It is more probable that each such metaphor has its place, and that it may be appropriate for a particular individual at a particular time. Ironically the greatest of insights may even come from finally understanding that which one's neighbour treats as a daily reality. This is not to deny the power of the argument for or against particular metaphors, when an individual is metaphorically entrapped. Indeed the resilient use of metaphors would seem to be what Berman advocates in his arguments for "reflexivity", discussed in a following note.


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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