15 October 1999
Being the Universe : a Metaphoric Frontier
Co-existent Immanence of Evolutionary Phases
- / -
People live in a world that has been carefully presented through
education as external and objective. As such one does not have immediate access
to distant objects. The world is also presented as having a history of millions
of years within an even older universe. As such one does not have access to
times past, or to times yet to come. It is also carefully explained how one
grows constantly older. As such one does not have ready access to one's younger
or older selves. We have been imprisoned in spatio-temporal cells under conditions
that may well arouse the indignation of penal reformers of the future.
This essay is an exploration of another possible way of being
that honours subjective reality. Perhaps, in anticipation of a comprehensible
resolution of their paradoxical incompatibility, objective and subjective reality
are as complementary as the particle and wave theories of physics in endeavouring
to explain light.
The essay is about reappropriating our cultural heritage from
those who have "professionalized" access to it and, like many priesthoods,
inserted themselves as intermediaries with their own agendas. Like the untouchable
castes, we are then excluded from access to the imaginal heritage by which we
are supposedly sustained.
The approach advocated therefore involves exploration of the possibility
of activating new metaphors which can enchant, empower, explain and orient approaches
to the problematique through the user's own comprehension of each metaphor's
significance, whether amongst the governors or the governed. Such a use of metaphor
is only new in that metaphors have not been deliberately used in this way before,
despite the fact that everyone has access to them. In Kenneth Boulding's words:
"Our consciousness of the unity of the self in the middle of a vast complexity
of images or material structures is at least a suitable metaphor for the unity
of a group, organization, department, discipline, or science. If personification
is only a metaphor, let us not despise metaphors - we might be one ourselves."(1978,
p.345) Or, as the poet John Keats puts it: "A man's life is a continual allegory
- and very few eyes can see the mystery of his life - a life like the scriptures,
figurative." The charm of it, as Bateson stated in concluding a conference on
the effects of conscious purpose on human adaptation, is that: "We are our own
metaphor." (1972, p.304). Unfortunately we have over-identified with the metaphor
and have been unable to see ourselves in perspective.
Kathleen Forsythe (1986) in a paper to a meeting of cyberneticians
argues: "Analogy and its poetic expression, metaphor, may be the "meta-forms"
necessary to understanding those aspects of our mind that make connections,
of ten in non-verbal and implicit fashion, that allow us to understand the world
in a whole way." Forsythe uses the term isophors for isomorphisms experienced
in the use of language. Isophors are distinct from metaphors in that they are
experienced directly. With the isophor there is no separation between thought
and action, between feeling and experience. The experience itself is evoked
through the relation.
She suggests that the experience of one thing in terms of another,
the isophor, is the means by which we map domain to domain and that our consciousness
of this meta-action, when we observe ourselves experiencing this, lies at the
heart of cognition. She has postulated the development of an epistemology of
newness in which learning is the perception of newness and cognition depends
on a disposition for wonder leading to this domain of conception-perception
interactions. She argues that the notion of metaphor is commonly understood
to mean the description of one thing in terms of another. This notion presupposes
an objective reality. This objectivity may be questioned and if, as suggested
by Maturana, (objectivity) is placed in parentheses, "we can begin to appreciate
clearly the role we play in the construction of our own perception of reality.
for this reason, the notion of the experience of one thing in terms of another,
the isophor, suggests that it is this dynamic constructing ability that involves
conception and perception -- unfolding and enfolding, that this gives rise to
the coordination of actions in recursion which we know as language."
Forsythe stresses the relationship between metaphor and pattern
language: "The architecture of how we structure the reality of our imagination
is metaphoric. Metaphors are bridges that order the nature of our collective
and individual humanity. Metaphor provides the reality to the pattern language
of thought for it is the mechanism of ordering newness. Language only lives
when each person has his or her own version that must constantly be re-created
in each person's mind as he or she interacts with others in the environment.
It is only through understanding these inner patterns that we can begin to consciously
bring the outer pattern of our lives into harmony." (more on these points at:
The lack of such self-reflexiveness could well prove to be an
important contributory factor to the current uncontrolled attitude to procreation
which is at the root of many current problems that lend themselves to metaphoric
Metaphoric exploration of cognitive domains
Biology has explained how ontogeny replicates phylogeny, namely
how the process of embryonic development of a mammalian species is patterned
after the evolution of that species through earlier forms. This insight suggests
several other possibilities that call for reflection
Supposing "psychogeny" -- namely psychological development
-- also replicates phylogeny in some way during the process of maturation. After
all, humans have a variety of organs of the brain, some of which are characteristic
of the earliest animals. It has been argued that some of our behaviours derive
necessarily from the functioning of those brains.
Geophysics: But in reflecting about oneself and how one's
sense of identity emerged, there is also a case for imagining that this organizational
process replicates in some way the early geophysical processes through which
the world itself was formed and separated out from other bodies of the solar
system. Using the symbolic categories characteristic of many cultures, the early
challenge of world-forming is the forming of the earth in relation to water,
light and air -- usually from a more fundamental fire or light.
Psychological individuation in some schools of psychotherapy places
great emphasis on the fundamental symbolic importance of these categories.
Cosmology: But what about the origin of the universe --
"Big Bang" or otherwise? Astronomers have carefully distanced people
from this process of aeons ago. But is there not at least a sense in which one's
own identity emerged through a process that is patterned in a somewhat similar
way -- and, given the constraints on our understanding, perhaps necessarily
so? After all, to the extent that there is any consciousness associated with
a fertilized human egg, there is a certain parallelism -- at least as a pattern
of subdivision of an initially undivided whole (a theme explored in many traditional
However all the above would seem to be just a speculative play
on ideas. More intriguing therefore is the possibility that all these processes
may continue to have a reality in the direct experience of the present moment.
In the case of the "Big Bang" for example, anyone who has had a really
striking idea has experienced a creative moment which has dimensions that might
well be patterned in the manner of the birth of the universe. For some this
moment can reframe and transform their perceptions for minutes, hours or days.
It may affect and order the rest of their lives.
Astronomers continue to play with theories concerning the origin
of the universe. In our ignorance of astronomy we can patiently wait for their
conclusions. But we can also explore the intriguing patterns they put forward
and relate them to the experience of our own creativity. At an even simpler
level, we can compare their patterns with our own experience on emerging from
a deep sleep, or from unconsciousness (after general anaesthesia or an epileptic
fit). For with great rapidity in these transitory moments, we reform and organize
our universe. As the astronomers stress, it all happens in the first few seconds
In this sense we can in fact gain significant insight into how
our universe -- and our solar system -- is formed on a daily basis. Remember
astronomers are still debating whether it is a case of Big Bang or continuous
creation. Nevertheless we are free to use their insights to experience the way
our universe expands after our awakening, and the way it contracts and collapses
when we go to sleep. (The contraction theme is explored in many works by Colin
Astrophysics: Framed in this way we are then free to look
in new ways at the awesome astronomical photographs of distant galaxies and
endeavour to discover how we potentially hold equivalent patterns within our
own awareness. Rather than simply being intrigued by descriptions of mysterious
stellar objects (eg quasars, dwarf stars, red giants, black holes, supernova)
we can use these patterns to identify and order analogous experiences within
ourselves. It is indeed possible that unless such patterns were also a possible
subjective reality (as meaningful to the human awareness), astronomers would
not be able to formulate them as credible hypothese for external phenomena.
The point being made is that in both cases we are dealing with
patterns. Astronomers have invested years of creativity in defining intriguing
patterns to handle phenomena they experience at great distance through instruments.
We are free to make use of those patterns to order subjective experiences with
which we may have intimate knowledge, but whose nature does not otherwise lend
itself to communication. Who has had any direct experience of black holes as
astronomers understand them -- including astronomers? But who has not had experience
that might be usefully patterned by the complex properties now associated with
black holes -- event horizons, immense distortion by gravitational forces, etc.
How, for example, are we to deal with obsessive ego maniacs, or our own moments
of personal obsession? "Black hole" is even a common description for
the experience of certain kinds of depression. We may know even more about black
holes than astrophysicists, but not have the language to articulate our insights.
And what about the "white holes" as explored by Peter
Russell in The White Hole in Time: our future evolution and the meaning of
Astronomy: In this way we can choose to perceive our reality
through astrophysical metaphors. We can choose also to navigate this reality
like astronauts -- but necessarily constrained by disciplined metaphors from
astronautics. The pattern of a conceptual or behavioural "gravity well"
evokes the need to develop some form of "escape velocity" if we are
to detach from that sink and get into "orbit", possibly as a basis
for travelling elsewhere. This process of "detachment" is reminiscent
of the preoccupations of Buddhist meditation. All the challenges of astronautics
contain lessons for this process. And rather than thinking enviously about the
opportunities of future generations to travel the planets and the stars, the
challenges and thrills are in some measure readily accessible at this moment.
But a distinction needs to be made between thinking figuratively of such possibilities
and actually engaging in them by exploring the metaphorical constraints to the
In this sense faster-than-light (hyperspace) inter-galactic travel
(via wormholes and the like) may indeed be theoretically possible, but it may
also call for a degree of cognitive discipline that few will care to develop.
Again special relativity theory seems irrelevant to daily experience. But this
pattern may be immediately relevant when comparing two people (or groups) who
have followed quite different learning trajectories. How are they to communicate
meaning -- even when they are face-to-face? The learning rate on some trajectories
is such that it exceeds the ability to communicate outside that frame back to
one's point of departure. Relativity theory may be extremely useful in explaining
some communication problems between disciplines or even between children and
parents. Some learnings can be so rapid that when subsequently confronted with
people one was with prior to the learning, they seem to be from a pre-historic
The associated "gravitational" effects in communication,
due to incommunicability, are usefully explained through the mathematical analysis
of Ron Atkin (cf Ron Atkin: Multidimensional Man; can man live in 3-dimensional
space?) (reviewed at: http://www.un-intelligible.org/projects/strategy/141alt.php).
Biology: Exploring biological patterns, there is a case
for seeing oneself at any one moment as conforming to dynamics of any of a wide
spectrum of species, from all levels of the evolutionary diaspora. There is
a way in which one can be an amoebic blob, a spider, a snake, a bird, a wolf,
etc. To what degree are we all behavioural shapeshifters? Should shapeshifting
be a part of our education (as Merlin offered the young Arthur in T H White's
Once and Future King, and as in totemic education in many tribes)? How
are we constrained in adopting particular behavioural patterns? When is there
a case for experiencing reality as an amoeba? A (couch) potato? A doormouse?
A tiger? What ecosystems do we then require in order to survive and thrive?
How do we relate to others through such patterns?
People may have different degrees of access to such patterns.
More intriguing is to understand the range of such patterns as being arrayed
like a periodic table which one is free to play like an organ. How one dons
and doffs such patterns in a continuing dance with reality is then the challenge.
How can one learn to dance with greater elegance, elan, engagement and enthusiasm?
How frequently to alternate between such patterns?
Chemistry: As a pattern the periodic table of chemical
elements is especially powerful. The array of elements suggests that one could
pattern one's behaviours according to any group of elements, thus determining
one's relationship to behaviours from other groups. Most intriguing is that
simpler patterns (of atomic constituents) are embedded within the more complex
ones. In this sense any pattern could be activated by the appropriate level
of energy, although it would not necessarily be stable. There is effectively
a pattern of resonance between the patterns constituting the array of elements.
One's identity is then made up of active and potential behaviours or relations
to reality. How does one learn to shift between them meaningfully in order to
relate to others doing the same? Are there configurations that will only become
stable in the future -- suggesting that the future is embedded in the present
moment in some special way?
What are molecules in this sense? A pattern of bonding with significant
others? How can one possibly attribute significance to so many? How do such
molecules form? And cellular DNA? Is this a way of perceiving groups and communities?
Stellar evolution: Then there are other intriguing patterns
from astrophysics. How does the array of relatively simple reactions sustain
the complexity of a sun? Can consciousness be understood in terms of the patterns
of solar reactions through which light and heat are generated for mundane life?
What then is to be understood by hydrogen and helium?
Can the conscious life then be usefully understood in terms of
the Hertzsprung-Russel diagram (showing the luminosities of the stars plotted
against their surface temperatures) and its significance for the process of
Is the initial phase of conscious evolution a contraction of the
preconscious (the protostar) from the collective unconscious (the interstellar
gas)? In the case of stellar evolution, this stage typically lasts millions
of years. Half the gravitational potential energy released by the collapsing
protostar is radiated away; half goes into increasing the temperature of the
forming star. This might echo insights from the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Can temperature be understood as degree of self-awareness? Eventually the temperature
becomes high enough for the fusion of hydrogen to form helium. The star then
enters its longest period in stellar evolution, known as the main sequence in
the context of the Hertzsrpung -Russell diagram. As the star's helium content
builds up, the core contracts and releases gravitational energy, which heats
up the core and increases the rate of hydrogen consumption. The increased reaction
rates cause the stellar envelope to expand and cool, and the star becomes a
red giant. Eventually, the contracting stellar core will reach temperatures
in excess of 100 million degrees. Helium burning then sets in, and the star
starts shrinking in size. In the further course of evolution, the star may become
unstable, possibly ejecting some of its mass and becoming an exploding nova
or supernova or a pulsating variable star. The end phase of a star depends on
its mass. A low-mass star may become a white dwarf; an intermediate-mass star
may become a neutron star; and a high-mass star may undergo complete gravitational
collapse and become a black hole. Are some of these patterns not reminiscent
of the possible final stages of life of media personalities -- especially movie
"stars", but also the geniuses of our era?
Physics: We are tantalized by the explorations and patterns
of particle physics -- again supposedly only made meaningful in a few privileged
laboratories equipped with accelerators and super-collidors. And yet we ourselves
are supposedly constituted of such particles and must know of them in some fundamental
way. Might our moment-by-moment awareness be usefully compared to a cloud chamber
into which streams of thoughts are constantly accelerated? What after all does
it mean when our thoughts go "round and round" -- especially prior
to a creative breakthrough? Do insights collide and decay in equivalent patterns
according to their nature? Is that how very "heavy" thoughts are engendered?
Given the array of particles of different properties resulting
from cloud chamber experiments, what might then be the array of insights? What
could we understand from symmetry theory about them? Are certain disciplines
of meditation to be likened to accelerators through which we can experience
otherwise inaccessible insights -- including those that are radioactive with
very short half-lives??
Governance: We have been turned into citizens, governed
by layer upon layer of representatives up to a president of some kind. We are
supposed to identify with these layers and our leaders in some way. It is however
much more intriguing to consider that one is effectively the ruler of one's
own country -- or rather of "all one surveys". Instead of bemoaning
the lack of more insightful leaders, one can take on that role in dealing with
one's daily reality -- even choosing to be a philospher-king, or poet-queen,
rather than yet another grey-suited politician of limited vision. Computer games
already offer such an experience with respect to simulated cities and countries.
But how does one govern one's subjective world -- a benign dictatorship?
Who are its people -- one's many roles or ideas (as the "children of the
mind")? How does one ensure that they are nourished? Do we face an overpopulation
challenge rendering our world ungovernable through the busy-ness of the mind
-- as deplored by many gurus? How should the world be protected from wild beasts
and marauders? With what kind of security? What about internal law and order?
How can one ensure that people of one's world are employed, whatever
is to be meant by unemployment? What should they be encouraged to produce --
more people? What form of agriculture or horticulture should be practiced? And
how is access to water to be ensured -- perhaps understood as an affective response
to the need to irrigate the arid zones of the mind and sustain their fertility?
What forms does accumulating pollution take, and what can one do about it --
recycling what? What are our natural resources that can be irreversibly depleted?
How should the wildernesses of one's soul be protected? What kinds of roads
are required -- for what kinds of transportation? And what kinds of urban planning
Such an exercise is intriguing for those who aspire to create
a centre to pursue some special objective, possibly in a rural setting. This
archetypal project can be explored by articulating the dimensions, dynamics
and tensions of one's own Camelot. What are the constraints on transforming
one's daily life into a Camelot experience?
Martial arts: Whilst it might be good to have spent years
becoming a master of some martial art (aikido, etc), what insights might one
expect from its patterns? Do they offer a key to encountering the reality of
an other in new ways?
Many emotional and/or intellectual encounters could benefit considerably
from being reframed in this way. This is especially the case when others are
trained in manipulative dialogue for purposes of persuasion (Getting to Yes),
conversion, or product sales.
Vehicles: Poets have long compared living to boat travel;
for psychotherapists it is also a fruitful symbol. It is therefore worth exploring
the reframing of oneself as a boat, or its captain, or a member of the crew.
As a smaller boat-- a yacht -- the relationship with "the elements"
is a constant challenge on the high seas of life. There is a need for continuing
vigilance with regard to wind and sea -- and the dangers of rocks and other
obstacles to navigation, such as running aground. In a larger boat the emphasis
is more on the complexities of the relationships amongst the crew (or passengers).
Does the boat have, or need, a destination? How, and why, might one circumnavigate
As noted earlier, a space craft is another variant with different
calls for vigilance. Is it in orbit or travelling to some very distant destination?
Hang-gliding offers an intriguing pattern, especially with the
need to then look for rising air columns to bear one up -- valuable for those
who are dependent upon locating the "hottest" fashions or ideas to
maintain or increase their position with respect to others. There are also the
dangers of high turbulence. The process of getting to a take off point also
offers a useful pattern for the complementary aspects of life -- as with downhill
sports, such as skiing.
Vehicles with drivers, in which one is passenger offer a very
different mode of experience. The world is seen moving past -- through windows,
as in a tourist bus or train. How does one get on or off -- or choose the vehicle
with a desired destination? As the driver, the relationship is quite different.
Roller-blading and skateboarding can be used as patterns to offer
ways of ordering life experience -- as can extreme sports and bungy jumping?
"We are the World"
This title of the famous recording by many pop stars,
in support of the condition of the starving in Africa in 1985, bears reflection
in the light of the theme of this article. [more
Ron Atkin. Multidimensional Man; can man live in 3-dimensional space? Penguin,
Mary Catherine Bateson. Our Own Metaphor: a personal account of a conference
on the effects of conscious purpose on human adaptation. Knopf, 1972.
Kenneth Boulding. Ecodynamics; a new theory of societal evolution.
Kathleen Forsythe. Cathedrals in the Mind: the architecture of metaphor
in understanding learning. In: Raymond Gibbs, Jr. and Steen
J. Gerard (Eds.), Metaphor in Cognitive
- Governance through Metaphor, 1987 [text]
- Being Other Wise: clues to the dynamics of a meaningfully
sustainable lifestyle, 1998 [text]
- Paradigm-shifting through Transposition of Key:
a metaphoric illustration of unexplored possibilities for the future, 1999
Jiddu Krishnamurti. You are the World: authentic report of talks
and discussions in American universities. Harper and Row, 1973 [commentary
MaryAngela Nangini. Being Metaphor: a metacognitive strategy.
Peter Russell. The White Hole in Time : our future evolution and
the meaning of now. 1992