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15 October 1999

Being the Universe : a Metaphoric Frontier

Co-existent Immanence of Evolutionary Phases

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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 reframing (

Metaphoric exploration of cognitive domains

Geophysics Cosmology Astrophysics Astronomy
Biology Chemistry Stellar evolution Physics
Governance Martial arts Vehicles .

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 cultures).

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 Wilson).

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 now?

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 fullest.

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 world!

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:

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 stellar evolution?

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 and building?

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 the world?

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 | more]


Ron Atkin. Multidimensional Man; can man live in 3-dimensional space? Penguin, 1981 [review]

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. Sage, 1978.

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 Linguistics, .175, 1999

Anthony Judge:

Jiddu Krishnamurti. You are the World: authentic report of talks and discussions in American universities. Harper and Row, 1973 [commentary | [commentary]

MaryAngela Nangini. Being Metaphor: a metacognitive strategy. 2002 [text]

Peter Russell. The White Hole in Time : our future evolution and the meaning of now. 1992

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