Why Change Metaphors Need to Change

Imagine you wake up one morning to the following printed in bold on the front page of the newspaper: “Everything is falling apart! Chaos and mayhem are inevitable!”
Feeling anxious and scared? Most people would.

Now imagine you wake up to a front page news article which claims, “The tyrannical dictatorship is falling apart! Chaos and mayhem within the oppressive government is now inevitable!”
You’d be relieved rather than terrified, right? Well, let’s hope so!

Both news articles are about chaos, mayhem, and falling apart, so what is it about the second article which instilled relief and perhaps even hope and gratitude, while the first article instilled only fear? Well first off, where the first article was vague and grossly overgeneralized, the second article was specific and to the point, adequately defining what human realm was under threat, without leaving it up to your alerted and all too vivid imagination.

So, apart from bizarre hypothetical examples, when does this kind of trend toward all-encompassing shock value occur? It occurs, quite often, in spiritual books and discussions on alchemy, transformation, initiation, and life transitions: and this needs to change.

Accounts of spiritual transformation often abound with claims about long painful suffering, dismemberment, “dying to who you were to become who you are,” undergoing a “soul death” in order to graduate into some higher spiritual consciousness, and descriptions of dissolution and the stripping away of all you’ve ever known, are attached to, care about, or conceive of as being central to who you are. No wonder people reading about this (like me) metaphorically run screaming into the hills, never to pick up a book like this again.

So, given the high probability of grave misunderstanding, why on earth do authoritative texts on transformation skip over the all-important bit about defining their terms and settle for shock value language like “dissolve” or “dismember” when describing alchemical shifts, initiations, or life transitions? The overarching message is just as sensational and vague as the claim that “everything” is/will be falling apart, but with the additional entreaty to “not worry, and embrace the process, because you’ll be grateful in the end.”

Uh huh. Is it my pre-dismembered or post-dismembered self who is supposed to not worry and be grateful? I don’t want to know. Not me, please!

But with all the change going on in my life, ending a 30 year career as a student and beginning to build my future, I’ve been suspicious that a transformation might be lurking just under the surface anyway. When I started to catch onto the fact that I was right about this, my response was abject terror. All I knew about transformation was taken from those harrowing accounts I’d read about, and there was no way I was going to consent to an experience like that any time soon.

And then one night I was lying awake, too anxious to fall asleep, and Ailbhe and Caoilte were keeping watch on me. Finally, having been unsuccessful at it myself, I asked if they could help me calm down.

Ailbhe kept on with the watch, but Caoilte looked over at me, his face gradually showing greater concern. “No wonder you’re terrified about your future, Éilis, when you believe spiritual transformation happens like this:”

In my mind’s eye I suddenly saw an animated picture. A nondescript but imposing looking man, embodying uncertainty and change, pursues a woman through the woods as if hunting her. The woman is terrified that if she is caught, she will lose everything important to her, or end up dismembered in some vague spiritual sense, so she is running for her life.

“I wouldn’t sign up for that myself if there was a choice in the matter,” Caoilte continued, and his eyes glinted with a hint of a smile. “Actually, what is really happening during shifts and transitions is more like this:”

Again, I saw a picture of the same woman out in the woods. Now, she is caught in a vine which has twined around her arms and legs, trapping her. It appears to be on its way to eventually strangling her. There’s the person embodying change, trying to convince the woman to let him cut away and uproot the vine which is threatening her, so she can finally break free and live her life.

For a split second, my mind stopped racing a mile a minute and I was still, surprised and intrigued by what I was seeing. That was the moment when Caoilte said, quietly, “You are dying to live, Éilis. You’ve been given an understanding which has its origins in fear, but it isn’t true.”

I began to relax somewhat. I unfolded my arms, which I realized I had crossed over me, and undid the tight grip my hands had on each other. I hadn’t even been aware how much my body language was mirroring my emotions. I was able to keep from being defensive for one peaceful moment, and then like a wave with a pattern of its own, the fear returned.

“Nothing is going to happen to you, Éilis,” Caoilte said, reading my thoughts. “Transformation is an integral part of being fully alive. If anyone wishes to speak of death, it is all that is not you that dies. But such a way of putting the process is highly misleading and unnecessarily dramatic. No one explains that what supposedly “dies” were all along illusions and never really existed. People get attached to them, so they think there is something real to dissolve or cut away, but what doesn’t serve a person was never part of them to begin with. In fact holding on is what puts so many people in danger; it is allowing change to happen which keeps you safe and gives you the space to live as your own person.”

I understood, and my panic slowly dissipated into relief, even gratitude. After a while I said, “I want to really live. So, what happens now?”

Since I’ve gained this different perspective on what transformation means, I wonder why broad statements such as “you will die to who you were” aren’t discussed in a more careful, precise way. It would be healing for a person to realize that even when it feels like all she is familiar with is dissolving around her, she will never cease to recognize that core essential spark of who she is. Just as it seems unnecessarily disingenuous to gloss over the fact that it’s the oppressive government, not “everything” that is falling apart, it seems particularly cruel to devote an extensive amount of time and energy toward descriptions and accounts of dissolution, without making the distinction between the illusions and patterns that unravel and the person’s essential nature which remains the same. That core nature of a person shines even brighter in the world after all that stuff that doesn’t serve her is out of the way. Knowing that, why suggest that anything truly valuable to her could be irreparably lost?

Anyone who is in a position to make a spiritual contribution to the world and chooses to do so has the responsibility to cultivate love, rather than fear. To that end what you say, and how you say it, really does matter. Clarity is just as valuable when conveying spiritual concepts as it is in writing good journalism or constructing good arguments. Change is already daunting in and of itself. Perhaps we might be able to move more gracefully through the transitions that are bound to occur if we transform the way we think of and talk about change.

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7 thoughts on “Why Change Metaphors Need to Change

  1. So true, Éilis. I would suspect that those who know what happens, when the origin and limits of the personality are glimpsed, are very careful with how that is described. Modern psychological approaches can be very direct, but you can see why the ‘ancient wisdom’ was wrapped in symbolic terms; and why ‘initiation’ was a carefully journey through to the actual truth.
    The personality is a self-created entity which, of necessity, masks the soul beneath. This is supposed to happen. It does not mean the personality is evil or even bad, just that it only knows its own world. To get beyond that, which is what is meant by the spiritual, is a path whose direction is set from beyond the personality but the latter must give its assent. There should be no violence in any of this. Violence has no place in the spiritual. Steve.

    1. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment, Steve. 🙂 I completely agree with you. Words like dismemberment have very violent connotations to me and I tend to respond as if facing a traumatic event instead of it being at all useful. Ancient cultures were wise to frame transformations metaphorically, but in terms of enacting in the outer world some semblance of an inner journey it seems like following the guideline of nonviolence was questionable at best, most of the time. We do have to acknowledge and live with that history but never need to live it again.

      The truth is that it’s taken me a very long time to trust that anything remotely looking like a spiritual transformation is safe: that might just be peculiar to me. I’m grateful I know people in the world beyond who keep showing me by their unconditional love that there’s nothing to fear. It’s made all the difference in the world, no pun intended.

      And yes, every human has a small self/ego/personality and there’s nothing wrong or broken about that, and every aspect of us needs and deserves compassion; anything less is a form of separation. But that’s all I know. I always appreciate your perspective and experience, I now have a great deal to go think about! 🙂

  2. A lot of people like to use drama and shock tactics to get themselves noticed and their points across, Éilis. It is scary, at least it is to me. At least you have your guides to help you.

    1. Yes, it’s unfortunate and too true that this happens. Terror can be a strange thing, actually, I was so scared by what I read about transformations that it took me an entire year to Feel like I could even have a conversation with my guides about what really occurs when you undergo a serious change. I was too worried about whether the shock-value claims might be true, and didn’t know what I’d do if they were.

      When I see the shock tactics for what they are, my impulse is to call it out immediately and inform as many people as possible that there’s no need to worry. Maybe then they’ll spend far less time than I did freaking out and have a better time of it. 🙂 And I actually wrote this thinking particularly of you And others who might still be unsure about the otherworld or what to expect or what will happen, all it takes is some disastrous sounding false information to convince someone that what in actuality would be very healing for them isn’t safe. It’s irresponsible. But it certainly gets people noticed. Even in ancient times such tactics were used to add an element of fear to mystery and that could turn into a subtle form of control. Anyway I feel profoundly grateful that I can talk about these things with my ancient family and then share what I’ve learned. 🙂

      1. Yes it’s reassuring to know. And great that you can share. I definitely have fears, but that conversations for another time and a more private place lol! Glad you’re OK though.

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