Tag Archives: meaning

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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A Myth Retold

I will tell you of one among many origins of the story of Niamh, eyes like pearls, sea green, spun from the land of the young, that world which rendered our anguish and fight for survival well met in a peace that passes the understanding of mortal minds. I will tell you of the future time beyond my time when our tale was woven from tattered threads of what was left, fragments of tapestries of past to present, those same sung songs spilled inky black on page, to form the bounded shapes of words which history horded for itself and refused to relinquish completely to a culture we would neither recognize nor survive, had any of us really found ourselves transported, being all that we are, to that future time all of a sudden.

Long before the loamy clay of our sacred land was covered in the smog of exhaust from cars and the blasts from train horns and spotted with sprawling malls, paved with pebbles mixed with tar to muffle the mighty heartbeat of the earth, long before tales of a new god of the sky who tamed the wild hearts of those who dared be their own masters, the landscape breathed clean and clear, and the veil between the worlds came as near as the waves are to the shore. It was that a person could reach through the mist between in either direction, so that each could wander there, or here, and such journeys were to some extent expected, and understood.

It was on such a journey that she Manannán’s daughter, sea born, radiant bright, bridged from shore to shore the two worlds by her love and called out a name of an age, through which ran our wild ones in the flash of a moment, so that the fierce and fragile lessons in our living of it might withstand the test of time. For there was nothing then forgotten, and the tide had yet to turn.

And as Taliesin crossed the sea like a wise salmon to cradle the land in the soul’s own songs, so too would I, Oisín, one mortal soul, a representative of a passing age, forge at the turning of every opposite a steadfast bond between my world and hers of the golden hair, land and sea, heart and will, man and woman, time and eternity. For my name does not matter, and could have been any name, any one. I am the centuries and the song, I am the bones shaped from the marrow of time, enthralled with the breathtaking beauty of every world.

As Rhiannon speeds her horse across the sky to guide the sun, uniting the middle world with the land of stars, so does Niamh speed her white mare over the clouds of billowing sea, her golden tresses trailing behind her, whipped by the wind, leading the cycles of light that brighten the way between ending and becoming. It was said that the earth heard her calling, and in the fog I heard whispered my own name, and there I was leaping up behind her, the child of sea itself, and we thought we could stride together across centuries, and see the gaps between our worlds disappear.

But many people began to turn their eyes away from the rocks and the trees, and the sea and the sky, stranded where they used to belong, unsure whether home lay in the land or the heavens. They lost track of the way their footsteps matched the rhythm of the seasons, and forgot how to move lightly across the land, forgot that the earth held them in her arms and could provide all they needed if only they had respect, could remember who they are. And the more that was forgotten of the old ways, the harder it became to hold another from another world, and I, who was of the physical world, built from it, born from it, knew that soon the time would come, when not I, nor anyone after me, would walk between the worlds unaided, as sure as I knew waves could never break without a sea strand.

Of the love that Niamh and I shared, a bond between worlds, it would not survive such a separation. Nothing, no one can. Had we but known we would soon be separated, love torn from love, not even to have a glimpse of one another’s faces across the wasteland of the forgotten, would we have done any differently? Who among us in the midst of living out loud their majestic, wondrous spark of being, could honestly predict the keening of souls parted from their origins, ignorant during life of that truth of rebirth that quells the fear of death and loss.

And afterward, when my story was told, pulled into the generations where saints saved all but the gods, it was said I died an ancient one, aged by more than two hundred years since I crossed over. It was the age itself that died, that which was carried by the people of my time, our beliefs, our ways, unintelligible to some, threatening to others.

Now the landscape was blind, it no longer kept watch quietly in the night like a mother for her children. No more was earth dynamic and alive but inanimate, decreed so by the new god believed to have dominion over the earth, and later generations adopted this sense of power for themselves. The hills were just hills, and the pool beneath the nine hazel trees no longer held the same mystery to those who passed it by.

It is from our sorrows, not our joys, that the story is usually told. But now, the tide turns again. Again I travel past the ninth wave, passed the reckoning of the spinners of dreams, through the watery caves of the unborn, and the last current of change carries us toward the dawn on the horizon ahead.

Within each of us stands the door of the otherworld, the only wild frontier left to dare, hidden in the landscape of bone, the last undying love out of whose arms we cannot be borne away or uprooted and torn, or undone like the ruins of the ancestors’ dwelling places. Up to each of us, too, to gather the fragile memories, and piece by piece, gently, carefully, fervently, bridge a new way, until the worlds are brought together whole. Then take up again the threads, child of the land and sea and stars, for once more our worlds are merging, and a new story must be told, with which to sunder separation, overrunning its torrents of terror like a landscape finally left to flourish in its own way, wild and unruly, untamed, unforgotten, cherished and shining, a song like the one not sung for over a thousand years, the chords rewandered, the words rewoven, shimmering through a life you spin of many moments into the future, to live full out and make your own.
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This was, at least initially, inspired by Damh the Bard’s song, “Iron From Stone,” though the song is about a totally different story.
Iron From Stone Lyrics by Damh the Bard