METAPHORS OF TRANSFORMATION
with RALPH METZNER, Ph.D.
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. Our program tonight is going to deal with "Metaphors of Transformation," and my guest, Dr. Ralph Metzner, is a professor and academic dean of the California Institute of Integral Studies, and the author of several books, including Maps of Consciousness and Opening to Inner Light. Ralph is also extremely well known for having co-authored The Psychedelic Experience back in the 1960s with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. Welcome, Ralph. It's a pleasure to have you here.
RALPH METZNER, Ph.D.: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.
MISHLOVE: You've gone through quite a journey of transformation yourself since the psychedelic years. In your most recent book, what you've attempted to do is to look at the various metaphors in spiritual traditions and other traditions that deal with human transformations, and show how they do apply, and how they're useful road maps, so to speak. What is a metaphor, really, and why would a metaphor be important or useful?
METZNER: Well, before saying that, I'd like to say something about this concept of transformation of consciousness, which actually on a personal note started for me with the research that we did with psychedelics in the sixties, because it was at that time for me -- and I'm not saying that this is necessarily so for others, although it was for some -- a crucial turning point. And the turning point in consciousness, I think, could be described something like this: that it was like for the first time, at the time of my first experience with psychedelics, I realized that the external world, the reality that we perceive, isn't just something that is unalterably given, but rather depends to a very great degree on things going on within myself -- namely my attitudes, my choices, my values, my feelings, and my beliefs. And that experience started me off on a quest which I've been on ever since, which is to discover, really, the basic underlying principles and the methods by means of which such transformations of consciousness occur, and also how they can be applied in healing, in psychotherapy, in education, in learning, and in personal and spiritual growth.
MISHLOVE: At some point in this process the notion of metaphors became very important to you.
METZNER: Right. So what I realized, after studying the very many different systems of consciousness transformation, the ancient spiritual traditions of East and West, and also studying the accounts of people today who undergo a transformative experience, whether that be in psychotherapy or spontaneously in their everyday life, is that certain consistencies emerge. And it seemed to me, when I first started noticing it, that although there may be hundreds of specific techniques -- techniques including breath and meditation and yoga and energy and light and sound and drugs and many other methods, psychotherapy --
MISHLOVE: Chanting, prayer --
METZNER: Chanting -- I mean, they go on and on and on
-- shamanic methods, and so forth. And you find the many different methods used in the various traditions, and also in contemporary work -- that people are rediscovering many of these ancient methods. But there seem to be only a dozen or so basic patterns of the transformation itself, how it is experienced -- the phenomenology of it, one would say. And these patterns are described in the form of metaphors. And they're described as metaphors because ordinary language has a very hard time dealing with these states and these transformations, because by definition they are a transformation out of the ordinary into the non-ordinary, the extraordinary, the supernatural, the miraculous, as it's sometimes called, the magical, the transcendent, the sacred, the mysterious -- many different terms that point to other kinds of realms of being, or other kinds of realms of consciousness that lie outside of the framework of our usual view of reality.
MISHLOVE: Now, when you say that metaphors are so important, right away I think, well, metaphors, they come from poetry; they come from literature, drama. What you're basically saying to me is that human change is like a story unfolding, say, as opposed to the workings of a mechanism. Not like clockwork --
METZNER: Yes, that's very good. That's right.
MISHLOVE: -- where obviously they go through prescribed mechanical changes. We wouldn't need metaphors for that.
METZNER: Yes. See, to call it clockwork, to liken it to that, or to a machine, or to a computer --
MISHLOVE: That is a metaphor itself.
METZNER: That is a metaphor, and it's a mechanical metaphor. And I, like many people, and like yourself, intuitively believe that some metaphors are better than others. I generally prefer organic metaphors to mechanical metaphors, because with organic metaphors you're comparing the process -- with metaphor you're always comparing one process to something else. You're always saying, this process A is like this process over there, B. And if you can use something in nature as a symbol or metaphor -- and a symbol is very similar, like a metaphor --
MISHLOVE: What's the difference between a symbol and a metaphor?
METZNER: Well, to me, actually, the difference is kind of simple. In other words, a symbol is more like a thing, a thing or an object. Metaphor to me is more descriptive of a process. So I could say that the path is a very common symbol of spiritual growth. Traveling on the path, going on a journey from the beginning to the end of the path, would be a metaphor for a kind of process in life, of changing and walking and moving along. Similarly, say, the tree, the tree of life, is a powerful and ancient and well known universal symbol for life and growth and reproduction and fruitfulness and so forth. But the growth of the tree, from the seed to the fully expanded tree, would be again a metaphor.
MISHLOVE: So metaphors involve movement.
METZNER: Movement and change over time. But with symbols and metaphors, I follow really a Jungian approach, which sees some of these structures as being archetypal. This was Jung's term for psychic structures that are common to the entire human species, across all cultures. Different cultures have different forms of it, different clothing of it, different vehicles for it, or languages or words for it, but the underlying pattern is the same. For example, the archetype of the great mother is one that's often spoken of -- the great goddess, the earth mother, something like that. It has different names. In China it's Kuan Yin; in India it was Kali or Parvati; in Greece, Demeter; in the Christian tradition, the Madonna or Mary; and so forth. In the Jewish tradition, the shekinah. But the underlying principle of the mother -- the cosmic mother, the world mother -- is the same. So this is what I began to notice -- that there are, when you look at the realm of human transformation, the unfolding of human potential, a number of these core metaphors that can be found in different clothing in the different cultures, and it's very interesting to study them, because they can be very helpful to somebody who's undergoing a process, who may in some way feel that they're lost or confused, or don't know what's happening to them, which can very often happen.
MISHLOVE: You called your book Opening to the Light.
METZNER: Opening to Inner Light. The subtitle is "The Transformation of Human Nature and Consciousness." And I wanted to put in that it's not only the transformation of consciousness, but it's also the transformation of nature, including the physical nature. Because the ultimate transformation of consciousness involves transformation of the body, the mind, the spirit, the soul, the feelings -- including the body, including the body chemistry. It sounds more outrageous than it is, because when you think about somebody who gets healed, or heals themselves, even better, or has a spontaneous remission of some tumor or some disease or some illness process, that's a psychophysical transformation, including somatic transformation of a very high order, that that person has unconsciously, kind of magically, produced in themselves.
MISHLOVE: And the key metaphor, I should think, for physical transformation, would be the caterpillar to butterfly.
METZNER: Caterpillar to butterfly is in fact one of the oldest kind of poetic ones. I wanted to actually come back to something you asked about earlier, which is we think of metaphors as being the language of poetry, of literature. And this is true. This was for me something of a revelation a few years ago, when I came across the work of some Berkeley philosophers, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who wrote a very important book, I think, called Metaphors We Live By, where they point out that ordinary language, including therefore ordinary thought, is much more pervasively metaphorical than we ordinarily think -- that it's shot through with implicit metaphors, metaphors that we don't recognize as such. And they make a point of sort of uncovering these, and showing that in actual fact, when you get right down to it, our language and our thinking itself, probably, is maybe up to eighty or ninety percent metaphorical.
MISHLOVE: Especially American speech. We have so much vernacular.
METZNER: Right. Although I would say, actually, that even beyond that -- I've given talks and so forth in Europe in other languages, where I find the same metaphors exist, but obviously in different words, and sometimes slightly different images. But the underlying structure is the same.
MISHLOVE: So you're saying it goes beyond just being something as remote, say, as poetry or literature. It's implicit in our language.
METZNER: That's right. It's implicit in our language. A good example of an implicit metaphor that most people don't realize is one, that they mention as an example, is the notion that money is somehow liquid. You know, we talk about cash flow; we talk about liquid assets, liquidating, and so forth. It's the idea that money is somehow like a liquid, it flows like a liquid. Now why that should be so is anybody's guess, but it has that structure. Let me give you an example of a metaphor from the realm of transformation of consciousness. You mentioned the caterpillar to butterfly -- ancient. You find it used by Chuang Tzu in the fourth century B.C. in China, a Taoist philosopher.
MISHLOVE: "I dreamt that I was a butterfly; or was I a butterfly dreaming I was Chuang Tzu?"
METZNER: Right. Exactly. So the other notion is that you're comparing the larval stage, the caterpillar stage, to our ordinary consciousness. So the metaphor is a teaching metaphor, and it's telling us that after the larva stage, we think it's the end -- that after we have this stage, in which we are now this ordinary part of existence, we think we die, and then it's all over. And actually, Richard Bach has this great line in one of his books where he says, "What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the rest of the world calls butterfly." So from the caterpillar's or the larval point of view, we can't see beyond our current framework. This is where we have grown up, this is how we were conditioned to see and experience the world -- consensual reality, some people call it. And yet once we can move into the butterfly stage, it's like we are able to move in more dimensions. The butterfly can fly as well as crawl. And so it can look back then on the larval stage, as it were, and see what was going on there. So we might say that the language, the stories of the mystics, and the mythic and poetic and artistic stories of transformation of consciousness that people have written and painted, are like the messages from the butterfly back to --
MISHLOVE: Back to the caterpillar.
METZNER: Back to the caterpillar that they once all were, in the form of, "We can't really tell you exactly how it's going to be, but it's sort of like this," you know, or it's like this. The whole New Testament -- you think of the New Testament, the Gospels, one parable after another. Jesus says, "The kingdom of Heaven is like a man going to a far country." The kindgom of Heaven is Jesus' metaphor for a state of consciousness, a state of being, a kind of blessed state of being, of enlightenment.
MISHLOVE: It may sound very imprecise, or very unscientific, but what you're saying is that it's better than science.
METZNER: Absolutely better, because it speaks more to people. It speaks to where they are. It speaks to their actual experience. One metaphor that I talk about in the book is the notion of the journey. This is something that everybody can relate to without exception. For one thing, people very readily experience their own life as a journey. It starts at birth --
MISHLOVE: Crossing the great water.
METZNER: And then death is seen as another kind of journey. And then, you might say, that the transformation process, the mystical or spiritual transpersonal growth process, is like a journey that branches off from the main journey of life. It's not a journey that everybody takes, but those who are called to take it -- this was what Joseph Campbell wrote about in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the hero myth. In many people's lives there comes a certain turning point where they feel, he called it, the call to adventure, like the call to leave the everyday world, the common ordinary world of family and social reality, and go in quest of something. They're not even quite sure what it is, but they're somehow motivated. This whole question of what starts somebody off on the transformation quest or process is a very interesting one.
MISHLOVE: Let's talk about it in concrete terms. You have clients. You deal with students at the California Institute of Integral Studies.
METZNER: We've collected a lot of literature.
MISHLOVE: When they go through their changes, do they turn from caterpillars to butterflies? Do they take the hero's journey?
METZNER: Well, that would be taking the metaphor too literally, you see. You can't take the metaphor too literally. But, as an example, yes. I have a friend who was a student at the Institute, whom I quote. She wrote a book about her experiences when she went on a journey. There she was experiencing the metaphorical journey, which is a journey of self transformation, while at the same time going on an external journey. She didn't really know why she went on an external journey. She just made this plan. She was going through a lot of changes in her life. She was getting divorced from a nine-year marriage; she was leaving her job. She decided to take a journey to Nepal. So as she started making her preparations to go on a journey to Nepal, she read Joseph Campbell's book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. She started reading about the call to adventure. She started having dreams of journeying in these magical places.
MISHLOVE: I might mention parenthetically that that book seems to be very influential in Hollywood these days. Every Hollywood writer and director wants to know about The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
METZNER: Well, it deeply influenced George Lucas in the Star Wars series. And so the outer journey and the inner journey can sometimes be, and often are, correlated. But not necessarily. I mean, many people can go on an outer journey and not have any kind of transformative experience at all. If you go like a tourist, you just go and come back, and it was just a summer tourist vacation. Or also it can be possible to go on the profound inner journey of transformation and never leave your house. That's what's called the monastic tradition or the tradition of retreat or hermitage, where somebody goes into a social retreat, isolation, deliberately -- in the wilderness, as among certain shamanic cultures, or in a monastery environment. And then at that place really goes on this journey of inward meditation, contemplation, inward exploring of different states of consciousness.
MISHLOVE: The journey is an easy one to relate to. We all do go on journeys, and it's a nice idea of transformation. You can have a short journey, you can have a long journey, you can have a perilous journey. But the caterpillar-to-butterfly, let's come back to that. When does it apply?
METZNER: Well, the caterpillar-to-butterfly is actually, I think, more of a poetic one. The more general one that I would count that under is the notion of going from captivity to liberation. See, you would think of the caterpillar as being liberated out of this containing cocoon, as it were. And that metaphor, of going from a state of captivity to a liberation, has many variations, such as being trapped in a dungeon of some kind, and having to escape from prison, or having to break out of some kind of confinement. Wilhelm Reich's idea of character armor, I think, fits in that pattern, because the armoring, which is this muscular tension pattern that one develops as a result of life experiences and defensiveness, can end up as being a very kind of constricting armor that then almost sticks to you, and then you no longer have the freedom of movement. We're talking of freedom of expression and movement that would be more emotional. We can't take it too literally.
MISHLOVE: You know, it's interesting that you mention this, because that metaphor of captivity to liberation is one of the basic metaphors of the Jewish people, where they were slaves in Egypt. And it's as if since they freed themselves thousands of years ago from slavery in Egypt, for all of their ups and downs and faults, there's been no stopping these people.
METZNER: That's right. And so they don't want to get into another one. I think that's true. The application of these metaphors on the collective basis is something that I didn't deal with in my book at all, because I wanted to focus it just on the individual. But it is of course something that's of very great interest to me, and I now do -- I see the transformation patterns actually as occurring on four levels. In other words, the level of the individual; and the next level up, so to speak, would be the family or group or also work group, organizational kind of thing. And there are many people working in this field, as you know -- you know, how do you transform a family system, how do you transform an organization, a group of people? The next level up beyond that would be the social or cultural or nation or larger collective grouping. And there of course it's a vastly more complex factor, with an infinitely greater number of factors interreacting. And the fourth level is the total system, the planet as a whole; not only people, but the entire natural system, the entire ecosystem, is undergoing changes of transformation all the time.
MISHLOVE: I think your former colleague Timothy Leary used the caterpillar-to-butterfly metaphor in referring to space flight, and our leaving of the planet.
METZNER: Yes, right. That's another application of it. One of the interesting things about these metaphors is that they have multiple meanings, and their meaning is not exhausted by just saying one equivalent, this means that. Symbols are like that. That's one of the great things that Jung really discovered about the language of the unconscious -- that it has these multiple meanings. And it's definitely misleading to take it as only meaning one thing. Its very power comes from the fact that it branches out into many different areas.
MISHLOVE: And one's skill, then, as a therapist must be to intuit what is the metaphor that's active in a given situation.
METZNER: Right. What does the person resonate to? So my experience with these metaphors that I've written about
-- and I've quoted from people in their accounts -- is that people often will resonate to one or the other. And it has their own particular form. I think there is, just parenthetically, one very specific possible meaning of the caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation, which I actually haven't heard spoken of very much, but it's one that makes a lot of intuitive sense for me. And that's to think of the birth process itself as being that transition.
MISHLOVE: Oh yes.
METZNER: Because when you think of the nine months that we spend in the womb, we're living in an environment very much like a larva in a cocoon. The womb is like a cocoon. It completely surrounds you, and you're all folded up in it, and you basically can't move. I mean, you can take in and excrete, but you can't move. And the big difference from in the womb to out of the womb is being able to breathe, and being able to move in more dimensions, and go through the air, just like the moth or the butterfly after it comes out of the larva.
MISHLOVE: And closely related, then, to the caterpillar-butterfly is the death-rebirth.
METZNER: Death-rebirth is a very ancient one.
MISHLOVE: Very archetypal.
METZNER: Right, very archetypal. They all are archetypal; and interestingly enough, I think, books have been written about each one of those metaphors, and death-rebirth, of course.
MISHLOVE: For the benefit of some of our viewers, can you define the term archetypal?
METZNER: Well, this is what I was trying to say earlier. I follow really Jung's idea. Another term for it that's sometimes used is deep structures. The linguists, people like Chomsky, talk about deep cognitive structures, and contrast these with surface structures. So Jung also said the archetype itself is deep in the psyche, and it's shared by the entire human species. And I think he in his later work would say even that it's shared by nature. In other words, these patterns are somehow inherent in the world. Numbers, for example -- the number three is an archetype, and it's inherent in nature. It's not just psychological. But then the culture and the individual put a sort of clothing on it, a symbolic form or a metaphoric form, and that varies from culture to culture, so the image
that you have in your mind, or the thought that you have, is always that culturally, individually specific thing.
MISHLOVE: And the death-rebirth archetype, or metaphor, for example, certainly is very strong in Christian culture
-- the death and rebirth of Christ.
METZNER. Very much so. Let's take a look at that metaphor specifically. What it says is that the process of transformation of personality, which is what we're talking about here -- going from a personality in one way to another kind of personality change -- is like the process of dying and then being reborn. Something dies. What dies is the old self, the old way of being, the old way of relating or being in the world. And what is then reborn after a period of turmoil and confusion, longer or shorter, is a new way of being, a new self. That's a metaphor, very clearly, and it's a very powerful one, it's a very charged one. It also incidentally helps explain why there is so often so much fear around the process of changing or transformation, because anytime you change from something known to something unknown, there's going to be fear.
MISHLOVE: One can even look at the example of Christ on the cross, and that moment right before death: "Oh God, why has Thou forsaken me?" And then comes the rebirth.
METZNER: Yes, that's right. There comes the rebirth. And you could say, and it sometimes has occurred to me -- and I know this is a simplification -- but if you look at the history of Christianity from its sort of orthodox formulation point of view -- not so much the mystics, who are another story, but the orthodox, conventional formula of it -- there's a tremendous emphasis on the crucifixion, and much less emphasis on the second half of that story, which is the resurrection, which in the original story is equally as powerful. But we don't have that as a symbol. What Christianity has chosen as its symbol is the crucified Christ on the cross.
MISHLOVE: Rather than the risen.
METZNER: Rather than the risen Christ. And that may have something to do with the tendency that Christianity has had to get locked up and lost in world-negating, tremendously pessimistic, tragic kinds of philosophies and world views that really emphasize suffering and sinfulness and death, while the resurrection is there in the background, but it's not really -- it's almost as if he didn't quite believe it.
MISHLOVE: But surely you have seen examples of real rebirth in people -- in psychedelic experience and in therapy and in education.
METZNER: In fact, The Psychedelic Experience, that book was based on the notion of death-rebirth metaphor --
MISHLOVE: Through the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
METZNER: -- because it's based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is a book that describes, according to the Tibetan Buddhist lamas who studied these things at great depth and in great detail, the phenomenology of what actually happens to you after you die.
MISHLOVE: Step by step.
METZNER: Step by step. You go through these various stages, depending on your karma, and you have these visions and hallucinations, and you have these tests and challenges, and then you get reborn in one of the six worlds. Well, so we said, at the suggestion of Aldous Huxley -- actually, it was his idea -- that the psychedelic trip can in many cases be very aptly described, and experienced very aptly by the people undergoing it, as a kind of death followed by rebirth. Your old ego, your old self, your old personality dies in some way. You give it up, you surrender it. You don't die physically, of course, but you feel like you're dying, since you have to give up these things. And then you get reborn in some way. Now again, it's not limited to psychedelics by any means, because people very often have that kind of an experience.
MISHLOVE: My own feeling is that that is the most powerful metaphor -- the death-to-rebirth.
METZNER: Right. And it's also, interestingly enough, the most common trigger. If you look at what triggers somebody, what starts somebody off on the process of going on a transformation, in my experience -- and I don't have statistics to prove this -- but the single most common trigger or catalyst is a death experience, is the nearness to death.
MISHLOVE: Ralph, we're out of time right now. We're going to have to kill it.
METZNER: Oh, kill it right there. All right.
MISHLOVE: Thank you very much for being with me. It's been a pleasure.
MISHLOVE: And I hope you experience a rebirth yourself after this death.