Insights From the Summit: The Power of Metaphor
At the end of last week, I attended a wonderful conference in New York City, The Expressive Therapies Summit. My weekend was full of learning and discovery. Surprisingly though, one of the best teachers I met wasn’t at the summit, but sitting across from me on the train. He’d never heard of art or expressive therapy before.
As I began my usual explanation about art and expressive therapy, he shot questions at me left and right, cutting me off before I could finish my sentences. This might have been unnerving, being grilled this way, but it was strangely invigorating.
Behind every question was a supposition, another question, and a challenge. How does this work? Why this and not that? He was trying to construct a model of understanding. He pushed me to better understand and explain what I do. There’s a lot of value in that.
One of the anecdotes I told him in order to help explain the work was a visualization and drawing technique I often do with clients. I used my own experience with the exercise as my example.
Visualizing a Solution
The exercise entails asking the client to choose a concrete problem on which to focus. Once this is clear, you lead them through a short visualization. Beginning with their attention on their breath, you guide them to a state of calm and inward focus. Next you invite them to imagine that they have their own “mental screen” upon which images can appear.
You suggest to the client that they imagine that whatever they need to help them with their problem is going to appear on their mental screen. You encourage the client to accept whatever first appears, no matter how odd or unconnected it might seem.
They should spend time with the image, noting its color, texture, weight, scent, taste, and any emotional response they feel while looking at it.
Next, the client creates a drawing of the visualization, and then writes descriptively about the image through the five senses, their emotional response, and any other commentary about the experience.
When I personally did the exercise the first time, what popped up on my mental screen was a peach. Given that I was thinking about a work problem, I wasn’t immediately sure what it meant, but decided to trust it as instructed.
I began telling my seat mate how a juicy peach helped me to see that I wasn’t fully appreciating how rich, or “juicy” the work was already. Before I could go on about my peach metaphor, he cut me off, noting that had an apple popped up, either juicy fruit would have helped me equally, and therefore the image may be less relevant than your ability to extract metaphoric meaning.
That’s Just Peachy
I stopped to consider this. It was an excellent question, really. Our ability to open the imagination, experience something new, and consider how any metaphor could apply is a very important element of this exercise. Indeed, had a dump truck come on my screen, I certainly could have extracted useful metaphors and lessons.
However, it seems to me that the peach popped up because of the particular lessons I needed in that moment, that an apple, or a tree, or a dump truck could not have pointed out to me. I also saw that the peach was a very personal metaphor for me and therefore carried more power than an apple might have.
Peaches, when perfectly ripe, are an evocative sensory experience. Your fingers are greeted by a soft, delicate skin that is covered with a nearly transparent fuzz. A ripe peach demands care and attention in a way that you handle it. Grasp it too hard and you puncture the skin. Apples bruise too, but are rough and tumble.
A peach’s scent rises to meet you, telling of its sweetness.
Apples keep their sweetness secret until you bite them or bake them.
When a peach is truly ripe, you bite it, and the sticky juice runs down your chin, over your fingers, and down your arm.
I love me a good crisp, sweet apple. But it ain’t no peach.
The peach taught me to be delicate with my expectations on myself and to handle the work with care. It taught me to pause long enough to appreciate it’s textures and nuance, it’s sweetness, and to drink the juice in each moment before drawing my conclusions.
The peach taught me that trying too hard would mean missing the delicate beauty and perfection right in front of me. I needed to slow down, take stock, and see that things were actually quite good. The only problem was that I was moving too fast, and my expectations were off.
An apple likely could have taught me some very valuable lessons, but for a different problem.
Metaphor is one of the most powerful tools in expressive therapy, and the one that ties all of the expressive arts together.
Whether like my engineer seat mate, you respond to scientific explanations of how metaphor helps to engage more centers in the brain than talking alone, or you respond to a more artistic explanation of how metaphor has helped human kind understand and make meaning of our experiences for all of recorded history, you cannot but recognize the power of metaphor.
It’s a short hand for understanding our experience. Metaphor is image, sound, touch, taste, and smell. It’s archetypal, universal, and personal all at once. We are excellent at hiding from our feelings and ourselves in language, but we are not so adept at doing so when express ourselves through the arts, and the arts, like dreams, naturally engage metaphor.
It turns out my seat mate is part of a team of researchers at MIT creating an emulsion that, when applied to surfaces, will allow things to release and slide easily off the surface. He used the example of a ketchup bottle. Can you imagine not waiting for your ketchup? No whipping the bottle back and forth to coax the ketchup into descent? Good things will come to those who wait, and those who don’t.
As therapists, we are often looking for emulsions. To help our clients release pain, trauma, old habits, and negative thought patterns. And sometimes we are looking for adhesives. To help someone put their themselves, or their life, back together.
There’s no emulsion that can make the pain of sexual abuse slide off a 7 year-old’s body, or magically make a 40 year-old woman who has always been told she is worthless believe that she is worth being loved. There’s no chemical that will put someone’s relationships back together for them after years of distance due to mental health and substance abuse problems.
While science has done a lot to illuminate the parts of us that are chemical, electric, and mechanical, it doesn’t understand the soul.
So as expressive therapists, we help you speak to pain through metaphor. And which metaphor matters. It is your particular metaphor, informed by your life experiences, feelings, and worldview. Your soul prescribes it especially for you.
The Power of Metaphor
As I attended various sessions on drama therapy, phototherapy, art therapy, and dance therapy at the summit, I was struck by how central metaphor is in every single approach. I knew this, but looking at it through the lens of my conversation with this man crystalized it for me.
Josie Abbernate talked about the importance of clients and therapists seeing the metaphors in their clients’ stories, and how she sees them throughout her own life. She told how her clunky car is often her greatest teacher.
Every time her car breaks down, she asks the mechanic to tell her very specifically what is wrong with it. She listens very carefully and asks questions until she really understands it, and then extracts the metaphors so that she can apply them to her life.
This is a way of making meaning.
It can’t all be boiled down to analytics, and neurons, and science. Part of what feels good about being human is feeling a sense of wonder.
Balance and Connection
This may be slightly hard to imagine, but my Dance Therapy instructor at the conference, Kathleen Rea, gave us a powerful exercise. She asked us to get together with a partner and balance a pen on our index finger, with the partner touching the opposite end of the pen with their index finger. In this way, the two partners cooperate to keep the pen balanced. We were then instructed to “allow the pen to move where it wish[ed].”
Once my partner and I positioned the pen between our two index fingers, I quietly focused, listening for the shift in mood that would tell me what to do next. Before I had a chance to sense anything, I was working frantically to keep up, moving quickly around the room, here and there, up high, over the teacher’s head, to the left, the right, and in circles again and again.
Despite my verbal and non-verbal cues to slow down, it seemed my partner needed to move fast while I needed to move slowly. While I’m sure it wasn’t her intent, I felt dizzy and unheard. It was a familiar feeling.
All this came up simply through “following a pen” around the room.
Sensing our misattunement, I turned to another group for the next exercise. This time, in groups of three, we were to keep two pens aloft, with the person in the middle holding one pen on each index finger, and collaborating with her two partners. In order to help her focus on the senses, she kept her eyes closed.
I invited my two partners to go in the middle first. For each, I and the third partner were carefully attuned to our “blind” partner – responding to every twitch, rise and fall, a pure dance forming between us, born of the energy between those four fingers.
Watching the wonder on their face, a smile half spread, eyes closed, and so attuned, so aware – it was full of beauty. I wished that I could catch the eye of the other partner, to share even more in this amazing experience.
When it was my turn, I closed my eyes without hesitation, and noted how carefully my partners responded to my every move, following me up, down, a little forward, back. I too wanted to fly a bit, like my first partner, and now I could. I felt heard. Connected.
I did not know these women’s names, but afterward we looked at each other in the eye. We shared a bond because of this experience.
Beautiful. Meaningful. Dance.
You can imagine how a therapist could use this exercise to help a client look at her dynamics in relationships with others. In the first example, if the client felt “dizzy and unheard,” does she find this reflects how she feels in her relationships?
The client’s feeling response to the exercise is part of the therapeutic work. Instead of talking about feeling pushed around, unheard, and used, she and the therapist have a physical experience of playing out this dynamic, and they can experiment with changing it.
Metaphor can create distance, which makes working on our issues so much less scary and overwhelming, and more fun.
Metaphor is a container.
It creates distance, safety, and meaning.
Doesn’t expressive therapy sound like an amazing way to explore yourself, grow, change old habits, and find more meaning in your life?
If you are looking to learn more about yourself, grow past trauma, transcend anxiety and depression, or you are just sick of traditional therapy, expressive therapy might be for you.
You can find a local art or expressive therapist through this directory, or you can call me to explore how I might help you.
What are the powerful metaphors in your world?
Dancer Photo: Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_karpenyuk’>karpenyuk / 123RF Stock Photo</a>