Metaphors are rich tools that make complex phenomena simple and understandable. Mindfulness metaphors are bridges that connect the abstract realm of mindfulness with the tangible, experiential world. Unravelling these vivid metaphors can be the first step in starting a mindfulness practice.
Some of the facets of an instructive metaphor include a representation of the person, a representation of the person’s inner world – thoughts and feelings, a scenario where the person responds to their own inner world, a plausible response leading to something undesirable and another response leading to something pleasant.
Research suggests that the use of metaphor in a guided mindfulness practice enhances the participant’s meta-thinking (thinking about one’s ‘thinking’) activity and alters their emotional state. (2)
Arnie Kozak, PhD, is an expert at using metaphors to help people comprehend mindfulness. Dr Kozak is a licensed psychologist and founder of Exquisite Mind, a place where people can come to learn more about mindfulness and psychotherapy. He is the author of Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness and The Everything Buddhism Book. He defines mindfulness as a process of self-inquiry directed at what is happening in the moment.
In this blog, Arnie talks to us about mindfulness metaphors that can help us heal.
Effective Mindfulness Metaphors
Elisha: In your book, Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants, you mention that mindfulness is itself metaphorical. Can you unpack that for us?
Arnie: Well, what we call ‘mind’ is an abstract thing. You can’t touch the mind or even point to it unless we’re just talking about the brain. So, we have to turn to metaphorical images to get a sense of what it might be and what it does. We understand the mind with the analogy of a container that can hold something. We tend to think of the mind as a thing but it’s really a dynamic, unfolding, and ever-changing process. Mindfulness metaphors can show how to bring mindfulness to daily life. The imagery in mindfulness anchors understanding.
Top 5 Metaphors Helpful For Mindfulness
Elisha: What are your Top 5 metaphors that you have found most helpful for mindfulness?
Arnie: To pick only five out of the 108 in the book is hard! My favourite metaphors are probably the ones I use the most, and they are the most practical.
1. Storytelling Mind & DVD Commentary
(OK, I cheated here by combining two closely related metaphors). The first is the Storytelling Mind. Our minds generate stories; it’s the mind’s chief export. We tell (and believe) stories about the future, the past, or the present, and these stories determine how we feel. And let’s face it, we are constantly telling stories. The storytelling mind is often distorted, impractical, jumping to conclusions and repetitive. It’s important to distinguish between the intentional and the storytelling mind.
It’s like the Directors Commentary on your DVD. The director and some of the actors talk over the movie. That’s what we are doing all the time. We talk over the movie of our life by adding commentary, opinions, and judgments. When we are mindful, we stop the commentary and give our full attention to what is actually happening and get to experience the fullness and richness of that moment.
2. Agenda Metaphor
At any given moment we have a primary agenda. This is whatever we are doing at the moment, including meditation if that’s what we are doing. However, our mind does not usually allow us to just have this primary agenda (if it did, we would be perfectly mindful). Instead, we add things such as expectations, rules, conditions, and so forth that interfere with our satisfaction at the moment. If we can relinquish the secondary agendas we can be less stressed and happier in each moment. Mindfulness practice helps us to recognise the activity of these secondary agendas and to dwell on the primary agenda of the moment instead.
3. Bad Wheel
This is the Buddha’s metaphor and the foundation of his teachings. It’s the translation of the Pali term dukkha. It attempts to describe the ongoing dissatisfaction that characterizes life. Dukkha is often translated as suffering but this is a generalization.
The image that the Buddha used was a bad or broken wheel on an oxcart. If the wheel is warped, it would influence your ride on the cart in a pervasive, inescapable way. Dukkha is also translated as anguish or widespread dissatisfaction. Without mindfulness in our lives, we are beholden to the bad wheel. With mindfulness, we can enjoy a smoother ride.
4. Wild Chickens and Situations in Life
The title metaphor from my book is all about acceptance. Wild chickens are all the things and situations in our lives that are unexpected and unwanted.
It would be great if life always went swimmingly but we know that’s rarely the case. This metaphor comes from the meditation teacher Larry Rosenberg and his experience meditating in the forests of Thailand that were strewn with screeching wild chickens. Not what one would expect from a meditation retreat!
Initially, his secondary agenda was not open to wild chickens; and that’s our basic challenge – to accept what is happening or to resist it (and thereby generate suffering). Fortunately, he chose to accept the wild chickens, that is, let go of his secondary agendas. Can we relax our secondary agendas? Can we include the wild chickens in the landscape of what is happening now? If we can do this, we’ll find peace and equanimity in the moment. If not, we are likely to be miserable. It’s as simple as that (simple, but not necessarily easy to pull off!).
5. Office hours
I work with a lot of people who have anxiety and worry a lot. I use this metaphor quite a bit. Professors hold office hours once or twice a week. They don’t give students 24-7 access because if they did they wouldn’t be able to get their other work done. Likewise, if we give worry 24-7 access to attention, it will be highly disruptive.
I, therefore, encourage people to set up office hours for their worries, setting aside a brief time period every day to do some focused worrying and problem-solving.
When worrisome thoughts arise outside of office hours they can remind the worry that it was dealt with earlier and there will be a chance to deal with it again tomorrow. This tends to quiet the urgency of the worry and helps people to be more productive and to suffer less.
Mindfulness practice gets us in the habit of setting aside worry to come back to the present and support our efforts to keep office hours.
Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from someone who was suffering right now and was open to using metaphor as a source of healing. What would you like to tell them?
Arnie: We construct our suffering. It’s not just what happens to us but our perception of what happens to us that determines our experience. This is perennial wisdom. That is we build suffering out of ideas, stories, expectations, judgments, etc. We construct our misery.
The Buddha offered the Four Noble Truths in the form of a medical metaphor.
(The Buddha, by the way, was a master of metaphors and used them in his teachings as a tool to reach people at different levels and circumstances.).
The first truth is the diagnosis of the illness we suffer a lot in life or the effects of that bad wheel discussed earlier. This includes the inevitable factors of life – sickness, old age, and death. But it’s a more expansive idea. Life is permeated by dissatisfaction even when things are going well.
The second truth seeks the cause (etiology) of the illness. We suffer because we construct our perceptions of the world and ourselves in an inaccurate and painful way.
We try to hold onto things that are constantly changing (not recognising the fundamental truth of impermanence) and we put a lot of energy into pushing away things we don’t like (not accepting what is happening). All this pushing and pulling takes up energy and generates stories of lack, want, and frustration.
The third truth is the prognosis. Good news here! Since we construct most of our suffering, we can deconstruct it. There is a way out of this mess. There exists a distinct possibility that we can expunge this suffering, like blowing out a candle flame. This idea of extinguishing the flame is actually the cessation of suffering, anguish, misery, and dissatisfaction.
The fourth truth is the treatment and the prescription of the Noble Eight-Fold path that provides practical guidance on how to view the world, how to conduct ourselves in a way that will maximize our opportunities for joy, and, of course, includes ample doses of mindfulness. We can grasp this set of truths, each time we sit down to practise mindfulness. We can see how we construct misery out of stories and how we can find relief from this anguish by coming back to this moment.
Elisha: Thank you so much, Arnie!
Metaphors are rich tools to simplify complex phenomena. Research lends credence to their use in a guided mindfulness practice. Some of the effective metaphors conjured by Dr Arnie Kozac include Directors Commentary on your DVD. The director and some of the actors talk over the movie. We talk over the movie of our life by adding commentary, opinions, and judgments. When we are mindful, we stop this commentary. Another effective metaphor makes a case for abandoning our second/covert agendas, Office hours refers to a metaphor that mandates setting ‘open and close’ times for the act of worrying. Most of the metaphors are tethered to the idea of finding relief from anguish with non-judgementality and a sense of grounding in the present. The use of metaphors can be a stepping stone in starting a mindfulness practice.
Disclaimer: The contents of this article are for general information and educational purposes only. It neither provides any medical advice nor intends to substitute professional medical opinion on the treatment, diagnosis, prevention or alleviation of any disease, disorder or disability. Always consult with your doctor or qualified healthcare professional about your health condition and/or concerns and before undertaking a new health care regimen including making any dietary or lifestyle changes.