The Metaphorical Mind

Picasso Bull

“Every child is born an artist, the problem is to remain one once they grow up.” – Pablo Picasso

One of my favorite art stories as a child came from a documentary about Picasso. It was showing his progression in understanding and communicating his reality. The documentary started with a water color he had made of a bullfight as a sixteen year old. It was beautiful and attempted to depict the bull, the audience, the vibrant colors with as much realism as possible.


The documentary went on to show his progression as a painter and artist using his depiction of bulls as a baseline. The bull went on to become reduced bit by bit as Picasso was learning to communicate the essence. Slowly it turned into the line drawing of a bull that Picasso is so famous for today.

Picasso Bull

The very last item shown in this exploration was a piece he had made out of a bicycle handle and a bicycle seat. He had arranged them in a way that they looked like a bull’s head. And even though I knew I was looking at bicycle parts, I saw a bull looking at me from the wall…

This was my first direct experience of what I have come to call the Metaphorical Mind.

The metaphorical mind is that of artists, poets, inventors and engineers. It is a mind that can see something for what it isn’t with as much ease as seeing it for what it is we commonly agree on.

A bicycle saddle or a bulls head. A handle and horns…

What something is

We tend to get stuck in determining what something “is”. But what “is” something? What “is” “it” to “you”?

Your reality is created by distinctions. Patterns you have signifiers for. Signifiers being signs which convey meaning to you. The more signs you have, the more distinctions you can create in your experience, and the more complex it will become. Benjamin Lee Whorf created the concept of linguistic relativity to account for this phenomenon. He is usually cited when people bring up that Eskimos have many words for snow, as for them subtle distinctions about the snow (its ice level, depth, crust, etc.) are crucial to survival.

Similarly, your vocabulary has developed to ensure your survival. You learned to call for your parents, direct people around your physical experience from hunger to full diapers, and later learned more subtle distinctions that allow you to manipulate and function in reality.

Schema, Schema on the Wall

Distinctions are grouped into schemata. Schemata are higher order concepts. E.g. Lemons, Oranges and Mandarins are all part of the schema “citrus fruit.”

citrusfruitNow that you have the schema “citrus fruit,” I can tell you about Grapefruits, which you might have never encountered before. All I need to say is that it is a citrus fruit, and you will know various properties and I can now compare and contrast it to other citrus fruit you know. E.g. I can say it’s usually bigger than an orange, pink in color, a bit more bitter, etc.
Schema are higher-level principles. We can build schemata infinitely until we end up with meaningless oneness. So obviously, it is a tool to be wielded wisely. The key being that it allows for us to abstract something from what it is, and by abstracting it into a higher level order find parallels that might be surprising, amusing (there is a great theory about humor as a benign violation but that’s a whole different story), or sometimes simply beautiful.

Living with a metaphorical mind

Living with a metaphorical mind allows for a different experience of reality. A poet friend of mine once wrote about LA that it is “a great place for paranoids, because nothing is what it seems like and the earth could open up and swallow you at any point.” I think it is a great place for enlightenment for the same reason. Realizing that nothing is what it is allows you to create your own meaning, your own symbolic reality. This is where you begin to live a magickal life of correspondences. Having a metaphorical mind that can jump in experiencing things, not just for what they are, but what they can be, provides you with:

  • A richer experience of reality
  • The ability to be playful in your experience of reality
  • The ability to relate to others more easily
  • The ability to see the bigger picture


A richer experience of reality

On a most basic level, it’s fun to create stories. Children love it (some of my last posts where about beginner’s mind and the wisdom of children). We like to make up things. Depending on our early conditioning, we will later in life adopt either the controlling parent stance that this is non-sense and a waste of time, or – as Picasso mentioned – we remain artists, having an ever new experience of this reality, learning new distinctions, delving into an ever new sense of wonder.

And be playful…

Living in a wonder world opens you up to the idea that you might be able to create aspects of your reality. I am not necessarily talking about “The Secret” here. Not the naive magical thinking of a child… and exactly that – with a dose of realism. There are probability patterns to contend with and as much as I wish somebody would knock on my door and tell me that there is world peace now because I sat on my couch and wished for it, I doubt it will go quite that way… But, imagining a world in peace might allow me to see new opportunities to apply my knowledge, skills and abilities toward that. If I only see the world for what it “is”… why would I want to get up and participate in anything? Being able to see the world for what it could be, drawing widely from all the metaphors available, might open up new realistic possibilities.


Being versed in switching viewpoints, in drawing parallels to archetypal patterns, in seeing schemata, also allows for a deeper sense of empathy. Once you grok cubism, how can you ever assume that there is only one way of looking at the world. And if I can leave my default perspective, I might as well try on other people’s point of view and see what the world might look like from their perspective. Nothing connects people like being able to empathize with each other. We are growing up as a human species where for the first time we are beginning to have global awareness of each other. For this not to end in tragedy, we will require a lot of empathy.

The bigger picture

As we begin to have more distinctions, see more patterns and create ever higher level of schemata, it is impossible, not to see the big picture. While the big picture might be warped due to some primary assumptions that might be off (e.g. if I accept the idea that oil is required for human survival, the “big picture” would entice me to build a highly controlled society with a small oligarchic elite), it will still encompass a global understanding. With the technologies available to us today, we cannot help but to. Within this new experience, having a metaphorical mind will allow us to integrate schemata while being confronted with ever more complex distinctions. It is not easy running a city and having a political mind (from Greek polis = city). We are now being asked to step up to run a planet and having a terrestrial citizen mind. It will be easy to see differences between each other, but even more important to see the parallels. For that, a metaphorical mind will be extremely helpful.

It’s not just for artists anymore

The metaphorical mind is something each one of us has access to. We use it daily and have used it as a child to begin to make meaning of this world. Each of us can access it, and we have no excuse not to exercise this circuit. Especially in a world of crisis it is crucial for each of us to begin to see the world for what it could be. To do so for the world is a tall order. To even do that for your own life is not an easy task. But it’s like a muscle. You can exercise it. Think of all the uses for a brick. Write them down. See? Easy… Start small…


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