Metaphors of Transcendence


Written by Jori Sackin
Drawings by Charlie Mylie

I'm on vacation in California standing in front of a waterfall.  I'm mesmerized by the water endlessly falling downward.  I look up at the trees towering above, smell the cool mossy air, look over to my wife to see if she is experiencing the same thing.  She smiles.  Back at my friend's house I'm on the porch, standing over a barbecue poking at some sausage.  "What was it like," they ask.  "It was beautiful," I say. Everyone nods in agreement.

I am sitting in a dark room with 18 other people.  We've all just taken the hallucinogen Ayahuasca.  I sit there covered in blankets feeling my mind quickly peel apart.  My body feels sick and unnatural.  A fear comes over me.  "What have I done?"  I vomit in a green plastic bucket between my legs.  I pulse with energy so strongly I can barely move.  I'm completely overwhelmed.  Then, I hear these words in my head, "I am a pane of glass.  It penetrates me completely and moves through me."  For the next 6 hours I repeat this over and over.  The waves of energy still pulse, but I am no longer scared.

The next day I do it again.  I sit in the dark room, my back against the wall holding a bucket.  The fear starts to take over, but this time, I remember the words.  I try to invoke them and free myself from the terrifying ambiguous anxiety that grips my body.  This time they crumple.  They seem useless. Cliche.  I try invoking them again and they are completely destroyed.  I search frantically for something to cling to.  There is nothing.  My thoughts are not me.  The flashes of hallucinogenic geometry are not me.  The words are not me.  I listen closely.  What is me in this experience?  All I find is the rhythmic act of breathing.  I focus on the breath.  Everything else is a distortion of the mind except this one thing.  It's as if for the first time in my life I have realized this simple fact.  I focus on the act of breathing for the rest of the night.

Back home, my friends ask how my trip was.  I try to explain.  I realize how futile it is, though I can't help but continue to talk about it.  I notice there is a great similarity between my inability to explain a basic experience like standing in front of a waterfall, to my inability to explain my Ayahuasca trip.  In both cases, I am putting experience into words, and in doing so, I'm reducing it down to what feels like less than nothing.  

I describe looking at a waterfall as "beautiful".  People seem to know what this means.  It is simultaneously an effective communication and a total misrepresentation of the experience.  I recognize that everything I say is a misrepresentation, and also, that I need to get over it.   We interpret the world through symbols.  Symbols slosh and spill and mix together.  They never effectively point back to the thing we want to describe, and yet, they are also the best way we have of transcribing the world.  I tell myself, "recognize the limitation and move on".  

As I recover from the Ayahuasca, I wander around a stranger's house that my wife and I are staying with. I make it a point to peruse the book shelf, as sometimes, looking at books gives me a sense of the people who own them.  In this moment of searching I find a slim black book called, "Metaphors We Live By" (Mark Johnson and George Lakoff).  I sit down and read the first few chapters.  I am immediately struck by the similarity of the message of the book and what had just happened.   

Many months pass and eventually I find the book again, this time through my friend Allison, who happens to have been a student of Mark Johnson.  After a number of emails back and forth she highly recommends I read it.  I become intensely interested in metaphor as the basic unit of translating our bodily experience.  

The message is simple.  Metaphors take the ambiguous abstract and relate it to the concrete.  The sentence, "I am a pane of glass.  It penetrates me completely and moves through me," is taking an ambiguous abstract idea, "I" and comparing it to something we are familiar with, something we can experience with our physical body, "a pane of glass".  It is the same with other abstractions such as "love, beauty, time, etc".  In order to understand them, they need to be compared to something we can have a bodily experience with.  

This website is about metaphor, mostly unconscious metaphor.   While I realize that examining the words themselves do not get us closer to the experience that these words spring from, I do think it's important to look at what we are actually saying.  What I present here is a means to become more sensitive to the words we use, a means to be able to have that emotional embodied experience, of feeling what it is like to examine our own language by the unconscious metaphors they imply.  I'm going to begin with the examination of the initial metaphor that I was presented with, "I am a pane of glass.  It penetrates me completely and moves through me."

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Glass is an amorphous solid.  It appears in a solidified form, but is too molecularly disorganized to be a true solid, yet not disorganized enough to be a liquid.  It is in the process of becoming better organized, but the process is extremely slow and is undetectable to the naked eye.   Human beings also seem to be caught in many in between states.  We think of ourselves as animals, yet not animals.  We imagine ourselves "in the world" yet isolated from it.  We picture ourselves as independent original organisms, but are highly socialized and ape the behavior of everyone around us.  Like glass we are also disorganized and in the process of very slowly becoming more organized.  Like glass this process is sometimes hard to see.

Glass, in this rigid in between state, is fragile. A rock can smash it to pieces.  Human life is also fragile and can be easily destroyed.  There are some things that go through glass without destroying it, such as light.  This points to the third property of glass, translucence.  There are also things that can go through people without destroying them, such as feelings, glances, ideas, etc.  The expression, "She looked right through me," implies that the gaze of someone penetrates you and goes through you.  It does this out of indifference.  You are meant to feel unimportant, worthless.  Calling someone "transparent" means you can see the obvious intentions of their action, often self serving in nature.  We say things like "I can see right through you."  Transparency implies an unmasking of intention, of the hidden becoming visible.  

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 "A pane of glass" also implies that it is sitting in a structure, most likely a window.  A window implies that it is also sitting in something, such as a house or a building.  A window has a specific purpose in a house, mainly to let light in, to be open and closed, etc.  Human beings imagine themselves as parts in a larger whole that also has a purpose, though it's much harder to pin down what that actually is.  

So to look at the first sentence, "I am a pane of glass," we can point to four similarities between "a pane of glass" and "I":

  1. In-betweenness
  2. Fragility
  3. Translucence
  4. Purpose
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The second sentence, "It penetrates me completely and moves through me," starts out with the rather ambiguous first word "it".  "It" does not point back to anything in the first sentence and is purposefully left vague.  What is "it"?  "It" could be the energy pulsing through my body.  "It" could be God.  "It" could be the chemical composition of ayahuasca.  It could be awareness or consciousness.  In seeking to describe "it" we are going down the infinite path of explanation for the purposefully unnamed, and so I will not explore it further.

The second word, "penetrates" implies that there is a force behind "it" that is beyond control, such as in the expression, "her penetrating eyes" or "his piercing blue eyes".   When we encounter someone with piercing eyes we imagine being penetrated because we think of ourselves as containers, with an outer layer on the outside and an inner substance on the inside.  We imagine their gaze piercing our outer layer and peering into our inner substance.  This relates back to the idea of transparency.  If people are containers, then transparent people are transparent containers.  In the sense that it is used, transparent containers do a terrible job at hiding the thing inside of them, in this case, their intentions.  

In the sentence "it" is doing the penetrating.  It doesn't just penetrate like "piercing blue eyes" though, but "penetrates completely".  "It" is not content to just peer into my inner substance.  The gaze does not break the outer layer, and then rest in the interior to examine the inside, rather it penetrates every particle of my being, and yet, is not impeded by doing so.  It's motion is not hindered.  It "penetrates completely and moves through me," just like light penetrates glass.  

We can think of light "moving through" glass, but to our eye we see light on one side of the glass, and light on the other.  It looks as if it is just how it is, the solid unchanging backdrop that doesn't appear to be moving at all.  And yet, we know that light does have a speed and is in fact constantly moving.  A pane of glass is then completely penetrated by light, but still looks as if it is unchanged, as if it is resting in complete stillness.  This idea becomes embodied under the influence of hallucinogens.  I was lying on the floor, and yet, I could feel waves of energy pulse through my body, over and over, that did make me feel as if my body, in its stillness, could feel the penetrating waves of some invisible force.  In my physical stillness I recognized the movement of what I initially believed to be still, but actually wasn't.

This is not just confined to the physical but includes the world of meaning as well.  Since my brain was in a state that made me excruciatingly sensitive to thoughts, actions, etc, I also noticed the rippling constant motion of my own mind.  A negative thought could feel like a total collapse into depression.  A positive thought could feel like unencumbered joy.  The problem in the hallucinatory state is that either one of these is hard to hold on to, and so, I would careen back and forth from one to the other, feeling out of control and lost.  Just as the visual images I saw before me flashed and changed and morphed beyond my control, and just as the energy-like waves crashed through my body, so did the realm of meaning shift and change and distort itself with the slightest provocation.

This hallucinatory state is especially purposeful for the practice of meditation, given that your body is now an ultra sensitive instrument that responds like a coiled up spring to anything it encounters.  To be able to let the physical waves of energy pass through you without being disturbed, to be able to let the visualizations you see in front you not distract you or suck you into symbolic interpretation and finally to quiet the mind and find a stillness that lets you distance yourself from any meaning or narrative that can immediately become distorted, is what I consider one of the main purposes of the hallucinatory state.  

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It is especially suited to this practice since in this ultra-sensitive state, I could actually feel the thought form into being.  Sometimes during normal meditation, an entire paragraph of thought goes through me before I realize I'm thinking.  In the hallucinatory state, I can immediately feel the bodily effects of a single thought come into being, and thus be able to catch it much quicker, and consequently, let it go much quicker, because I am more sensitive to the bodily consequences of a thought forming, then I would be normally.

Once you can develop this sensitivity in the hallucinatory state, once you can avoid the endless symbolic journeys and interpretations that are presented to you over and over, you can sit and feel what that's like.  It's a feeling of invincibility, of no longer being controlled by your thoughts.  It's not a destruction of self, or of ego, but a hyper specific awareness, which results in a redefinition of what self encompasses, which is, not just your thoughts, feelings, emotions, sights, sounds, but a completely penetrating awareness.  

The metaphor presents us as a pane of glass in a window, possibly one of many in a house.  There is an inside to the house, with rooms, furniture etc, and an outside world which the house sits in.  The pane of glass does not move.  We are still.  "It" moves through us, like a wave of light.  Like light, we don't think of awareness as moving through space.  Noticing something just seems to happen all at once.  However in this metaphor, we are not doing the noticing, rather the noticing is moving from inside the house, through us, and into the outside.  The incredible discovery is when awareness figures out there is an outside world, when "it" penetrates the window and moves beyond the confines of the house.  However, the more we look, the more it seems like the most ordinary thing, and we think to ourselves, "How could it be any different?"  It is simultaneously the most extraordinary and the most mundane discovery.  "What else could there possibly be outside a window but a larger enveloping world?"

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I would imagine most people don't think of awareness as passing through them, but rather, think of it as being projected out of them like a beam from a flashlight.  This is the case because we see with our eyes and our eyes see forward, and so we might imagine our awareness doing the same thing.  It is the simple metaphor of people are containers.  What do we contain?  Awareness.  In this conception our awareness emanates from our body, specifically our brain.  When our body dies, our awareness dies.  And this is true, if we identify our awareness as existing in this way.  Specifically if we identify it as ours.

What I am presenting, and which is certainly not a novel idea in anyway, is that awareness passes through us, rather then being contained inside of us.  We still die.  The glass can still be broken.  But awareness continues.  We are penetrated by awareness, but are not awareness.  We are a pane of glass that is experiencing what it is like for awareness (or whatever you want to call "it") to pass through us.  The release comes when you can no longer think of awareness as "my awareness" or "our awareness" when you can really think of it as a shared experience between us, as opposed to "in" us.  

If you are thinking, "Awareness happens in the brain.  Our brain is inside us, thus we contain it.  Once the brain dies, our awareness dies.  There's no way around this."  Well, of course there isn't.  But this is missing the point.  I am not claiming anything supernatural or beyond science's ability to understand.  We experience awareness through brains (in our bodies), not our brains, just brains.  The mistake is always one of ownership.  The mistake is to say my awareness exists in my brain in my head.  "My" means, "belonging to or associated with the speaker."  "My brain" implies ownership, rights, etc.  If this is your conception, then you are exactly right.  Your brian will die, just like my brain will die.  Your awareness will die just like my awareness will die.  Awareness, however, will not die.  Awareness does not stay to be contained or owned inside of us.  It penetrates us completely and moves through us.