The Wisdom of a Metaphor.

July 24, 2021

The Wisdom of a Metaphor.

May 29, 2023

Excuse the expression, but I’m a "metaphor whore." You probably already knew that. I love and use metaphors shamelessly, whether it’s the caterpillar to butterfly journey to describe the three stages of transition or how the fine art of rock balancing is an MEA experiential leadership lesson, or what we call "mentoring stones."

I spent a decade on the Board of Glide Memorial Church, an inner-city San Francisco Methodist institution focused on "liberation theology" with Reverend Cecil Williams at the helm for a half-century. Often, I was asked to give a 3-4 minute "lift the offering" pitch to the congregation when we passed the hat for contributions, and I would talk about why Glide was so special. I put on my salesman hat for a good cause and was happy to do it.

A decade ago, I was asked to join Cecil on stage for the two Sunday services. I thought he wanted me to do my usual thing. It wasn’t until five minutes before I walked on stage that I realized Cecil wanted me to give two 20-minute sermons that day and at both services, no less. I stewed in my chair for the first 30 minutes of the service. I had no idea what I was going to say. Eventually, I decided on my best metaphor, courtesy of the Armenian philosopher George Gurdjieff (although it has some Hindu roots from hundreds of years ago). Here goes:

Humans have many parts. The key is whether they’re connected or misaligned. Think of an ancient coach traveling through the desert. The carriage is connected with the horse by shafts, the horse is connected with the coachman by reins, and the coachman is connected with the master by the master’s voice inside the carriage. If this complex system isn’t well-orchestrated, chaos will ensue. And, of course, this is a metaphor for our lives.

In the metaphor, the carriage represents the physical body, the horse represents the organization of human feeling, and the coachman represents thinking. Without an intact carriage or body, this journey doesn’t go very far. If you’ve ever experienced a wild horse, you know that taming one’s emotions - creating a space between stimulus and response - is the only way to help the horse play its effective part in this story. Gurdjieff talked about the risk of the coachman (the mind) being half-drunk and, therefore, not present to manage the body and the emotions properly. When our monkey mind has no presence, it might as well be the rambunctious horse.

So, what does the master in the carriage represent? It is the soul. In order to hear the master’s voice, the coachman must wake up and be conscious. This is part of what happens in midlife. We realize there isn’t just a body, emotions, and a mind. There’s something deeper in the carriage that’s speaking to us, and it’s our job to be fluent in the language that the master is offering to us. So, the mind (the coachman) has a challenging job. It must listen to the soul and start yielding control to this inner voice after a lifetime of being ruled by the ego while also managing the body and emotions in a way that they’re in harmony.

Honestly, I felt like I went into a trance when I gave this impromptu sermon as I realized it was my soul that was whispering this story to me as I was proselytizing from the pulpit. I fell into a flow, or a storytelling rhythm, that felt like it was coming through me instead of being manufactured by me.

So, when in doubt, imagine a metaphor that articulates the truth for you. When you’re the conduit, it’s amazing how your ego silently takes a seat on the sidelines.

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