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A Visual Aid by Peter Carleton


How are we to visualize an overall picture of what it is to be human when life is so dauntingly complex? Faced with economic struggles and cultural diversity; bodily needs and unresolved inner conflicts; our private relationships and wider social responsibilities; our place in the natural environment and in some larger spiritual dimension -- How are we to keep our sights trained on values that transcend all this?

I believe we might benefit from having a powerful visual aid, and I'd like to share the basic elements of one that I have put together and find very helpful. Like most philosophical tools, it provides no specific recommendations, but it does summarize important values and facets of life and it does represent them in an integrated visual way.

This visual aid is implicit in our everyday spatial figures of speech. For example, in talking about power, we use phrases like "top dog" and "underdog," being "one up" and "putting someone down." Power is over something, or we are under its control. Many such fragments of spatial speech and the concepts they represent come together in a single memorable image.

Let's look at some more examples of how our body's vertical axis organizes the way we talk. In speaking of social class, we use high, middle, low and under-. With quantity and quality, up tends to mean more, down tends to mean less. Mood and energy can be high or low, up or down. Being "upset" (literally, far off one's upright axis) means being too emotional to function really well, but upright describes someone who is virtuous, honest, stable and just. One needs both to be down to earth and to have high ethics.



Now look at our left/right axis, which is closely related to our body's sense of balance. We speak of balancing the two sides of an equation and of balancing account books, which are ideas about equality. Our form of government has checks and balances. Justice and fair trade, in which the interests of competing parties are balanced, are embodied in the image of the scale. Additionally, motion from left to right frequently indicates narrative time, as in a comic strip.

The third axis of the body, from front to back, is also used for time; our front is associated with the future, our back with the past. Looking forward is anticipating progress, looking back is reminiscing or reconsidering. The front is where we usually interact with people. We face them with the virtue of courage, and turn away when we fear them, reject them or ignore them, or know them so well that we trust them. Being "upfront" means not keeping things hidden from someone, while the "back of the mind" is figurative for deep memory and the unconscious.

The three axes of the body are also the three dimensions of formal geometry and practical measurement. They are essential to the way artists and architects render perspective, and they structure the pages of books, the columns and lines on computer screens, and many graphs of scientific correlations.

When one adds the contrast between inside and outside to these three perpendicular axes, the result is a 3-D model -- a simple square box-frame with a clear front cover and an opaque wood back that hangs on the wall. Here's a sketch.



The box-frame is a template for many of our common spatial metaphors. Its vertical and left/right axes are paralleled by its edges and are roughly indicated by the four screws that hold it together. Its third axis is marked by a screw in the wall on which the assembly hangs. We might see such a box-frame in a scientific or artistic exhibition. But the important thing is that, even without content, its structure takes on figurative spatial meaning as a model of the human self.

The clear front volume of the box is the conscious, clear, rational part of the mind. The board is the body, the site of our bodily feelings. And the shadowed recess behind the box- frame is our deep memory and unfulfilled unconscious needs. We want the frame to be level on the wall, just as we ourselves want to be levelheaded and to play on level playing fields. It's really pretty simple: our bodily structure is the real source of hundreds of metaphors describing our thinking, personal character, and social virtues. The box-frame is a neat, easily sketched reminder of this fact.

Let's take a look at the spaces along the front/back axis of the model. We'll start with the space between the viewer in the exhibition room and the box-frame on the wall. This space is what goes on between one person and another. Compassion can then be conceptualized as a combination of putting oneself in another person's position and also staying centered and helpful in one's own -- a version of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Larger social interactions can be imagined among several viewers and box-frames around the room.

Now we come to the clear front plane of the box, which represents the boundary of the self, a protecting and restraining divider. The space inside the front is the conscious mind, which contains scientific or artistic images of the world. The first reflects mostly the world out in front, the second reflects proportionally more of the world deeper within the self.

The paint on the backboard is the "persona" or mask we put on to face the world. The board itself is the locus of bodily feelings and drives; its three structural axes are adopted by the acrylic cover, much in the way that the mind builds mental space metaphorically on literal bodily space. Behind the board, as mentioned above, is a shadowed recess that is figurative for the deep memory and the unconscious (the Jungian shadow).

Now we come to the wall, which represents any system within which we operate and on which we are dependent: dependency can be explained literally as "supported by" and "hanging down from." This system may be a small family, an organization, a nation, an ecosystem, the entire Earth or even the whole natural universe.

The space beyond the room carries a variety of important figurative meanings that are spiritual or religious. It's the "beyond" of death, heaven, and the transcendent. It can be seen as the whole that is greater than the sum of all the parts in the room, or as the One that comes out of many. To some it will be the figurative location of nothingness, the unknown, or of alternative realities. People have very different views on these matters, but perhaps we can communicate better about them if we concentrate first on the spatial language we use for them.

Different activities address problems along different parts of this front/back axis. The social section between or among people (including their protective front planes) is a question of rights and justice, reflected in the ideals of safety and a level playing field: who is one-up, who is one-down in the competitive arena? Laws, regulations and government attempt to address large scale matters here, while on a smaller scale people bargain, resolve conflicts and exchange forgiveness.

Skills, techniques, procedures and conventions, both artistic and scientific, govern the cognitive functions symbolized by the front of the box. The painted front of the backboard is the plane of "image," "looks" and "face." It both covers and reveals the feelings experienced in the body, as well as those that have been repressed (pressed back) into the imaginary space behind the body plane (called the shadow or dark side). Of course this space may actually contain good parts that were unacceptable and unsafe, especially in childhood. To become aware of these hidden parts and "bring out" their good potential, one may need a special setting of caring, safety and love, like meditation, prayer, counseling, somatic therapy, etc.

As we saw, the connection of the box-frame to the wall represents the self's dependency on a system bigger than the actors in the room. Moreover, the way the box-frame hangs from the wall evokes the way humanity has taken natural materials and built them up into artificial environments on which we all now depend. We no longer stand directly on Mother Earth.

Finally, the segment of the front/back axis that extends outside the room can represent the part of life that is addressed by religious and spiritual practices, or by more informal experiences of the transcendent. In a sense, the whole length of the front/back axis constitutes the spirit -- the connection between society, the self, nature and all that is still larger, greater, and more mysterious. This axis runs through all the planes of the self: relationships, boundary, thinking and expression, persona, body and sensation, the unconscious, the systems one belongs to (including nature), and finally the transcendent that surrounds us on all sides.

This model is broadly interdisciplinary, with elements of mathematics, science, art, psychology, ethics and spirituality, all expressed through a bodily structure we all share. It avoids emphasizing differences of race, religion, ethnicity and appearance, making it a framework for discussion across social divisions.