Liberated by Two Cognitive Revolutions
I hope that the following rather extended personal remarks help to put MetaSelf in context and make it easier to grasp.
There is nothing unusual in my overall intention in life — to reduce suffering and make room for joy. My specific way of doing this now, however, is to share what I have found in MetaSelf — a unified way of picturing and describing the self in terms of space. The particular way the ideas came to me was rather unusual — a personal and solitary cognitive revolution that I found rather bewildering. It came to me by way of art I was doing in my studio, and it changed the way I saw everything. It was some time before I became aware of the real, ongoing cognitive revolution in philosophy, brain science and psychology that has helped me understand my first experience and transform it into something useful for others. My early experience of creating MetaSelf suggests that people like me are especially likely to be helped by MetaSelf’s framework, but I do believe that its appeal is now much broader. Models in general help people think better, and this particular model is now presented more in terms of conceptual metaphor and visual/spatial thinking.
I was born In New York City in 1940. Trying now to remember the culture of the mid-1950s, my impression is that psychology was split between Freudian analysis and behaviorism. Due partly to my parents’ divorce when I was six, I experienced my own self in a fragmented way. In my attempt to heal, I read about psychoanalysis and entered my own in my late teens. I fantasized about becoming a psychoanalyst myself. I enjoyed the luxury of being listened to. I talked and talked, thought and thought. Diagnosis: obsessive-compulsive. When you are scared because there is little family support or social support for going ahead and being who you are, that particular “disorder” is a quite natural oscillation. My analyst, in classical fashion, was nearly silent, with the result that I stayed in an expensive holding pattern for years.
The Mind/Body Split
More than ever, I turned to my intellect to find answers. I felt unable to act or express myself with conviction until I could grasp the nature of Reason and Truth and how they applied to me. While the mind/body problem is a confusion that practical people can ignore, my mind got entangled in Descartes’ suggestion that the mind and body could not communicate with each other. My psychological need to deny my feelings colluded with Descartes’ philosophy and the culture’s taboos: I asked myself the question, “Am I entitled to exist?” I studied, and pondered, and waited, but “ergo sum” never followed the “Cogito.”
The world of art was split between the genteel realism I saw in my own mother’s watercolors and the abstract expressionists like Rothko and Kline. Religion and God were nearly empty concepts suitable for philosophical discussion with high school classmates but not with my family, who simply wanted people to “be nice,” “think of others first” and not be “a non-conformist.” Wearing my hair long enough to touch my collar was considered slightly rebellious in those pre-hippie days. Politically, my mother was wishy-washy, and my grandparents were New England Republicans who viewed Roosevelt (and, parenthetically, Frank Sinatra) with horror. As I consider this cultural picture, it’s hard to see a clear, trustworthy foundation. There was the remote possibility of becoming a lay analyst. And there were art and music; I had a voice teacher who encouraged me to sing with “controlled abandon,” saying, “Don’t let your worries worry your worries,” both good pieces of meta-cognitive advice.
I tried to build a foundation on my education. From grade school through to a graduate degree, various kinds of knowledge seemed compartmentalized, impossible to synthesize. I picked up only snippets of understanding about what it was to be a human being. It took thirty years of schooling, all told, to prepare the ground for the midlife flash of insight that was MetaSelf. And another thirty years for MetaSelf to become what it is now.
Social work school was a mental dead end; I saw little connection between theory and practice. In graduate sociology in California, professors of different viewpoints were barely speaking to each other; synthesis was out of the question. Desperate, I went to study philosophy in London and Oxford in 1966-67 and found a little relief in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. He had heroically chased away the specter of his own logical positivism — the belief that in order for a sentence to be meaningful, it has to be verifiable. (Can you imagine a life with that standard at your shoulder?) He softened rigid categories into things with a “family resemblance” and declared, “The body is the best picture of the human soul.” This all gave me a little philosophical breathing room to think about how people actually think, but no degree and no prospect of work. Back to California.
Unable to resume my NIMH fellowship at Santa Barbara I gave up on education for a while, moved to San Francisco, and I took odd jobs as a hotel clerk and security guard. I got involved in the ecology movement, becoming a caretaker on a piece of Nature Conservancy land near Santa Rosa and working in a dairy. I was nearly 30. The women’s movement and gay liberation were in the air. Men’s groups provided my first real experience of social support for a key identity— support that in the MetaSelf model would be one thing embodied by the room. I felt elated and energized simply by being with people like myself.
On the nearby Sonoma State campus one could attend a loose program of weekly speakers on psychology. I joined, and soon the old dream of becoming an analyst returned in a diluted form. I was among the cohort of students who shaped the speakers’ program into a new degree and got it approved by the University of California, the Master’s degree in Humanistic Psychology, Clinical Emphasis. That academic hurdle finally achieved, I started a counseling practice with gay men in San Francisco in 1973 and a few months later found a wonderful partner in Simon Karlinsky, a professor of Slavic Literature at Berkeley. I groped my way along in a reasonably normal, happy life, with the constant aid of counseling.
At the back of my mind, however, I still wondered about the big questions that Humanistic Psychology had tried to answer. What is a whole person like? How do we think about the self? How does one take charge of one’s life, or is that not really possible? Although I was personally fulfilled, on some level I was still not allowing myself to ask what I felt, what I wanted. I stayed well away from modes of therapy that would have taken me in that direction, such as gestalt. The mind/body split was still in force, and spirituality remained a fragmented intellectual idea. I still held out hope for Abstract Reason and Transcendent Truth to tell me the answers. What else could one really rely on?
Art Work and Conceptual Metaphor
Then, one day in the mid-1980s, I was working in my art room, wondering about how to deepen the meaning of my soft fiber work pieces that hung in box-frames on the wall (see the artwork). They were up to three inches thick, mounted on a cloth-covered board and protected by a clear, five-sided acrylic box in front. If I wanted to create abstract portraits of people instead of abstract landscapes or seascapes, how would I go about it? One very trite idea was to push the composition up toward the top of the box-frame to indicate that the person felt “up” — energetic and in a happy mood. Or push the composition down if the person were “down.” That little linguistic snippet — ”up/down” — snagged my attention. All my years in psychology, sociology and philosophy suddenly came into play. I quickly saw the box-frame itself as a model of a person, with the shadow it cast on the wall being the Jungian shadow or simply “the back of my mind.” The wooden board at the back of the box-frame was the human body, and the cloth covering was a “front” someone puts up. The acrylic cover embodied boundary issues, self-protection and self-restraint. The viewer in the room was a full-fleshed human being. Together they comprised a model for the self and a social interaction! The artwork mounted inside was the creative work or contribution one “put out.” The three axes of the box-frame were the three axes of the body or the head. The body (the board) gave its skeletal structure to the figurative space of the mind (the acrylic five-sided cover). [ Read a bit more about the Box-Frame Model … ]
For two years I collected spatial phrases and elaborated the model. What had I discovered? What to do with it? I wasn’t sure. Finally a friend in linguistics asked me if I had read Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, published a few years earlier in 1980. And so began my education, all over again. At first it was rather dizzying. I later learned that George Lakoff felt much the same way I did at first: he practically fell off his chair. Slowly I gained some grasp of the arch of the “cognitive revolution,” watching it as it continued to develop over the last two decades.
The more I thought about conceptual metaphor, the more powerful the idea became. Western thought and Transcendent Reason turned upside down and found their footing in the body. The mind was built, as it were, from the ground up; that phrase itself and even the idea of “levels of analysis” were built from the ground up. The mind was not an entirely disembodied abstract entity in search of Transcendent Truth, it was a figurative entity in figurative space, and both took their structure from bodily space! And a person could use that knowledge about mental entities to consciously form an image of him/herself to reflect on in top-down fashion (consciousness being like an eye at the pinnacle of the self), or from “outside space and time” (where consciousness is the philosophical “I” of Wittgenstein or the Subject of Lakoff and Johnson). The metaphorical spatial location of consciousness as an abstract entity came from the physical body’s structure and orientation in physical space and gravity.
My excitement knew no bounds. Wherever I looked I saw things in a new way; even eyesight itself felt new. I perceived how the vertical and horizontal axes organized our lives: the walls, floors, windows and doors of my house; the plumb line and level of the carpenter who built them; the painter’s canvas and the loom on which it was woven; written music on staffs with bar-lines; columns of figures; statistical and scientific graphs; comic strip frames; book pages and computer screens. Their edges all implied the bodily horizontal (left/right) and vertical (up/down), even before we wrote or drew them, walked on and among them; the line of sight was the front/back axis. All three axes were important and were used for multiple metaphorical, conceptual purposes: high and low quantities; high and low quality; high and low status, class and power; levels of organization; levels of analysis; social justice as a level playing field; broadminded and narrow minded; a wide spectrum of possibilities, and a narrow set of choices; the back of my mind and the social front I put up; the depth of my insight into myself. Even the abstraction of time seemed to make sense; it was spoken of on all three axes. Examples popped up everywhere and the underlying spatial schemas organized them into an overall picture. The room in which the box-frame hung was a container that stood for any system we were in together, including space and time; when we are born, we come into being, and when we die, we go out of existence. It was all so obvious, but also so beautifully simple, flexible and comprehensive! The world that had felt disjointed and miscellaneous at last seemed to have a common denominator. Why hadn’t anyone told me?!
What especially pleased me was the front/back emphasis of this model. It placed the body and the mind on the same horizontal level, neither one dominating the other. The “other” in the room and the self embodied in the box-frame model were equals, on the same level in an interaction. The heavy overtones of hierarchy and social class in the vertical axis were countered by the democratic, egalitarian overtones of this primarily horizontal model. [ Read a bit more about politics … ]
The MetaSelf picture has been extremely helpful to me in formulating and working through my spirituality. You will find some of my thinking on that subject on the Spirituality and Consciousness pages.
I felt I had been given a joyful gift of understanding, and I undertook to communicate this way of seeing things, using the box-frame as my model. Some people got it, but many found the box-frame a distraction. So I have at last created this new website where I use the body directly to ground and explain this approach. [ Read a bit more about the Box-Frame Model … ]