— Gary Zukov, The Seat of the Soul
This past weekend, I ventured up to my family cabin in the mountains and soaked (literally and metaphorically) in the American River. Whenever I spend a significant time around water, I seem to swim more deeply in the realm of emotions. I become more emotionally-centered. I pay close attention to how I am feeling. I begin to feel more authentic. Now, in my regular, every-day, going to the grocery store life, I already live quite deeply in the emotional realm. It’s the way I came: sensitive, emotional, empathetic, empathic. But there is something different, perhaps something transformative, that happens to me when I swim in the ocean or sit by a mountain river.
What happens is that I lose words. I lose the ability to specifically and authentically describe the beauty around me or the feelings inside that are soaking in this beauty. It does not seem adequate to say that the river is gorgeous. Or that I feel free. Yes, those are starts, but they don’t encapsulate what I mean. They don’t feel complete — or completely whole.
So instead of finding language for my emotions, I made them into art, like the art piece above. I used color and texture and gesture to express my mood. And then I began to think about how creating metaphors can be equally as potent. Instead of the river being “wonderful” and my feeling “nostalgic,” I realized that the river was “a vein flowing to my heart where my father lives.”
In Mari Messer’s lively book Pencil Dancing: New Ways to Free Your Creativity, she writes: “You don’t have to name a feeling to experience it consciously. You can meet a feeling on its own muddy ground by creating a metaphor that uses a figure of speech to describe it.” By creating art and constructing spontaneous metaphors on this mountain adventure, I was able to go deeper and understand myself more clearly. I became more visible to myself. More attuned.
Messer also writes: “Metaphor preserves and explores your feelings without turning them into a concept. Metaphor eliminates the middleman from your translation queue so the flavors of your feelings are not filtered. It gets you out of the mind-set that you that you have to know everything in an intellectual way. You don’t. In fact, scientist and writer Rachel Carson said, ‘It’s not half so important to know as to feel.'”
So I didn’t have to analyze the fact that the river made me miss my father, I could just jump to feeling it and in just feeling it came understanding. Using the imagination takes the how and why out of the equation. Image and metaphor are all about who and what and where. The creative mind cuts to the core of emotion and makes the feelings come alive through images and creative language.
During my image-making and creative play in the mountains, I began to think about how I use metaphor and imagery during my healing sessions with my clients. Sometimes a feeling word is just the tip of the iceberg. The word anger is a start, but what does it look like or feel like in the body? Or what about neck pain? To say that it is painful doesn’t actually say very much. But to describe it as a barbed wire coil tightening at the base of your skull is much more potent — and real. I can feel that. Pain comes in so many forms. Is the pain emotional or physical? And what does it look like, feel like, taste like, sound like?
Next time you find yourself saying/thinking/feeling an abstract emotion, honor that word and then take it to a deeper place. Understand its intricacies through image and metaphor. What does your sadness taste like? What does your hamstring pull look like from the inside of your body? Messer writes that creativity “is the ability to cause other people to experience what you saw, heard, tasted, and felt.” Share what you experience with others, but give them the fantastic imaginative versions. The ones that reveal your authentic self. When your partner asks, “How was your day today,” resist the temptation to say “fine” or “okay.” Maybe you tell him/her, “My day was a donkey on speed with a hint of paprika and I feel like a metal yo-yo singing.”