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The Temptations of Metaphor

BY Mark C.E. Peterson June 20, 2021

Cotton Candy Skies. Lyle58 via Flickr. Creative Commons.

One more idea: mythology as the second womb—it must be constructed of the stuff of modern life. The tendency of the clergy is to hold to the past and therefore reject, not redeem, the contemporary world. A variant of this is the romantic exoticism of the American devotees of the swamis. In my visit to India I have found myself more interested in the relationship of the West to the East than in the East itself.

(Asian Journals 237)

As we moved into Campbell’s Asian Journals this month, I was reminded of his famous aphorism not to “get stuck on the metaphor.” One of the dangers implicit in treating Asian mythology—and the technical vocabulary of Asian spiritual practice—with the kind of exotic romanticism he mentions here is that the metaphors can get sticky…and stickier. It’s easy enough to get stuck on the metaphors of one’s own mythological inheritance, but adding myths and metaphors from outside the bubblewrap of your own culture makes this even easier—and more tempting.

But wait a sec: getting “stuck on the metaphor” keeps us from engaging the very experiences the metaphor is for, and we need to connect with those experiences in order to continue along the pilgrimage toward our authentic selves. How could that be tempting? Well, cotton candy is tempting too, so let’s stick (ha!) with that metaphor.

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Metaphors can be sticky for a number of reasons.

  • Sometimes it feels as if assimilating the mythical vocabulary from other cultures, by itself, is satisfying. Rattling off the names of deities, or meditative states, or arcane Taoist practices, and being able to describe how they’re related to each other can make us almost feel as if we’ve experienced these states, even when we haven’t. 

Example: “Here is your moment of Zen.” I love John Stewart but… uh, no. 

Eating cotton candy can be satisfying (if not nutritionally) all on its own. Stickiness is part of the fun.

  • Sometimes, a bit more generously, the terms have to suffice on their own because the experience they point to might require years of difficult practice. 

Example: qi flow, satori, or wu wei. Even Master Ma Yueliang, a major figure in the development and popularity of Wu-style taijiquan, insisted that it had taken him a decade or two to really get the hang of his own qi. I suspect many of us know long term Zen or yoga practitioners who are, at this point, well acquainted with satori and dhyarna and who will smile, somewhat indulgently, when you ask them to explain these ideas. They require practice and experience, not simply memorizing phrases in books.

Even if you’re hungry, you might have to make do with cotton candy until you get home for dinner, and real food.  Real food is nutritious, but it takes preparation.

  • Sometimes—and this one stings a bit—we cling to the metaphors because we prefer the superficial mystique and cachet they bring to our speech while avoiding the difficulties involved in actually understanding them: it makes you look cool.  Theodor Adorno, the Frankfurt School philosopher, called this the Jargon of Authenticity. Being able to sling snazzy jargon saves us the trouble of having to experience, or understand, the concepts the jargon is referring to. Appropriating the unfamiliar vocabulary and metaphysical or religious concepts from other cultures makes it easy to hide our ignorance inside the ambiguity these terms present to western ears. This is how the romanticism and appropriation of foreign culture begins. It’s easy to hide inside a technical vocabulary, especially when we’re translating across not only formidable linguistic barriers, but cultural ones as well.

Example: This is what Campbell was describing above when he mentioned over-earnest devotees of sacred texts from outside their own traditions.  More often than not, they seem to have become enthralled by the will-o’-the-wisp romanticized exoticism in the metaphors they’ve embraced— and being able to sling this jargon in social circumstances is both appealing to our egos and infinitely preferable to the difficult work of practicing. In the old martial arts axiom, you must “eat bitter” and in good humor to taste the sweet.  

Sticking (!) with our cotton candy metaphor here, most people (and this includes all of us from time to time) prefer to eat sweet—and to be seen eating sweet. But I can think of one more even more tempting reason to get stuck:

  • Sometimes we get complacent, comfortable, and determined to remain stuck on these metaphors because, consciously or unconsciously, we don’t want to go where they’re directing us. Sometimes we don’t want an authentic life.  Sometimes we don’t want wisdom. Sometimes it is deeply satisfying to spend time sucking on the cotton candy of our own ego gratification. In the context of the Hero’s Journey, we might say that The Refusal of the Call conceals itself inside the yummy frosting of sticky metaphors. 

Maybe sticky metaphors are among the threshold guardians we must confront to embark on that journey toward ourselves. 

Thanks for musing along,


Mark C.E. Peterson is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies with the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, and President of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture.  He began his work at the University of Toronto focused primarily on Hegel’s natural philosophy and its links to the history of science and technology. These interests evolved to constellate around the larger questions of how humans are related – scientifically, philosophically, and spiritually – to nature. A practitioner of both taijiquan and kundalini yoga for over 40 years his academic research is currently engaged in a semiotic analysis of the relationship between explanatory and narrative/mythological accounts of nature and an Aristotelian re-examination of environmental ethics.
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