Everyone who has ever taken a trip understands that their travel through the physical world can serve as a metaphor for a more spiritual journey.

If we can accept that the physical and spiritual realms, and, consequently, our participation in them, are inextricably related, we can understand the importance of appreciating how each of these seemingly disparate and discordant aspects of reality is related to the other in the physical world. We can also start to appreciate the wisdom of setting out on our spiritual pilgrimage in physical clothes.

Perhaps the clearest statement in the Baha’i writings about the logical basis for such a system of education is found in a passage from Abdu’l-Baha:

The wisdom of the appearance of the spirit in the body is this: the human spirit is a divine trust which must traverse every degree, for traversing and passing through the degrees of existence is the means of its acquiring perfections. So, for example, when a man travels in an orderly and methodical manner through many different countries and regions, this will most certainly be the means of acquiring perfections, for he will see at first hand various sites, scenes and regions; learn about the affairs and circumstances of other nations …. In the same way, when the human spirit traverses the degrees of existence and attains each degree and station—even that of the body—it will assuredly acquire perfections. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 231.

But what is the “orderly and methodical manner” with which we should approach our journey? What specific method can we use to relate our physical lives to our spiritual evolution?

The means by which the physical world, this nether world of cave and shadow, is related to the spiritual world is the metaphorical process, and to understand this relationship, we must appreciate how metaphors work.

A metaphor is one of several kinds of analogical devices, all of which function in the same manner: They compare two essentially dissimilar things: people, situations, relationships, abstractions, material objects, and so on. Always in the comparison is an implicit or explicit statement of similarity between these essentially different subjects. But regardless of whether the analogical device is a metaphor, a simile, an allegory, a conceit, a symbol, or some other type of figure or trope, it contains three basic parts: the tenor, or that which is being described; the vehicle, or that which is being compared to the tenor; and the meaning, or that area of similarity between the tenor and the vehicle.

The term metaphor is often used to designate the metaphorical process in general, though strictly speaking, a metaphor is a relatively short, implicit analogical device. Sometimes the terms figure or image are also used in this general sense, figure denoting “figure of speech” or “rhetorical device,” and image designating “figurative image.” But whatever term one uses, and regardless of whether the device is a one-word metaphor or an elaborate parable or allegory, a particularly challenging process must occur if the device is to work effectively. One must be made to think and to become creative if one is to complete the final and most important part of the process by determining in what way the tenor and vehicle are similar in spite of their essential difference.

For example: consider the simple metaphor “Jane is a lovely flower.” The analogical equation is established because the tenor “Jane” is essentially different from the vehicle “flower.” Had we compared Jane to Mary, the tenor and the vehicle would be essentially the same—both being female human beings—and no analogy would occur.

Once the equation has been established, the reader must now solve the equation for X, the missing or understood ingredient—in this case, what the tenor (Jane) has in common with the vehicle (the flower). In this sense, a creative or imaginative image forces us as readers and thinkers to become creative ourselves. We must figure out the missing link or the linchpin between the two different objects—the x-factor, the lynch pin, the common bond that is the “meaning” of the equation.

If the metaphor is obvious or trite, our thoughts go directly from tenor to meaning without examining the vehicle, without needing to solve the equation for x. Consequently, overworked similes such as “cold as ice” or “hard as stone” require no mental examination of the equation because the vehicle offers no resistance. The mental exercise becomes short-circuited. Description has occurred, but the device has not challenged us to participate in the process of creating a fresh, meaningful mental image by contributing something of our own thought or experience.

The value of the metaphorical process is immense, for it is a useful way to explain the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar, or the abstract in terms of the concrete. It also has the power to compress a great deal of meaning into few words. Moreover, because it offers a variety of meanings, it can become an expansive description rather than a limiting or restrictive one.

But probably the most important feature of the metaphorical process is its ability to educate us. Its educative properties lie in the fact that when we are forced to examine the vehicle in order to understand the tenor, we must exercise some of our most important capacities, our faculty of abstract thought and our powers of judgment and discernment:

Metaphor is a process of comparing and identifying one thing with another. Then, as we see what things have in common, we see the general meaning they have. Now, the ability to see the relation between one thing and another is almost a definition of intelligence. Thinking in metaphors …. is a tool of intelligence. Perhaps it is the most important tool. – Louis Simpson, An Introduction to Poetry, p. 6.

When we attempt to decipher metaphors and images, we are, in addition to exercising our faculty of discernment, also extracting the meaning for ourselves instead of having the meaning dictated to us. The interpretation is ours. Therefore the metaphorical process is indirect and objective, rather than being direct and subjective—the writer is not imposing ideas on the reader but letting the equation stand objectively by itself to provide meaning.

Another bounty of this teaching device, then, is that the teacher is truly a facilitator of an educational process, not simply a source of data or fact. In effect, if we as students are to obtain meaning, we must exercise our volition and examine the tenor and the vehicle for ourselves. When we apprehend the meaning on our own, we will not feel as if we have been told what to think, though we may be grateful to the teacher who has been creative enough to conceive the equation that led us to a new and richer understanding.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

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