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How do we know what to want?

“My love is a flower.” Well, she’s not actually a flower, but I make the metaphor that my love is (like) a flower. The classic literary definition of a metaphor is: When something is said to be something else. My love is a flower. A simile is when you say something is like something else: My love is like a flower.

Now a very interesting thing happens in our brains when I use this cliche, when I say, “My love is a flower.” I take my the entire experience of this other human being: her smile, her touch, her joking, her laughter, our quiet moments, our arguments, our passionate love, the whole realm of our oh so human experience, all of it and more I haven’t even mentioned, and I compare it to, have it correspond with, a few of the characteristics of a flower. For example: colorful, delicate, fragrant, beautiful. And these are aspects of my love.

In this overlap, where these two; the human love and the ideal flower intersect, the mind makes metaphors, makes meaning. We think of the one in terms of the other. This is very useful, otherwise nothing would be meaningful to us nor would we understand anything. Everything would stay at the realm of pure experience without meaning or interpretation. But I understand my love is a flower. What does this do to my thoughts? I end up deleting a lot of possibilities in order to make this understanding. Is a flower passionate? Is a flower understanding? Is a flower warm? Will it hold me in its arms? No. I gain understanding, the ability to describe and make meaning at the cost of reducing and generalizing my experience. The understandings are useful. The meaning is desirable. They are not good or bad, they just are, and they have their effects.

For instance, what if you referred to your love as a book? How does that change things. What’s different about it? Your love tells a story. You read pages from her (or his) life; an open book, a book of wisdom, an adventure story, or a mystery. Now contrast that with Paul Simon’s my love is a rock: sure, steady, foundation, the anchor of my soul. Contrast that with David Byrne’s my love is a building on fire.

Do you listen to popular music, to the lyrics of popular songs? What are some of your favorites melodies or lyrics? “She’s an angel. She’s an angel in the fifth degree.” “Heaven is a place on earth.” “She’s got the devil inside.” “Every little thing she does is magic.” “Keeping the faith.”

When most people talk about experience,they don’t say, “This chair is sitting faced at 17 degrees north , and so many degrees west, and has so many inches or centimeters”? Almost all meaningful human experience is talked about in terms of metaphors. In fact, when people seek to not speak metaphorically, they speak an operational language, which is the metaphor of mechanism, like the universe is a clock which was set in motion by the God Almighty and is left to our devices. The metaphor of the Newtonian age.

Metaphors permeate our lives. From love, life, money and maturity to cosmology. There are a group of serious western scientists raising the question as to whether the planet we’re living on is alive itself: the Gaia hypothesis. There are other, non-scientific societies which react with, “Of course it’s a living planet. It’s a living universe.” But in the west, we’re wondering as a culture, as a world, whether it is or not. And for a long time we tired to use only science, which is an attempt to speak about the world without getting transcendent about it – as Joe Friday of the American TV police program Dragnet used to say, “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”

But people do not live in the world of facts. They live in the world of meanings, the world of the imagination. When you posit the idea that your love is like an angel, then you are taking the experience of your love – this person in all their variety and fullness – what you see, what you hear, what you feel, what you come to know about them through time – and you place it in terms of that metaphor. “Ah, you’re a real angel”. Now, our brains are very, very literal. If my love is an angel what do I belief about this particular person? She can lift me out of my mundane reality. She has the transcendental qualities which we do ascribe to love. The value of higher values is implied here as well. Which is better: to tread with angels or mere humans?

On the other hand, if your relationship is an investment, you’ve put a lot of time into it (remember: Time is Money) because you hate to waste time and want to spent it with her. After all, there is a big emotional cost to breaking up. What you desire from the relationship and the person will reflect your investment born values instead of the transcendent ones of my love is an angel. What both metaphor users believe about their loves and their worlds and what they assume is true, all comes out of their experience organized through metaphors; which I call Operating or Living Metaphors.

These Living Metaphors affect all of our lives. “This job is hell” “My vacation was heavenly.” “You know, ever since I got out of that position, I feel like things have really blossomed.” “I feel like it’s a new dawn in my life.” “Well, he’s headed for a fall.” and “It’s the winter of our discontents.” “I feel reborn.”

Consider the world of business for a moment. We’re in a company meeting and our General Manager starts to talk about how have got to defend our marketing flank and what he’d like is for you to take charge and organize the troops for this and have me responsible for market penetration. That General Manager is acting out of the Living Metaphor Business is War. Contrast that with an entrepreneur of a Mom & Pop business who wants to grow an idea and wants you to take this baby and run with it, so someday it can stand on its own. The entrepreneur is acting out of the Living Metaphor Business is Parenting. With different language are shaped different metaphoric worlds which engender different values, different goals, different beliefs and different visions for peoples place and possibilities in business.

The ordinary metaphors of language, words we’ve been letting go by for years, have been unconsciously shaping our values, goals and beliefs. They’ve been taking our brains in certain directions without our ever knowing it. For several years, many people have been concerned about subliminals, messages below consciousness. Either afraid they are being used on them in stores and through TV advertisements or wanting to use the to loss weight, quit smoking and be more motivated. Meanwhile, all these people have listening to popular songs and reading newspapers.

If you are familiar with hypnotic processes, you’ll know that rhythm, particularly a rhythm that matches a human body process (breathing, heart rate, conversation, etc.), is one of the most effective means of inducing a hypnotic state which is receptive to unconsciously assimilating a message. Now consider a music’s melody. With rhythms and tones so compelling we move to them, music sets up a very receptive state of mind. The lyrics often use poetic devices to make them more memorable. And, of course, they use metaphors. Only most of these lyrics are thoughts four to seven times more stupid than anything we’d ever put up with listening to in normal conversation. But because they are popular songs what do we do? We listen to them again and again. We go out and buy them at our own expense so we can play them at home and in our cars and listen to them even more often until they play in our brains even when the stereo is off. “Yea, she’s an angel. Love is the highest power. It’ll be hell when she leaves. I can’t live without her.”

Meanwhile, we’re reading the newspapers or watching the news, questioning the honesty of statements and the logic of arguments, sure that nothing would get by us if we only got all the facts and the Living Metaphors are going in with little or no notice: Business is War, War is Business (The arms industry.), War on Poverty (Who are the casualties?), War on Drugs (Where do we bomb and shoot?), Politics is Boxing (A blow was struck against P.M. Majors.), Sexual Equality is a Contest (Feminist won today in a court decision.), Consuming gives Identity (I’ll buy that.), News is Entertainment (CNN) and so on. I now understand why Plato considered poets so important they ought to licensed and sanctioned by the government, why the Romantic poets considered themselves the unelected legislators of the world and why repressive regimes world-wide lock up many of their artists. Poets and artists create the realms of imagination in which human beings are truly human. They assist us to rise above the facts and embrace the transcendent possibilities of our imaginations. This is so important that I don’t think it can, should, or even could be licensed, sanctioned or approved. Now, it does raise a question; Are our imaginings worthy of us? If we thought of ideas and images as food, would we be more concerned about which ones we consume?


I visited Paris last year. In many ways Paris is a very old city. Much of city remains laid out as it was under the reign of Napoleon 3rd, almost all of it six floors high. Walking its streets is like going down the corridors of history. My French friends insist that I go to the museums. While I do appreciate old art and fine art, I wanted to see other things. And so we kept doing this little game where they would try to take me to a museum and I would wander off somewhere else. Finally I stopped them and I said, “What if I could promise you six or seven more Louvres filled with great art? Would that interest you?” Art in human history is something the French at least regard as very important, something to look to as high and fine. “I will only ask one thing,” I went on, ” and that is you give up a few little things: … your telephone, your washing machine, your TV, your car, your radio and so forth. Because something else has been occupying human attention for the last hundred and fifty years.” So then we travelled to the National Museum of Technology in Paris which is in a converted twelfth century church. I was looking for something very specific. Right now they regard certain works of art in the Louvre and so forth as being the most valuable treasures in Paris. I think someday history may look back on this single object as being one of the most important, so I wanted to see it. I thought, since the museum was in a converted church and associated buildings, that they would put this object in the church area. So I went to the church area first, walking into where you would have seen the naive and the alter, and it wasn’t there. But instead right where you’d usually see the Virgin Mary, they had a scale model of the Statue of Liberty. And right in the center, where you would have found the altar and a religious artifact, the piece of the original cross or the bone of a saint, was an American Statue of Liberty sized first index finger. And all around, where the pews and parishioners would have been, were motors and engines of various kinds: like an ancient steam engine. and one and two cycle motors and jet engines, and even a rocket engine. And with the kind of reality that you can’t find in stories, no matter how absurd or surreal, I was told by the guards there that on the first Wednesday of each month, they turn the engines on. And they’re presided over by the Statue of Liberty.

But it wasn’t there. So I wandered through the rest of this museum. And off in a room, that was really like a shrine the developer of the barometer and the chronometer. They had a full sized wax statue of him. And a ways from that, in case ten, I found it. It was the prefect place because on one side of the case there was one of Newton’s telescopes and on the other side were brass models of the universe that could be wound up and then the planets would circle the sun with little moons circling around the planets. It was on the top shelf, a single cardboard plack that read 1652 announced it; you were looking at Pascal’s arithmetic machine: The first computer in the world.

The first time that human thought had been moved from inside a human brain to outside, which proposed an entire change in people’s thinking. You could have mental processes go on outside the human brain. Englishman Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine and then Analytical Engine of the early 1800s would begin to bring into reality what we are living with today. This knowledge turned in on itself until we look back into the human brain and said the brain is like a human computer. We say it fairly naturally, yet it is quite recent. They used to say a computer is like a brain, but not very good. Now we’re going, I wish I was as smart as a computer. Strange how these things happen.

This doesn’t originate with me. Henry Adams, a relative to United States President John Quincy Adams and a social commentator, attended an exhibition in 1890 and saw that the Dynamo (mechanical engine) had replaced the Virgin (Mary of religion) in people’s consciousness, in their imagination and they hadn’t even noticed. It is worth noticing.


It is only in the last twenty-five years that people have rediscovered the value of stories. Back in the “age of sputnik”, stories were relegated to the amusement of children and a diversion for old people. Serious people studied science for the facts. It’s only been since Joseph Campbell and his writings and Bruno Bettelheim’s “The Uses of Enchantment”, and Idries Shah pointing out that Sufi stories are actually mystical teaching stories, and, of course, Dr. Milton H. Erickson demonstrating to anyone that visited him that he could tell them stories and their lives would change that people began to realize the value of stories again; the value of metaphors.

“Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” is an often quoted phrase from Shakespeare. This is true. And now we are realizing that how we think about whatever it is can make it a flower or a book, a heaven or a hell, a machine or a living world. Everywhere we are reminded that we are in a period of tremendous evolution: in science, technology, management and knowledge to name only the most obvious. We also seem to be emerging into a time went we can seriously question the myths and heros of our past and decide, however good these guides were in our past, whether they are good or worthy models for our future. We live in a time of infinite possibilities and yet how do those possibilities get shaped? I’ve worked with many managers who had an image in their heads of being the king, pharoh, Napoleon, Sun god, Emporer cum boss who could tell all the employees/vassals/subjects whatever he wanted except it didn’t work because they didn’t share his dillusion. And where did he get it from? Our collective past, with strong kings and powerful figures in resplendent surroundings. In the United States we have a TV show called Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous hosted by a man whose last name is actually Leech. Meanwhile, the best run companies, the ones people line up to work for, talk to their managers about servantship and people being needed and involved. Growing a business. Leadership as a art. And the individuals involved, whose success is measured in rich fulfillment, talk of composing a life.

What do you aspire to? Albert Einstein said that the only truly important question is whether the universe is a friendly place or not, for by this we shall decide all the rest. We are entering a period of conscious evolution, conscious choice. What do we want this world to mean? What myths and metaphors do we want to live inside? What is worthy of ourselves, our Creator and our unfolding destiny?


Charles Faulkner began his explorations into the human psyche in the 70’s leading Gestalt/TA groups and studying mythology and literature with Joseph Campbell and others, developing his ideas of a Topology of the Human Imagination and individual LifeStories based on mythological archetypes. In the 80’s, he discovered the skills of accelerated language learning and used them to explore the world’s cultures and religions. While studying Cognitive Linguistics, Charles created Operating or Living Metaphors and Iconic change. Also an internationally respected Certified NLP Trainer and Modeler, he teaches across the United States, Europe and Japan. In addition to his speeches, trainings and private clients, Charles consults with companies on corporate identity and vision-making. He is the program designer of the Nightingale-Conant’s NLP: The New Technology of Achievement and the author of Metaphors of Identity. He currently lives in Chicago.

© 1992 Charles Faulkner. All rights reserved.

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