The latest addition to my dreamer’s toolbox promises to be quite versatile and especially useful for deciphering those dreams in my favourite sub-category of dreams: sacred dreams. The tool that I am referring to is the concept of root metaphors, and in this first article-in a projected series that will explore its functionality-I shall begin by taking a moment to explain the basic concept. The analysis of one of my own BIG dreams will then reveal how my dreaming mind, by playing with the cultural metaphor that “classified information must be the pure truth”, creates a clash between the building blocks of this idea in order to move on towards a more open-ended approach to handling Truth.
What is a root metaphor?
The root metaphor is a concept that I first encountered in Kelly Bulkeley’s insightful work, The Wilderness of Dreams, subtitled Exploring the Religious Meanings of Dreams in Modern Western Culture. Most of us associate the term metaphor with poetry, and we recall how to distinguish it from the simile: like the simile, the metaphor makes a comparison, but it does so by establishing an equation between two dissimilar things. That man is a fox, for example.
Webster’s online dictionary explains that a root metaphor “is not necessarily an explicit device in language, but a fundamental, often unconscious, assumption.” This broader application of the term metaphor is the one employed by Bulkeley, who is partly informed by Lakoff and Johnson, the co-authors of Metaphors We Live By. These linguistic philosophers begin by saying that “the essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another,” and then go on to develop the argument that “metaphorical thinking is basic to all human conceptual thinking.”
These metaphors that we live by are not always hidden from our eyes. Sometimes, repeated usage of a metaphor can transform it into a slogan, such as “time is money”. Bringing our attention to such metaphors guards us against the corollaries that may unconsciously ensue from them, such as the idea that time spent on matters that do not generate money must be without value.
Metaphors in our dreams
So far, I have only talked about the use of metaphors in our waking experience. The prospect of discovering those metaphors that remain unconscious–even while we live by them–is certainly alluring and makes one fully appreciate Bulkeley’s eagerness to apply this concept of root metaphors to dream analysis. For is not each of our dreaming minds a veteran of its own unconscious thinking? It should therefore be well versed in the language of its favourite metaphors, and isolating these metaphors should go a long way in revealing the syntax of one’s personal dream language.
In The Wilderness of Dreams, Bulkeley also gives homage to the work of Paul Ricoeur, highlighting this philosopher’s view of the authentic symbol: it is over determined, carrying both force and meaning. This force has a regressive vector as well as a progressive one, and Ricoeur “encourages us to look to root metaphors for insights into both the past and the future–into both the archaeology and the teleology of the self.”
One important point to remember regarding metaphors is that they are always partial. The equation set up by a metaphor helps us understand some aspects of a thing, but it always excludes other aspects. For this reason, Lakoff and Johnson state that “the use of many metaphors that are inconsistent with one another seems necessary for us to comprehend the details of our daily existence.(221)” For example, we counterbalance the notion that time is money by speaking of quality time. metaphor examples
My feeling is that the dreaming mind knows that single metaphors cannot give us a full grasp of any situation. Scientists have demonstrated that people need to dream in order to function well, regardless of whether they have dream recall or not, but no one really understands why we need to dream. Let me suggest that one function of dreams might be to guard us against our own narrow views: by putting our habitual metaphors through various thought experiments, our dreams can test out their implications in a harmless way. With this groundwork set out, we are ready now to begin the practical application of this root metaphor concept.
The dream: I am given the remains of Christ in a box
In this first dream–others will be explored with the same method in subsequent articles–someone from a university brings me a box containing the remains of Christ’s body. The transaction is done with an air of confidentiality, as though very few people know about the existence of these remains. The box is not square but rather in the shape of my guitar box, and it is open, revealing layers of reddish brown flesh. I place it in a corner of my bedroom, where my daughter lies on the bed, asleep.
I answer the phone in the next room and during the conversation, I let slip my information regarding this new responsibility, without specifying that the package has already arrived. The person on the phone (later recognized as the comedian Carol Burnett) is trying to dissuade me from accepting it, going on and on about germs and bad smells. I am very laconic and say something to end the conversation.
In the kitchen, there is some potato salad that has been left on the counter; it still has a few ice cubes in it. I decide that, later on, I will take a chance and eat some. I am hungry but have many tasks to do and am confused about the order that I should do them in. I enter the bedroom to change my clothes and I am about to close the curtains, to preserve the secret of the corpse in the corner, but there will not be enough light in the room if I do this. The large, ancient looking window has turned cobalt blue, and it is getting late. I see that my daughter is still asleep on the bed.