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"Myth and Metaphor for Therapeutic Trance"

Metaphor: a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them; broadly: figurative language...

— Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary

"In language, a metaphor is… where a comparison is made between two seemingly unrelated subjects. Typically, a first object is described as being a second object. In this way, the first object can be economically described because implicit and explicit attributes from the second object can be used to fill in the description of the first.."

— Wikipedia

What is metaphor? Metaphors provide vicarious learning experiences, and/or new perspectives towards solutions and understandings. A metaphor is a linguistic representation of experience that stands for another parallel experience, and as such communicates on two or more levels or dimensions. It is this multiplicity of dimensions that distinguish metaphorical communication from “straight” communication. They ensure that our communications, our messages to people, are perceived in many dimensions.

Psychiatrist and master hypnotherapist Dr. Milton Erickson employed metaphor extensively in his hypnotic language patterns and in assigning his clients "tasks". For instance, some people who came to see Erickson were told to climb a nearby mountain - a fairly rigorous hike - and when they got to the top, to see something special, something of significance. Everyone, of course, saw something different. Erickson was well known for this type of "ordeal therapy".

To be successful, therapy and hypnotic work must, I believe, involve the client in a participatory manner. There must be commitment. By following the suggestion of taking the hike, the client is metaphorically agreeing to do the work, Sometimes our clients may lack a "greater vision"... their day to day existence has become too short-sighted, without a compelling future. Here, the metaphor of looking out at a panoramic view from the top of a mountain and seeing something of unique personal importance, could be interpreted in an open-ended way as finding the particular goal or inner meaning in the client's life.

"Metaphor is a literary device which includes simile... Anytime one thing is likened to another or spoken of as if it were another thing, metaphor is involved..... Metaphor helps us use understandings or experiences we have had already to make sense of new experiences.

"Erickson assumed that people already have the abilities, or know-how, to solve the problems that have been troubling them. They have developed and mastered these abilities in certain contexts, but are not currently using them in contexts in which the problem occurs. The task of therapy, then, is to transfer this know-how across contexts from the one(s) in which the patient currently has it to the context in which he does not. This is accomplished by using metaphor in its various forms."
—William Hudson O'Hanlon (Taproots)

When to communicate directly and when to communicate metaphorically? Using metaphor is a way for the client to entertain novel experiences, learn new behaviors, and respond (or not) to directives contained or implied in the story. It is also a fail-safe way for the hypnotist to instruct the client indirectly in a way that avoids arousing the client's resistance.

It leaves the client ultimately to be judge of what the story means, how it is interpreted, and what kind of response will be forthcoming. It's as if we are helping the client have a dream while in trance. Like dream interpretation, if the material in the metaphor is not relevant, it will most likely be discarded and if the material is so relevant as to be stressful for the client, it can be consciously dismissed as "just a story" (just a dream) while the unconscious is free to respond in a meaningful way.

Another way of saying this is found in a paper by H. Stephen Schweitzer, Ass't Professor of Counseling Psychology, Univ. of Oregon entitled "Ericksonian Sport metaphors in the Treatment of Secondary Erective Dysfunction:

"Zeig (1980) summarized a number of Erickson's reasons for using anecdotes, which also apply to metaphor: (1) anecdotes are nonthreatening; (2) anecdotes are engaging; (3) anecdotes foster independence because the client needs to make sense out of the message and reach a self-initiated action for which he is responsible and can take credit; (4) anecdotes can be used to bypass natural resistance to change; (5) anecdotes create confusion and promote hypnotic responsiveness; and (6) anecdotes tag the memory, making the presented idea more memorable."

Metaphor is found in the great spiritual traditions of the world, as well as their literature (the Bible, The Tao Te Ching, The Koran, etc.) The act of Holy Communion is one of huge symbolic and metaphoric import. Another source of teaching metaphors is Aesop's Fables... "The Tortoise and the Hare", is a great example of the use of metaphor for purposes of comparison. Here, two distinct personality types compete, with the winner living slow and stable over the loser’s fast and impetuous lifestyle. "The Grasshopper and the Ant" is another. Fairy Tales abound with metaphor... Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Sleeping Beauty, Jack and The Beanstalk, Alladin's Magic Lamp, etc.

Let us look next to the teachings of Native American ceremonial healer Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrrow), who says in his book "Ceremonies of the Living Spirit":

"Puns, metaphors, parables, and stories are the teaching tools of the spiritual teacher in every tradition, including mine. Metaphors connect the world around us with the metaphysical, giving us a window on the infinite. A metaphor is not simply a figure of speech... metaphor is energy that is in a state of action, breathing life into ceremony. We work with metaphor in order to find the essence of everything we encounter in the material world.... When traditional Native American people look at material reality, we are looking not for scientific truth, but for the metaphors. To look at a thing as metaphor is to ask, 'What principal idea is it expressing?'"

It seems that often, the deepest truths elude our ability to capture them in a literal, direct, word-way. Just as someone in frustration at this might say, "Here, let me draw you a picture", so we can use metaphor to draw mental pictures... to engage our clients in using symbolic interpretation abilities of the right brain. The bottom line is, all our experience in perceptual reality has a metaphor, either explicit or implicit, alongside it's literal meaning.

Metaphors can be real world experiences or make-believe tales told to illustrate or illuminate a particular viewpoint or to lead someone toward a particular outcome. Metaphors can be symbols, Zen koans, ritual, words, stories, parables, myths, legend, comedy or a joke; they can be simple or complex.

An effective metaphor will entertain, arouse curiosity, stimulate imagination, clarify emotions, develop intellect, be attuned to client’s anxieties and aspirations, give full recognition to the problem, promote confidence in self and future, develop options towards solutions, convey covert and overt meanings.

It should be pointed out that metaphor rarely constitutes the entire treatment. There is usually a portion of the work in which direct communication is involved, especially in the intake and assessment phase, as well as feedback phases following a primarily metaphorical session.

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