We Are Constructed Through Metaphor

While mindfulness meditation shows us that language pervades our mental experience, some of those who analyze human experience have long felt there was even more to it than that. Recent analyses of language suggest that metaphor is not just a type of language use but the very structure of language—and therefore thought—itself.

From there, we are not far from seeing that what we regard to be “self” is largely constructed through language. Craving, clinging, and attachment are much stronger once they manifest as language. David Loy reminds us, “When we understand how craving and language work together, we gain insight into how saṃsāra, the world of suffering, is constructed—and how it can be deconstructed into an awakening that liberates us.”

This article investigates four philosophical claims regarding language, concepts, metaphors, and self. The first proposition is that our sense of self is largely constructed out of language. As the Buddha went to great lengths to describe, this sense of self is an illusion and adherence to it generates dukkha. The second proposition is that language is constructed out of conceptual metaphors. Following this is the radical proposition that what we understand to be the self is a metaphor. The upshot of these first three propositions is that we cannot understand or change our relationship to self, i.e., realize anattā (“not self”), without understanding the metaphors involved in the language of self and the metaphorical nature of self itself.

The value of metaphor was not lost on the Buddha. Upon his awakening, he taught the dharma largely through metaphors and used them as upāya (“skillful means”). It all started with dukkha. We often see this translated as “suffering” but it translates literally as “bad-wheel,” like that on an ox-cart, broken or off its axle. The resulting ride is wobbly, off, and unsatisfactory in a pervasive way. There is no getting around this if you are on that ox-cart, as we all are. That metaphorical image captures the sense of dukkha that cannot be captured in words themselves. It pervades everything and biases how we think and feel.


Many of these concepts function as categories and we could not get far without them. We need some way to navigate the gargantuan amounts of information inundating us in every moment. If we did not have categories we could not walk into a room that we have never been in before, see a chair that we have never seen before, and know what to do with it. Remarkably we do this every day: recognize objects we have never seen before and work with them adaptively without, perhaps, a conscious thought. Nietzsche provided a conceptual framework for understanding how we construct our world out of categorical metaphors.

Let us give special consideration to the formation of concepts. Every word immediately becomes a concept, inasmuch as it is not intended to serve as a reminder of the unique and wholly individualized original experiences to which it owes its birth, but must at the same time fit innumerable, more or less similar cases—which means, strictly speaking, never equal—in other words, a lot of unequal cases. Every concept originates through our equating what is unequal. No leaf ever wholly equals another, and the concept “leaf” is formed through an arbitrary abstraction from these individual differences, through forgetting the distinctions; and now it gives rise to the idea that in nature there might be something besides the leaves which would be “leaf”—some kind of original form after which all leaves have been woven, marked, copied, colored, curled and painted, but by unskilled hands, so that no copy turned out to be correct, reliable, and faithful image of the original form.1

As Nietzsche explains, this process of category formation removes us from the “unique and wholly individualized original experience” that just occurred. Applying this insight to the matter at hand, just as one leaf never equals another leaf, no moment of self wholly equals another. We project through the process of metaphor one experience of “me” to the next experience of “me.” In this way, a sense of self is perpetuated, but it is a conceptual self and not an experiential one.

The adaptive function of categories is helping us to figure out what is salient. One of the primary considerations is the me/not me consideration. David Loy says, “with language as our lens, we perceive the world as a collection of separate things that interact with each other in objective space and time.” What we pay attention to and how we pay attention to it will be determined by what is deemed salient. For instance, the ant that crawls in front of my cat is not regarded by him as salient, compared with the mouse that is hiding in the baseboard.

We carve up experience according to what is salient, and salience varies from individual to individual and moment to moment. Neuroscientist Nor Torreanders reminds us that we are only consciously aware of sixteen of the eleven million bits of information available to us in any given moment; salience will determine allocation of the scarce resource of attention.

In rare cases these days, salience will be determined by pressing matters of consequence, such as the crisis occasioned by a car accident. In the legacy days of humanity long before agriculture, salience was determined by events with life or death consequences, such as starvation, predators, temperature regulation, or the threats from other nomadic bands of humans. Life in the Stone Age may have contained just as much suffering, but perhaps not as much because language and concepts were simpler. We suffer because we allow language-based categories to determine salience in our moment-to-moment existence. For example, we are driven by fears that stem from contingent self-worth: “I’ll only be OK if this person likes me or approves of me.” We suffer because we are engaged in ceaseless definition of and protection of the imagined self.

Nietzsche cautioned, “We do not only designate things with [words and concepts] we think originally that through them we grasp the true in things. Through words and concepts we are continually misled into imagining things as being simpler than they are, separate from one another, indivisible, each existing in and for itself. A philosophical mythology lies concealed in language that breaks out again every moment, however careful one may be otherwise.” This sentiment is also captured by the poet Pablo Neruda:

They have talked to me of Venezuelas
of Paraguays and Chiles
I don’t know what they’re talking about
I’m aware of the earth’s skin
and I know that it doesn’t have a name.

When we let go of this designation process we find ourselves in shunyata (emptiness of individual essences). To the extent that we can, our brains process things as they are.

Language is constructed of conceptual metaphors

The linguist George Lakoff and the philosopher Mark Johnson have articulated just how much of what we consider to be literal language is actually composed of conceptual or primary metaphors. From understanding “argument” through war, to “love” as a journey, from “happiness” is “up” to “sad” is “down,” our language depends on metaphors.

The psychologist Julian Jaynes also emphasized the importance of metaphors. “For metaphor is not a mere trick of language, as it is so often slighted in the old schoolbooks on composition; it is the very constitutive ground of language.” He continues, to be comes from the Sanskrit bhū—to grow or to make grow. He goes on to say that “am” and “is” evolved from the same root as the Sanskrit asmi—to breathe—and concludes, “It is something of a lovely surprise that the irregular conjugation of our most nondescript verb is thus a record of a time when man had no independent word for ‘existence’ and could only say that something ‘grows’ or that it ‘breathes.'”

In their 1999 tome, Philosophy in the Flesh, Lakoff and Johnson explain that “We acquire a large system of primary metaphors automatically and unconsciously simply by functioning in the most ordinary of ways in the everyday world from our earliest years. We have no choice in this. Because of the way neural connections are formed during the period of conflation, we all naturally think using hundreds of primary metaphors.”

The ubiquity of conceptual metaphors speaks to the truth-value of language. We tend to think of language as photographs that faithfully represent reality in some mind-independent fashion. However, language is more painting than photograph—a representation of reality, a construction beholden to the subjectivity of the process. It doesn’t follow that meaning is a relativistic free-for-all. Since conceptual metaphors are grounded in the body, some meanings do take a coherent form because we all live in similar bodies with similar structures that obey the laws of physics. That is, much of our physical experience is organized into unified wholes that are patterned and repeatable (Lakoff and Johnson call these “image schemata”). The work of Lakoff and Johnson, like the Buddhadhamma, strikes a middle path between asserting a mind-independent reality on the one hand and nihilistic relativism on the other. They call their approach “embodied realism.” And while they make no reference to vipassanā meditation, their philosophical approach bears a structural similarity to this ancient practice that, too, goes to the body to secure truth and meaning.

Nietzsche resonates with this philosophical middle way. Not only did he declare that god was dead, he shot an arrow through modernist hopes of establishing truth independent of observers and their language. He asks,

What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.

How far can we go with metaphor? According to Nietzsche, Lakoff, and others we can go all the way to what evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker calls the messianic theory of metaphor:

“The key to understanding human thought is to deconstruct these metaphors. People disagree because they frame a problem with different metaphors, and make a mess of their lives because of pernicious implications of these frames, which they use without awareness.”2

Take the example of free will. Lakoff explains, “free will is not totally free. It is radically constrained by the frames and metaphors shaping your brain and limiting how you see the world. Those frames and metaphors get there, to a remarkable extent, through repetition in the media.”3

Lakoff outlines the process by which words become “reality.” First, we think with our brains, and the repetition of language has the power to change our brains (this is what learning is, after all). Much of what our brains do is unconscious (on the order of 99 per cent) and all thought uses conceptual frames. These frames have boundaries that help us to select information (i.e., determine salience) and language can be used to reframe a situation.

Ideas have both surface and deep frames. “Deep frames are the ones that structure how you view the world. They characterize moral and political principles [and I would add by extension, considerations of self] that are so deep they are part of your very identity. Deep frames in the conceptual infrastructure of the mind: the foundation, walls, and beams of that edifice. Without the deep frames, there is nothing for the surface message frames to hang on.” He continues that most thought uses conceptual metaphors and that since frames can trump facts, our thinking can be illogical at times. This sounds a lot like what the Buddhists mean by delusion. Lakoff says, “Our commonsense ideas may not fit with the world. Frames and metaphors are mental constructs that we use to understand the world and our lives, but the world does not necessarily accommodate itself to our mental constructs.” This was precisely the Buddha’s point when he said that our sense of self is not a real self. Our commonsense understanding provides a solid sense of me, but reality does not necessarily accommodate. We indoctrinate ourselves with the idea of self just as the media indoctrinates our political views.

Self is a metaphor

Emily Dickenson wrote, “A WORD is dead/When it is said/Some say/I say it just/Begins to live/That day.” As we explored in the previous section, our words are not dead. Words can have a life of their own lived out in the unconscious deep frames of our overloaded minds. To understand what a self is we have to turn to metaphors. We can understand a self in many different ways. For instance, in the West we tend to see the self as self-contained. In Eastern cultures one’s sense of self may be distributed or “ensembled” across a group.

The Buddha cautioned against metaphors for self based on solid and enduring objects. Let’s take a book, for instance. A book has a location, an inside and an outside, appears distinct from other objects in its environment and has a name (both specific and categorical). This objectivity bears sufficient resemblance to the material that we label self to become a metaphor. Self has a location and it also has an inside and outside. It looks discrete from the rest of its environment and has a name. Without deep introspection this resemblance appears sufficient for the mind to “buy” the metaphor. “I am a thing.” Instead of things, the Buddha advocated seeing the self as process like a fire or a river, changing moment-by-moment while retaining some kind of identity.

However, there is a more radical proposition. The self is not just understood through metaphorical comparison to solid objects; it is a metaphor. We use historical moments as metaphors for interpreting current moments, and we fit these experiences into categories for efficiency and, perhaps, out of laziness. We fail to recognize the uniqueness of each moment by making experiences fit our concept. In Lakoff’s terms, what we experience will be constrained by our deep frames. And by doing so, we filter, and thereby distort, these experiences to fit these pre-existing conceptual frames.

Realizing anattā requires changing our metaphors

Language is a trap that enslaves us, and only through exhuming our metaphors through meditation that we can find liberation from this trap. We many never be able to deconstruct our categories in an ultimate fashion (neural beings cannot do that) but we can apprehend, if glancingly, a way of being beyond concepts and the language that conveys them.

Mu Soeng outlines a three-part process: 1) the primordial moment, 2) the moment of appropriation, and 3) the moment of projection.4 There are moments when language is absent. These primordial moments are orchestrated by the most primitive and ancient part of our brains. This reptilian brain can process awareness outside of language. This short-lived primordial moment is the stuff of enlightenment, beyond dualities such as the observer and the observed, self and other. After this flash comes the “moment of appropriation” where conceptualization and categorization takes place. The most basic category is personal ownership, “this experience is happening to me.”

The more acquainted we are with the process of meditation the more awareness there can be in the transition between the primordial moment and the moment of appropriation. The transition may not be prevented, but the process can become transparent and an object of attention. The moment of appropriation gives way to the moment of projection as the raw experience is assimilated into pre-existing categories of self, in other words, “I, me, and mine.”

This is the structure of saṃsāra; these categorical metaphors shape what is experienced; they are communicated to awareness through the more sophisticated cortical structures capable of language. “This happened to me … and I have an opinion about it and I’m concerned about the implications this experience will have for me.” The products of such moments of projection are metaphors that perpetuate our sense of self. In other words, “since this is how I have experienced such a thing in the past, I will understand my current experience via that frame.” We become locked into rigid and self-perpetuating ways of understanding our experience. Suffering continues.

If we become mindful of our tendency to construct our identity with such metaphors we have the opportunity to deconstruct it. Mindfulness meditation practice provides the sensory and cognitive training to school our attention on the unfolding phenomenological present and to get as close to it as is neurophysiologically possible. The present moment is like a vacuum chamber where oxygen-dependent concepts such as self, anxiety, and stress cannot survive. Inside this chamber there is liberation from dukkha.

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1. “On Truth and Lie in an Extra–Moral Sense,” The Portable Nietzsche, p. 46
2. Stephen Pinker, The Stuff of Thought
3. George Lakoff, Whose Freedom
4. Personal communication with the author

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