by Carlo Carnevale
As described by linguist George Lackoff, a spatial metaphor (also orientational metaphor) is a conceptual metaphor in which the elements involved are spatially related to each other, i.e. they are respectively above or below, in or out, in front of or behind, in depth or on the surface, in the center or on the periphery, and so on (Lackoff, 1980).
People navigate real space habitually and are highly familiar with spatial logics; they're used to codify and hence internalize relationships between elements in spatial terms. In natural language, spatial representations are frequently employed in metaphorical fashion to convey one or more attributes and to catalogue and differentiate mental events.
How spatial metaphors operate within human understanding is a topic of interest for cognitive psychology and linguistics, which perceive them as an essential tool for the cognitive mapping of the world, integrated into a vast associative network.
More specifically, through sensory and perceptive experience of the world from a spatialized point of view (locational perspective), we are thought to codify information that are consistent and redundant to which we attribute metastable meaning; the world is categorized in networks comprising mental maps (internal representations of the world and its perceived spatial properties), that allow for the subject to access spatial knowledge and cognitive development in such direction, through constant online feedback in the embodied experience of physically navigating space.
To closer inspection though, classical cognitive psychology has been criticized for its computational (that is to say, operatively conceptualizing the mind as a computer, a symbol operator that handles inputs to elaborate outputs such as other mental or physical states) and representational approach (the idea according to which we access external reality through internal representations of it); features that allegedly trace back onto spatial metaphors (interal/external, software/hardware).
Both in psychodynamic and Buddhist traditions, the spatial metaphor is recognized as a fundamental mapping for thinking of the self, and yet at the same time it is approached critically and discouraged in order to avoid an objectual conception of self (Epstein, 1995).
For almost anybody approachingmeditative experience, the underlying operational premises concerning the nature of one's self always involve spatial metaphors. This is also true for what concerns the initial stages of psychoanalysis. We tend to think of the self in Freud's way, thus in spatial terms: as an entity made of margins, boundaries, strata a central nucleus.
One of the consequences of this way of thinking is that it nourishes our tendency to look for a core or a true quintessential self at the center of our being. Another consequence is the longing for wholeness commonly reported in the starting stages of meditative and psychotherapeutic practice (Espstein, 1995); in fact, it is only within the spatial metaphor that such longing can seem as urgent as this.
According to Mark Epstein (in his text Thoughts without a thinker), in the beginning of meditative practice, spatial metaphors are prevalent.
The self divides, between a reflexive self that exerts awareness upon spatialized mental objects that emerge from a pre-reflexive self, and upon the body. Oftentimes the mind is experiences as a wide open internal space in which various parts of the self coexist; "like a cave to explore", or like going over to a plant's roots. Novice meditators often confront with a feeling of emptiness or emptying, accompanied by a desire for wholeness or fullness.
For what concerns psychoanalysis, in psychodynamic terms these feelings are viewed as signal of some alienated or disavowed facet of the self that has to be integrated by a clinical intervention. In this field as well, the main operating metaphor is a spatial one; conceiving the thingness of self, the possibility of identifying a traumatic distal core, roots, a center, the most authentic desires concealed deep within.
“Meditation, starting from this spatial conception, then proceeds to manipulate it”, gently at first - “like a cat with a ball of yarn” - but eventually exploding it into the concentrated intensity of what Daniel Goleman calls the “meditative mind.”
Indeed, the distinctive characteristic of Buddhist meditation is that it tries to eradicate once and for all the understanding of the self as a spatialized being.
Repeatedly directing one's attention to a conceptual anchor—a word, a sound, a sensation, a visual image, or an idea—generates feelings of quietude in the mind and body (Epstein, 1995). The associative noise of the discursive mind subdues and blissful experiences take place. Yet, in traditional Buddhist psychologies, these experiences are treated primarily as collateral to concentration practices. We are constantly warned of their seductive power but the development of concentration is nevertheless encouraged and pursued.
The reason is that, in the process, concentration practices manage to alter the spatial metaphors of the self.
Nothing characterized advanced states of Ekaggatā (one-pointedness) as much as the spatial dissolution of the self, of its boundaries; and as much as feeling of unity and continuity with the universe that Freud has called oceanic feelings.
What concentration practices undertake is, starting from the spatial perspective of the self as empty, hollow, incomplete, or confined, to expand it infinitely, imparting to the meditator the clarity of an open space, of a clearing (Lichtung). In advanced concentration practiced, the body ends up disappearing: localizable physical sensations cease and only feelings of joy, grace and open space are left. In even more advanced states, even such diffuse experiences dissolve, and only a feeling of deep space remains.
A feeling of the self as wide open space is left (Epstein, 1995), generally connected to an universal mind permeating all things.
The spatial metaphor is ultimately preserved, and the meditator remains vulnerable to the kind of contentment that the Buddha warns us against in the Second Noble Truth.
The meditator's goal is then to envision even this expanded self's limits of reach, to acknowledge the seduction of hiding in this sense of ineffable space as to dissociate from the suffering entailed by attachment to these states of bliss.
From the perspective of Buddhist practice, the reason for which to develop concentration is quieting the mind enough to allow for a close inspection of the self's nature, giving up the imposed schemata time after time. The self-states that are unveiled in the process provide new opportunity to examine the hold and influence certain idealized experience may have on us.
Sources & Further Readings:
Lackoff G. (1980), “Metaphors We Live By”.
Mark Epstein (1995), “Thoughts without a Thinker”.