The Role of Metaphor in Training

It’s easy to imagine our progress in life as a trip—a road that has twists and turns, ups and downs. If you’re resolute enough, and travel long enough, you’ll find your way to your destination.
The trouble with this metaphor is it doesn’t account for the ephemeral nature of destinations in personal growth, skill development, and on a spiritual path. More often than not we reach our destination only to find the next day that we’re not there anymore. The achievement of yesterday seems impeded today. The road suddenly stretches out in front of us again.

Dude, it’s your metaphor

The failure here is the metaphor. Growth is not a road with a point A and a point B. If we try to see it as such, when the metaphor fails we see the failure as our own. When we lose the feeling of having “arrived” we feel that we have slid back and must retread the same ground. Then seeing the ground as the same, it’s easy to become frustrated with traveling the same route over and over again. We feel that we’re constantly back at square one. That can be a very demoralizing view.
The truth is that learning and growth are far more complex than any single metaphor can express. Learning could be seen as a circle, or a spiral, where you return through the same scenery over and over again but each time somehow a bit different than before. Growth could be a garden, where you must plant, till, reap, lie fallow, and plant again, renewing the cycle each year. In these metaphors “retreading the same ground” is part of the process. This type of metaphor can be much more uplifting when you are returning to a practice after an absence, or when pursuing long-term proficiency, or internal development.
Yet seeing growth as an endless spiral can be daunting. When I take on new students, they’re eager to see end points, to find achievement, to grow their belief in their ability to learn something; in their ability to “get good”. They’re not ready to be a farmer, they’re more interested to be a drag racer.

Adhere to the tool

What’s important to recognize is that a metaphor is a tool, not a rule. Sometimes it can be useful to imagine your progress as a road. It can be fun, or inspiring, or humbling (in a useful way) to recognize a long journey and mark our stops along the way. However the moment that a particular metaphor stops being useful, shelve it and imagine up another one. A good metaphor will inspire you, help you stay resilient in the face of challenge, include failure as part of the process, and make allowance for fallibility. Yet any metaphor, even when it adheres to these qualities can fail in light of circumstances or simply be outgrown.
Don’t get attached or allow yourself to become trapped in a limited definition. Metaphors are an invention, a mental exercise, that you can use to manipulate yourself into a positive space (or a negative one when used wrongly). Knowing this does not make them less powerful. It gives us the capacity to be me smarter than our metaphors, to see them as the tools they are, an imagining of the world – not the world.
Enjoy your training!

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