|Thoughts on Metaphor and Maya
Metaphor is here defined as that semantic device by which one disparate thing or idea is used to give meaning to another. To refer to it as a 'figure' of speech is a metaphor.
Maya is a technical term of Hindu philosophy. It means the powerful force that creates the illusion that the relative world is real. The cosmos is vast, so a description can only be arrived at by generalizations. In this way, the whole of creation can be summed up in two words: name and form. Both are the product of the psychology of perception and imply time, which implies space and off course various differences, and the perception of changes in time gives rise to the ideas of cause and effect. In this way the whole structure of life is governed by the psychology of perception, which, in its turn, is governed by Maya.
The psychological aspect is the world-experience which is built up into beliefs, attitudes, personality and particular world-views. The personal world, the outcome of Maya, is called samsara; life in the world of illusion. It is characterized by delusion, illusion, ignorance, knowledge, pleasure, pain, joy, fulfilment, and suffering. It is because samsara is entirely psychological that it can be transcended. The real world is then understood as it really is. It can be shown that Maya is not a philosophical notion but a valid description of what is actually occurring. One way of doing this is to investigate the nature of metaphor, for metaphor is an aspect of Maya. Metaphor is one way in which Maya works. Finally, the whole of creation can be experienced as a metaphor for something other than itself. This is liberation from samsara.
Metaphors, along with other figures of speech, are not simply grammatical forms of language; they are as much organs of perception as are the eyes. The most salient difference is that they create super-sensuous knowledge. These forms of language are, at root, the products of awareness that in turn, produce a form of knowledge that is independent of an immediate, specific, sensory stimulation, which is why the knowledge they produce can be called super-sensuous. Language is awareness. It follows that an enquiry into metaphor can reveal some fascinating things about the workings of the mind. It reveals that most mental activity is carried out in a haze of nebulous images that are a sort of metaphoric symbol for something - even for another metaphor!
Attempts to describe the functions of the brain have often taken the form of likening it to a computer. To do this awareness converts the word 'computer' into a mental symbol which is then applied to another vague symbol standing for 'brain'. If the metaphor is apt, and the symbols sufficient, an understanding, equally nebulous, results. Most of us live, in, by and through, such a mental world of misty shadow – symbols. We call it reality. Vedantists call it samsara. It is part of its magic that the inherent unreality is not suspected.
Knowing the original meanings of the words we use is always revealing. To be liable in the legal sense comes from the Latin 'ligare' meaning to bind with a cord as a person is by the dictates of the law. The root of 'is' is from the Sanskrit word 'to breathe'; 'to be' is from the Sanskrit 'to grow'; belief is from the old English word 'lief' meaning to wish. These are examples of how abstract notions were developed from concrete meanings making a world of pure abstractions that have been slowly created over aeons of time. Once, long ago, there must have been a definite sensible object or action for every word. Life would have been simple and direct, not confused with multiple meanings and abstract notions used by everyone and understood by few.
And so the world of abstractions has been built upon metaphors taken from the substantial world of simple sensory perception. This fact should not give rank materialists any satisfaction however, for the idea of matter is itself an abstraction with no corresponding reality to base itself upon. No one has ever come into contact with any basic material substance. All we can know is confined to the limited range of a few limited senses fragmenting experience in five different ways. To the ordinary limited consciousness matter is no more than an abstract notion built up as a supposed reality by the processes inherent in Maya. It is very significant that the word matter comes from the same Sanskrit root as mother, meter and Maya.
It could be said that our lives are lived in metaphor. We say, as though there were no incongruity involved, 'the town is at the foot of the mountain', while knowing full well that mountains have no feet. A metaphor is an 'as if', and in this sense we all live by metaphors. We live 'as if' partner X is absolutely essential to our wellbeing – 'as if' we are the body – 'as if' possessions are essential to security – 'as if' money is real wealth – 'as if' status is superiority – 'as if' we cannot live without TV or whatever – 'as if' possessions are part of our being and so on. It is difficult to find something in our lives that is not founded upon an 'as if'.
It is only through metaphor that mental qualities can be understood. The mind's eye: An iron will: A vivid imagination: A warm feeling: A bright thought: Aflame with desire: The core of the argument: A kernel of truth: The heart of the matter – there are probably thousands. Because metaphor is such an integral part of speech it must also be integral to the awareness it so graphically depicts. We love using metaphors; to describe a camel as a 'ship of the desert' is a poetically pleasing expression.
It must also be significant that there are so many metaphors about time, the matrix of Maya. Time and awareness are thought of as equivalent, because time is equivalent to Maya. Time, like Maya and metaphor, is integral to awareness. It is very significant that time is equated with money. The busy capitalist affirms: Time is money. It is said that time can be spent, it can be saved or it can be wasted, all of which are nonsensical notions intimately connected to abstract ideas in awareness, 'as if' there were such a thing as a time bank. This is an example of how we build 'as ifs' into our supposed reality. Such notions are the workings of Maya.
There are so many sayings to do with time - time is of the essence: I have no time for it: I had a good time: they were hard times: I had the time of my life. I made a timely decision: there are many more, all to do with the abstract experiences in awareness.
Obviously, time cannot be a present object of experience independent of our awareness of it. So the apparent elasticity of time is an artefact of functions of awareness itself, as impatience and expectation give it duration or inspiration and intuition all but eliminate it. In the dentist's chair a few seconds can seem to be minutes, a joyful experience seems sadly short, and in the throes of orgasm, time can seem to be entirely absent. Thus our awareness of the passage of time depends upon our mental response to circumstances. Yet we regard time 'as if' it flows, though it pulses with varying intensities. This is another illusion of Maya.
Our perception of time has a physiological basis as well; it changes with our age. Curiously, it does so in inverse ratio to metabolism. In a young, speedy body, a day seems long and expectations take ages to fulfil. Christmases seem years apart. In an aged body, slowing down, weeks are as days and Christmases seem about three months apart.
That these observations apply to psychological time only appears to be valid, though even clock-time can be shown to be a product of our psychology. It is by being aware of changes in the position of the sun and planets and diurnal rhythms that makes it possible to devise clocks and calendars. The psychology of linear perception makes it possible to experience time. In spite of all this, we live 'as if' time was immutable, which is clearly an illusion; and illusions are the stuff of Maya. And metaphor in its multiple references to time, make it seem to be real.
By colouring our thinking, metaphors give our life meaning. Not only that, they shape our lives and may even dictate our actions. In profound and simple ways we live by and in metaphor, not only to communicate meanings and to colour concepts, but by the relative life of time, identity, space, cause and effect. They are all concepts of Maya that make our life what it is; an indeterminate, changing, kaleidoscopic thing in perpetual flux, made knowable by that which is beyond it.
It becomes dangerous when the substance of the original metaphor is forgotten and the word alone exists as the reality. The sixth aphorism in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras reads: Verbal delusion is when words have no corresponding reality. Metaphors have even more significance and power, for there is also a sort of super-subtle metaphor that could be called a metametaphor. They are a sort of mental short hand by which a single word, substantial or subtle, is used to represent something of great complexity. It is curious that the illusory nature of this dangerous semantic devise is rarely suspected. Metametaphors have always been used to dominate, coerce, or manipulate others. Two such words are Crown and mind. In ordinary speech they are capable of creating illusions which are taken as realities, which is how Maya works.
The single word Crown can stand for a King or a Queen, or both, the palace, regal authority, huge areas of land, or any of the vast complexities of monarchy. While thinking it ridiculous to sacrifice one's life to protect a rabbit, many are prepared to do so for the Crown, when this and other metametaphors are used to induce them to think it their duty, even glory. The danger of such metametaphors is in their power to swamp reason and intelligence in those taught to react to words as though they were realities. Maya functions through such a clouding of intelligence based on the uninvestigated significance of metaphors.
Mind is a metametaphor for the vast complexities of thought and feeling. It is an entirely imaginary concept beyond apprehension or comprehension without location or actuality and so can not be the possession of anybody. The concept 'mind' is merely an inference based on the experience of having thoughts and feelings. So we can say, without the slightest sense of incongruity, 'He went out of his mind' which, all considered, is a ridiculous statement.
Maya is the matrix in which our lives are embedded. Over aeons awareness developed a complex of concepts that became cemented in language. So it is that ridiculous, contrary, ambivalent, delusive and ignorant concepts govern our speech, thoughts and actions. This is the matrix of Maya, maintained by language, metaphors and particularly metametaphors.
In this context, awareness should not be confused with consciousness. The entire organism functions with degrees of consciousness, from the gross to the supra mental, most of which we have no awareness of. Awareness is limited. Consciousness, in one way or another, transcends awareness. It is transcendental consciousness functioning through the physical organism that produces awareness, and through awareness, time. Both are unconscious metaphors for the insubstantial consciousness that lends them the tint of reality. In other words, there could be no awareness of time unless it was an appearance in eternity, and no personal awareness if there were no transcendental consciousness. Perception of time and change can only occur through a consciousness that is timeless and changeless, for if it too, were in constant flux, how could it know that which is in constant flux? It is ridiculous to think that one piece of flux can be the knower of another piece of flux or that a piece of flux in flux can hold the entire memory and accumulated knowledge of a lifetime. The essential difference is that consciousness is beyond, yet in, the flux, but awareness is only partially so. Awareness lights moments, but consciousness lights awareness.
To the ordinary conditioned awareness the relative world of Maya and metaphor is absolutely real and it is not seen as Samsara. To the fully conscious, Samsara becomes Nirvana.