graphic: MetaSelf Logo

The mind is
inherently embodied.

— Lakoff & Johnson



The Big Picture

Our Starting Strategy: Metaphor

It is a very general truth, according to Scott Page, an expert on models at the University of Michigan, that people do better at a task when they have a model to follow.

If our task in life is to be better humans, it is certainly good if we have people in our lives who are good models. But not all of us are so fortunate. So it is worth examining how to build a model of the self to see if it helps us understand and improve ourselves. As Albert Einstein is said to have remarked, "If I can't picture something, I can't understand it."

You might ask, "How does a picture help me understand myself and become a better human being? What does it do that helps?"

First of all, the MetaSelf picture provides a general framework for assembling "snapshots" of your particular life — your memories, feelings, plans, beliefs, etc. It's like a little album showing an composite portrait. A photo essay, if you like.

Second, the MetaSelf picture arranges all this information spatially. This works whether you actually draw it or see it in your mind's eye. You can step back to see the main features, or zoom in for details, much like the way you use a map on your computer or smartphone. The natural spatial organization will help you recall details when you need them. You can relax a little. In this way the MetaSelf model can be both simple to work with and still lead you to profound depths of complex self-knowledge.

Third, when you have this general framework—and your personal information is inserted into it—it can help you monitor your experiences and notice important patterns. You can ask, "Do these patterns make me a better, happier person?" And you can make decisions accordingly.

Without something to help you see the big picture and monitor what is happening, you may drift from incident to incident in a disjointed, trial-and-error fashion (or, as I often spoonerize, "rile and terror fashion"). A few lessons are learned here and there, and you hope that more changes will occur. In reality, though, you feel frustrated by how little conscious, mindful control you have over your own development. The process feels slow and repetitive. For much of my life I felt this way, until I put together the MetaSelf picture and found out how to use it.

In sum, if you are dissatisfied and seeking to change, it helps to start with a detailed picture of yourself as you are now. This will clarify what you want to change, who you want to be, where you want to go. After that, you can figure out ways to get there. The MetaSelf approach is easily extended to chart your course.

More reasons why a picture can help will be discussed later. Already we have enough to start us thinking about how to make a picture of the self.

At first it does not seem an easy task. Humans aren't physical things you can diagram simply like writing instructions for assembling a model plane, sewing a dress, or building a prefabricated house. Your body has three dimensions in space, but you also have complex mental, psychological, social, ethical, and spiritual "dimensions," which are not easily pictured.

What strategy will enable us to make a picture of these added "dimensions"?

Spatial metaphor is one possibility—a very strong and versatile one. Spatial metaphor bridges the gap between our physical, visual description and our abstract complexities. Two important examples of spatial phrases for describing the self are "the front I put up" and "the back of my mind." We'll consider them in some detail.

Both phrases are part of a larger metaphor that can be simply stated this way:

The self is a container. It has an inside and an outside.

This container is oriented in gravity. It has a front and a back, a top and a bottom and a left and a right (or center and sides).
Let's examine this metaphor and the two important phrases.

A Picture Worth a Thousand Words
graphic: Sketch of the Big Picture
Illustration 1: The Big Picture

Let's start by looking at Illustration 1, called The Big Picture. On a simple, purely representational level, it shows two figures facing each other in a room, holding masks, and offering gifts. Their bodies have a front and a back, a top and a bottom, and a left side and a right side (or a center and sides). They also have an inside and an outside. These paired opposites or contrasts are facts of physical, bodily space that we all share.

But in addition to the purely representational level, this simple picture also contains all the kinds of abstract meaning I previously mentioned: our mental, psychological, social, ethical, and spiritual "dimensions." Does this surprise you? It's true. Many familiar figurative spatial phrases describe the picture on this other "level." (Note, of course, that the ideas of "level" and "dimension" here are themselves metaphorical spatial terms rather than ones that refer to perceptible things.)

This strategy is very easy. You use it every day. You are already familiar with many figures of speech in English that describe the self in terms of space. You are already literate in spatial metaphors.

Even if you are not already conscious of using spatial language this way, all you have to do is take notice of the beautiful way all these spatial phrases are organized. That's what MetaSelf reveals. Instantly, you will have a tool for looking at your whole self in a mindful, concious way.

Focus for a moment on our two primary examples:

1) "the front I maintain" or "the front I put up" (represented by the masks). This phrase means a social role or persona (the Latin for theatrical mask) that we take on in order to get along socially in the world. This concept covers an enormous amount of human thinking and behavior.

2) "the back of my mind" (represented by the back part of the head, and even an indefinite space behind the head). This phrase means such things as deep memory, the subconscious or the unconscious; potentials that are yet to be brought out; and hopes or plans for a distant future.

These ordinary phrases are loose but very functional ways to describe aspects of the self. They are just two pieces of a spatial vocabulary you already have. You understand how to speak about the self as a metaphorical container with "inner depths" and an "outward appearance," a space that is relatively "open" or "closed." MetaSelf seeks to arrange a multitude of these spatial phrases into a powerful tool that you can use consistently and consciously to understand the person you are. It can also help you create the person you want to be.

Illustration 2 shows more examples of this important spatial vocabulary along the Front/Back axis of the body. It's a detail of half of Illustration 1, with the second person off to the right and the right-hand wall out of view. The spatial words are in red. When you roll your pointer over one of the eight numbered spaces on the left, it is highlighted. Clicking the highlighted area will open a box with more information.

graphic: Front/Back Axis, slice 09: Right ../images/slices facing Left ../images/slices
Illustration 2. The Front/Back Axis, showing the 8 Spaces
(click or tap any of the 8 Spaces to view a description of it.)

The vital key here is our human ability to shift from talking about physical space to talking about metaphorical space. Take another example. We move from talking about a "field" — meaning a bounded area of land where plants grow or a game is played — to a metaphorical field such as "a field of study" or the "field someone is working in." Sometimes we forget the literal origin of "field of study," but we might be reminded if we are struggling in our job and someone says, "You have a hard row to hoe."

The metaphor strategy, in sum, is the verbal move from literal, physical, concrete, bodily space to space that is abstract, subjectively experienced, intangible, metaphorical or figurative. It gives us the power to think about or construct vast additional portions of our world beyond what we can experience bodily with the senses.

In recent years, teams of scholars have tried to catalog and understand regularities in the ways we use metaphor. This effort is part of the Cognitive Revolution, an umbrella term for the profound and wide-ranging changes that have taken place over the last 30 years in fields (there's that word!) such as brain science, spatial thinking, conceptual metaphor, linguistics, psychology, philosophy of mind, and mindfulness.

MetaSelf aims to put in your hands a tool for personal transformation that draws on and integrates this important research.

Fortunately ...

You don't have to be a scholar and theorist to appreciate the power of metaphor. You can look at just one organized cluster of metaphors — spatial metaphors — and get a clear sense of the power they give us to understand our lives. MetaSelf assembles dozens of familiar spatial phrases (in English) that describe the mind or personality in a metaphorical way based on our bodily experience of space. It takes these metaphorical phrases seriously because people find them very useful in everyday speech. When we speak about "the back of my mind" we are speaking metaphorically somewhat as if we are trying to find something in a dark, messy closet. And when we speak about "putting up a good front," we're talking about doing something to avoid fully revealing our inner feelings through our facial expression. (In fact, one of the French words for the face is "le front.")

The spatial contrast between the back and front of the body provides the structure for these two very important colloquial phrases. We understand the phrases as describing parts of the total self, which is seen as a container. No jargon is needed. The phrases serve us well, anchoring in our bodily structure the abstract aspects of the self that we cannot see. Spatial phrases do this in a way that a technical term like "the unconscious" does not. The "front I put up" stands for the social/psychological part of the self that is modified to cope with social relationships. As we will see, this contrast enables us to understand more such experiences — shame, pride, integrity and honesty — all in spatial terms.

Stretching spatial language by using metaphor is so much a part of our thinking and talking that it is easily ignored. Much of the time, that's a good thing: if we were aware of using this strategy all the time, it would slow our mental process to a crawl! But other times it's vital that we be aware of it. Calling attention to spatial metaphor keeps our abstract words from becoming detached from reality. If their tether to their concrete origins is severed, the words for them slowly become meaningless tokens. Eventually we wake up and realize that we are lost. We don't know what we are saying or what we mean. The words are empty.

Some people are fortunate enough to have been alerted to the spatial metaphor strategy. Some kind English teacher pointed to the Latin prefixes like pro- and re- (forward and back) and said,

This is important. There is a principle here that you can use like a versatile power tool, to make quick work of many problems. You'll have Superman's x-ray vision and be able to see the inside structure of things. Learn about it and don't forget it!

And here's a link to a list of Latin and Greek spatial prefixes.

Or perhaps a college professor told them about Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff and Johnson), and there they saw the short chapter on spatial metaphors near the beginning.

But even these lucky people may be a little shocked by how much power and scope we get from just four bodily contrasts: front/back, up/down, left/right (or center/side) and inside/outside. Just these four fill out our general strategy with a set of tools for understanding ourselves and others. Each of the four bodily contrasts in The Big Picture has a page of its own that explains its important metaphorical uses.

A Suggestion:
  • Get four sheets of paper right now, one for each of the contrasts.
  • Write down the name of the contrast at the top of each sheet.
  • Do this whether you are just going to make a few notes, or are thinking of assembling an extensive inventory of yourself.
  • As you read about the spatial phrases associated with each contrast, you will have fleeting thoughts, feelings, and questions.
  • If they seem significant, don't let them slip away!
  • Make a quick note of them. Or you might like to make a quick sketch. For example, a stick figure will help tie the abstract, figurative language to the physical space of the body.

Your notes and sketches may simply be important snapshots, or you may eventually feel that they make up a composite "album of You." You don't have to us decide ahead of time which it will be. You'll be prepared for either. The four contrasts will help you sort and arrange information that will reveal important themes and regularities.

An Important Reassurance:

The MetaSelf website provides a wealth of detail to show that we already have a model or a picture of the self that is described by familiar metaphors based on the body. But you don't have to work to remember all the details: they are presented – and repeated in various forms – to make the case that the model is strong, flexible and extensive.

You already know the details and you don't have to keep them all in mind. All you have to do is see the pattern. Just read far enough in the details to grasp that you have a guide to your whole self, a toolkit that is always with you. Your body is your chief source of metaphors to build and understand your self.


We can summarize a great deal about the self in a single image. It simply shows two upright figures facing each other in a room, holding masks. Their bodies have a front and a back, a top and a bottom, and a left and a right (or center and side). These are physical facts we all share.

This apparently simple image, in Illustration 1, is called The Big Picture because its stick figures and room can represent not only basic bodily facts — that we have a front and a back, for example — but also many mental, psychological, social, ethical and spiritual aspects of the self. This is possible because the spaces in the picture have additional metaphorical meanings in English that are implied and can be expressed in figurative spatial language.

Above all, remember that The Big Picture is just a reminder that your own body is the structure for your mind and your life. Whether you are alone facing these words on a page somewhere, or sitting talking to a friend, all the spaces and language of The Big Picture are there in you! Just pause, and this template will be there for you to start making sense of things.

Deeper Meanings

The four concrete spatial contrasts do more than organize our thinking. They express our values, virtues, and weaknesses.

For example, the virtue of good judgment can be described with metaphors having to do with the left/right axis (or center/side axis): "weighing things in the balance," "on the one hand and on the other hand," etc.

Similarly, the virtue of fairness can be described in terms of the balance of the front/back axis between one person and another, such that one of them is not always up and the other down in relative advantages.

And the up/down axis expresses our ideas of independence, individuality, goodness, aspiration and groundedness.

The front/back axis represents connectedness, equality, mutuality and compassion (putting yourself in the other person's shoes) as well as competition. Many of these aspects of the self might be considered socially liberal. The MetaSelf picture has this horizontal emphasis, an important counterbalance for the tendency of the vertical axis to evoke either hierarchy, authority and obedience or the solitary, self-sufficient individual.

The idea of balance includes imbalance and naturally suggests ways to correct an imbalance, thus giving the model an ethical and diagnostic character that can be experienced in the body.

Where Next?

We can now examine each of the four main spatial contrasts in greater in detail on the MetaSelf Basics pages: Front/Back, Up/Down, Left/Right, Inside/Outside. And Balance.

Each contrast can help you structure the ways you reason and think about your self. It will help you consider your relationships and memberships in various systems. It's likely to push you to formulate your ethics, fundamental beliefs, and spirituality, and what you regard as sacred. Knowing all this will help you, as it were, to structure and find your way around the vast space that is your self.

An Invitation:

Let me take a moment here to extend a broad Invitation:

MetaSelf is still developing, and you can contribute to the process. At various points you will find suggested "exercises"—ways to use MetaSelf for self-assessment and transformation. I encourage you to develop your own exercises as well and to let me know what works for you.

If you are a brilliant app designer and psychologist who would like to engage with the ideas and create an amazing self-help application for a computer, tablet, or smart phone, please contact me.

I still need the help of professional healers of various kinds to help me test the premise that having a picture of the self will speed the process of self-discovery and development in everyday life. If you have ideas and/or expertise, please contact me.

Further theoretical connections need to be made among the various fields that MetaSelf draws on, including contemporary work in cognitive science, brain science, philosophy, spatial thinking, etc. Let's get in touch.

MetaSelf Basics pages:

Front/Back, Up/Down, Left/Right, Inside/Outside, Balance.