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Bridging Cultural Differences


The MetaSelf model has the potential to bridge cultural differences because, both in its general spatial ideas and when it is illustrated as a viewer and box-frame in a room, it shares spatial features with all human bodies. Few things in human nature rival the regularity of the bodily contrasts between top and bottom, front and back, left and right. These contrasts are natural foundations for a number of meaningful contrasts that comprise our multifarious idea of the self.

Our bodily orientation to gravity is normally upright, so that making an exception to this rule becomes a powerful figurative way to convey information. "Upset" is used as an adjective to mean that some normal state of mind has been disturbed; as a noun, upset means that expectations have been defeated -- the top team was defeated by the underdog. "Topsy turvy" and "turning things on their heads" are ways to talk about big changes or mistaken beliefs.

The front/back contrast is similarly powerful. "Getting something backwards" means a mistake or a bad misunderstanding. "Doing a 180" and "making a U turn" are locomotion metaphors for changing one's mind. Consider, also, "backtrack" and "I need to back up a minute and explain..." "Going behind someone's back" is a mark of deceit.

A reversal of the left/right contrast is sometimes expressed as "putting the shoe on the wrong foot." However, the similarity of left and right--our bilateral symetry--makes for a weaker contrast than that between head and foot, chest and rear. In any case, we must exercise care, since some cultures do not use the left/right contrast at all. They instead orient all directions to the points of the compass or to features of the landscape, with which everyone in that culture is familiar: "Use the hammer to the south of you" or "seaward of you."

Despite this kind of exception, the structural axes of our bodies are concretely present in the world and can be demonstrated, making them suitable ground on which to build a model of the human self that might straddle different cultures as world communication brings us closer and closer.

Minimising Prejudice

The Metaself model helps us imagine the compassion that bridges differences of ethnicity, race, class, gender and personal appearance which often cause extreme strife and despair. We each long for others to listen to our experience of the differences between us, really listen while putting themselves in our place. The MetaSelf model helps us to hear the experience of others by showing us familiar metaphors of location and vision as aids to our imagination. "If I were in her place, that is, if I had one child and another on the way, how would I feel if my boss threatened to fire me?" "What is her perspective on this?"

We can make guesses about what others are feeling and we can check out our hunches by asking questions. Then, knowing both the other person's experience and our own, we can begin to see if there is common ground between us, some feeling or a larger value we share.

The MetaSelf model, when illustrated by particular human figures, is indeed limited by the imagination and background of the people who create the illustrations. In this way it takes on some of the differences that can divide people from one another. At the same time, however, when it is illustrated by the more abstract box-frame, it points to more general principles that transcend our differences: it summarizes several ways we visualize compassion, ways more general than any particular human form, sex or belief.

First, as mentioned, the model emphasizes such metaphors as "putting ourself in someone else's place," "walking a mile in their shoes," "looking at things from their standpoint." Such language turns up in everything from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche, to gestalt therapy, where the technique of switching chairs helps one act out a conversation between different people or different parts of oneself. The model gives us (at least) two different points of view, as embodied first by a particular viewer in the gallery room and, second, by the schematic model hanging on the wall in the form of a box- frame. Imagining switching places is a way to imagine oneself in the other person's particular situation or circumstances.

Second, the MetaSelf model illustrates in a literal fashion the inner metaphorical spatial structure of a person, giving us another way to imagine their experience. It assists us by using the back of the box-frame to explicitly represent the figurative space of the other person's "shadow," the repository not only of any unhappy memories they shy away from or the dark impulses they must restrain, but also the light they keep under a bushel, the potentials we hope can be brought out.

Third, the model uses the surrounding walls to represent concretely any system within which two (or more) people find themselves. It thus reminds them that as people they are wholes that exist within a larger whole (or wholes); this larger system has rules or presuppositions which may be limiting their behavior, causing them to turn against each other as they dodge blame and struggle for power. Being aware of this larger system may help them avoid this antagonism.

Fourth and finally, the space beyond the wall in the MetaSelf model is a visual representation of the possibilities of doing things other ways, of finding new win-win solutions that meet the needs of all those within the system. In religious traditions, this space beyond is the location of the transcendent, the observer Self or the "God's eye view" that both judges everyone and is compassionate. It simultaneously represents both our ultimate contextual values and beliefs on the one hand, and, on the other, the fact that this context cannot be known completely and finally.