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.
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.