When You Dream In Root Metaphors, You’ll Get The Naked Truth

The latest addition to my dreamer’s toolbox promises to be quite versatile and especially useful for deciphering those dreams in my favorite sub-category of dreams: sacred visions. The tool I am referring to is the concept of root metaphors. In this first article-in, a projected series that will explore its functionality-I shall begin by taking a moment to explain the basic idea. The analysis of one of my BIG dreams will then reveal how my dreaming mind, by playing with the cultural metaphor that “classified information must be a pure truth,” creates a clash between the building blocks of this idea to move on towards a more open-ended approach to handling the truth.

What is a root metaphor?

The root metaphor is a concept that I first encountered in Kelly Bulkeley’s insightful work, The Wilderness of Dreams, subtitled Exploring the Religious Meanings of Dreams in Modern Western Culture. Most of us associate the term metaphor with poetry, and we recall how to distinguish it from the simile. Like the simile, the metaphor makes a comparison, but it does so by establishing an equation between two different things. That man is a fox, for example.

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Webster’s online dictionary explains that a root metaphor “is not necessarily an explicit device in language, but a fundamental, often unconscious, assumption.” This broader application of the term metaphor is employed by Bulkeley, who is partly informed by Lakoff and Johnson, the co-authors of Metaphors We Live By. These linguistic philosophers begin by saying that “the essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another,” and then go on to develop the argument that “metaphorical thinking is basic to all human conceptual thinking.”

These metaphors that we live by are not always hidden from our eyes. Sometimes, repeated metaphors can transform it into a slogan, such as “time is money.” Bringing our attention to such metaphors guards us against the corollaries that may unconsciously ensue from them, such as the idea that time spent on matters that do not generate money must be without value.

Metaphors in our dreams

Until now, I only talked about the use of metaphors in our waking experience. The prospect of discovering those metaphors that remain unconscious–even while we live by them–is undoubtedly alluring and makes one fully appreciate Bulkeley’s eagerness to apply this concept of root metaphors to dream analysis. For is not each of our dreaming minds a veteran of its unconscious thinking? Therefore, it should be well-versed in the language of its favorite metaphors, and isolating these metaphors should really help in revealing the syntax of one’s dream language.

In The Wilderness of Dreams, Bulkeley also gives homage to the work of Paul Ricoeur, highlighting this philosopher’s view of the authentic symbol: it is overdetermined, carrying both force and meaning. This force has a regressive vector as well as a progressive one, and Ricoeur “encourages us to look to root metaphors for insights into both the past and the future–into both the archaeology and the teleology of the self.”

One important point to remember regarding metaphors is that they are always partial. The equation set up by a metaphor helps us understand some aspects of a thing, but it always excludes other elements. For this reason, Lakoff and Johnson state that “the use of many metaphors that are inconsistent with one another seems necessary for us to comprehend the details of our daily existence. (221)” For example, we counterbalance the notion that time is money by speaking of quality time.

My feeling is that the dreaming mind knows that single metaphors cannot give us a full grasp of any situation. Scientists have demonstrated that people need to dream of functioning well, regardless of whether they have dream recall or not, but no one understands why we need to dream. Let me suggest that one function of dreams might be to guard us against our narrow views: by putting our habitual metaphors through various thought experiments, our dreams can test out their implications in a harmless way. With this groundwork set out, we are ready to begin the practical application of this root metaphor concept.

The dream: I am given the remains of Christ in a box

In this first dream–others will be explored with the same method in subsequent articles–someone from a university brings me a box containing the remains of Christ’s body. The transaction is done with an air of confidentiality, as though very few people know about the existence of these remains. The box is not square but rather in the shape of my guitar box, and it is open, revealing layers of reddish-brown flesh. I place it in the corner of my bedroom, where my daughter lies on the bed, asleep.

I answered the phone in the next room, and during the conversation, I let slip my information regarding this new responsibility without specifying that the package had already arrived. The person on the phone (later recognized as the comedian Carol Burnett) is trying to dissuade me from accepting it, going on and on about germs and bad smells. I am very terse and say something to end the conversation.

In the kitchen, there is some potato salad left on the counter; it still has a few ice cubes in it. I decided that, later on, I would take a chance and eat some. I am hungry but have many tasks to do and am confused about the order that I should do them in. I enter the bedroom to change my clothes, and I am about to close the curtains, to preserve the secret of the corpse in the corner, but there will not be enough light in the room if I do this. The large, ancient-looking window has turned cobalt blue, and it is getting late. I see that my daughter is still asleep on the bed.

Now I have a scar on my stomach, having had some surgery. Does the fault not look like a big smile? I do not want to go to the hospital to get the stitches out, but I want to remove them myself.

In the next scene, a precious document is dipped in a sterile solution and then placed in a white folder, but upside down. Inputting it upright, it is contaminated, but I am not the one who gets upset. The “file” in question, handled by the technicians with tweezers, is a pair of my underwear.

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In the final scene, I stand wondering if I need to label the body’s remains in the box. How can I preserve the secret but also leave it to future generations? Will the truth not reveal itself automatically because of its authentic nature?

Extracting the fitting metaphor from a dream

Do dreams make any sense? Our waking minds have every right to examine these sequences of jumbled scenarios with a critical eye. One might also ask: does waking life make any sense? For, amusing as this may sound, I am discovering evidence that my dreaming mind feels that it must be equally harsh in putting my daytime metaphors to the test, perhaps to protect me from collecting premises too wantonly. You see, the dreaming mind also wants waking life to “make sense.” Suppose root metaphors are the common ground in this dialogue between the waking and sleeping selves. In that case, the validity of a dream analysis will rest on making confident that we extract the fitting metaphor from a particular dream.

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Internal and external validation

Drawing again from Kelly Bulkeley’s book The Wilderness of Dreams, we will make sure that the dream’s interpretation has both internal and external validation. These methods of valuation are drawn from hermeneutic principles. As in the translation of a foreign text, the understanding that we arrive at must support the cohesiveness of the various parts of the dream, supplying internal validation by pointing to cross-references and repeating motifs. One of the many aspects of the root metaphor is that it is expressible in visual symbols that can take multiple forms when the dream is not cut short or forgotten upon waking.

If the chosen metaphor is genuinely a root metaphor, it will also support other knowledge that is available outside of the dream: it will bear the mark of a past event; it will show evidence of cultural relevance; it will answer present-day needs, and it will offer a means of transmuting energy from the past to the future. All of this constitutes external validation.

If we can express a dream’s root metaphor in the form of a sentence, this may reveal how it has been drawn from a person’s cultural environment. If the interpretation helps us to find the regressive and progressive vectors that Ricoeur has taught us to look for, this will not only furnish an external validation that we have hit upon the correct root metaphor. It also will go a long way in explaining the dream’s reason for being.

Here is the metaphor that I feel was being tested in the ‘remains of Christ’ dream narrated above, along with a partial list of the internal and external points that support this choice:

Root metaphor of the dream: Classified Information Must be the Pure Truth

  • The cultural relevance of this metaphor is the general assumption that if government agencies bother to limit access to specific pieces of information, these must contain truthful information.
  • The dream seems to want to demonstrate that religious faith does not lend itself to academic classification. Even if classified documents ALWAYS contained only the pure truth, the plan points out that fact with a capital “F,” the object of one’s faith, cannot be kept in a box: the box in the dream is of an irregular shape; its cover does not fit, and the “germ” of the idea remains vital and transferable, and thus cannot be contained so quickly.
  • The confidential nature of the initial transaction (when I am given the remains) makes it appear as TOP SECRET, and hence, classified information.
  • Clothes in a dream may represent the persona or public self. The underwear in this dream could express the inner self or the soul. The word “file” is an anagram of the word “life.” When this symbol representing the soul is inserted in a filing cabinet, it resists classification, and the germ motif reappears. The filing cabinet confirms the association between a box shape and the type of inappropriate elements-this repeating motif constitutes internal validation that the dream concerns the elements of classification and purity.
  • The left-over potato salad, a remnant, represents the remains of the body of Christ seen in the first part of the dream. The historical presentation of Christ as food in Holy Communion constitutes an external validation for this interpretation. In the invention, the food offered is not wafer but forced into a box shape, appearing as diced-up potatoes, and placed on a “counter.” When we classify things, we often count them as well. The ice cubes echo the box motif, and since the chosen food does not keep well, this causes the germ motif to reappear. The color white, a symbol of purity, reappears in the form of the white folder file.
  • Another external validation for the chosen interpretation is that Christ is historically associated with truth, and this attribute of validity is my foremost association with his person.
  • The term¬†university¬†sounds like it could mean the science of the universe or the All. To make a science of truth is an attempt at classifying it.
  • The reddish-brown flesh in the box is very disturbing to me (upon waking) and bears witness to the archaeological vector that gives urgency to the dream: it is at the university that my adolescent faith in God suffered a repeated injury under the attack of well-ordered arguments presented by mature, well-educated professors who were bent on transmitting their atheistic convictions to their students.
  • But the object of my faith is still extant. The university leaves me these remains because it has no reasonable means of handling them, and the germ of the great idea is still alive.
  • The scar in the later scene is further evidence that these events marked me. At the same time, it reveals the progressive vector offered by the dream: there are layers of flesh here also, but they have been sewn together, and the color of the flesh is delicate. Something has been repaired, and the stitches, in the form of a smile, are lined up like the bars of a railway. Christ, who is the Way, has been integrated with my person. I do not fear the possibility of inviting germs by dealing with the stitches myself since the whole point is to avoid sterile handling of the issue by authority figures.
  • The sleeping child represents future generations for whom the faith must be preserved, albeit without defining it in a confining way. One must have confidence that the truth will be recognizable by its authentic nature when it is brought to light.

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