Two wolves are locked in mortal combat for the prize of a Cherokee brave’s heart

One represents love. The other, hate. You don’t have to be Native American to understand that the wolf that triumphs will be the one he feeds.

The Metaphorical Therapy System deploys visual metaphors as packages of particular meaning pre-loaded with emotive potential. Intuitive unambiguous non-verbal emotional responses are triggered by purpose-chosen images that target specific issues.

I have found that, generally speaking, certain broad metaphors have been enriched with meaning over centuries of use. They are pregnant with meaning that very often transcends ethnic and cultural differences. It may be contrary to expectation, but my personal experience is that these tried and tested metaphors often prove extraordinarily efficient at spanning perceived cultural differences. I routinely consult with patients from backgrounds as diverse as  Australia, China, Japan, Korea and The Balkans. The metaphors I use on a daily basis in a clinical context, have evolved by attrition to become those that can most usually travel most easily across cultural and ethnic borders.

Human experience is bounded by universal natural laws

Up and down. Fire and ice. Life and death. This is how something as humble a lifebuoy can become a universal metaphor for survival and self-preservation. And that is why, after evaluating many alternative candidates, and trialing them in consultation, I chose the lifebuoy, not just as the core visual metaphor for self-preservation, but as the logo for the whole Metaphorical Therapy System.

The life-ring is an image as familiar and as much at home on a Ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong as it as a prop in the Titanic movie or as it is surrounded by plastic langoustines in nets hanging from the ceilings of a thousand seafood restaurants, not to mention the walls of a million marinas, yacht-clubs and harbour-side pubs

There is nothing random in the way I choose and use the metaphors employed in Metaphorical Therapy. All the metaphors deployed throughout the System, are chosen because they powerfully addresses a particular issue or a central principle of psychological health on a non-verbal level by triggering particular associations. These associations are what, in turn, triggers a tightly targeted emotional response.

If you happen to be living in the heart of Amazon, or on one of the Andaman Islands, and have never seen a lifebuoy, it is possible that the sight of one might carry no meaning. But even then, given appropriate context, it may be fairly easy to intuit its intended purpose. Out in the real world, over the course of a normal practitioner’s typical working day, consulting with a member of a remote Amazonian tribe or interviewing a feisty Sentinelese isolationist spearman must surely remain unlikely. If you think you are catching a whiff of cultural imperialism here you whiff very wrong. While it is quite rare, certain metaphors do need to be filtered through a sieve of cultural sensitivity. Example: An aboriginal nation in for North East Queensland has no words for left and right. Instead, they communicate purely in terms of cardinal points of the compass. Rather than framing something in terms of left and right they use only what we think of as cardinal points of the compass. When translated a simple warning might be expressed thus: “A Taipan is about to bite you on your Southeast foot. Suggest you jump Northwest and void your bowels due South.” This may actually be a superior system for spacial orientation so be sensitive, be respectful and use your commonsense. You will very rarely encounter a metaphor that cannot be quite simply altered, improved or substituted to suit the needs of a particular culture. However, because so many metaphors are almost universal, you will find the need to substitute very rare indeed.

A wall is an almost universally accepted metaphor for a boundary

To further illustrate how specific associations and responses can be targeted; consider the image of a wall. A wall is an almost universally accepted metaphor for a boundary. We say “almost” because there may be people out there who have never seen a wall but they would almost certainly be rarer than both rocking-horse shit and hens’ teeth. (Now there’s a fine brace of metaphors.)  The Great Wall of China is called Wan-Li Qang-Qeng which means the 10,000-Li Long Wall. (One wonders what the Mandarin is for prolix, logorrhoea, Captain Obvious and doh?) In your typical modern clinical environment, the image of a wall is a perfectly serviceable and virtually ubiquitous metaphor for a boundary.

In other words: The image of a wall is a visual metaphor upon which the influences of culture and ethnicity have little or no significant impact. 

Moreover, in the context of the Metaphorical Therapy System, the carefully purpose-chosen image of a fence, or a wall, crystallises the abstract and potentially ambiguous concept of a boundary into a common, concrete, effortlessly-visualised and intuitively-understood form. Psychologically speaking, metaphors for boundaries; like fences, walls, borders, property and perimeters; protect our very identity. They do so not just by clearly defining the interdependent limits of obligation and expectation, but by helping us avoid the all too familiar trap of allowing others to dump their problems into our psychological territory.

In the same way that a lifebuoy is a ubiquitous metaphor for self-preservation and a wall is a universal metaphor for boundaries; gold is a powerful multi-cultural metaphor for value. I chose it because it spans Ancient Egypt; the Incas of the Peruvian Andes; the mythology of Ancient Greece, the quarterdecks of a Napoleonic privateers; the Dow Jones; the pages of the Economist and everywhere in between.

Why it’s not all Greek to us

The reason these broad visual metaphors often travel surprisingly well between cultures is because the metaphorical image simply uses the universally understood meaning of one well-known thing to help explain and understand another. Humans, even those of us from vastly different cultural backgrounds, are conditioned to recognise a lot of very similar things. The teeth of a comb. The burning sun. The blanket of snow. The golden opportunity. The human condition viewed from some metaphorical altitude reveals our differences to be shallow and our similarities to run very, very deep. Witness long-standing evidence like Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 cinema epic Seven Samurai being remade for a range of audiences, not once but at least six times including the original masterpiece: Zhong yi qun ying (Seven Warriors) in China, The Magnificent Seven in Hollywood (in 1954 and again in 2016).  A Bug’s Life and Star Wars Episode IV spring readily to mind. There is very little metaphorical difference between a samurai sword, a six-gun and a light-sabre or even the dagger Macbeth saw before him. Aside: Shakespeare, the all-time heavyweight champion of metaphor, is studied in more than twenty-two countries. His plays are set in twelve different countries (admittedly some of them imaginary). Hamlet has been translated into no less than seventy-five languages including  Esperanto and Klingon. This is perhaps as it should be because William was never shy about stealing metaphors like, “It’s Greek to me” and “Fat paunches make lean pates” from other languages.

Up is up. Down is down

All humanity is subject to the same inviolable natural laws. Up is up. Down is down. Fire is fire. Ice is ice. Hot is hot. Cold is cold. And so it is for Inuit, Bedouin, Congolese, Sami, Kosovar, Sentinelese, Slovak, German, Englishman, Norseman and everyone else alike. As in the case of the lifebuoy for self preservation, and as in the case of the wall for boundaries; the universal metaphor of gold has been purpose-chosen in the context of self-worth for its potential to be linked to the value of the love, time and energy we choose to invest in any given relationship. Viewed in this way, it suddenly becomes far easier to evaluate if your relationships are equal and reciprocal and therefore healthy. Conversely, unhealthy discrepancies between investment and return become patently obvious and are more easily accepted as the truth even if inconvenient and uncomfortable because the visual metaphor circumvents the redundant and unhealthy concept that selflessness and self-sacrifice are unvaryingly virtuous.

The exponentially accelerating influence of digital media and the advent of factors like the social media-spawned meme phenomenon, continues to drive the rapid development of a global lingua franca: A powerful and universal primarily visual new global language that transcends culture and ethnicity.  You don’t have to be Chinese to grasp the meaning of “Tiger-style” Kung Fu. You don’t have to be a knight errant to grasp the threat of the two-edged sword. You don’t have to be African to grasp senseless striving and futility captured in the metaphor of the foolish inexperienced young hunter trapped in the closed circle of chasing the game that runs because they are chased.

There are no rules. Rules just rule out the possibility of brilliant exceptions

To suggest that all metaphors are immune to the influences of culture and ethnicity is simple arrogance. Contrary to popular belief, the Inuktitut, (the term Eskimo is pejorative) not withstanding self-proclaimed pundits’ frequent declarations to the contrary, do not have, as is so often asserted, fifty different words for snow. Visual metaphors however, they have in abundance. The Yup’ik word iqalluguaq, used to describe a snowdrift in the lee of an object, is literally translated as “imitation dog salmon,” so called because of its shape. If you are consulting outside the Arctic Circle metaphors like iqalluguaq, or katakartanaq in the case of snow rendered rough by rain and re-freezing to form many little fish-like scales, may not prove particularly useful.

It all comes down to common sense, judgement and context.

Consider the famous Nike poster in which Pete Sampras is shown serving a hand-grenade instead of a tennis ball: All that is required for the metaphor to thump like a ripe watermelon, or indeed a hand-grenade, is that you understand what a grenade is and what it does. If your brother happens to have been killed by a grenade then this might not be the most comfortable choice of metaphor, but that is a matter of context not of culture.

A famous Madison Avenue Madman/Adman named Ed McCabe once said, “I have no use for rules. They only rule out the brilliant exception.” There are no hard and fast rules, but it is prudent to accept that there are indeed exceptions – no matter how rare. Kneeling is a universally viewed as an attitude of supplication. If it is voluntary, as in the act of prayer it is acceptable. If one is driven to one’s knees by a tyrant it is repugnant. Context is critical. Context not culture is king. Be sensitive. Be aware. Adapt.

In closing: All the metaphors deployed throughout our System are designed to be easily woven into (and onto) the central organising principle of Metaphorical Therapy. We call this The Unifying Spiral – the one metaphor to rule them all. The Spiral is within its own right a therapeutic tool par excellence . But that is a twist for another tale.