Metaphor Is a Shortcut on the Path to Mindfulness

Using a vivid metaphor is one of the easiest ways to become more mindful.

Posted Jul 03, 2018

MediaProduction/iStock
Source: MediaProduction/iStock

Mindful awareness has been described in many ways: You’re standing on the bank of a stream and observing leaves float by. Or maybe you’re gazing up at the sky and noticing the clouds as they shift shapes. Or perhaps you’re standing on a sidewalk and watching a parade go past.

If you are at all interested in mindfulness, you’ve probably run into metaphors such as these. They’re widely used in books, classes, and psychotherapeutic approaches that teach mindfulness techniques, and for good reason.

Metaphor is a bridge between the abstract world of mindfulness and the more relatable, concrete world of leaves, clouds, and marching bands. For many people, understanding mindfulness and practicing it in everyday life become much easier once they’ve walked across that bridge.

But what makes for an instructive metaphor? To find out, I asked three experts to share their favorite metaphors for mindfulness. It soon became apparent that the metaphors they nominated had five key things in common.

5 elements of a metaphor for mindfulness

As you look at the metaphors for mindfulness below, you’ll see that each includes:

  1. Someone or something that represents you
  2. Something that represents your thoughts/feelings/perceptions
  3. A situation in which “you” have an opportunity to react to “your thoughts”
  4. One possible reaction that would lead to undesirable or ineffectual consequences
  5. Another possible reaction that would lead to more desirable or effectual consequences—and that, by extension, conveys some important point about mindfulness

Metaphors that include all these elements may be particularly useful when you want to understand mindfulness, remind yourself to practice it, or explain it to someone else.

As an example, take another look at the popular metaphors in the first paragraph of this article. They all cast you as an observer and leaves, clouds, or parade participants as stand-ins for your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. The best reaction in each case is to simply watch the events unfolding in front of you. You either can’t change them or you wouldn’t want to.

Through vivid imagery, these metaphors quickly convey a point: Mindfulness involves observing your changing moment-to-moment experience, but keeping some distance from it—almost as if you were on the outside looking in.

Metaphor 1. Swimming in the stream of life

Below is another metaphor for mindfulness contributed by clinical psychologist Jill Stoddard, Ph.D., author of The Big Book of ACT Metaphors, a guide for mental health professionals. This metaphor was inspired by one in her book, which was originally developed by Richard Whitney:

Imagine yourself as a trout swimming along in a stream. The skilled fly fishers who frequent your stream know exactly what the trout are biting, and they tie up flies designed to imitate those tasty treats. These fishers regularly cast their flies right in front of you. If you are enticed into biting, you get hooked. But perhaps you learn to spot the flies. Then you can observe each one as it dips in front of you, notice how compelled you feel to bite, and yet choose to simply watch so you can keep swimming in the direction you want to go.

“Even if you have never held a fly rod, you can likely connect the flies to your thoughts, the fish to yourself, and the swimming to your life’s journey,” Stoddard says.

This brief story neatly encapsulates the mindfulness principle of observing your thoughts and feelings, but not getting hung up on certain ones. Instead, you note the thoughts and feelings, and then you let them pass so that your awareness can move on to the next moment.

Metaphor 2. Letting the beach ball just be

Michelle Maidenberg, Ph.D., a therapist in private practice in Harrison, New York, is another believer in the power of metaphor. Using a metaphor is more effective than directly and didactically describing a skill such as mindfulness, because it is better committed to memory, Maidenberg says. Here’s one of her favorites:

[Imagine yourself in a swimming pool with a beach ball.] Avoiding and distracting yourself from your issues and limitations is like pushing a beach ball into water and having it pop up when you let it go…The struggle is inevitably fruitless, physically exhausting, and frustrating…The alternative is to let the ball just be and observe the ball and your reaction to the ball…Instead of struggling with the ball, you can focus on the beautiful sunshine, the calming water, and the wonderful friends around you.

“This demonstrates that you can only suppress your thoughts and feelings for so long,” Maidenberg says. “They inevitably pop up again, no matter how hard you try to suppress them.”

As a metaphor for mindfulness, this scenario nicely illustrates the principle of noticing and accepting your thoughts and feelings nonjudgmentally. You don’t try to push them down, but you also don’t let certain ones monopolize your attention.

Metaphor 3. Becoming a good kitten wrangler

Wellness expert Jamie Price, J.D., is co-founder of the Stop, Breathe & Think app, which guides users through short meditations and emotional wellness activities. In her work with Tools for Peace, she has spent the past 18 years teaching mindfulness and meditation to at-risk youth. This is one of her favorite metaphors for mindfulness:

Mindfulness meditation can be like wrangling a box of kittens. You notice one start to crawl out and wander off. So you pick it up and gently set it back in the box, just as two more kittens tumble out. You carefully pick them up and set them back in the box. And then another jumps out…You get the idea. No matter how many kittens tumble out, your job is to just notice the kitten and gently put it back (you wouldn’t be rough with a kitten!).

“It’s the same when you’re practicing mindfulness,” says Price. “No matter how many times your mind wanders, your job is to bring your attention back without giving yourself a hard time.”

Telling yourself a story about mindfulness

“For a metaphor to be useful, it doesn’t have to resemble a person’s exact experience,” says Stoddard. Consider the kitten metaphor, for instance. It may strike you as an apt metaphor, even if you’ve never taken care of kittens in real life.

That said, individuals vary in how relatable and meaningful they find specific metaphors. Try a few until you find the right key to unlock your mindful awareness.