Tap into the Power of Metaphor

Kristine Chandler Madera

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Images evoke a deep inner response, perhaps a stirring from the innate beauty or shock from the content. A thousand or more words might well describe the image, comment on its artistic value or explain the meaning of it to another, but talking about an image doesn’t bring about the same inner movement as taking in the image first hand. That’s because words and images are processed in different parts of the mind.

Pictures speak to the subconscious mind, a part of the mind that operates largely outside of conscious awareness. Language is the primary means of communication of the conscious mind, the part that is rational and logical, that plans and sets goals and sets out with the pure grit of willpower. The conscious is a fabulous part of the mind, and you wouldn’t be human without it. But when it comes to self-perception, the conscious mind hogs the show. When Descartes said, “I doubt, therefore I think. I think, therefore I am,” he equated the thinking mind with personal identity, and set the tone for the modern view of the conscious as the “executive” mind. That association implies that the conscious mind is always in charge, and that, as the leader, that it has the ability to command the body what to do.

In fact, the conscious mind runs your mental show only 20-50% of your waking day. It conserves energy, as if going dormant, when you’re daydreaming, or when you go into autopilot while driving, or in those brief, mind-quiet moments when you gasp in awe of the beauty of your newborn, or the colors of a sunset, or the grace of serendipity. These are often the most pleasurable moments, when bustle around you recedes beneath a tranquil part of yourself, perhaps accompanied by a deep feeling of connection with others, with spirit, or with the world around you.

Science has now accepted that there is a significant connection between the mind and the body, though for most people it’s still a murky relationship, with unclear roles and an excess of mystery. Adding to the confusion is that the connection between the mind and the body requires working with the subconscious mind—that non-linear, non-logical part of the mind that doesn’t respond to commands, scolding, or even a well-thought-out argument, and simply yawns at willpower. Since the conscious mind is more than happy to take the credit when all is going well, it’s often not until a time of crisis—illness, injury, the re-emergence of a destructive life pattern—that the issue of relationship with the subconscious and the mind-body even comes up. When it does, the subconscious is often vilified as stuck in the past, hidden in the shadows, that pesky part of you that sabotages your life, your health, your goals and then ducks back out of sight.

And yet, developing a relationship between your conscious and subconscious minds is primary to developing a mind-body connection. Your subconscious mind makes up about 90% of your brain volume, and is directly wired into your body. It’s the part of you connected to the electrical meridians accessed through acupuncture, to the nervous system accessed through chiropractic, to the muscles and soft tissues affected by massage, and all your other systems—digestion, circulatory, reproductive, lymph, etc. In ways that are still just being explored, your subconscious mind reaches beyond your body and connects to the environment, to other beings, and into spiritual realms.

It’s an extraordinary system. Your conscious mind is devoted to higher thought and can only hold five to nine pieces of information at any one time; your subconscious is the workhorse that holds everything else. It not only controls things like heart rate, blood pressure, and the millions of chemical reactions that take place each moment to maintain your life and health; but also stores your short and long term memories; your emotional connections to people, events and things; your deeply held values and beliefs about yourself, others, and the world; your learned skills like driving; and—this is where the subconscious gets its bad rap—it pulls you into patterns of thought, behavior, and reaction that have proven to work for you in the past.

Stored patterns are great when they help life go smoothly—who wants to keep their full focus on how to brush their teeth each time, when there are so many more interesting things to think about? You’re free to think about whatever you want as you’re brushing your teeth because your subconscious habit kicks in to allow you that freedom.

But when the habit or pattern is something that interferes with the life your conscious mind desires, that’s when it feels completely and unfairly out of conscious control. Although it doesn’t feel like it in the moment, that “out of control” is an amazing survival strategy. As you learn things, they are stored in the vast filing system of the subconscious mind. The more that the lessons you learn are tied to emotions like fear, anger, helplessness, and such; the closer to the front of the filing system they are stored, so that when a similar situation or emotion arises they are the most accessible templates to call upon. The more they get called upon, the more they become your go-to response to similar situations or threats—until the habit, pattern, belief, or reaction is automatic, and well outside the realm of conscious response. Because your subconscious mind can process millions more bits of information per moment than your conscious mind, it is constantly interacting with the environment—internal and external—and responding to things automatically that never come onto the conscious mind’s radar, which frees you up to think about more interesting things.

The subconscious is magnificent, and you wouldn’t be a thinking being without it. The challenge comes when you want to change a pattern or habit that is no longer working for you, and may even be causing illness or disease. This desire for change is what prompts most people to explore the mind-body connection, and that of course, propels them into relationship with their subconscious.

Your relationship with your subconscious mind is fundamental to your relationship to yourself; to come into relationship with it is to become a participant in your total well-being. And to build a relationship, you need to build trust and rapport, and communicate on a regular basis, keeping in mind that your subconscious is not just a partner, it’s your dominant mind system. Your subconscious has vastly more power and stamina than your conscious mind, and you can only make lasting change when your subconscious chooses to cooperate with the conscious goals you have for your life. It can feel weird and be frustrating in the beginning but it’s helpful to think of the subconscious mind as a two-year-old, incapable of rationality and driven by emotion; responding to praise, redirection, and positive reinforcement rather than scolding and punishment; comfortable with the status quo and scared of the unknown—and to appreciate the power imbalance, keep in mind that this two-year-old has way more energy than the conscious part of you.

There are some very simple strategies for working with the subconscious mind, and one is to understand its communication system. The conscious mind (for most people) communicates primarily with language—using words to explain, reason, give direction, and to think either internally or aloud. The subconscious communicates via images and pictures, emotions, feelings/sensations, memories, and metaphor.

So, rather than just telling the subconscious what it is that you want, infuse your words with the emotions and images that may help it feel safe as it inches into the unknown. Pay attention to how you feel as you do this, because this is your subconscious talking back to you—does it feel afraid, unsure, energized, anxious, or something else? Keep  the conversation ongoing, listen through your sensations and feelings, pay attention to any emotions that come up, and respond back with praise when it does what you like. When it’s unsure, use gentle coaxing through reassuring images and feelings that help the subconscious move in the direction that you want it to go. Small steps are key, knowing that as you build up trust and rapport with gentle, consistent communication, it will be more willing to make larger changes down the road.

One way to supercharge communication with the subconscious mind is through metaphor. Metaphor is a powerful convergence of mind, body and spirit, and can initiate change on all of these levels simultaneously. A metaphor, for the purpose here, is an image, feeling, idea, or object that represents something else. In meditation, they often use the metaphor that thoughts are clouds, and to watch them come and go without getting caught up in any particular cloud. I’m a water person. The cloud image doesn’t work as well for me, so I picture my mind as a still lake and thoughts as ripples on the lake that eventually smooth back out.

Metaphors are personal, and they need to evoke a connection or feeling within to work well for you, so play around with an idea until you find a metaphor that works for you. You can tell when one works—when your subconscious really gets it—because you can feel it resonate somewhere in your body. It may be your whole system that feels energized, or you may feel a swelling in the heart or the gut, tingling in the hands or the legs. A metaphor that works should carry an “aha” kind of feeling. If the feeling that you get is confusion or discomfort, try a different metaphor.

Here’s one that you can use that most anyone can connect with. Spend a few minutes getting the right imagery and intention for you before actually starting to practice this. But imagine yourself as a tree. This tree might represent how you want to feel in your life generally, or it might represent one aspect of your life.  A tree has a root system and a taproot, a trunk, branches, and some sort of foliage. Within this framework, you can build more specific imagery that represents what you want to convey to your subconscious. First, what would you like that root system to represent for you—a connection to nature, to family, to community, to purpose, to your spiritual system, or a combination of any or all of these? What does the taproot, your primary source of nourishment, connect you to? What ways do you feed yourself to bring sustenance to your inner and outer life, to your soul, to your physical, mental, and emotional needs? What else might the taproot connect you to? Keep in mind that the higher the tree and the heavier the branch system, the stronger the root system needs to be.

“This desire for change is what prompts most people to explore the mind-body connection.”

Your trunk—your body or your life or something else that you choose—should have the qualities that you want to communicate in this particular metaphor. Do you want a powerful, mighty trunk that perseveres through the ages, or a sparer, flexible trunk that will bend but not break in a windstorm? Your branches may be thick or thin, reach far out from the trunk or be safe and protected closer in. What grows on this tree? Does it attract particular animals or birds or butterflies? Where do the branches reach and how far do they go? Does the foliage flow with the seasons or does it have the steadiness of an evergreen? Is it thick and shady or does it let lots of light through to the ground below? What do each of the choices you make about this tree mean to you? Because it’s the intention and qualities they inspire in you that you are communicating to your subconscious mind, not just an image of a tree.

When you have your image and what you want to communicate with it, stand up if you can, as standing brings you into the long straight lines of a tree (if you can’t stand, then laying flat or sitting straight in a chair are okay, too.) Close your eyes and take a few long, slow, deep breaths, and relax your mind, as if slipping into a daydream. Once you’re there, feel yourself as the tree, feel energy extend down from your feet as your root system takes hold, feel the taproot anchor to its primary nourishment. Take your time, especially for your first few attempts. Once your root system is in place, feel your body become the trunk that represents what you want to convey to the subconscious, and let it flow through you until the feeling attached to it matches the quality that it represents to you. Then move on to the branches and foliage, and do the same thing. Take your time, and listen to your subconscious response, communicate with that part of you and feel the strength that comes when your conscious intention and your subconscious response come into alignment with one another. This is you in your full inner power, accessing the immense amount of energy available to you when your conscious and subconscious are working together. This is you.
Then, if you really want a challenge, try to explain that experience (and the feelings it inspired) to someone in a thousand words—or even more.


Kristine Chandler Madera helps people makes positive permanent changes in their lives as a certified clinical hypnotist living and practicing in Asheville. Sign up for her free newsletter at www.MindWiseHypnosis.com. She is also the co-author of How to Meditate with Your Dog: An Introduction to Meditation for Dog Lovers.


Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker