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Elisa Goldstein, Ph.D.Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.
A blog about mindfulness, stress-reduction, psychotherapy and mental health.

How Can Metaphors Lead to Mental Health?

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Updated: Jan 18th 2011

questionMetaphors have a wonderful way of helping us understand the things in life that seem difficult to comprehend or explain. When I was first studying to become a Psychologist I went around asking many accomplished therapists what their greatest secrets are. One told me that he could see people week after week and what he found most effective was to give them a metaphor to bring with them throughout the week. The one that caught his attention most was, “Can you keep your heart open in hell?”

This basically means, when times get tough, can you be there with love, kindness and compassion? This isn’t easy to do, but a metaphor can help remind us in those moments of the opportunity to practice. I’ve since used this metaphor with many couples who have gone to use it when they go home or when dealing with difficult people in the workplace. While it doesn’t instantly turn someone into a Buddha, it creates a space for practice, opportunity and possibility. 

Another master at metaphors is Arnold (Arnie) Kozak, PhD. Arnie wrote a book called Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness where it is based on using metaphor to help us demystify and make sense out of the experiences of mindfulness.

When I asked Arnie what the title of his book meant he told me:

“The title metaphor from my book is all about acceptance. Wild chickens are all the things and situations in our lives that are unexpected and unwanted. It would be great if life always went swimmingly but we know that’s rarely the case. This metaphor comes from the meditation teacher Larry Rosenberg and his experience meditating in the forests of Thailand that were strewn with screeching wild chickens. Not what one would expect for a meditation retreat! Initially, his secondary agenda was not open to wild chickens; and that’s our basic challenge—to accept what is happening or to resist it (and thereby generate suffering). Fortunately he chose to accept the wild chickens, that is, let go of his secondary agendas. And we are challenged to accept the wild chickens in our life in the same way. Can we relax our secondary agendas? Can we include the wild chickens in the landscape of what is happening now? If we can do this, we’ll find peace and equanimity in the moment. If not, well, then we’ll be miserable. It’s as simple as that (simple, but not necessarily easy to pull off!). “

Sometimes the people closest to us can act as the wild chickens in our lives. But the more we avoid or ignore, the louder the chickens get.

The question is, “Can you keep your heart open in hell?”

Give it a try.

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.  




Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and is author of the upcoming book The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations.

Check out Dr. Goldstein's acclaimed CD's on Mindful Solutions for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, Mindful Solutions for Addiction and RelapsePrevention, and Mindful Solutions for Success and Stress Reduction at Work. -- "They are so relevant, I have marked them as one of my favorites on a handout I give to all new clients" ~ Psychiatrist.

If you're wanting to integrate more mindfulness into your daily life, sign up for his Mindful Living Twitter Feed. Dr. Goldstein is also available for private psychotherapy.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

A little better understanding - David - Jan 19th 2011

   The above article really helped put some things in prospective for me.  Its funny how words put in a strange way can help you better understand the things you sometimes cant understand in its original wording.

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