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Qualitative Inquiry
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DOI: 10.1177/1077800405275055
2005 11: 752 Qualitative Inquiry
Diana Denton
Toward a Sacred Discourse: Reconceptualizing the Heart Through Metaphor

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10.1177/1077800405275055 QUALITATIVE INQUIRY / October 2005 Denton / TOWARD ASACRED DISCOURSE
Toward a Sacred Discourse:
Reconceptualizing the Heart
Through Metaphor
Diana Denton
University of Waterloo, Canada
In this article, the author takes as her subject the lived experience of the heart. She pres-
ents an autoethnographic case to examine the regions of spiritual inquiry and discourses
of the sacred. In mystical traditions, the heart is often conceptualized as a site of libera-
tion or enlightenment. Entering this inner territory of the heart through the tacit knowl-
edge of poetics and the body, the author explores howa metaphoric turn in her research
illumined a heart practice and discourse, how somatic images became a bridge to lived
experience. She discusses howmining three concrete metaphors, evoked by a set of expe-
riences inthe field, moved her study of the heart. The field inwhich this project is situated
has three dimensions: the authors poetry, lived experience, and images and conversa-
tions arising in her teaching practice.
Keywords: spiritual inquiry; autoethnography; poetics; embodiment; metaphor
I sleep on your lap, child curled to the contours of belly, flesh to skin. No
one will find me here. I am six years old. I lie in the summer grass, feathery
green flesh that dissolves into light; my own body also light. I imagine my
hand moving through flesh. I let you pass through me, like the wind.
A student in a university lecture hall, and again the world couples with
light. Your warmbreath sweeps through me. No one sees this caress. Fingers
fallinglike rain, the whisper of skinbreathingitself away. Voices andbodies of
others in the room conspire in softness, soothing and dissolving divides of
flesh. I am without skin.
Tonight, keenly aware of your absence, andmy ownclaustral flesh, I wake
frantic. Skin closes in on me. I cannot breathe. I am aware of being overcome
by the hardness of bone. In my dream there was no wind.
Qualitative Inquiry, Volume 11 Number 5, 2005 752-770
DOI: 10.1177/1077800405275055
2005 Sage Publications
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I arrive in California in the late spring of 1974. I amnineteen. Two months
earlier, mygrandmother drops me ona highwaynear the outskirts of Toronto.
Leaving me at the roadside with my knapsack, sleeping bag, and thumb, she
slips me twenty dollars in change, Call home, she says. In an ashram, nes-
tled in the foothills of the mountains, I am surrounded by rhythms of chants
and early morning meditations. My teacher, Baba, a swami from India, soft-
ens aroomof thousands withhis gaze. He passes throughme like the wind.
In my dream we are dancing: hundreds joined in the swirling rhythms of
the chant. Edging my way to the front of the crowds, I approach Baba. His
hands stroke myhair, fingers like rain, the softness of butterflies. Abruptly, he
pushes me aside. I amflungtothe outer regions of the crowd. Abandoned, my
feet forget to dance. I stumble and am swept away in the throng of bodies.
Dreamfragments come fitfully. I wake ina sweat, heart pounding, lockedina
breathless stillness.
Weeks later, awake and alone, I approach Baba for a name. The Sanskrit
names he gives are said to reflect ones deepest nature. Who amI? Nearing
his chair, I kneel. I have watched others come to him, but today the words
choke in my throat, I seek a name. The translator repeats my request. I am
aware only of Babas eyes, glaring, piercing, his sudden thundering, Why
havent youexpanded! Skincloses inonme. I cannot breathe. What I needto
say stays in me like stone:
whenI came /withofferings /of water /wantingyouthirsty/youwouldnot /
drink / your throat arched / inward / awkward & dry (Denton, 1977, p. 41)
Babas words ring in my breast for days. I feel judged. I judge myself. Why
havent I expanded? With each syllable, I contract and tighten: I amnot good
enough, I am wrong. I read of how matter contracts through pressurehow
pressure makes stone. I notice how impressions are imprinted on the self.
Pressed into stone, defensive and small, the heart hardens; feeling numbs. I
write of the holding of experience: the held word.
I try to edge my way to the front of the crowds. Yet always I am sent back
year after year, to my university studies, to my family, to the fires of absence
and separation. How I long for you. And how in the soft still hours of the
morning you come to me in the silence of meditation. In these moments there
is no separation. You envelope me in a hollow of soft bone and flesh so real
that only the opening of my eyes can dispel your presence. In the hardlight of
day your absence is poignant. Why havent I expanded?
I intensifymymeditationpractice. As I move awayfromthe worldaround
me, I am lifted out of the body. You call me into a realm of ecstatic silence. In
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the distance, I hear the voices of others: children nestling at my breast. Torn
between worlds, I steal these dark, deep moments of stillness. As my eyes
open, I stumble into the arms of guilt, absence, and separation. Tensions of
body and spirit confront me again and again:
your skin/is white /where colour /is the texture /of mylonging/over &over
/I taste you/green/inmybody /brownroots /to bind/mybreasts /in/lay
hands / upon this woman / for she is sick / and colour / blind (Denton, 1977,
p. 41)
My own body is thickening. I have too much skin.
It is 1987, five years after my Babas death. Your voice is faint, your touch
always an absence, even in meditation. I write of dry, cold, aching things:
all night / the wind suckles / an empty sky / skin to skin / I hear her cries
(Denton, 1998, p. 65). Sitting in stillness, I weep into your absence: Where
have you been? Suddenly your voice ruptures the silence, I have been with
you, but you have not seen, in the experience. I feel caressed by the floor, the
air, the voices, bodies, and breathing of others in the room. In the words you
have not seen, I ampulledinto a sudden seeing. For months afterward, your
voice stirs every fewminutes, Inthis too I ampresent. Where do I findyou?
Here, in my experiencein the bodily sensations, feelings, and thoughts of
my inner world and in the lived events of my daily life. In this vision there is
no judgment of the seen. As the world couples with wind, I ambeckoned into
the arms of experience. I enter tentatively, with all my fears of intimacy.
It is not gentle. The scars of mybody openlike half-forgottenlies. I write of
the held experience, impressions that harden, thickening feeling, of the
ungiven. Suppressed emotions surface with ferocity: the stone chokes her
throat and tears at her body as it rises . . . in the stone we find her feeling;
ember of feeling (a heart thick with dried feeling) (Denton, 1998, p. 55). Like
some anxious animal, I dart from experience to experience. Shadows of the
past pursue me.
I wake frightened. Youcall me deeper into the fear: Embrace the fear. I am
the fear. Calling me deeper into pain, I am the pain. I am pulled into the
body. Emotions eclipse all that I have known, splitting and tearing. The heart
burns in a fury of feeling. Today I wrote, I am given to the fire. Today I felt
this in my body, nothing to hold to but fire. Nothing to be kept of the stone:
soft ash, soft ember, light. Today I understood the all that must be given.
Later, a small flame rises in the heart, a soft caress coupled with flesh. The
pain dissolves into rising flame, into a soft, warmwind. Your voice dissolves
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intothis wind. All breaththat I amis wind. Breathingintothe heart andbreath-
ingout, the longsuspirationof silence andsoftness. Noone cansee this caress.
The gesture spreads throughout the body: fingers of wind. Heart, breath, and
body: all are one. I amaware of a sense of movement, sensation, a softness of
feeling, an expansiveness in the heart. In the arms of the heart, I find myself.
Years later, what remains: the heart as tenderness, fullness of feeling,
movement, a deep-rooted stillness. Your body takes its own shape. My eye
caresses this movement. The world passes through me like the wind.
As a researcher engagedinspiritual inquiry, I studymystical experience as
it is immediately lived and embodied (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000; Rothberg,
2000). Schooled in the philosophies and practices of the Eastnotably tantric
traditions of Kashmir Shaivism
and meditationI struggle with the chal-
lenges of being a Western woman immersed in doctrines and practices of
another culture and time. The rhetoric of religious dogma can solidify the
experiences of the sacred into a systemof prescribed practices, attitudes, and
values, but spiritual wisdom across traditions has ultimately been derived
from the richness of unscripted human experience. As an educator, as some-
one whoseeks toteachwhat is learnedinresearch, I wonder howtoexpress to
others the lived insights of sacredexperience in a way that is not prescriptive.
How can I speak to others from within my own skin about mystical experi-
ence without proprietary claims to special authority or the imposition of
deadening institutional regulation? What fully communal performances and
languagings of experience are possible?
The notion of spirituality in our own culture has often been conceptual-
ized in terms of disembodiment and transcendence of this world (Borg, 1997;
Lakoff &Johnson, 1999). The ancient Greek concept of ecstasy as standing
out of the body expresses a long tradition of unease with the physical as a
possible source of sacred meaning, which has sometimes degenerated into
hostility. Orphic doctrines made much of the aural similarity of the Greek
words for body andtomb (svma andshma, respectively), suggestingthe
equationof the bodywithdeath. Inthe medieval Christiantradition, the peni-
tent was admonished that in the midst of life, we are in death. In fact, many
spiritual traditions across cultures East and West call for a transcendence of
the body, teaching that one should aspire to a state of higher consciousness or
enlightenment separate from embodied existence. In these traditions, the
emphasis is on detachment from the material worldmaterial possessions
andworldly success, but also bodily desire, eventhe body as sensation. Yet as
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1999) aptly asserted, experiences of the
spiritual necessarily occur in the body as forms of sensation, perception, and
feeling. The living soul is always and unalterably an embodied soul.
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Inresponse tothis recognitionof a necessarilyvital andphysical groundof
mystical experience, Lakoff andJohnson(1999) calledfor analternative con-
ception of embodied spirituality that at least begins to do justice to what peo-
ple experience (p. 564). The traditional emphasis on ascetic practices of dis-
embodiment gives way to a passionate spirituality in which bodily pleasure,
pain, desire, delight, and remorse are embraced. The central cognitive ele-
ment of this experience is metaphor: The vehicle by which we are moved in
passionate spirituality and the mechanism of metaphor is bodily (Lakoff
& Johnson, 1999, p. 568). In this article, I propose an ontology of enlighten-
ment centered in our embodied existence and in the immediate experience of
concrete metaphors, which can become in shared reflection a new discourse
of spiritual experience. If, as Lakoff and Johnson (p. 546) suggested, meta-
phors ultimately define the goals and methods of philosophy, our search to
discover new conditions of spirituality outside dominant traditions of tran-
scendence and disembodiment must embrace new metaphors that sacrate
this body and this world. It is through metaphoric innovation (Fernandez,
1982, p. 557) that we will revitalize this mystical ground.
In explorations of consciousness, mystics have long engaged in practices
of inner inquiry such as meditation, prayer, and contemplation. These inqui-
ries have inspired insights and understandings that illumine varied facets of
human experience, from the workings of mind and body to the subtler inti-
mations of the soul. In the face of scientific rigor and objective frames of
knowledge, the richness of these insights has oftenbeenlost to contemporary
researchers. Recently, however, we have begunto see anopeninginthe hori-
zons of knowing (Hart, Nelson, &Puhakka, 2000, p. 2). Yvonna Lincoln and
Egon Guba (2000) suggested that we may be entering an age of greater spir-
itualitywithinresearchefforts,whichmaypermit us toreintegratethesacred
with the secular in ways that promote freedom and self-determination
(p. 185). Lincoln (2002) observed that sacredness is emerging as a viable
criterion for qualitative research. As research perspectives and practices
become more tenuous and fluid, admitting expression of alternative non-
rational modes of knowing, we may replace truth posits with lenses of
understandinglenses that offer the world means of comprehending in a
different way (Gergen, 2002, p. 187). Witness the recent surge ininterpretive,
phenomenological, andautoethnographic researchthat has openedopportu-
nities for subjective approaches exploring the researchers lived experience
(Bochner & Ellis, 2002; Ellis & Bochner, 1992; Ellis & Flaherty, 1992; Richard-
son, 1992). As we begin to see with the subtle shadings of embodied experi-
ence, we are released from the constraints of Western dualisms of body/
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mind, heart/intellect, matter/spirit into renewed poetic, intuitive, and per-
sonal knowing.
Theorists from various academic disciplines now emphasize the impor-
tance of easingthe gapbetweenthe researcher andthe researchedas a precon-
dition of integrative understanding and practice. Paul Muller-Ortega (1989),
inhis explorationof the tantric visionof the heart, has recognizedthe limits of
scholarly methods that objectify the phenomenon of study, and Paul Stoller
(1997) has rightly called for a sensuous scholarship that involves a mixing of
headandheartanopening of ones being to the world (p. xiii). Yet the field
of spiritual inquiry remains largely untapped. Spiritual experience has been
recently characterized as transrational or postconventional (Hart et al., 2000),
an attempt to situate these phenomena away from the self-authorizing stric-
tures of scientific objectivity and value-free rationalism. Researchers in the
transpersonal field increasingly draw on mystical literature to characterize
transrational consciousness, but as Hart et al. (2000) observed, firsthand
investigations of the phenomena of mystical knowing are lacking. The auto-
ethnographyof spiritual experience is still rare. Nelson(2000) describedmys-
tical or transpersonal knowingas anintegrative epistemic frame that tend[s]
to highlight different aspects or perspectives of reality and carries with it
an inclusiveness regarding the self-other dichotomy whereas our ordinary
frame gives rise to a knowing in which self and other are exclusive (p. 70). It
may be that entirely new modes of inquiry are necessary to explore and
express spiritual inquiry in a contemporary way (Rothberg, 2000). External,
consensually validated standards may offer some guidelines and criteria for
assessing various documentary records of spiritual experience but cannot
regulate the experience itself. For immediate revelation, we must seekaninte-
rior view of this knowing. This may require the use of yogi-scientists as
research practitioners (Walsh, 1995)researchers actively engaged in medi-
tative, contemplative, and imaginal forms of inquiry. Mystical wisdom can-
not be mediated in traditional observer/observed models.
The segregation of researcher fromresearch, which has provedintractably
problematic even for understanding external cultural forms in anthropologi-
cal and sociological investigation, cannot possibly access interior experi-
ence without co-implicative participation. The scientific purity of Western
research methods is a repetition of disembodied ascetic practice in the realm
of knowledge, and the embodied knowing of mystical experience actively
embraces the impurity of our lived and felt awareness. As we dialogue
from within an interior perspective, we may inspire others to trust and give
voice to their own knowing.
Narratives of the spiritual are risky. Not only are experiences of the ineffa-
ble difficult to convey through language but also, as H. L. Goodall (2000) put
it, finding the nerve (p. 188) poses an even greater challenge. The spiritual
narrative is a transgressive act, treading provocatively within and across
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taboo territories of traditional research, coming and going without proper
disciplinary supervision. Much of the data generated in these studies are not
objectively verifiable, including inner somatic states, interior voices, and felt
presences. In engaging spiritual inquiry, we enter the difficult territory of the
invisible, unverifiable, and unreplicable. Often, the divide between pathol-
ogyandmysticismis obscured. For some, the lackof immediately perceptible
boundaries means there are none. Christina Grof and Stanislav Grof (1993)
noted that
traditional psychiatry does not recognize the difference between mystical and
psychotic experience. All unusual states of consciousness are essentially seen as
pathological. There is no acknowledgement that any dramatic experiential
states involving changes of consciousness could be potentially therapeutic and
transformative. (p. 138)
In his discussion of mystical experience, Nelson (2000) suggested that we
must understand mystical encounters as the remaking of . . . epistemic
frame[s] of reference (p. 64), as a radical transformation creating a newstyle
of knowing. These transformations are ontic shifts (Nelson, 2000), allowing us
to leap between and across epistemic boundaries. As researcher, I enter this
territory tentatively.
In this article, I discuss an immediately experienced transformation, an
ontic shift, metaphorically instantiated as the lived experience of the heart.
Events in our recent collective past make this project more poignant. As we
attempt toreintegrate andrekindle our energies throughmystical knowledge
and practice, it may be in the experience of the heart that we find wisdomfor
compassionate action. Laura Rendon (2002) wrote of a sentipensante peda-
gogyathinking/feelingknowledge that invokes the wisdomof the heart, in
which teaching becomes an act of love for the world (p. 13). Entering the
inner territory of the heart, I explore the selfs attempts to free consciousness
through an examination of the tacit knowledge of poetics in the body. I con-
ceptualize this heart experience as a sacred space, providing what Lincoln
andGuba (2000) called an authoritative site for humaninquiry (p. 169). My
references to the heart do not denote the physical organ nor any anatomic
placement or delimitation but instead, evoke and echo descriptions of the
heart chakra in mystical traditions of the East. The heart chakra has been
describedas the seat of the soul, a place of compassionandlove, anembodied
awareness of the Infinitethe very core of being (Maharshi, 1972/2001,
p. 80). This chakra is linkedinexperience to somatic sensation but not reduced
to either mindor body. Recent studies invoking the concept of the heart attest
to its significance in the constitution of human knowledge. Contemporary
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neurobiological research suggests reason is impaired without emotion, that
reason may be better understood as a co-form of emotion (Damasio, 1994;
Greenspan, 1997). Inyogic literature, the heart is oftenidentifiedas the seat of
feeling. Our English word emotion stems fromthe Latin (e + movereto stir, to
move, to disturb), andancient Sanskrit notions of movement as the essence of
the heart may be preserved in the Latin root. There are possible links with the
tantric conception of liberation or enlightenment as hrydayangamibhuta, a
term commonly translated as become something that moves in the heart
(Muller-Ortega, 1989, p. 2). The movement of the heart is linkedto feeling and
sensation, described as a vibration which is a slight motion of a special kind,
a unique vibrating light . . . the wave of the ocean of consciousness, without
which there is no consciousness at all (Abhinavagupta as quoted in Muller-
Ortega, 1989, p. 118). This awakened heart is not a finite condition of individ-
ual being but a coparticipative involvement in an ever-unfolding process of
awakeningandmovementa phenomenological shift inexperience andper-
ception at both poles of subject/object. From this perspective, we can em-
brace the paradox of an embodied transcendence, a condition of ecstatic partici-
pation in the mystery and wonder of this immediate and material world.
Here, transcendence no longer hangs over us: We become strangely, its
privilegedbearer (Merleau-Ponty, 1964, pp. 70-71). Withinthe somatic meta-
phor of the moving heart, we make a metaphoric shift from movement out of
and away from the body to a movement within and toward the body.
Inthe beginningof this article, I describedmyownexperience of the awak-
ening heartinsight that illumined and altered my perceptual field and
offered a deepening sense of inner wholeness. This experience occurred in a
moment of emotional wounding, a dramatic inner stirring and move-
ment where the fabric of my being seemed sunderedas if the heart had
split. Much of the literature on mysticism acknowledges that sudden rup-
tures in consciousnessoften experienced as painful or rendingawaken
newdimensions of knowing. This awakening of the heart could be described
as anextraordinaryexperience registeredbothwithinandaroundmybody
an event in which I was so profoundly absorbed that I had no interpretive
framework for making sense of it. This epiphany, embodied viscerally and
emotionally, remains the pivotal point in my research. My experience is con-
sistent with Lincoln and Gubas (2000) assertion that newparadigmresearch
is frequently concerned with the single experience, the individual crisis, the
epiphany or moment of discovery, with that most powerful of all threats to
conventional objectivity, feelingandemotion (p. 179). Throughthis awaken-
ing, my assumptions about the nature of spiritual liberation were irrevocably
changed. Transpersonal crises of this kind (Grof & Grof, 1993) are similar to
the ritualistic shamanic or initiatory illnesses that Holger Kalweit (1984)
described as being characterized by sickness or sufferinga sacred illness
which makes mystical and metaphysical insights possible (p. 89). I have
documented this awakening of heart more fully in Presence (Denton, 1989), a
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phenomenological and poetic rendering of an experience for which the
discourse of Western rationalism has no words.
In the years following my experience of awakening, an interpretive frame
began to emerge. Turning to traditional Eastern texts of Kashmir Shaivism, I
foundmanyresonances. Several recent translations allowedfor a closer read-
ingof these primarytexts, andI discoveredinthema sense of companionship
in terms of shared awareness. In these ancient texts, the self is described as an
undivided consciousness (Muller-Ortega, 1989, p. 212) and an unbroken
body (Bailly, 1987, p. 44). The emphasis is on integrative awareness of mind
and body or of mind and body as unified aspects of a single awareness.
Despite these welcome similarities with my own experience, there were
points of tension. I noted sadly that fewwomens voices spoke in these texts.
These writings came laden with a historical/cultural significance that was
not my own and did not translate easily to my contemporary experience. The
truths might be timeless, but the bodywas intime, andmyneedfor truths that
could be embodied was paramount.
After the death of my meditation teacher in the early 1980s, I drifted away
from the spiritual community that had formed around him. Yet now I
returned to this community to share my writing and insightsto explore
with others who shared a common commitment to expansions of conscious-
ness. I brought myresearchtomyteachers successora womanfromIndia. I
was quicklyherdedaside. The onlyresponse I receivedwas the cautionthat if
I used my meditation teachers name in any of my writings I would be sued.
His name was now copyrighted property. The heartfelt recognition of
authentic experience inthe midst of a communityof sharedpractice hadbeen
replacedbyanimpersonal bureaucracydominatedbyveryWesternconcerns
about intellectual property. I was thrust fromthe nest. I foundmyself alone
adrift in a sense of otherness.
Turning to current transpersonal research, I was troubled by dualistic
frames that tend to fragment the selfmodels that commonly address
sharply demarcated levels of consciousness (Wilber, 1993). I wondered, in-
stead, how I might express mystical experience in a language and practice
designed to awaken the embodied sensual experience of the heart for
othersthe unbroken body of the self. I was searching for a sacred discourse
that could maintain what Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln (2000), in
Handbook of Qualitative Research, described as the unity of the self in its rela-
tionship to the reconstructed, moral, and sacred natural world (p. 1052).
Only by rejecting the hierarchical and divisive disjunction of experience into
higher and lower levels, and only by rejecting the concepts of ownership
and property, could I arrive where our flesh is inseparable from the flesh of
the world (Lakoff &Johnson, 1999). For many years, I offered workshops and
retreats that sought to facilitate this awakening of the heart. In these contexts,
I explored with others connections and resonances that occurred in imaginal
andsomatic experience. I was curious tolearnhowthe conditionanddisposi-
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tion of the body itself might assist this process of awakening. In meditation,
somatic states are achieved that influence the generation of concepts and
images. Howdoes the musculature of the body andits changingphysical dis-
positioninfluence the productionof imagery? I was discoveringthat the body
could be the source of images. Lakoff and Johnson (1999) supported this:
Our conceptual system is grounded in, neurally makes use of, and is cru-
cially shaped by, our perceptual and motor systems (p. 555). Their research
confirms for me that the properties of mind are not purely mental: They are
shapedincrucial ways bythe body (Lakoff &Johnson, 1999, p. 565). I contin-
uedtofindthat kinesthetic response helpedtogenerate concrete imagerythat
informed understanding. The insights generated in these contexts inspired
the writing of my dissertation (Denton, 1998)a phenomenological analysis
of the heart.
The voice of the heart is intuitive, metaphorical, and feelinged. My
research and practice led me to explore how a metaphoric turn might fur-
ther a new practice and discourse of the heart. Sara Dexter and Donald
LaMagdeleine (2002) noted that metaphors in qualitative research afford two
significant opportunities. They are reflexive of researchers experience and
worldviewandgenerative of newlines of investigation. Inmystudyof mysti-
cal knowledge, somatic metaphors became a bridge to lived experience. The
power of the metaphor is that it lifts us out of conventionalized cultural, rhe-
torical conceptions and offers a return to an essential human experience, into
what Michael Jackson (1998) has helpfully characterized as a poetics of
intersubjectivity (p. 13). The metaphorical mode creates an arena in which
one is both invited and challenged to engage an aspect of reality that is to
some degree alien to ones usual patterns of thought and life (Gill, 1991,
p. 138). Inhis ethnographyBwiti, James Fernandez(1982) exploredhowmeta-
phors move the spiritual seeker fromthe needful conditionof isolationtothe
spiritual unification of oneheartedness (p. 562). Concretizing the inchoate-
ness of experience, metaphors reveal associations that spur this affective
movement. In my own teaching, I sought metaphoric performances
(Fernandez, 1982, p. 561) that could stir andawaken the heart. What emerged
was a root metaphor (Pepper, 1942; Turner, 1974) and three related concrete
metaphors, each evoked by a set of lived experiences derived frommy study,
and communal practice, of the heart.
My findings come from personal meditative and contemplative experi-
ence and fromongoing exchanges and discussions with various respondents
in settings ranging from university courses in communication, performance
studies, and holistic education to meditation retreats and workshops. To
work effectively with metaphor in these contexts, researchers and respon-
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dents must be prepared to speak a common language; to risk exchange and
modification of metaphor as it occurs. It is this impulse to progressive trans-
formation of metaphor (Fernandez, 1982, p. 562) that revitalizes spiritual
imagination and experience. We authorize metaphor as a language of knowl-
edge by using it actively in our research, and our methodology must partake
of the cognitive forms it seeks to understand. Only with and through meta-
phor can metaphor be fully understood. Metaphor provides resources of
poetic speech to ordinary life and becomes a vehicle for freeing us from the
constraints of mind/body dualism. The mystical autoethnographer is a
coparticipant in the exchange and re-visioning of metaphoric knowledge.
The materiality of metaphor, its implication in the sensuous, maintains the
unity of physical and mystical experience in the feeling body.
In exploring the emergence of the root metaphor, an inward turn, I
reflected on early shifts in perceptionon an opening or unconcealment in
the visual and somatic field that led to an awakening of the heart. My child-
hood experience of an enveloping oneness and loving presence could be
described as a prototype of insight or inspiration. In inspirational knowing,
the subject/object dichotomy is replaced with the intimacy of contact
(Hart, 2000, p. 34). As I grew older, immersed in practices of meditation, I
came to believe that enlightenment involved a distancing from phenomenal
reality. The visceral images in my poetry were often met with disdain from
others in my spiritual community: You are such a spiritual person. Howcan
you write like this? Jackson (1998) noted that
disturbances in the field of interpersonal relations will register as cultural con-
tradictions, as well as show up as knots and binds in the field of bodily
intersubjectivity. Such interconnections between cultural, bodily, and interper-
sonal domains findexpressioninthe root metaphors of a culture, anddisclose . . .
the points at which the habits, idioms, and stratagems of intersubjective life
become introjected as intrapsychic defenses and projected as transpersonal
defenses that governwhat canandcannot be saidanddone withinthe groupas a
whole. (p. 13)
The feeling body became something to be disciplined, restrained, and con-
tained. Movement was away from the body. This perspective is consistent
with Vedantic traditions that regard the phenomenal world as illusory. Mark
Dyczkowski (1987) wrote that the vedantin . . . seeks to understand the
nature of the absolute by excluding every element of experience which does
not conform to the criterion of absoluteness, until all that remains is the
unqualified Brahman (p. 38). Fromthis perspective, self and present experi-
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ence are seen as imperfections, something to be distanced and suspended, if
not discarded.
In my experience of the inner voice, this perception was dramatically
altered. My longing for this presence became the affect bridge to a new
epistemic domain. As I embraced the erotic quality of experience, tensions of
subject/object dualismeased. The root metaphor that had defined my earlier
spiritual experiencemoving out of the body, being lifted up to spiritual
heightswas noweclipsed by the metaphor of a movement withinthe flutter
or throb of an embodied Presence. From this root metaphor three subsequent
concrete metaphors emerged. Each of these facilitated an understanding of
the intimate movement within the heart and between the heart and the
experienced phenomenal world.
These three metaphors are mappedhere phenomenologically, in the order
they were brought to consciousness: self/experience as the beloved, the
stone heart, and the pillow. However, in the exploration of new ground,
unexpected pathways emerge. In my performance of these with others, the
sequencing shifts to allow emergent qualities (Fernandez, 1982, p. 557) to
be embodied. The sequencing of these metaphors is a sequencing of atten-
tion (Fernandez, 1982, p. 559) on both primary corporeal experience and
social experience. The metaphor of stone, an image of visceral and psychic
contraction of the heart, evolves into the pillow metaphor. Contraction dis-
solves into a relaxed expansion. The primary attention in both these meta-
phors is on corporeal existence, but each is implicated in the social fabric of
life as a contraction fromor expansion into the experiencedother. Throughthese
metaphors we relax intothe thirdmetaphorthe arms of experiencea com-
munion with the seen. The stone and pillow metaphors work to bring to
consciousness a visceral awareness of the heart. The self/experience as the
beloved metaphor furthers this awareness by illuminating a practice of
the heart. It is the movement from one image to another that gives each
metaphor and the sequence of metaphors their power (Fernandez, 1982,
p. 561).
Things attract mylook, mygaze caresses . . . things. (Merleau-Ponty, 1968, p. 76)
Inmyexperience of the inner voice andinmysense of beingheld, I discov-
ered the first fully concrete metaphor of self/experience as the beloved. Bringing
anintimate attentiontomythoughts, feelings, bodilysensations andthe lived
moments of mylife, I beheldthe belovedinall that I saw. DavidMichael Levin
(1988) wrote, To behold is to be held by what one sees (p. 257). The move-
ment toward an expansion of vision occurred as I allowed myself to be held
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by the seen, to be open to what was seen, to rest in what was seen. This shape
of the beloved (experience) returned the lover of experience to her own feel-
ing. These feelings took her to the heart. Here the lovers dilemma was
resolved, for the beloved was not out there to be sought. The lover, this unify-
ing wholeness of love, was in the heart. The lover who was responsive to the
gestures of experience found each experience returning her to the feeling of
being loved. There was less need to control, to hold onto experience, to main-
tain balance. There was stillness in the heart (Denton, 1989).
As I translated this perspective into my teaching and researching practice,
I found writing and teaching from the heart required a softer way of being. I
couldnot inhabit a linear, rational, tight, or defendedplace. I couldnot control
experience. I couldonlylistentoits manymovements. Viscerally andpsycho-
logically, I neededto be inwhat I describedas a fluid state. Communication
of this awareness requiredopenness, a sensitivity to the mystery andpotency
of each moment, an intimacy with the seen. Here every perception is a com-
munication or communion . . . a coition, so to speak, of our body with things
(Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p. 320). I wondered what metaphors of eros, of experi-
ence as lover, might awaken in others? What powers of the heart might be
In workshop contexts, I explored with participants this metaphoric im-
age of self as beloved. Meanings were woven collectively in our dialogue. We
did not speak of the lover as a New Age dictate to love the self. We ex-
plored something deeperthe way one enters slowly into relationship with
anotherfeeling the rhythms, voices, and gestures of the other, savoring the
deepening of knowledge that occurs in intimate contact over time. This expe-
rience was described by participants as freeing, spontaneous, warm, a light-
ening of body, gentle, and tender. Conversely, it was also painful, thorny,
dark, forbidding. We were approaching the self with our many fears of inti-
macy. I came to speak of this practice of erotic knowledge as a relaxing into the
self. The metaphor of self as lover was evocative of compassionate attention
and a return to feeling.
In this gesture, the interplay of lovers is witnessed in the dance between
self and the phenomenal world. Experience awakens the selfs feeling in sen-
sations of pleasure and pain. Each lived experience offers an opportunity to
return to feeling. The meaning of the experienced/phenomenal world lies in
this gesture of allowance. As I relax into experience, I allowmyself to feel the
rhythms, gestures, andmovements of space, people, andlived events toward
and away from me in the environment of sensation. Returning to inner feel-
ing, the heart is stirred, moved, disturbed, and sometimes ruptured into a
new state of being. Feeling and sensation in the somatic domain of the body
awakens and enlivens this movement of the heart. The divide between inner
and outer worlds is attenuated. Levin (1988) described this relationship
between self and world as an intertwining, deepening their original contact
and expanding the existential meaning of their reciprocal presence (pp. 210-
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211). Relaxing into experience allows me to feel the touch of experience. Here,
sensation is literally a form of communion (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p. 212).
The heart that moves is a heart that is responsive to experience. I begin to
honor the seen and felt for what it is. A concrete example elucidates this
understanding. Conjuring a picture of fire, a campsite in the woods, I note
that inhonoringmyownnature andthe fires nature I sit beside the fire andam
soothedbyits warmth. Tosit inthe fire wouldbe a betrayal of myownbeing, a
submission to the terror of the fire. Honoring the nature of the seen and my
ownnature, I move intosacredrelationshipwithall that surrounds me. I learn
how to be with what is.
In workshop sessions, I found myself encouraging students to relax into
experience, to listen to experience, to respond to experience. In the arms
of experience we were recovering an awareness of the intimate relationship
between self and the seen. James Hillman and Michael Ventura (1992) wrote,
I am not caused by my historymy parents, my childhood and develop-
ment. These are mirrors in which I may catch glimpses of my image (p. 63).
Attending to feeling, we begin to see the issues of the heart. It is experience
that offers this vision. In moving close to the seen, as we look into ourselves
we see more clearly our unexaminedconflicts andfears, our frailties andcon-
fusion (Kornfield, 1993, p. 72). It is experience that brings the unconscious
tolight. This feelingheart, the heart that moves withthe intimacyof contact, is
a heart moved by what it sees: Experience as the loved body arouses
(Denton, 1989, p. 26).
This movement of the heart is characterized by responsiveness to the feel-
ing-tone of experience. Describing this awareness, Katsuki Sekida (1975)
observed, Ablade of grass, even a stone at the roadside, begins to shine with
the beauty of its essential nature. Youare inclosest intimacy withthe object
(p. 42). Sekidas observations here recall Lakoff and Johnsons (1999) notion
of imaginative empathic projectionthe ability to feel with the other, to
embody imaginatively the experience of all that surrounds us. It is this aes-
thetic attitude to the worldthat is central to self-nurturance, to the nurturance
of others and to the nurturance of the world itself (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999,
p. 566). As Lakoff and Johnson noted, Embodied spirituality is more than
spiritual experience. It is an ethical relationship to the physical world
(p. 566). The heart that moves, that is able to respond, is a heart that has a
responsibility to care for all that it sees.
In my teaching practice, as we explored the metaphoric sensation of relax-
ing into the heart, another concrete metaphor surfaced. In a workshop, a
woman shared an image from meditation: It felt as if her heart was a stone
hard and tight. She could see the gray solid contours of rock encircling her
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breast. I suggested she relax into the feeling/imagethat she bring to it a
lovers attention. As she did this during a period of weeksthe heaviness in
her heart eased and softened. She felt an interior lightening (Denton, 1998).
The metaphor of stone was significant to me because it recalled my own
embodied awareness. It offered a means of grasping an inchoate trouble
(Fernandez, 1982, p. 557). Asense of heaviness, tightening, andconstrictionin
the chest was a frequent phenomenonamong workshopparticipants. Images
of stone, wood, and ice were often shared. This sensation of density is com-
monly reflected in the psychological and bodily defenses erected by the psy-
che inthe midst of challenging experience. We become hardenedanddefend-
ed. The heart tightens like a fist. The heart of stone signified the contraction of
consciousness. The image of stone inspired new imagesflame that melts
and water that erodes the stone. Increasingly, in my meditation workshops, I
foundmyself speakingof relaxing intothe self, intothe heart, but the recurring
image of stone raised questions: How was the heart deadened, hardened
turned to stone? What Medusa ruled here? These questions eventually led to
the emergence of a softer more pliable metaphoran image that inspired an
embodied practice and attention.
The metaphor of the pillowhas become a core concept inmyphenomenol-
ogy of the heart (Denton, 1998). Emerging in an early meditation workshop,
the metaphoric use of the pillowoffers a concrete symbol for the hearts lithic
contraction. The response of others to the image is visceral andimmediate. In
a workshop, I amseated on a large black pillow. Students are struggling with
the tantric conception of the contraction of consciousness. Ks7emaraja, a 10th-
century teacher in the tradition of Kashmir Shaivism, wrote that individ-
ual consciousness becomes contracted in conformity with the objects of
consciousness ( Ks7emaraja as quoted in Singh, 1990, p. 55). In a moment of
inspiration, I take the pillow into my hands. I ask others to imagine this soft
pliable form as the self. I remind them of the softness seen in the face of an
infantthe tender, expansive skin of early childhood. Gradually, I begin to
clutch together pieces of the pillow. With each contracting gesture, I offer an
example of some defeating experience in my own life. Others share their own
narratives of impressions gathered in a lifethe objects of consciousness,
impressions that undermine the natural expansiveness of a self. With each
added experience, each impression internalized, the pillow begins to con-
tract. Soonit is a hard, tight thing. Inthis I amremindedof howthe influences
of others are impressed on our pliable consciousness. Holding these impres-
sions, the self begins to contract. It is a tendency to judge experience that
affects these contractions. In this simple image, we see the holding of experi-
ence, the hardeningof experiencethe hardeningof the heart, the stone heart.
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Now grasping this concrete image of constriction and compression, my
hands begin to gently stroke the tight places of the pillow. As the contractions
begintoease, the pillowsoftens intoits original form. I pass the pillowaround
the roomas we dialogue aroundthis image. Others caress the pillowwithvis-
ceral attention. We can feel the corresponding contractions and softenings in
our own bodies. Approaching the self with this same gentle awareness, we
notice the tightened places of consciousness begin to release. Relaxing into
the moment, into experience, movement is restored. Here the compassionate,
loving eye of the heart offers healing.
With the emergence of these metaphors, I discovered a discourse that
could awaken and convey an experiencing of the heart. Collectively, in my
teaching practice, students and I have exchanged these metaphors as a
ground of discussion about embodied heart experience and new insights
have been generated. In another workshop, I used a crumpled piece of paper
to describe the process of contraction, wadding the sheet into a tight knot.
Later, as I smoothed the surface of the paper, a woman remarked that the
paper was now softer than it was in its original state. We followed this new
metaphoric link to recognize how experiences deepen and soften the heart.
The state of enlightenment or liberation that is coveted in so many Eastern
traditions cannot be solely an individualistic pursuit. It must be grounded in
compassionate acts predicated on an awareness of the intricate webs of life
the relational realityof humanexperience. Spiritual liberationis anact of rela-
tionship, a sharing in community by one for all. In this web, we must use
our freedom to help others flourish or we deny our own well-being
(Christians, 2000, p. 144). The ground of mystical knowing is bodily, and the
boundaries of embodied knowing embrace the body of others.
As we enter the territory of spiritual inquiry, metaphors and images,
rather than definitions, are guides to understanding. Following the traces of
imaginal and reflective experience, we can move away fromabstractions and
theoretical ideologies toward our own felt perceptions. Inquiring into an
embodied spirituality, we must find metaphors that allow us to express and
encourage the goals and practices of spiritual lifemetaphors that reveal the
visceral immediacy andsimplicity of livedexperience. Our quest is for empa-
thetic knowledge not domination, participation not subordination. This is a
spirituality embracing the textures, sensations, and emotions of the human
and more-than-human world (Abram, 1996). This understanding is vital so
that we may embody images awakening in us a newrange of movement and
response. This body in this world is the site of knowledge.
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Diana Dentonis anassociate professor of communicationinthe Department of
Drama and Speech Communication at the University of Waterloo, Ontario,
Canada. She teaches courses in leadership, communication, spirituality, and
performance. Her publications include In the Tenderness of Stone: Liberat-
ing Consciousness Through Awakening the Heart (Sterling House,
1998) and two coedited collections, Spirituality, Action & Pedagogy:
Teaching From the Heart (Peter Lang, 2004) and Holistic Learning and
Spirituality in Education: Breaking New Ground (State University of
New York Press, 2005).
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