Walls Inside Our Heads

    Don’t Fence Me In      Cole Porter and Robert Fletcher

 Real fences and real walls are real boundaries intended to keep something in and/or keep something out. Some of these are found in neighborhood backyards and some are famous,historical structures: The Great Wall of China, The Berlin Wall, The West Bank “Separation Barrier”, and of course, Donald Trump’s imaginary Mexico/U S border wall.

This blog comes from my reading Tom Vanderbilt’s article in the New York Times (11-6-16) and to call attention to the mental walls we all build in our minds to keep certain things in and certain things out. At times these became standard operating procedures, belief biases and cognitive limitations. When urging people to be creative we often say: “Think outside the box.” The box of course is the mental barrier between creative thinking and conventional thinking.  I have often advised: “Think without the box.”  Eliminating the imaginary mental boundary of the box opens and expands one’s thinking.

In their famous book, Metaphor’s We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wrote: Reality exists, but so does the unconscious system of metaphorical thought that we use without awareness to comprehend reality. The metaphoric power of mental walls blinds us to their mental hindrance.  Metaphoric boundaries can be like visual placebos, producing effects that hide other meanings.

One of the most influential statements about metaphoric mental boundaries is by Ken Wilber in his 1979 book, No Boundary. To paraphrase him: When you are describing or explaining or just feeling your “self,” what you are actually doing is drawing a mental line or boundary across the whole field of your experience, and everything on the “inside” of that boundary you are feeling or calling your “self,” while everything outside that boundary you feel to be “non-self.” Your self-identity, in other words, depends entirely on where you draw that boundary line.

 The boundary lines we draw in our minds, inside and outside the box, self and non-self, us and them, etc., are metaphoric; they are not real. If everything is interconnected to everything in an unbroken wholeness, then there are no real boundaries between anything. Watch out for your personal metaphoric mental barriers.

My plea over and over has been to remember that, because of the interconnectedness of everything, any attempt to separate this from that with metaphoric boundary lines prevents you from perceiving the interconnectedness of the hidden wholeness. For example, probably most of the many cognitive biases that have been identified could be considered mental barriers because they keep something in and something out of your perception. Don’t fence yourself in!


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  1. Eugene Unger says:

    Thank you H, I loved this Blog. Indeed, where are our walls/ boxes. Christmas? Where is your wall? Where are mine? The birth of Jesus , or happy holiday? With love , your friend Gene ps, God love you Hb, either way

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Marianne says:

    Another thought provoking blog. With our upcoming leadership(?) we might find ourselves holding more tightly to our box just for comfort. Or the destruction of all we believe in will make us scramble for some reality and so hold on to that box even more.

  3. Annette Simmons says:

    Metaphors characterize how we conceptualize reality – and YES! let’s pay attention. I love Lakoff’s big book Philosophy in the Flesh – it’s a bear, but reading it is a good way to stay aware that EVERYTHING we discuss is a metaphor. Take “I see the link between…” It includes the metaphors of vision, object, and spatial relationships. I’m particularly interested to consider metaphors that seem gendered. For instance research shows people can see genius in a man whether you use the metaphor of lightbulb turning on…or a seed growing. But it’s harder for people to think of a woman as a genius when primed iwth the lightbulb metaphor.

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