‘Metaphors from the Edge of Chaos’, an interview with Allan Frater

Allan Frater is one of the trainers at the Psychosynthesis Trust, with a particular interest in imagination and ecopsychology. Over the past couple of years, he has been running a series of workshops for therapists, counsellors and coaches that have developed a theme he calls, ‘wild imagination’. The interview caught up with Allan as he prepared for his forthcoming workshop, ‘Metaphors from the Edge of Chaos’, which runs at the Trust May 12th and 13th.

‘Metaphors from the Edge of Chaos’, an interview with Allan Frater

Q: Can you start by telling us about what led you into ‘wild imagination’?

A: Early on in my training as a counsellor a trainer invited the group to, ‘close your eyes, go inside and find yourself in a meadow’. Some of my peers had a lovely, meaningful guided imagery session, wandering through sunlit meadows, encountering significant figures in their psyche. I spent the whole session caught up in thinking, ‘How can imagination be inside me?’ Of course, I knew it was meant as a metaphor. But metaphors both reveal and conceal, and the metaphor of an inner imagination felt like it was limiting or even dismissing an important experience of mine – which was that imagination was so much bigger than me. Talking of it as an ‘inner imagination’ just felt wrong, but it was how nearly all the theory books conceived of imagination. Exploring the gap between my experience and this way of thinking about imagination is still what keeps me going. It’s still a live question for me.

Q: So what answers have you come up with. What is imagination?

A: We don’t really know what imagination is, it’s a mystery. I’m quite happy with that. I’d like to hold on to a bit of mystery and magic in my life. I don’t need to pin it down. What’s important to me is having an imaginative life, otherwise what’s the point, right? I could have fantastic dreams or guided imagery sessions in therapy, but if I can’t see those images at play in my sitting on the 91 bus or when I’m arguing with my wife, then why bother?
And when we take the metaphor of an ‘inner imagination’ literally, when we forget ‘inner’ as just one way of seeing and thinking, we can exacerbate the separation of our inner and outer imagination. Imagination becomes reified as a structure, an actual place, an entity inside us divorced from the physical world.

Q: What led you to call it a ‘wild’ imagination?

A: If there was a fork in the road that led me down this wild route it was realising that outdoors I felt more imaginative. Maybe my indoors life was just particularly shitty, I don’t know. I was doing a lot of studying at the time, perhaps ironically about imagination. Inside, typing away at my keyboard, came to feel like putting my head in a box. And there came a point where it just became clear that I needed to get outside. I did not know why exactly. And so, when I could I got out into the London parks, or walked along the canal. And imagination crept up on me, in a way I thought I had lost. My surroundings felt more vibrant, the birdsong richer. And sometimes, overlaid onto the physical world, seen with the eye of imagination, I would come to see and hear and feel presences. My younger self would be walking along beside me on the grass, or my grandfather would turn up on my park bench, smoking his pipe. I wasn’t losing the plot or anything. It was just the same as might happen in a therapy session when we do ‘chair work’ and talk to imagined characters. Only it was happening outdoors and quite spontaneously, without any particular effort, which is what was wild about it. I had not created this imagination and I certainly did feel like I had any control over it. It was wild, in the same way the squirrels and the blue tits were wild. Of course, this is my own experience. It might not be the same for everyone, although I think it is a way of seeing that can be cultivated.

Q: So, it’s about getting outdoors?

A: Not necessarily. That’s just how it started for me. Getting outdoors brought my senses back to life. I think that was the key thing. It was feeling embedded in the world through my senses that let imagination come alive again for me.
So, it’s not about being outdoors or indoors. It could be either. But it is about a sensual sensitivity to where we are. And it’s about setting images free, letting them run wild.

Q: How can imagination not be free already?

A: Well, a good analogy is digital photography. Photographs don’t get printed out anymore, or at least not as much as they used to be. They can exist entirely inside our machines, untouched behind the glass. Digital genies in touch screen bottles. 
A lot of imagination is like these digital pictures, trapped not inside a camera but inside our minds. A subjective and personal imagination. An imagination that belongs to us, that has even been created or made up by us, just like a digital photo. Perhaps even, with sufficient effort, an imagination that we think we might be able to control or change, like air brushing a digital image.
Wild imagination sets images free from this inner cage, which is to say it takes us into an appreciation of the activity of imagination not just inside us but also all around us, in the world, in our relationships. But more than this it sets images free by respecting them as wild – in the sense that they are not created, owned or controlled by us.

Q: How does this relate to therapy?

A: Well, I think the impoverishment of imagination is one way of understanding our suffering. When we don’t see our lives as stories we get stuck in particular characters and ways of being that cause us pain.
Wild imagination is about returning story to our lives, of exploring the activity of images in our encounters with pigeons, traffic lights and sunsets, and in our relationships with people and places.

I think that most people, more or less, have an intuition of this kind of enchanted life – where significances lie beneath surface appearances. A sense of the world as more than just the dead matter we have been told it is. It’s why we go a bit crazy if we spend too long in a room without a window. It’s why we watch nature programs on tv. It’s why young children love puppies.

As a therapist, I don’t so much see myself as working to create wild imagination in my clients, its more about helping to remind them of it, of reconnecting them to how they saw things in childhood, even quite early childhood, and bringing that sensibility into adult life. It’s about getting back to the time before we were seduced by alienating technologies and stuck in our heads by an overly rational education system.

Q: Stuck in our heads?

A: Yes, part of the problem is that imagining has been eclipsed by an emphasis on thinking. To an overly rational person, imagination is just imaginary, pejoratively made up, unreal. But I see this as a way of trying to control imagination, to stand back from it, which ultimately, I don’t think we can do, not really, or at least not in the long run. But while we do hold back, we lose out on the healing power of imagination.

Wild imagination is about getting up close to images. Close enough to feel their presence, their touch, to let them move us. We move towards imagination, not through thinking about it but through description and an attitude of receptivity, until we are right there, like we are in a dream, surrounded by imagination. It is what the poet Coleridge called a, ‘suspension of disbelief’, which requires a certain softening of our ego limits, of our control. A letting go that allows something new to come in. Which of course is not necessarily easy. We might not want to let go. Fair enough. Wild imagination is a bit dangerous. It’s the difference between a trip to the zoo and being on safari. But if we want to change we need at least a bit of this danger, otherwise nothing happens, we stay where we are.

Q: You mentioned the imaginative richness of childhood. Do you have any memories you want to share with us from your childhood?

A: Sure. Perhaps not just one memory, but a series of memories. I used to spend ages outdoors walking my dog, Jet. I walked him every morning before school, all year round and in all weathers. Something that happened often enough was that I would see an object in the distance, across the stubble fields or up ahead along the disused railway line, and I would not have a clue what it was. It was just a weird shape, something out of place that had caught my eye. I had no word for it. No understanding of it. I would stop and stare and then slowly walk towards this mystery thing, looking hard and watching my mind wriggling around in not understanding, reaching out for what it might be –  an alien spacecraft, a giant snail, a wounded animal or maybe even a monster? I loved the tension of those moments of sustained incomprehension, of not knowing. Of something being out with my control, perhaps dangerous. And then, all at once, at a certain distance or angle, the object would make sense. It would just be an old, crumpled metal dustbin or a tattered plastic sack, something like that. It was never a monster or a spacecraft. Not really.

Imagination reaches out to make sense of the world. It is the pictures that arise between us and objects. In a way, our whole experience is imagined. Our perception of people, places and things is shot through with imagination. Not the hard stuff, the matter in it, but how we see that matter and how we relate to those people.

Q: You mean we are always using our imagination?

A: Well yes, with more or less consciousness. The poet William Blake put it well. He made a distinction between single vision and double vision. To Blake, single vision was what we see with the physical eye alone. It is the vision of the literal, concrete world. The rational, empirical world of facts and measurement. Double vision is something else entirely. Double vision is what we see when we look not with the physical eye, but through the eye of imagination. For Blake, the sun was not just a round disk of fire in the sky, to him it was also, ‘an innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”’

Q: Like the same weather can be dark and threatening for one person, or wild and refreshing for another person?

A: Exactly. Blake saw a glorious heavenly host. Someone else might see a sad, rheumy eye. Double vision sees the world in a malleable, metaphorical fashion.

Q: And children are much more tuned in to this than adults?

A: Yes, I think so. Children can quite happily and unselfconsciously see and hear a person in a plastic doll. But for most adults, a plastic doll is just an inanimate toy. The world does not speak to them.

Q: What happens then? How come we lose this imagination as adults?

A: It’s more that it goes out of awareness. If you get told often enough as a child to ‘grow up’, to ‘not be silly’, you learn to hide away this imaginal perception from adults. In time we forget even that we have forgotten to see the world like this.

But it does not die. It just gets shunted into more acceptable areas. It happens all the time when we read. When we scan our eyes over a text of, say, Jane Eyre, we come to hear her quiet voice, we come to see her sitting on a window seat, looking out at the rain across a Northern landscape. Images of Jane Eyre appear between us and the pages of the book. It’s such a common, taken for granted experience, that we seldom think about it as a creative act of imagination. And particularly because we assume the story is going on in our minds, we don’t think of it as arising between us and the text. But it is no different from the way a child listens to a doll, or an indigenous person might read signs in the fissures of a rock face or hear a talking stone.

Q: Your next workshop is titled, ‘Metaphors from the Edge of Chaos’. That sounds like wild metaphors?

A: That’s good, I’ll use that. I’ve been calling them ‘living metaphors’. But yes, I want to look at how our use of metaphor, which is so woven into the fabric of our speech and thought, can take us into wild imagination.

Q: What is a living metaphor?

A: Its not my idea. I’ve taken it from Terry Marks-Tarlow. Daniel Stern has a similar idea called ‘lived story’. Simply put, it’s the opposite of a dead metaphor, which is to say an unconscious metaphor, like the psychological clichés that get passed over all the time – feeling trapped, worn out, picked on. However, our use of metaphorical language is seldom random, and if we can learn to notice and slow things down a bit, our metaphors can take us deep into the heart of psychotherapeutic process, mini-narratives that can be expanded out into a story of the whole of our lives.

Living metaphor is what happens when we fit this onto our experience ‘live’, as it is happening. It’s about coming to see ourselves in the midst of the metaphor. Not just talking or thinking about our lives through the metaphor – which would be to tame it – but seeing and feeling and acting through metaphor.  

Q: So, what is the edge of chaos then?

A: It’s a metaphor.

Q: And?

A: Just wanted to leave that there for a moment, to see where it took you?

Q: OK. And??

A: Well, the workshop explores metaphor, not just in clinical narrative, but also those embedded in our psychological theories.

Q: Psychological theories are metaphors?

A: Yep. Freud was the metaphorical father of modern psychology. He combined clinical observations with a rich tapestry of metaphors. So much so that while he never won the Nobel Prize for Science, he did win the prestigious Goethe Award for writing in 1930. Anyways, being a man of his time, much of Freuds metaphors, which are still very much in use today, were derived from 19th century science, essentially machine metaphors of psychodynamic forces and pressures, of tension build up and release, of component parts and objects, of techniques and tools. And while these ideas have stood the test of time, like all metaphors they will conceal as well as reveal, particularly if through over-use they come to feel like truths rather than just a lens, a way of seeing.
My argument and offering on the workshop is that human beings are much more complex creatures than the static, linear and controllable paradigms of the mechanical technology that influenced Freud. And in this vain, I will be introducing some alternative metaphors for the therapeutic process.

Q: Is this where the chaos thing comes in?

A: Yes, getting there. The metaphor of an ‘edge of chaos’ comes from the new science of complexity theory. Complexity theory is like science gone rogue, something that has broken out of the laboratory. It models natural systems like cloud formations, lightning pathways and the beatings of the human heart. In other words, it’s a bit wild, not at all mechanical or orderly. Some therapists are writing about and using complexity theory because they see it as a source of metaphors that more accurately fit the the irregularity of human experience, not least that of clinical work which is often anything but mechanical.

Q: Sounds complicated? Will you be doing equations?

A: I hope not. You don’t need to be a scientist to get complexity theory. Plus, the metaphors are taken from nature, which is something we have an intuitive feel for already, like the ‘edge of chaos’ that happens when water turns from ice-into-water and/or from water-into-steam. In-between ice/water and water/steam there is this wobbly and turbulent state, where things feel like they could go either way. Small temperature changes can lead to big differences in whether you have a solid, liquid or gas. Therapy is a bit like that. You hit these zones of turbulence, when the order and stability of the known is softened up sufficiently to allow in something new. Things feel charged with possibility, but also edgy, at risk of tripping out into overwhelm. I’m interested in how we firstly take our clients into this ‘edge of chaos’ zone of creative possibilities and then how to proceed with them once they get there. How to nurture the creative process without tipping things over too far into complete chaos. Living metaphors, or wild metaphors, are one way to approach this.

Q: And how will you be presenting the material in the workshop?

A: I want to keep the theoretical discussion grounded and relevant, so I will be emphasising clinical case studies to illustrate the approach. We will also be doing a bit of role-play, to try things out. And there will be some time spent exploring the living metaphors that arise in our responses to the local landscape, which might be quite nice come May. I always like to transpose the material into an outdoors context.
Relating to the buildings, trees and birds rather than clients seems to freshen up the material, and then we work with and build upon what we bring back indoors. And also attending to the group itself and our interactions over the weekend as a complex system will no doubt give us further material to reflect upon. I’m very much looking forward to it.

You can find more information and book onto ‘Metaphors from the Edge of Chaos’ here:

Author Bio

Allan Frater is a trainer, psychotherapist and supervisor in private practive in North London. After a failed career as an engineer, he spent his twenties as an ordained Buddhist teaching meditation before training in transpersonal/integrative counselling and then psychotherapy. He has taught for the past six years at the Psychosynthesis Trust where he emphasises an image based approach that includes the personal self alongside the wider community, culture and environment.

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