*This article is an excerpt from the recently published book 'Story Maps: Wayfinding Tools for the Modern Seeker.' Enjoy!
I first came across the ‘iceberg’ as a metaphor during a session with my therapist over ten years ago. I had been grappling with the idea that the way I experienced myself was not at all how the world experienced me.
She nodded and drew a simple image on her pad:
Icebergs, she told me, are much larger than they appear. Only 10 to 20 percent of an iceberg is visible above the water. The rest lurks below, under the surface. The same is true of people. We only see what’s on the surface, people’s behavior and their actions in the world. There’s so much more beneath the surface, a whole world of emotions, thoughts, and feelings. What you’re describing, she told me, is a disconnect between the top and bottom of the iceberg.
The metaphor blew my mind and stuck with me.
A few months ago, I found myself meditating on the power of ritual and prayer. The iceberg came floating into my mind, but instead of focusing on the iceberg itself, my attention focused on the water around it. An expanded version of the metaphor emerged that resonated so strongly that I popped out of my meditation and scrawled it on a scrap of paper. Here’s what I drew:
On the surface, we have the 10 percent of the iceberg that is visible. That’s the individual’s behavior, actions, and the stories they consciously put out into the world.
Beneath the surface, we find the 90 percent of the individual that is invisible to the casual bystander. Unconscious beliefs and behavior patterns. All of those stories about ourselves and the world that we absorbed from our families, education, friends, and the world around us. This is also the level at which we might find trauma and inherited trauma, those elements of our personality that lurk in the shadows, pulling the strings and driving decisions.
Most therapy and coaching limits itself to working with these two levels of the individual, looking at how the unconscious affects the conscious and, sometimes, vice versa.
Icebergs, however, do not exist in a vacuum. They float in the ocean. As humans, so do we.
And just as the ocean supports different ecosystems at different depths, so does the ‘ocean’ around us.
At the level closest to the individual, we find the immediate environment of economic, social, and political structures. We also see pop culture, music, film, and community mythologies as well as architecture and design. All of these elements influence the collective unconscious as well as the individual’s conscious and unconscious behavior.
The elements in the water closest to the iceberg stretch across different disciplines and areas, but all have one thing in common: they are all human-made.
As we move deeper into the ocean, we find the natural world, encompassing environmental systems, planetary orbits, lunar cycles, the winds, and the world of subtle energies. While our actions may influence these elements, as with climate change, they existed long before humans arrived on the scene and will exist long after we’re gone.
Finally, at the deepest level, we find the Divine, Cosmic Consciousness, Universe, God or whatever term for the original creative energy you prefer.
Following the metaphor, ice both melts into the ocean and absorbs elements from the water around it. The temperature of the water influences the iceberg and the presence of the iceberg influences, even if in tiny ways, the ocean. Ice is literally made of the same basic material as the ocean around it in the same way that we, as humans, are made of the same basic energies and elements as the world around us.
It all flows together. In this system, the ‘Divine’ is simply the deepest, most essential element that holds the entire system together.
In this way of seeing, when we pray, engage in ritual, or conduct a ceremony, the intention, at least in part, is to appeal to the Divine. In doing so, we appeal to the common energy that flows through all living beings and tacitly acknowledge the connections that exist in the spaces between us.
Going back to my first encounter with this metaphor, I wonder what would have happened had my therapist placed the iceberg within a larger ocean. Honestly, I probably would have been overwhelmed and had a brain glitch. Since then, however, I’ve played with this idea both with my own inner exploration and with clients and have found that feeling into the larger context and systems within which we operate is incredibly helpful.
It reminds us that, no matter what our mind tells us, we’re never truly isolated or alone.
It challenges us to recognize how our smallest actions may send ripples through the entire system. And to see how shifts in the larger system, including moon cycles and environmental shifts, may be impacting our beliefs and behavior.
It allows us to see ourselves within a larger container that can hold multiple points of view that, when viewed from the limited, individual perspective, may seem to be misaligned or in conflict.
Ultimately, we are both infinitesimally small and utterly indispensable to the vast ocean around us.
A few questions to explore. . .
The pitfall of frameworks like this is that they appeal to the mind and may not get fully integrated. Here are a few questions and exercises to guide deeper exploration:
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.