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  • Writer's pictureTamsin Hartley

The pressure of time

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

Metaphors describe one thing in terms of another and give form to things which are otherwise difficult to describe. Suppose, for example, someone says that trying to stay in control is creating a ‘tension all around the top half of my body, like big iron armour crushing inwards’, we get a very graphic sense of how this person is experiencing their situation from the metaphor they have used.

Metaphors are not simply a figure of speech; they play a fundamental role in the way we understand ourselves and the world around us. It seems that we actually structure our thinking through metaphor, although we are not usually consciously aware of doing so. When we shine a light on the metaphors that we naturally use to describe our experience we often reveal a richness of information that would otherwise have remained hidden. These metaphors can be an almost magical way of getting to know ourselves better.

There is a lovely mindful activity in The Listening Space book which invites the reader to explore an issue that is on their mind through metaphor – by choosing an object to represent the issue that they have chosen. This choice usually happens at an unconscious level, but with a simple set of questions, the explorer is encouraged to dig a little deeper into their thinking. The instructions for this activity are given at the end of this blog, should you like to give it a try yourself.

What follows are the reflections from someone who did this activity with a partner. Before asking each question, the partner repeated back some of the words this person had used in her answers. Her comments show just how powerful the insights gained from this simple activity can be.

When I was asked to choose an object, I looked up and just three feet above me was a big silver clock that drew my attention.

Its tick is really loud and ever-present. Initially this noise seemed like a negative pressure in the room, recording the time I spend doing those work tasks that I don’t enjoy. It became representative of my wishing the time away.

Things are very challenging at the moment in my work and I’m going to have to make some difficult decisions over the next 18 months. I started to see time passing in terms of weeks and months, rather than just hours and days. It was as if the clock had some sort of control over me.

I was really surprised about how emotional I felt about some of the words that were repeated back to me. I thought, Wow! I didn’t realise that I felt that way. But as I was asked more questions, the clock stopped being a negative thing. It became just a clock – there to tell the time, to keep us on time when we need to be

The questions helped me step back a little. I felt a bit calmer, more thoughtful. The pressure of making decisions was gone. I no longer felt the ticking second hand going on my head. There was less rush to come up with solutions.

I felt like I was in control. This feeling seemed to come from nowhere.

In the weeks after the activity, I kept thinking back over the things I’d said. Before, I had this soupy feeling of worries and concerns going on in my head. But this went. I felt physically less burdened by time pressure.

Until I stopped and listened, I hadn’t noticed how loud the clock is in the room. I still notice the second hand going – perhaps more so than I did before – but I feel calmer about things now. I realise that I don’t have to do anything right now. I can allow myself to take one step at a time, to wait and see what happens over the next few months.

The metaphor of the clock had clearly helped this person gain some transformative insights. If you’d like to try this activity yourself, you can follow the instructions below. This can be done on your own or with a partner. If you do the activity with someone else, make sure that you listen without interruption and work your way through the full set of questions before changing roles. It helps if the listener repeats back words that the speaker has used before asking the next question.

Bear with the repetitive nature of the questions. As the person above explained, each question helped her think more deeply about her choice and a fresh insights were gained.


Choose a concept or issue that you would like to explore.

(If you are doing this activity with a partner you don’t even need to tell them what the issue is).

Pause and take a minute to tune in to your breathing:

Give yourself time to bring your attention to yourself in this present moment.

Then, when you are ready, bring your awareness back to the room around you.

Look all around you and notice the things that you see.

Choose an object that represents the concept or issue you have chosen in some way.

Then answer the questions below.

What drew you to the [object]?

Is there anything else about what drew you to the [object]?*

Is there anything else about what drew you to the [object]?

Is there anything else about what drew you to the [object]

Is there anything else about what drew you to the [object]?

Finishing questions:

And what do you know now about all of that?

And what difference does knowing that make?

Once you have completed this activity, you might like to take a moment to reflect on your experience of exploring the issue you chose through metaphor (the object in this instance).

* 'Is there anything else about [a word/ phrase the other person has used]?' is one of David Grove's Clean questions.

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