Under the surface of your conscious mind, there is a primary metaphoric image that is feeding your passions, thinking, and direction in life.

Guiding images come from happy memories that were imprinted on you when you were a child. They come from things or people that you cherished. They’re often associated with the natural world.

Insight doesn’t always come from facts and information, but from our way of looking at those facts. I’m sure you’ve all read books where the material itself wasn’t new, but the way of looking at the material was new. Thus the importance of our primary images.

A career coach’s image is her family’s “ramshackle” summerhouse that she liked so much better than their “respectable” house in the city. She told me that knowing her guiding image has helped her understand why she’s lived a more ‘ramshackle’ life. Things that are traditionally valued in our culture haven’t been valuable to her. A friend of mine grew up near the ocean in England and her life’s work, which she calls MotherWave, is inspired by the metaphor of ocean waves. The cosmologist Brian Swimme devoted his life to telling the “creation” story. The writer E.B. White was fascinated by spider webs as a child. He went on to write the bestselling book Charlotte’s Web. One of my students who grew up in Mexico holds the image of festive Mexican markets in her heart. The remembered scenes filled with color, festivity, and lively people have guided her and given her life meaning.

The image that has guided my own life is of my father and grandfather digging soil and planting in the fields. Despite having lived nearly all of my adult life in the city, rich soil is my own place of inner nourishment and strength. When I feel lost or in despair, nurturing soil is what brings me back to my center. This simple, sensory metaphor has shaped and inspired my work. My book Getting Messy was about teaching, but on a deeper level, it was about growing things. My work with clients is about taking them to the nurturing soil that lies hidden beneath the surface.

In his book, Marking the Sparrow’s Fall, Wallace Stegner wrote: “Expose a child to a particular environment at a susceptible time and he will perceive in the shapes of that environment until he dies.” Although culture, family upbringing, education, and social circles obviously shape and influence our perception, I would argue that our primary image from childhood offers a more potent influence on how we see the world. Because while our thinking minds have been shaped by culture, our hearts have not.

These potent guiding images give us our own fundamentally unique way in which we perceive the world. My image of fertile soil, my friend’s image of the ocean, and the coach’s ramshackle house all offer something unique, particular, and special. The image provides our lens… our unique way of looking.

That lens is a gift that we give to others.

By the way, organizations, institutions, families, social networks, and entire countries also have guiding images. For example, one could argue that for the Democratic party in the United States, the country’s metaphoric image is a melting pot. But for the Republican party, the guiding image is of a Revolutionary War soldier fighting for religious freedom and liberty. These two very different guiding images have led to conflict because the images suggest very different sets of values and priorities.

We return to these metaphoric images—this “sense of place” that we knew as a child—whenever we’re in need of inspiration, renewal, and a sense of meaning. Whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, these potent childhood images guide us, give us a way to make decisions, make sense of our experience of the world, and in many cases, provide us with our life’s work.

When we’re connected to the image that lies under the surface, our lives are connected to something larger than ourselves.

You might think of it as your own unique connection with the earth and cosmos. It often signifies your true gift to the world.

What’s your guiding image?

What images come to mind when you think about your childhood? What people, places, and things do you remember fondly? Of those images, what one feels like nurturing support—something you can rest or settle into? Is there an image that moves you emotionally when you reflect on it or strikes you as more significant than others?

How has this image shaped how you see the world and your place in it? How does it help you understand the events of your life? How does it nurture and support you when times are difficult? What guidance does it offer your future?

When you have an image that feels meaningful to you, write a list of things it would say if it could speak to you.