Words. Words words words. Words. They lose their meaning when you say them many times. I mean, you don’t even have to say them out loud for them to lose their meaning. Try to say the word ‘meaning’ to yourself 20 times and see what happens. Seriously, try it. It sort of sounds like ‘Me-ning’ right? Well, I think when you say ‘meaning’ many times, you are able to temporarily break the illusion of its conditioned meaning (ironically). When a word has lost its meaning, then what you actually hear is purely the sound of the word. You can simply observe how your mouth moves as you say it (if you’re saying it out loud), and for a moment you are not attached to the word.
If you are saying it to yourself then you observe the syntax of the word. Just the way the word is structured. You can see how arbitrary it is. If you can speak multiple languages you might have an edge on this, because you can switch between saying the same word in two different languages and recognize that they are both so arbitrary. They represent some other entity in different ways. This is made more clear when you first learn a word in a different language. Initially, it means nothing. It points to nothing. It’s just a sound. But then, slowly over time, after associating the word with different contexts and emotions, it starts to describe some entity in the world. More specifically, your world.
Terence Mckenna has talked about language a fair amount, and the inspiration for this post is partly based on one of his talks. Indeed the very title of this post is identical to a video that was released on Youtube. One particularly enlightening part of his speech is as follows:
A child, lying in a crib. And a humming bird comes into the room and the child is ecstatic, because this shimmering iridescence of movement and sound and tension, it’s just wonderful. I mean it is an instantaneous miracle when placed against the background of the dull wallpaper of the nursery and so fourth. But then mother, or nanny or someone comes in and says “It’s a bird baby, it’s a bird, bird”. And this takes this linguistic piece of mosaic tile and places it over the miracle, and glues it down with the epoxy of syntactical momentum. And from now on, the miracle is confined within the meaning of the word. And by the time the child is four, or five or six. No light shines through, they have tiled over every aspect of reality, with a linguistic association that blunts it, limits it, and confines it within cultural expectation. But this doesn’t mean that this world of signification is not outside, still existent, beyond the horizons, the foreshortened horizons of a culturally validated language.
I think it is right here where the crux of the illusion lies. We humans have evolved the ability to talk in order to survive, but the side effect of this ability is a loss of our direct experience. We create stories and attach labels to things in order to make sense of the world. We create shortcuts and abbreviations so that we can communicate faster. But with faster communication we convey less information about the very thing we are describing. Think about this my anonymous reader; what would it be like if you were called something else. What if your name was only slightly different?. How would people have reacted to you, how would you have felt if it was much more common, or much more rare? What if your name was Spanish, or Arabic?
I think that analyzing our name from an objective point of view can give us a insight into how our minds work and the identity that we are holding onto. Think about it. How much do you identify with your own name, your label. You know intellectually that you are not your name. You are not your degree, your interest or your family. You are not ‘that guy’ or ‘that girl’. When you are alone, you probably have an idea of how you present yourself in front of other people. Of course, everyone presents themselves in front of others. But the way you present yourself is not who you really are. As Richard Alpert once said:
I wasn’t born as Richard Albert. I was just born as a human being. And then I learned this whole business of who I am, and whether I’m good or bad, or achieving or not. All that’s learned along the way.
When you find those moments of insight, when you ‘lose yourself’ in your work, or on that bus ride, or on that hiking trip, you’re not really being lost. You are actually shedding all the labels about who you think you are, and what other people have labelled you as. You are more ‘you’. This is a hard thing to do though. We are all chasing a career, or a skill or an identity. This is not always such a bad thing, but if we spend our lives worrying about the identity we want to uphold, then we might not get the chance to simply be the person that we are. It is great that you’re always trying to become a better person, but when are you just enjoying the fact that you are already a good person?
The language we speak and the words that we have in our internal dictionaries will paint a world for us that will always be an approximation of what our direct experience actually is like. This point becomes obvious when you try to explain to a loved one how much you care for them. It is next to impossible. How can you really express the emotions that you have for someone when you only have access to words like love, passion, enjoyment, ecstasy, euphoria and so on. You might resort to other ways of expressing that love, using gifts, hugs, sex and the list goes on. The reason I think we express our emotions through material objects is because we are lost for words.
We want to give our loved ones something they can see and not simply hear. Yes, language can be a limiting factor in the way we see the world. As I am writing this, I can only partially express my emotions and my view of reality. The enterprise of language reaches its limits when we want to show each other something that only one of us have experienced. This is why psychedelic trips are hard to describe, this is also why our feelings are hard to describe. We are not living inside each other’s heads and hence can never fully appreciate what is going on there.
There is however a way for us to understand better what the world is actually like, and what our friends and family think. By consciously trying to remove the labels that you have given objects in the world, you might be able to see those objects as they really are. You can appreciate the detail and continuous nature of reality, by silently and presently observing it. Go out. Find your nearest tree. And take a look at it. Take a good long look. Remove the label of ‘tree’ and ‘green’ and ‘brown’. See past the words, they are merely signposts, and start looking at what they are actually pointing at. In a similar way, try to not just hear what your friend, or loved one is saying. Try to actually listen to what they are saying. Focus on removing whatever interpretation you are automatically inclined to use and try to listen with a neutral point of view. Look at the way they their face is changing, the emphasis they put on each letter, word and sentence.
Yes, we are lost in language, but we don’t have to be. With focus and attention, we can break through and see reality the way it really is.
You can listen to/download the audio version of this post below: