Adventures In Self Discovery To Transform Your Life
How To Make Words Work
Why Words Happened
We needed to talk to someone. Our ancestors started with gestures, babble, marks on stones. Then moved on to drawings, to hieroglyphics, to an alphabet. Their brains changed. They could label all the parts of their world, record their thoughts and use words to change them. You and I understand who we are through these words and the stories we tell ourselves and other people.
To survive, people live in groups. To get along with each other, they talk about what the world is like, how it works, how they feel and what to do. “Knife” “See knife cut meat.” “Not finger, dummy!” With a spoken language, we can tell another person what we know, how we feel, what we want. Signing, writing, math, computer languages, musical compositions, religious ceremonies, etiquette and games are all languages.
Our ancestors invented writing to record our speech and thoughts. This saves us from having to memorize and repeat vital information. Writing allows us to preserve knowledge, to share it around the world. Human brains got larger to sort, store, relate, recover and manage the words and images we use. Writing created new forms of speech and thought. Keeping records led to math and logic. A business transaction or a life story could be put on a page and used to change the thoughts of distant people. The Internet arrived yesterday so almost everyone now has access to all human knowledge. Our knowledge is so vast that no individual brain can hold it all. We store it in books, on computers and film, even in 'the cloud’.
To name something puts it in your power. You have its name and can manipulate it in your mind. Words give us the amazing power to talk to ourselves. We can imagine possible futures and reconstruct past experiences. The words you choose shape your feelings, thoughts and actions. With your words you make stories that say who you are and what’s possible for you. Through your words you affect other people. Their words can change you. You use words to get what you want. You could not live without words. That’s a lot of power in a few letters.
Words are a way to label, define, describe, organize, shape and record our experience. A word names a thing or a process or an idea. Words can capture and transfer memory and meaning. We have rules that tell us how to use words so they make sense. Words are a way to condense, save, recall and share an experience. We can use words to make our own inner version of the experience. Words are not the experience.
Language is a medium that gives us access to other minds from other ages. We fit ourselves into the pattern of another mind to learn and then to expand our own. If we allow it, other minds can box in our thoughts. Or they can liberate and expand our point of view.
Words create possibilities. In our everyday life, we talk face to face with people and learn to trust them by their response. In our inner life, we imagine conversations. Then we test them by imagining possible responses that might happen in real life. In our screen life, we type words and trust that the response is from a real person who means what she or he says.
The words we use have great power in our lives for good and for harm. They can take us from sublime poetry to the rant of a dictator. I see language as one of humanities greatest inventions. Other great inventions like farming, animal breeding and cities were not possible without language. Before we can find world peace and community, we must understand and go beyond the limits of language.
Can you experience this moment as an adventure? (39)
Close your eyes, relax.
Open your eyes and look at the first thing you see.
Did a name for that thing appear in your thoughts along with associated memories?
Can you see or experience anything without words, stories, memories and feelings coming up? Try taking a fresh look a your experience...without words.
How Language Works
Humans quickly learn and use a language. To survive, babies have to establish contact with caregivers. They use everything they have. They smile, scream and wave their arms around to see what happens. Babies mimic and learn. They become what we do around them.
Mom smiles and baby smiles back. Dad speaks a word and baby says, “Coo.” Parents point to something and speak. Baby’s brain begins to associate the sounds with images, objects and actions. A name gets attached as a pointer for the experience. Next time the experience happens the word comes up. Next time the word comes up the experience gets remembered. Dad points to himself and says “Dad.” Baby smiles and says “Dah.” The world becomes a brighter place. After millions of exchanges of gestures and sounds, our young brains learn who we are. They learn the patterns of our family and culture.
Language is the medium, culture is the message. Language sets up a mental framework for what we experience. Culture teaches us how to think and what to think about. It’s like walking round with a library in your head. You see or hear or feel something and your inner librarian instantly tells you what it is and how to handle it.
We are embedded in our culture. Our culture tells us what everything is, what it does and what it means. Our cultural knowledge includes superstition, folklore, religion, arts, practical know-how, science and everything else. Within the frame of culture, we shape who we are. We build a ‘self’ with points of view about our identity in every moment and situation. Culture is both a support and a trap. It tells us who the good guys are (us) and who the others are (them.) It allows us to think and act without questioning. It also allows a few people to lie, cheat, steal and exploit others, enslaving them or driving them to war.
Words enclose entire cultures, points of view and set limits to thinking. If you belong to and identify with a group, the words you use are the boundaries of your knowledge. Religions, political groups, nationalities all establish other boundaries. You are limited in your thoughts and actions by these boundaries.
Words are arbitrary labels we learned from people as they showed us examples. A word can stand for an object or an activity or a process that we can all experience. Thinking about what a word means links it to memories, objects, actions and other words. Our words tie us to other people and to the world so to we can keep the meaning of the words. A word can also stand for a state of mind. “I am lonely.” Words are man made products. So are are grammar, logic and math.
Words represent different levels of abstraction. For example look at your hand. Say 'hand'. The word represents something real in this world. You can see and touch it and speak or think about your hand. Where is the apple of your eye? It is only in your thoughts.
Words can be labels for things in the world. They can also be labels for our ignorance or missing knowledge. Thought? Mind? When I say 'thought' you have a meaning and can identify the experience of a thought. What experience do you have of 'mind'? Language is supposed to describe reality. It doesn't. It generates and then describes a parallel, internal reality that is different for every individual.
I am suspicious of words. When I name or categorize something, I am putting my own order on a random and chaotic universe. Patterns appear to me in history, in the weather, in the way people behave and in the way I think. I use some of these patterns to support my notions of how humans work. I am aware that my explanations are best guesses, subject to change. I am suspicious of the results I end up with.
Language attempts to describe our worldly experience. We use words to think, write and to talk to other people. We trust that the words we use re-present our thoughts and the universe we live in. In both cases, they don't. Words don't mirror reality. They create a parallel reality. The structure of our language sets the limits for what we can think about and talk about meaningfully. Grammar is a model for a world, it is just not the world we live in. Sentences that attempt to describe reality are no more than snapshots. They are not reproductions of the actual scene, more like a sketch. A possible scene. Imagine this scene. “The cow licked John's face.” You can rearrange the words to describe another imaginary scene. “John licked the cow's face.” You made up your own reality...in both cases.
From childhood we believed that words stand for something concrete, tangible and real. We talk about faith, mind and spirit as if they were independent 'things' that exist in the world. We believe that language describes reality. It doesn't. We can talk about the 'truth.' but our 'common sense' about the world are just guesses that work well enough to keep us going. We ignore everything we do not or cannot know and fill the gaps with whatever serves us.
New ideas get compared and evaluated against a background of our beliefs or stories. Most of the time this background is the limit of our understanding. We incorporate or discard incoming information based on what we think we know. This applies to scientists as well as everyone else.
In this way, language defines the limits of our understanding. If you think, 'cause' leads to effect', that is what you expect and the way you will see things happen. We get blinded by our theories and encased in language. We all think we know what's going on and can talk about it with authority. Our most confident labels are containers for ignorance. Time, space and energy, for example. As you will see, the deeper we get into words, the less we can say with any certainty about what's so and what's not.
Language can talk about things that don't exist. Gods, spirits, nations, money, human rights, justice. We can think and talk as if they do. Books can take us back to older, different ways of understanding the world's knowledge. Today's focus on the immediate and visual narrows the scope and depth of our knowledge. We become collectors of the immediate. We lose touch with the wisdom of the ages.
Language is control. Language is how we learned and how we teach and shape our children to the limits of our own understanding. To change our experience, we need to step outside the boundaries of our language. We can imagine and find new understandings. We can ground our new knowledge by testing it in the world and dealing with the response.
What Is A Word?
A group of letters. A unit of language. A symbol that represents something else. An eternal form in another realm. Something that someone says or writes. A thought. A complex network of neurons in your brain. Philosophers and scientists think about all the above.
I am going to work from the neuronal theory. It fits my experience and simplifies explanation. When our eyes see a dog, a complex of neural networks are activated and stored in our brains. Saying the word ‘dog’ or hearing it spoken or seeing it on paper activates the neural networks. We experience the feelings, thoughts, images, memories and stories that ‘dog’ means to us. The network represents the experience. It summarizes and symbolizes a whole set of similar experiences. These patterns are automatic and unconscious.
Words are empty until experienced by a human being and invested with some meaning and purpose. The process is happening in your head as you read my words. Awesome.
Here comes an adventure (40) with words.
What is This? What is This? What is This?
Consider all the possibilities. None of them is a book. The only book around is the one in your hand. If you are online, there is no book at all.
The direct experience of a book in your hand fires up a complex pattern of neurons in your brain. The word ‘book’ generates a simpler, summary pattern of neurons. We let that ‘book’ pattern stand for the real book experience. It is amazing that you can compress the richness of immediate experience into a few letters on a page. More so that you can then expand them to the rich experience of what ‘book’ means to you. Your meaning for ‘book’ will be as different from mine as our experiences have been. When you attach a word to an experience, you can think and talk about your experience long after it is behind you.
How Words Work
People point, gesture, grunt, move, mimic their actions or use anything they can to communicate with each other. Just try to communicate “last Thursday” or “movie star.”in any of those ways. Only words seem able to communicate the abstract, complex or the intangible. Words are placeholders that represent or stand for something else. They can draw our attention to the concrete here and now or away to the abstract or the imagined past and future.
We use words to refer to something and to mean something about it. Words relate one thing or process to another symbolically. Words can abstract their subjects and displace them in space and time. We easily move from speech to words to abstract thought to concepts to words again as names of concepts. We don’t know exactly how we do this.
A word can stand for something everyone can experience. A description of a room full of books, “John’s library” for example. A word can also stand for a state of mind. “I am worried.” Statements about the physical world work because we can all experience them. Statements about our inner experience work because we can share and compare descriptions. Statements we make about politics, religion or art work because they are part of our culture.
The way language works, one word at a time, makes us ‘thingify’ our experience. We stop time, point to a chunk of experience and put words to it. We arrange the words to sort of mimic the experience. Assembling words into a sentence lets us build parts of an experience into a story.
Imagine you are standing in a field. Over there is a tree. And there is a cow. And here comes Jane, running. ‘’Run Jane, Run!’ We can talk about objects like trees or cows without many problems. We can see and talk about Jane on the move. Words about objects and actions are generally safe. Words about feelings are trickier. “Dick is embarrassed.” We can’t see that feeling although we might guess from Dick’s expression. We operate comfortably with words that are about the here and now. That is something that we can experience with our senses, point to, name, talk about and act on. Words get the job done.
We seem to be experiencing in two worlds. One is the outer, public and concrete reality of Jane running. The other is our inner, private, abstract imagination. They coexist in experience. We switch back and forth from the reality of direct experience to the inner world of imagination. Our words bridge the inner and outer without clear distinctions between them. Concrete words point to objects and events that we can sense. Concrete is something you can put in a wheelbarrow.
Our worldly experience operates with a solid cow in a field of grass. I can point to it. You can walk over and check it out. Our inner experience could operate with a cow that jumps over the moon. This world is abstract. We create it in our heads. It is a rich, complex mixture of feelings, images, voices, thoughts and fantasies. This internal world runs in parallel with our worldly experiences. We use words in our head to build stories about reality. Then, we project our stories onto the universe and see through them. So, we are operating at the same time in an actual world and in an imaginary world made up in our heads.
Words Make Meanings
Words are empty until you put a meaning on them. The meaning of a word or sentence is a network of images, memories, feelings and thoughts. Your brain assembles and then presents them to you. The world of imagination freely modifies and invents meanings. The meaning of a word is rich, complex and changing. Dictionary meanings are static, limited and lame by comparison.
Language is empty and without meaning until you give it some. It's still that way until someone else gives it their meaning. The people you are with and what you are doing shapes the meaning of what you think and say. The world of experience tests your meanings.
Everyone's meaning is different. To change your life experience, you need to understand and change the way you think with and about words. Your point of view, mindset and frames of reference will change as you do this. The process doesn't get simpler nor does understanding get easier as you will see.
Meanings are not in words spoken or written. Meaning is a momentary, ever-changing cloud of thoughts and feelings in someone’s brain. It gets assembled from our experiences and our intentions of the moment. Meanings are in heads, yours and mine. Words reach out to possible meanings. We assemble them, each in our own way. A sentence calls out to us and we generate its meaning without awareness.
All meanings are personal, no matter how universal they may appear. Each of us has our own understanding of what a word means based on our unique experience. Meanings come from situations, the whole of experience. We make them up to fit the moment. “Now that's a real dog.” What? The one on the bun she's eating? The one on the leash she's holding? Meaning are in constant flux. We can add content and rebuild meanings just as we can rebuild memories. Words and sentences mean what we think they mean as we use them. That changes from one situation to the next.
Meaning is not in words. It’s in people. A word points to a thing or experience that we share, sense or can describe. We can establish a common meaning close enough for mutual understanding. The meaning of ‘up’ and ‘down’ is easy. Complex concepts like electron, gravity, radiation get handled and understood in the framework of their sciences. Beyond that we may have problems sorting out and agreeing on meanings. Mind, spirit, soul, God, good/bad, right/wrong.
Every point of view tends to define the meaning of a word a little differently. I build my meaning from my experience mixed with what you say. So do you. The two meanings will be different. For example, you and I can have the same experience and yet name it differently. Your ‘glorious sunset’ may be my ‘orange smog.’ Agreeing about what we experience becomes a problem. While we may imagine we understand each other’s words, it may be only superficially.
Understanding is a kind of simulation. We mentally build situations or ideas and experiment with them. Same with imagination. Imagining a situation activates the same brain patterns as if we actually experienced it. We all have experiences we don’t have words for. So we can’t talk about them and may not even recognize them. We also have words we have no experience to match. Energy, future, ego, hell.
Words tend to set the boundaries for what you and I can think about. Our choice of words limits our understanding. Language encourages us to build dichotomies; either/or, good/bad, true/false. When we project them onto the world, we oversimplify and shut off possibilities. As long as we are using the same limited language we will ask the same questions and get the same limited answers. Reality is more complex.
Words are abstractions, just symbols, not reality. Acting on the words makes our successes and mistakes appear in reality. This is especially true of the stories we tell ourselves and allow to shape our feelings and actions. Millions of people have been killed over misunderstandings about words. Getting along depends on both of us trying to use words with clarity and responsibility.
Here’s an adventure (41) in meaning. Take a look at these words. What exactly do they point to in your experience? What directions would you give a good friend to find them in their experience?
life self will spirit truth energy
I use these words often. I’d have a hard time telling you exactly what they mean. Dictionaries are not much help.
Self; a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, esp. considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action.
Spirit; the nonphysical part of a person that is the seat of emotions and character; the soul
These are from my computer dictionary.
I try to sort this out for myself by asking:
“Does this word (or idea) make a difference in my feelings, speech, actions and results?”
If not, I will let it go or not take it seriously or play with it.
Words People Mean
We cannot know what another person is thinking or feeling. So let's give up mind-reading. We can guess from what they look like, say and do. I send you words, you make meanings. I send you a sound track and you make a movie in your head. If I’m clever, my words give you a set of directions for building in your head what I’m thinking in mine. Your response tells me what my message means to you. Watch what people do, it’s what they mean.
If you want to know what someone means, you can listen carefully or you might ask. Accept the response you get. If it’s not what you wanted, you can ask what happened. She’s not supposed to know what you mean, that’s your job. It helps to shut down your commentator and listen with your whole being. Understanding will come, possibly without the words, and the speaker will know you know.
Words are empty until you put a meaning on them. Everyone's meaning is different. Your meanings are not my meanings. Your meaning in sending a word may not be my meaning as I receive it. We assume others mean what we would mean if we said the same thing. They seldom do. If a word can be interpreted in more than one way, it will be. It pays to check it out. Take time to clarify and qualify. Ask others what they mean.
Words are not reality. What people say is often some fantasy they are entertaining at the moment. If I accept someone’s words as the way things are or the way I should be. I have put them in charge of my thoughts and actions. I am not willing to do that. So I try to be clear. I watch what I say, try to say what I mean and make sure I am understood. Sometimes saying nothing is exactly the right thing to do
TheTower Of Babel
The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
It worked. We do not all speak and understand alike, far from it. From any single point of view we can build a language and describe the world of our experience. The words we use will have a meaning from within that point of view. They get based on its assumptions and explanations. That meaning is not fixed or universal. It gets shaped by each individual's experience and imagination.
Humans assemble great structures of words. They may be consistent, and meaningful to members of their group but not to outsiders. Word meanings can also be familial, local and cultural. Right on! Confusion and misunderstanding is guaranteed. Religions and scientific disciplines come to mind. Words that refer to nothing we can sense such as ‘mind’ or ‘God’ are examples.
Even with the best of intentions, complete understanding between people is not possible. Every point of view we hold comes with its own beliefs and meanings. You may not know the beliefs and meanings of my point of view. I might think that you don’t know what you are talking about. Only by living embedded in a point of view could you find the deep meaning and understanding needed. You know, I’m like Oh My God!
Some belief systems have a book in which every word is the truth. Its practices are mandates from a higher power. Believers are willing to die in the defense of these beliefs. They will oppress non-believers and kill disbelievers. Small groups of true believers have great power to disrupt other groups.
People with other beliefs and practices must defend them against the absolutist’s attacks. They must be ever on guard, watching out for threats and attacks. A paranoid, surveillance system takes over every citizen’s personal privacy. Difference becomes error. You become like the worst in those you oppose. You could come to live in a 24 hour surveillance society. The government and private powers would fight for total control of every citizen. Sound familiar?
The Invisible Revolution
We have another revolution going on around us, almost unnoticed. The change is in our understanding and use of language. I don’t mean like you know OMG LOL. We humans get and pass on what we learn through language. We have a huge body of knowledge that includes superstition, folklore, religion, the arts, practical know-how and science. What you know defines who you are, where you belong, who to trust and what you can do. Look around you.
Language abstracts all our knowledge and experience into words. It packages it with grammar and logic. Our abstractions get assembled into what we imagine is an accurate representation of reality. We are beginning to realize that language screens and distorts our understanding. Somehow, we end up with beliefs loaded with contradictions, ignorance and nonsense. Much of our knowledge doesn't fit the world. It ignores the obvious, doesn't work and is false or empty. Mistakes with words wreck lives. Before we can achieve peace and community we need to understand and go beyond the limits of language.
Words Create Imaginary Worlds
Words abstract our experience. They simplify by leaving out the concrete details of experience. They omit information not needed to make sense in the moment. An abstraction exists only in your head. It may stand for something imaginary, like the average taxpayer. Or you can combine bits of experience, reasoning and imagination into an idea or concept represented by a word. Love, good, democracy are examples.
The moment you name something you limit your experience. The collection of everything you already know related to that name overlies and interprets your immediate experience. You can easily overlook something. The “truth” is not in words. It is in what you are experiencing right now.
We use abstractions to organize, think, plan and talk about our outer and inner experience. Starting with our body in the world, we can understand abstractions as being nearer or further away from direct experience. “This is a dog.” points to an animal we can see before us, a sensible reference. “Dogs are canine mammals.” is a factual statement. “He has gone to the dogs.” is a metaphorical use of the word. “My invisible dog Charlie.” Is an imaginary use. “Dog from Hell” is a supernatural usage, unless it lives next door and has barked all night.
We can do things with the words in our heads that won’t work in the real world. Words shift our experience in space and time so we can think and play around with it as we choose. Words create worlds of imagination. Words can call a thing or an idea into existence, whether tangible or intangible. I can drop a book on my foot. Ouch! In my head, I can imagine dropping a book on my foot. No ouch.
The meaning of abstract words keeps shifting around. For example, how many meanings can you think of for the word ‘love’? Here are some from my computer dictionary.
• an intense feeling of deep affection
• a deep romantic or sexual attachment to someone
• a personified figure of love, often represented as Cupid
• a great interest and pleasure in something
• affectionate greetings conveyed to someone on one’s behalf
• a formula for ending an affectionate letter
• a person or thing that one loves
• a score of zero
Pick a meaning. Watch it change from situation to situation. Meaning represents our mental state. The brain produces meaning on demand from memory and context. The world of imagination freely modifies and invents meanings. The world of experience tests meanings.
The closer a word is to our body and the world the more realistic it tends to be. It is more likely to produce a result that we want. Even the most abstract concepts are meaningless without a connection to felt experience. Cause, free will, gods. Yet, it is easy to get confused. We mix up the sensible with the ethereal. Our concepts get riddled with metaphors. Believing in an abstraction and acting on it often doesn't work well in the world. For sanity and successful action, keep a clear distinction between the real and the abstract. Otherwise, we might find ourselves blaming society for not bringing us happiness and immortality.
Several other problems confuse and confound us as we use words and language to understand our world. Let’s step into the world of imagination and take a look at metaphor.
The Imaginary World Of Metaphor
More often than you realize, you assemble or combine familiar words to make a metaphor. A metaphor says “The [first thing] is a [second thing].” America is a melting pot. My father is a rock. A metaphor asks you to imagine something is something else thereby changing the way you experience it. Metaphor describes abstract things as concrete things. “I see what you mean.” According to George Lakoff, metaphors allow us to understand “one kind of experience in terms of another.”
Metaphor is a way we put a twist on words that takes them into another world of meaning. It gives life to words and expands their meaning into a world of our imagining. Metaphors are a way of thinking. We use them to imagine possibilities beyond our ordinary language and experience. Metaphors alter our point of view. They allow us to present a new point of view, even if it is imaginary. We use a metaphor for every 10-20 words we speak, about six a minute. Are you aware of doing this?
A metaphor is imaginary, unreal and not experienced in the world. Still you and I can understand each other and can take actions suggested by metaphors. I can use metaphor to take a concrete concept and apply it to an abstract idea. I think metaphors are food for thought. I can take a stew of raw facts, let them simmer. Then cook up an explanation and serve it well done to those with a taste for the fruits of knowledge. Please forgive this unsavory garbage.
Our inner thinking is a simulated interaction with the world. Metaphors are mental images standing in for real objects and events. Let's use metaphor to stage an action in imagination. “She cut him down with her words.” Areas of your brain involved with all the subjects in the metaphor get activated. Metaphors often originate in our body structures and functions. “He is such a straight arrow.” “That idea flew over my head.”
We mentally simulate what the metaphor describes. We use the same neurons with the same effect on the body as the physical subjects in the metaphor. Metaphor grounds abstractions in the experiences of our bodies. Metaphors point to possibilities or to impossibilities. We can use metaphor to transfer human qualities to inanimate objects.
Here’s a famous metaphor that claims,
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
William Shakespeare, As You Like It
A vast system of metaphors comes with our culture. We develop thousands of them as our bodies interact with our environment. They force attention and thought because they make unusual combinations. Metaphors add meaning to something that is not easily explained. We could not think without them. They can also be silly or dangerous. Imagine that we believe and act as if metaphors are the way the world actually works.
White House abandons ship!
Similes work like metaphors. A simile asks you to notice a likeness
“My love is like a red, red rose”
Much of our language is metaphorical rather than literal. Much of our thinking and reasoning uses metaphor. Many of our concepts involve and need many metaphors. Love can be a journey, an illness, magic, madness and much more. When we believe in the literal truth of our metaphors, we believe in the unreal. Keep an eye on your metaphors or you may have to pull your head out of the sand and face the winds of change.
Reading is an act of creation. You take the authors words and build an inner world of your imagination and meaning. You can imagine characters, places, activities, conversations and feelings as you enter his world. You may turn them off as you close the book and rejoin everyday life.
Reading allows us to make a vivid simulation of reality limited only by our imagination. The interactions of fictional characters in our brains seem like real life social encounters. Having a real life experience, thinking about it and reading about it use the same areas of the brain. Reading is an active process, watching television is passive acceptance. Still, you will build the good life from what you experience around you, rather than from books.
Reading extends the scope of your personal world. It may help you take stock of your life and see where you want to be. Reading fiction helps us understand and empathize with people. So does watching movies. Poetry uses words in an unfamiliar context or pattern and forces re-cognition. Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana. How else could it be?
Certain abstractions are supposed to exist independently of our bodies and of the world. Can you name something that has no experience to go with it? How about ‘mind’? The word ‘mind’ is an abstraction. It combines the processes of thinking, feeling, knowing, remembering and so on. The word ‘mind’ suggests there is a real mind in the world, a separate and distinct thing. Try to find it, see it, touch it. If you don’t experience it, how do you know it exists? If you lost your ‘mind’, would your experience change? What would be missing? Try operating without a ‘mind’. Seriously.
Neuroscientist Steven Pinker says, “The mind is what the brain does.” A copout. Other neuroscientists talk of an emergent function of brain processes. They are using ‘mind’ as a shorthand label for the brain and body processes that produce our experience. For real confusion, look at the ancient wisdom.
"The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven."
John Milton (1608 – 1674)
"By words the mind is winged."
Aristophanes (450 BC – 388 BC)
How can we make up our minds or change our minds or be of two minds about something? How could I tell if I even have one? Body, brain and world together generate our meaningful universe of experience. I think ‘mind’ is a label for a collection of experiences and processes. We just don’t understand the process yet. When that happens, we’ll call it mind. When either your brain or body or environment disappears, you are dead. Is that mental, or what? Never mind.
Still, imaginary and supernatural words are where all the fun is. I am not willing to give up fiction and poetry, songs and silliness just because they are not a one-to-one fit with the universe. That’s the point. Some of our greatest joy comes from play. Some of our greatest insights arise from experimenting with words and concepts. The myths and magics of religion serve our yearning for greater meaning. We want to take part in an endless and eternal universe. Yet, fear and madness and murder can follow strict application of someone’s “TRUTH”. How can we sort it out?
Words Make A Difference
That’s why there are rules for arranging words into sentences so they will make sense to other people. Doing things in the right order is the model for grammar. Other rules come from our culture. From childhood, we learn to think symbolically. We sort things into categories and arrange relationships. We arrange words to represent relationships, like marriage and business contracts.
Problems come with grammar. Grammar is supposed to organize words in a way that mirrors our worldly activities. As we learn the rules of writing, we learn the habits of thinking that are built into them. We are taught “Jack fell down the hill.” Subject > Verb > Object. Our grammar has this chain of sequences and causes built in. We understand cause by feeling what it takes to shove a table. The subject takes an action and there is a result. The world is usually more complex than that. It operates with a multitude of causes as well as chance and coincidence. Grammar and the habits of thought tell us how things are supposed to happen in our world. They often do not.
Reason is a process we use to figure things out. Reason is most often used for political persuasion or social display. Logic assists the reasoning process as a way to test sentences and drop nonsense. The rules of logic are not how the universe works. Logical principles are not absolutes, just habits of thought we find useful. Math describes what we have observed then abstracted and turned into a language of its own. We can play within the world of math. We can make up rules and relationships that may or may not fit or parallel the universe. Reason, logic and math are patterns of interactions we experienced and abstracted or invented. They are not mental objects in another realm or natural absolutes. Our rational process can be useful in foreseeing, planning and sorting out our ideas and taking actions. Nature will still have the last word.
To share or store our experience we represent it with words. Language simplifies the irreducible complexity of the world. We have the fantasy that the universe works as our words and descriptions say it does. It doesn't. Words create a make-believe world which we pretend matches the world of direct experience. We imagine and describe events in words and try to apply our guesses to reality. They don't fit, we don't notice. By staying in the moment, in front of the veil of words, we can experience and enjoy more.
Words Make Problems
In 1945, I got discharged from the infantry for World War II service in France and Germany. The GI Bill allowed me to read the Great Books at the University of Chicago. Most of what I learned in college came from long conversations with friends and faculty in Jimmy Walker's Bar. A crash course in babble. I learned to question everything I knew about myself and the world. These conversations along with reading and ruminating opened a rich inner life for me. I haven’t stopped learning or thinking or talking. I'm still trying to comprehend how it all works.
After thousands of years of putting words together, humanity seems just as confused as ever. The problem is that our language doesn't fit the universe we live in. Words trap us in static, limited descriptions. We look for a simple billiard ball causality. Experience shows us that our world is a complex, dynamic process. Causality is more like a ‘cloud of influences'. Our words, beliefs, stories and logic are like possibilities. Yet, we bet our lives on what words say.
Neither words, grammar or logic fit the universe all that well. Yet, that’s what we have to work with. So, we string a bunch of words together into grammatically correct, logically structured sentences. We commit ourselves to the belief the words represent. We get annoyed with anyone who disagrees – even when the universe itself is trying to correct our understanding.
Our understanding is all opinions. It is a network of words that change in meaning. They are only tentatively connected to the reality of the present moment. All language is a comment by the author or speaker based on his experience, the context and the point of view of his culture. It's relationship to 'reality' is flexible.
Scientists can’t live with this. They need beliefs stated in a way that can be tested and disproved. This allows the universe to tell us what works and what doesn't. It also leaves all the ‘facts’ of science in a provisional state subject to disproof at any time. Uncertainty, change – more like the world I experience.
We can build new understanding as we link ideas and concepts. The more we can relate one fact or action to others the deeper our understanding. Meaning and understanding changes as we work words into causal sequences. We develop conceptual frameworks and link them to deeper meanings. Our thought process can go beyond time and space.
Knowing where to find facts is a valuable resource. We bring facts, context and meaning together to build real intelligence and wisdom. The more facts you have the better, but only if you can link them into an understanding of larger issues.
For humanity to escape from our Tower of Babel, a metalanguage will have to emerge. It must be capable of handling complex interrelations, inclusive causalities and descriptions of nature as a cloud of possibilities. A new way of hypothesizing and testing will follow. We'll start thinking and understanding in a new way.
Nothing in our words, logic, mathematics or laws of physics shapes or constrains the universe. These are concepts and tools we use to describe it. Any limits are on our understanding or language or math not on the universe. We are now opening up new understandings beyond the frames of our existing language. Multiverses.
“Language is the biggest barrier to human progress because language is an encyclopedia of ignorance. Old perceptions are frozen into language and force us to look at the world in an old fashioned way.”
Edward de Bono
How To Use Words
The real world is always changing and so are we. We are experiencing more than we can ever understand or put into words. Our inner experience teems with thoughts, images and feelings. They overlap and blend with our senses. How can our words and thoughts correspond with reality? Everything we think is imaginary. Change your point of view and your reality changes. So do your understandings and your words.
The truth is that you can’t tell the truth with words. You can’t even define what ‘truth’ is with words. This from my computer dictionary:
• The state or quality of being true to someone or something
• True facts, genuine depiction or statements of reality.
• Conformity to facts, or reality; correctness, accuracy.
• Conformity to rule; exactness; close correspondence with an example, mood, model, etc
• That which is real, in a deeper sense; spiritual or ‘genuine’ reality.
Now do you know what truth is?
This from John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
Beauty is truth, truth beauty, --that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Poets have license. The best mere mortals can do is pay attention and be aware of how we think and use words.
• question the words you use and look for the reality behind the words.
• act on words that best fit the world.
• try to avoid painful mistakes, especially ones that involve other humans.
Staying close to what’s happening right now makes for sanity. Taking responsibility for what’s in your head really works.
At the same time, we can have fun with words. One of the great joys in life is playing around with words in our heads. Centuries of stories, plays, novels, poetry, songs and jokes have provided enjoyment, wonder and wisdom to humans. Other words, like these, can reach into our deepest feelings and inspire us.
"To have enjoyed the sun,
To have lived light in the spring,
To have loved, to have thought, to have done.”
Watch Your Language
Words have great power to get you what you need and want. They also have the power to create misunderstandings and drive people away. Some of the suggestions below may seem like niggling nit picking. Still, nits can drive you nuts.
• When talking to people, use open questions that begin with ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’ ‘where’ or ‘how’. “When did you hear that. “Who said it.” “What do you know about Henry’s nits?”
• Watch out for closed questions. They try to limit your response to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. “Don’t you think that was rather stupid? Isn't Henry nuts? You need to be able to express your feelings or opinions.
• Be wary of the ‘why’ question. “Why are you always so negative?” Many times people don’t know why they did something. Much of the time it’s none of your business. “Why should I have to explain myself to you?” “Why can't you get over Henry?”
• “Always” and “Never” are untrue and unfair labels. They do not apply to human behavior. They tend to lock up our heads and freeze the possibility of effective action. Let them go.
Be silent when you want to be. Silence is a message. Enjoy being silent with a friend.
Tell The Truth
Facts are facts. Events really do happen. People see what happens. You will do better by telling the truth. You will suffer by defending yourself when caught in a lie.
Words can be used for serious purposes; thinking, planning, imagining, communicating clearly with others. Words can be played with, enjoyed, celebrated. Still, they need to handled with awareness and care. The goal is to use words that take you toward the experience you want to have. Your life depends on this.
This adventure (42) leads to a powerful way to check how near your words, belief or story are to reality.
Does it point to something I can see, touch, taste, smell or put in a wheelbarrow?
If not, pay attention. Much of what we take for granted about what is normal, sane, obvious, natural, right and real are'nt any of those things. They are just human constructions. They can be investigated, challenged, disproved, discarded or changed. If you don’t really need a word or if it’s in the way, try dumping it. See what happens. What is 'reality' anyway?
Can you use language to change your life experience? Of course. You do it all the time. You shape your experience by the words you use. You can consciously change the way you use words to change your life.
Why put any idea or collection of words in charge of your life? Instead, choose to think and act from a point of view or understanding that works for you in the moment. The pure experience of now is wordless. Words, talking about stuff, takes us inside our heads and places a veil over pure experience. When the screen of words is gone the reality of the body/world unfolds. When we are talking, thinking or writing about it, we are only partially living it. Life gets glossed over by words and the mutterings of our self. Setting aside the great screen of words leaves you open to innocent enjoyment of the moment.
We never are definitely right, we can only be sure we are wrong.
©2012-2018 Keith Gilchrist - not for distribution or reproduction
8,123 words 25 pages
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