Escaping the Whirlpool of Words

Even though I like to think of myself as a writer, my relationship with words feels conflicted. On the one hand, they’re fun to work with and they communicate ideas, but on the other they lead to big conflicts in society, relationships, and the human mind.

One problem is that language is unconstrained; you can say or think almost anything, whether it is helpful or not. Furthermore, a single object or event can be described in a multitude of ways, which invites disagreement. This leads to intense discord because we are programmed (either by evolution, society, or both) to take words very seriously. As people we attack our neighbors for saying ‘forbidden’ things, and we attack ourselves for thinking them.

Two essays back we discussed silence, which is key to resolving this language dilemma. The topic grew out of a quote a relative sent me, but it also tapped into concepts that I read recently in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (2011) by Steven Hayes, Kirk Strosahl and Kelly Wilson. My understanding of that book, in turn, was aided by an older text about language evolution called The Symbolic Species by Terrence W. Deacon. And no doubt the influence of Eastern meditative traditions on the ‘Silence’ essay is obvious.

Citing these sources is my way of emphasizing that none of what I wrote was particularly original. In fact, it is quite likely that almost anything anyone writes about mental life has been presented before but with different phrasing. Go to any bookstore and in the self-help/psychology section you’ll find vast numbers of tomes that cover more or less the same material.

Granted, neuroscience reveals new mechanisms in the brain almost every day. But despite all the impressive research into brain physiology, we know little more about how to thrive as a thinking organism than was understood in the Buddha’s day. As I’ve argued in an earlier essay, when it comes to coping with the felt experience of being human, the sophisticated models of modern neuropsychology seldom improve on ancient wisdom. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, as articulated by Hayes, Strosahl, and Wilson, basically retools the timeless truth that the best way to grow as a person is to gain the skill of silencing, or at least doubting, the verbal mind.

On the other hand, it can be very fruitful to look at established wisdom in novel ways. Doing so solidifies knowledge as information gets reinforced by repetition and nuanced by the alternate viewpoints offered by different authors. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT (pronounced as one word) elaborates a clinical method that guides people to the realm beyond words, where we can find greater stability and less ambiguity. The endpoint may be the same as the Buddha’s, but the path has been modernized.

My post about silence outlined the three consecutive benefits that I believe accrue as one works to achieve mental quiet. The ultimate goal for many meditators is the spacious emptiness that consciousness finds within stillness. But although this is certainly a powerful incentive for learning to dampen thought, the earlier stages offer important insight into the inadequacies of language.

Both ACT and Eastern philosophies teach that words are arbitrary and unsubstantial. Meditation can make this truth experientially obvious, but in fact it is easy to demonstrate with examples.

Imagine you’re at a party and you inform someone that you’ve had a headache for a couple of days. Your companion looks at you with brows furrowed and says, “that’s just what my sister said before they found the brain tumor!” If you’re a neurologist and fairly confident, this statement won’t trouble you much; you know that most headaches are not ominous. But if you tend to worry and your knowledge of medicine comes from online reading about the myriad illnesses that can kill, the string of words ending in “brain tumor” might spark a panicked obsession. And yet, even a hypochondriac could brush off the remark if the person speaking was known to be a habitual and mean-spirited liar. However, if a close friend confirmed that the liar’s sister actually did die of brain cancer, the potent sentence could propel you into your local clinic with demands for an MR scan.

See how the sentence shifts in meaning and import depending on who hears it, who utters it, what others say about the speaker, and so on? Context is decisive.

As another example consider this sentence: “Your dog looks dead.” If it’s spoken after your beloved pet gets struck by a minivan, the remark will sound devastating. If you hear it while your sweet, elderly dog rests on the hearth rug, you will likely feel annoyed. And if the comment follows your dropping a hot dog into the sand at a beach picnic, you’ll probably laugh. Yet even in these situations the speaker’s status will affect your interpretation. If a child pronounces your dog dead after the car accident you’ll be somewhat less alarmed than if a veterinarian does. And if your elderly neighbor with Alzheimer’s insults your pet sleeping by the fireplace, you’ll be more forgiving than if your sharp-tongued brother says the same words.

Today in a support group one of the members explained why she was feeling out of sorts. She spoke quite insightfully about how a painful situation affected her. Afterwards, she asked, “did that make any sense?” My reply was that yes, what she said sounded very reasonable. But I also added that she could have spoken in very different terms about the same situation, and she might still have sounded articulate and convincing.

Words are like this. Contradicting verbal statements can sound equally true in isolation. Meanings shift and change depending on context, speaker, listener, mood, history, prejudice, motivation, etc. Word strings cannot be relied upon as fixed determinants of reality (and yet they often are!). Two people can describe a single conversation in completely different ways, especially if they were arguing while it played out. What’s more, today’s “hell” can become tomorrow’s “heaven.” In fact, it happens all the time.

If language is this unconstrained and arbitrary during conversation, imagine how unreliable it is during mental self-talk, when words are generated continuously without any feedback or objective evaluation by others. No wonder we can drive ourselves insane.

Earlier, this essay highlighted the benefit of using different words to say the same thing. But I’ll end it by emphasizing the even greater value of not employing words at all. Just as re-phrasing helps learning, de-phrasing promotes wisdom.

That was the point of writing about silence. As long as we remain submerged in the murky swimming hole of words, we miss the fact that human life is meant to be lived on dry land. While lost in our fascinating but confining verbal turbulence, we miss the warm sunshine, the birds in the trees, and the children playing on the shore. We mistake both the medium and the message for reality. Most of all, we remain baffled by the unstable meaning, ominous implications, and contradictory concepts that come from words.


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