Monday, July 7, 2008

Naming and Unnaming

When I was little, I didn't think in words. I felt in concepts, immediate relationships, rapid-fire realizations that I lived in real time. When I was maybe eight years old, I could feel my mind changing. Words crept in, and I fought to hold back the tide, lest the flood destroy the magic I was a part of. I wasn't strong enough, and now I sometimes think in words, but this tide of words ebbs and flows, sometimes drowning me, sometimes pulling back to reveal my former clarity.

In college, I studied linguistics. I learned that many people believe that language, in the form of structured and shared words, is essential to our humanness, even to our intelligence, to our ability to understand higher concepts. This struck me as ridiculous! Though others felt this way, I had the opposite experience. To me, words covered up reality, made my mind sluggish. It was as if I used to have a bird's eye view of the world even while living down in it, but now I have to stumble through mazes of words, the hedges high on either side, before finally reaching the end and coming to some small conclusion.

Lately, I have read books that articulate what I have been trying to explain to people all my life. These authors have helped me to better understand this challenge. The challenge of unnaming what had been named, packaged, and filed away. The challenge of forgetting labels in order to remember something truer and more immediate. In The Holy by Daniel Quinn, for example, a boy is told that the secret will open to him if he can get to know a cactus so well that he forgets its name. What seems an impossible task turns into a life-changing experience when the boy finally sees the cactus as a being pulsing with life-energy. He is finally present and can experience the life around him, rather than feeling that he understands it so well that he doesn't need to truly see it.

When you can see the world in this way, magic pulses all around you. It's in the air and in everything, even in yourself. But we must be careful not to force it. I think trying to over-theorize and force things to be a certain way from a certain mindset is part of the word-thinking--at least it is to my mind. And I do think that people's minds are different. I really admire those who have a way with words, even in their heads. But for me, with words, something is missing. And I can't force myself to see the magic. It is as if I work myself into a frenzy sometimes, wanting to see the beauty, and when I don't, I relax, and sometimes, there it is. It sneaks up behind me and sprinkles pixie-dust on me until I realize I am flying. So often gentle nudges work better, or stilling my mind, rather than overloading it with what I want.

The world is so full of this magic to discover, and I pray that we never give up on it.

1 comment:

Seth said...

In the words of Witter Bynner's translation of Lao Tzu "Existence is beyond the power of words to define:" ... "Words came out of the womb of matter" ... "The core and the surface are essentially the same, Words making them seem different" ... "If name be needed, wonder names them both: From wonder into wonder Existence opens".

One function of language is to label things, but language in the service of art has managed to live free of the superstition of materiality. In that service language can transport us and widen our eyes to mystery and wonder. It's our job to use it that way, being careful not to entomb the sparkling facets of experience in the cold crypt of a name. (By being cryptic, for one thing.)

Julian Jaynes wrote "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind", which was for me a seminal book in which he traces the role of language in evolution of human consciousness.