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Language #2: The Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

In the first part of this blog on language and thinking, I argued that the human experience of thinking is fundamentally grounded in what is not and that it is inherently anxiety-evoking. And this second blog is going to suggest – counter to what you might instinctively think as a meditator – that this is a price well-worth paying.


Deliciously, we are thinking creatures. We think and – in our unique way – we often spend more time thinking about what-is-not than enjoying what-is. This is just the deal of being human.

Once we’ve accepted that cost of thinking, we can begin to explore it more deeply. Let’s return to our experience on the cushion. When we sit down to meditate and aim to bring our awareness to our breath at the nostrils, all sorts of funny things happen.

A chaotic buzz of half-perceived and half-formed voices, memories, and white noise.

Firstly, sometimes we struggle to hold awareness on the nose because there is this torrent of “thinking”. But is it thinking? Or is it something else? We might be able to discern clear thoughts, but more often it’s a chaotic buzz of half-perceived and half-formed voices, memories, and white noise.

Have a go now. Close your eyes, click your fingers, and try and listen in to your thinking. What is it like really? Clear, cogent sentences or something a little more… crazy?

This internal hullaballoo makes much more sense when we stop insisting that thinking is like speaking and recognise it as its own thing. The French psychoanalyst Lacan’s ideas of the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic help us out here.

(I owe a debt to Phil Mollon for explaining the following. It switched a lightbulb on in my head.)

You might call the ‘Real’ the raw material of life

The Real is – for all intents and purposes, – our somatic experience of ourselves and the world. It is the interoception of our nervous system. The felt sense of our being at any moment. It is also our experience of colour, shape, smell, touch and sound. It is the taste of a raspberry or the overwhelming feeling of being in love. You might call the ‘Real’ the raw material of life.

Wrapped around that in an almost invisible bubble is the Imaginary. This is our inner ‘workings’ around these raw materials. It’s the inner stream of proto-thoughts, valuations, memory-colourings and somatic markers that we are only ever half-conscious of. I sometimes think of it as an “Imaginarium” full of brightly coloured ideas about our reality. Often we pay more attention to the Imaginarium than the actual Real.

This is one of the issues we can sort out in meditation.

However, what’s important for this blog is that the Real and the Imaginary are private. As yet, modern science has not found a way to directly experience someone else’s Real or enter their Imaginarium. We remain stubbornly private in our experience of these two.

But we are not private beings. We are intensely social animals. Especially we humans.

When we speak, we enter into a club that pre-dates our birth and is largely controlled by others.

From birth, humans are utterly dependent on caregivers and remain so for two or three years. But from about 2 years old onwards one of the key ways we can communicate our needs and manipulate the world around us is by using what Lacan calls the Symbolic. And what we, more prosaically, call speech.

And speech is very different from the proto-words of the Imaginarium. When we speak, we enter into a club that pre-dates our birth and is largely controlled by others.

For example, we can insist on calling an orange a ‘dib-dib’ but no one will pass you one unless you teach every individual in your neighbourhood that the citrus fruit you want is called a ‘dib-dib’. It’s much simpler to use the given word, ‘orange’ that your Mum and Dad and everyone in England uses. (Of course, if you cross the North Sea to Poland, for example, then a different language club means you have to say ‘pomarańcza’.)

Using symbolic language where people agree on what a certain set of syllables or letters symbolises allows us to plug into a shared world. (The symbols don’t have to be words. Deaf people, for example, still access the shared world but they use the symbols of hand-shapes and gestures.)

In most meditative practice we are working with the first two, the Real and the Imaginary

In moving fluidly from the Real to the Imaginary and then out into the Symbolic and back again we become fully human. Inner and outer realities re-fresh one another in a two-way flow.

What does this all mean for meditation? Well, in most meditative practice we are working with the first two, the Real and the Imaginary. We sit and learn to somatically feel into the raw material of our breathing belly or the sound of a bird outside the window. This is the Real. And then we gradually notice and clarify the swirling Imaginarium – and, just as often, start to notice how wildly inaccurate it can be.

However, when we start to talk about meditation practice (an activity that is known as “the Dharma”) then we have entered the Symbolic. This task of translating the Imaginary into the Symbolic and back again is a powerful human practice.

When a Polish person moves to the UK and persists in using the word pomarańcza at the fruit counter, there is going to be confusion. There will be dissonance and dis-ease. (And certainly no oranges). But when we plug our inner language into the outer language and tweak it accordingly then the mismatch is evened out. It doesn’t mean that pomarańcza is wrong. But it doesn’t fit into the contingent setting of the small-town British greengrocers.

The Dharma is a symbolic network of words and meanings like any linguistic form (like Polish or British Sign Language, for example). And, like our orange-seeking Pole, we can plug the contents of our Imaginarium into the symbolic realm of the Dharma and see if it ‘clicks’.

Thoughts and speaking are essential components of being truly human.

For example, I might have the half-formed belief that I am sinful and pathetic. This might have been swimming unnoticed in my Imaginarium for years and years. And then I read a tantric Buddhist text (the Symbolic) and hear that I’m a fully enlightened Buddha. There is a dissonance but when I plug my Imaginary into the Symbolic, then the Imaginary might correct itself. This is the hope of Dharma.

So, far from language and thinking being a devilish distraction from the business of meditation, I hope that you are beginning to see that thought (the Imaginarium) and speaking (the Symbolic) are essential components of being truly human. Part three will take this even further, to suggest that language is the prerequisite for real compassion in the world. And we ignore or demonise it to our greatest detriment.

I’d love to know your thoughts about language. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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