NOTE: I think in this last blog I am in some sense arguing myself OUT of a position that I have thoughtlessly held for many years. That is, the idea that liberation is a wordless affair, best done in the silence of the heart. What is dawning on me that this is only half of the journey. We liberate ourselves, it’s true, in the silence of the meditation cushion (as the Buddha did under the bodhi tree). But that the Bodhisattva Vow (the vow to help all beings across the Universe to find liberation) demands that we enter into the complexity of the web of shared symbols. And that thinking and word use are no distractions on that path…instead, they are the paving stones that make the Path go somewhere.
I spent a good portion of my 30s and 40s demonising thinking. The form of Buddhist practice that I followed seemed to make thinking the enemy and tutored me to rest awareness in less flitty things such as sounds or the breath. This wariness of thinking constitutes a strong strand in Theravadan Buddhist practice (as I outline in ‘Loving the Monkey’) and is useful when we’re first working with the chaos in our minds. But it can (and in my case, it did) lead to a squint-eyed suspicion of all things linguistic.
I imagined a village…. where people communicated without words altogether
I was once asked to write the libretto for a mini-opera by the composer Jeremy Thurlow and I chose this theme of wordless experience as the subject. The text was full of allusions to the wordless language of deaf people or the structured language of birdsong. In the final section, I imagined a village, high in the remote mountains where people communicated without words altogether: “It’s an urbane and sophisticated civilisation where the adults spend most of their afternoons in busy teahouses, communicating in fluid gestures and with the tiniest nuances of their faces. The only sound to be heard is that of hands in the air and the clinking of china. People from the valley live in blissful specificity. Since every person, animal or meadow flower can be judged on their unique merit – it makes no sense to give them names. There’s that bird and this one. Same markings and song but clearly different birds. The children don’t have names either because they know each other by sight.” After the premiere, an old university friend, a writer, chided me for giving up on language even as I was using it. And now when I look at that text again, I see that I was indulging in wishful regression. A fantasy of that world around the cave fire when you simply had to point at things to be understood. The dream of perpetual presence.
In giving up the dream of being perpetually present, I opened up the possibility of sharing and comparing experiences.
This dream is very prevalent in meditation circles and I think it’s a mirage.
I would argue that we need to let that dream go if we are to be liberated and liberating in the World. Rather than branding language as an Edenic fall from a meditative presence. I think we need to recognise that it is an amazing conduit for compassion. In giving up the dream of being perpetually present (in the way that perhaps animals are) I open up the possibility of sharing and comparing experience. By paying the price of not being present all the time, I can imagine what others are feeling and communicate my inner world as well.
Returning to the neolithic ancestors we encountered in the first part of this blog, we saw groups of early humans naming things-that-are-not-present in order to thrive better. Then our individual cave girl took these useful symbols inwards and turned them into thought.
Thinking about things-that-are-not-present removes her from the here-and-now and that makes her a little anxious. But it’s worth it because it allows her to survive and thrive. But plugging her imaginary inner world into the shared symbolic world of the tribe makes her thriving even stronger.
Thinking and speaking weave together with reality to create a whole and more serviceable human life
It’s worth pausing to contemplate this. The Symbolic (the shared language of the tribe) cross-pollinates the Imaginary (the private thought of the cavegirl). The Real is still the real – she still has a body that can be torn into pieces by a bear. But those two other spheres (thinking and speaking) weave together with her reality to create a whole and more serviceable human life. Let’s look at an example. She’s up in those possibly bear-infested woods again…
She moves from the Real (her fear as she is walking in the woods) to her Imaginarium (beary-scary images and semi-thoughts) to the Symbolic. (asking back in the cave, “Mother, do bears live in that wood?”) Her Imaginary is updated either by the Real (she sees a bear). Or by the symbolic (“No, child, there haven’t been bears in these woods for hundreds of years”) This is a very important aspect of language. It purifies misperceptions in our Imaginarium and keeps us healthy.
Buddhism is not about returning to some pre-linguistic state and whitewashing the necessary costs of human connection
When we insist – as we sometimes do in meditation – that only the Real is worthwhile then we are making ourselves like animals. We are regressing to the fantasy of perpetual presence. (It’s what the philosopher Ken Wilber calls the pre/trans fallacy.) Mature human life is necessarily woven through with the absence and anxiety that thinking occasions. And that is a worthwhile price to pay for the ability to connect with the world of others.
I would argue strongly that Buddhism is not about returning to some pre-linguistic state. Whitewashing the necessary costs of human connection. We are extraordinary beings because we can rest in the Real like our animal siblings. And we can tolerate the anxiety that comes from lifting experience into a symbol and sharing it. And this is the crux. When thinking is cut off from the real it curdles into abstraction. And when thinking is cut off from shared language then it gets outdated and inaccurate fast. But the fact remains: thinking is the crucial bridge from the private real into the shared realm. Thinking, the internal chatter that we so demonise on the cushion – is, in fact, the holy bridge that takes us from the private to the shared. And we have a name for that kind of bridge. We call it love.
We are clearing the walkway of the most important bridge there is
Seeing, clarifying, testing and re-tuning our imaginary inner talk is the path to love. It is the necessary work we do in order to connect our inner world with the world of others. And vice-versa. Unless we can use shared symbolic language and import it back into the closed world of our Imaginary, then there is no possibility for love and communication. We are stuck in a self-enclosing circle where our inner chatter (our Imaginary) imposes itself on the real and the symbolic. When we impose our inner Imaginarium on reality then it is called psychosis. When we impose our inner Imaginarium on the symbolic shared world, then it is called narcissism. But if we can see our imaginary sphere of thought, memory, inclination, prejudice and half-baked opinion, then we are clearing the walkway of the most important bridge there is. The bridge from private to public and back again.
Reach out through the network of language and make a lasting and meaningful connection into another Mind
I would argue without language there is no real bodhicitta. We have innate animal empathy, and mirror neurons can give us a taste of what another being is feeling. Lab rats have that. But what is unique about humans is the ability to interweave, cross-check, try out forms of words, and risk exposing our private Imaginariums in the business of speaking.
Taking that risk, speaking out our innermost feelings and thoughts as words make a bridge over to another person. Who can then take those symbolic forms into their Imaginarium and compare and contrast. Maybe even re-fresh and retune. This is the work of the bodhisattva. Not just to sit there being privately compassionate. But to reach out through the network of language and make a lasting and meaningful connection into another Mind. And for that ripple of symbolic energy, - the chain of meaningful power-words that constitute a Dharma – to touch other people. And then other people and then other people. The Buddha is THE Buddha because he spoke. A pratyekabuddha realises nirvana but never shares it.
I’d love to know your thoughts about language and thinking. 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!