Language as a Barrier

The difficulty with words is that they serve as placeholders. Each word represents something, from ‘table‘ to ‘tongue‘. When we speak, we make a series of sounds to communicate an idea. When I say ‘street‘, most likely an image appears in your mind. It isn’t a particular street that you could find, only the concept of the street. You see some asphalt or dirt leading in a direction.

The word symbolizes the idea of a street, not one specifically. You could be speaking about any of the 10,000 I’ve seen in my lifetime or you could be speaking about any of the 15,000 you’ve seen during your lifetime. The difficulty is that we may not have ever seen the same street. So when I say it, you understand the concept, not the exact street I’m thinking about.

Occasionally the words don’t like up properly and we have misunderstanding. If you grew up in England, when I say that I want ‘chips‘, the concept in your mind is fried and served at McDonald’s, while mine is crunchy and found in a bag. The word ‘chips‘ represents two separate concepts.

More likely a misunderstanding would revolve around a subtler difference. I could say “drive to the end of the street and turn right”. In our minds, an ‘end‘ to a ‘street‘ could represent multiple values; like a dead-end, a change from asphalt to dirt, or when the name of street changes. Any of the above could cause confusion.

Our minds define ‘end‘ differently and the word represents two different images. When I speak about the ‘street ending‘, I speak as if we have the same definition. So I speak with confidence that you must turn when the street ends. Unconsciously you pick up that confidence and believe me. You must turn when the street ends. Now you trust that, if you don’t want to get lost, you’ll change directions when the ‘end‘ appears. Your ‘end’ is different and now you are lost.

If we want a more common example, we’ll use words that have lost their meaning. When you ask someone “how are you doing?”, they may respond with ‘good‘. What does this word mean? We all know that ‘good‘ is less than ‘great‘ and better than ‘fine‘, but, by itself, what does ‘good‘ mean. Moving to other words, what does ‘fantastic’ mean? Is it a lot of ‘good‘? Well we still don’t know what ‘good‘ even means. How could something be ‘very good‘ or ‘exceptionally good‘?

Feelings aren’t tangible and therefore don’t stimulate the same concrete images as many nouns. When you say ‘wood‘, I have something to reference. My mind is full of images of forests, bon fires, chopping blocks with ‘wood‘. However, our feelings don’t represent images in the same way. When I say that I’m ‘happy‘ (another empty word), we can remember a feeling from a moment when we were joyous. But what is joy? Are our definitions equal to each other? Do you understand when I speak to you?

Now you may see the problem, language is flawed because it cannot communicate completely. When I say ‘ceiling‘, we are thinking of similar concepts but not exactly the same. Mine could be made of glass while yours is tiled like an office building. However, to say that language is entire flawed would be to discard an incredibly useful tool.

We may not think of the same ‘street‘ or ‘ceiling‘ but we generally understand one another. I can say that I replaced my ‘roof’ today, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. If I shout “call the police”, you’ll (hopefully) react by pulling out your phone and getting help. Language is incredibly useful!

Returning back to my original statement, words are placeholders. They represent concepts we have in our minds. When we use them, we speak as though they are made of concrete and tangible. “Turn left after the purple building”. I speak as if you understand me, and for the most part, you do. But you don’t fully comprehend what I’m saying. When I tell you that I’m ‘fine‘, there isn’t a reference or something you can touch. It’s subject to your interpretation. ‘Fine‘ to a girl may be synonymous with ‘depressed‘ or ‘unhappy‘, while, to a guy, it may mean ‘alright‘ or ‘okay‘.

Now that we see words as concepts and placeholders, we see language as a tool. We can pick the tool up and use it to communicate. But when do we set it down? At this moment, pause and pay attention to your mind. What words are going through it? Perhaps it appears silent now. Eventually you will start talking to yourself. You’ll notice that the chair you’re sitting in is uncomfortable and that tomorrow you have work.

Your mind communicates with itself through language. Therefore there must be two of you; one to experience life and the other to examine it. There’s a person who feels the rain when you walk outside and another who complains that it’s cold or very wet. They are not the same person. Here’s a famous exercise to demonstrate it;

Wherever you are, sit tall. When you finish reading this paragraph, you’re going to close your eyes and try to stop thinking. You don’t want a single thought to go through your mind… Go ahead and close your eyes and try…

After you’ve done that, you’ll see that thoughts just arise. You can’t control them, they just appear. Still don’t believe me? Where do your thoughts come from? Where is the beginning of a thought? How did you start thinking about lunch?

You understand that there are two ‘selfs‘; one that experiences life, when you touch a table or stub your toe, and there’s another that curses loudly or criticizes you for tripping.

As the day progresses by you may think about the weather or what you’re going to eat for lunch. Since you don’t actually know what you’re going to eat for lunch, you fill your mind with words. These words are placeholders because you don’t actually know what you’re going to eat for lunch. You don’t know how it will taste or the exact temperature of the sandwich. You just don’t know.

So you describe it with words; “my lunch is going to be a PB&J sandwich with yogurt and tea”. These words are placeholders for what you remember a PB&J to taste like. When I say ‘yogurt‘, you may remember the last time you had some. Unfortunately today you left yours in the sun and it’s going to taste a little different than you remember.

We were discussing misunderstandings earlier when two people speak. When you have a mind, you have similar miscommunications. Your mind says, “we’re having a sandwich”. You remember the last time you had a sandwich, and create an expectation. You remember a chewy bread with peanut butter, so this one should be the same, right?

This internal dialogue creates many problems. By having two ‘you‘s, you have miscommunication. Instead of turning on the wrong street, like we mentioned earlier, you create an expectation and either fulfill it or fail it. You tell yourself, “I’m going to have a good day at work today”, then you either do or you don’t. The language isn’t concrete. When you say those words to yourself, you don’t actually know if you’re going to have a good day.

The trouble is, we continually have conversations with ourselves. We’re constantly talking and labeling the world around us. We look at the grass and say ‘green‘. We look at a puddle of water and think ‘wet‘. Both of these statements are probably true and there’s no reason to doubt them. However, both words are unnecessary. We don’t need to tell ourselves that the grass is green or a puddle is wet.

What is happening is the two of you in your head, the experiencer and the examiner, are separating. The examiner says ‘green‘, ‘stiff‘, ‘dry‘, ‘needs water‘. Because the examiner labeled the grass, you no longer need to experience it. Instead of actually looking at the grass, you’ve reduced it to words, or placeholders.

When you reduce the world to words, you cease to experience. You’ve labeled everything and now you’re remember what each descriptor means. ‘Dry‘ reminds you of running through a field as a child and getting stabbed by the blades of grass. ‘Green‘ reminds you of the algae in the pond by your house. Instead of experiencing what is in front of you, you relive your previous experiences.

This makes sense, because we experience many things ever moment. If we felt the grass when we walked barefoot, noticed the heat on our skin, gravity holding us to the ground, the 90 degree day, the ocean smell, tired eyes, and the other thousand feelings we have, we’d be overwhelmed. There’s so much sensory input that when we’re young, we teach ourselves to replace these feelings with words.

We can focus on our thoughts, how we feel about the moment, what we’re going to do in the future, et cetera. If you notice, when you go to a new place, you look around. You can always tell if a person is new by how much they move their head. As time goes on, people start to walk with their heads facing forward. They have already experienced the drive to work, so there’s no need to look around anymore.

Unhappiness stems from here, when we stop experiencing the world and we decide to label it. We relive the past rather than experiencing new feelings. We stop living.

What is the solution? Pay attention to everything as it happens… but don’t label it. Don’t walk into a building and think ‘gray‘, ‘tall‘, ‘bright‘, ‘open‘. Just feel. It sounds simple enough but it takes time to learn how. You have to let go and stop judging the world. Let everything be as it actually is. The grass just is… The water is… Sitting feels like…

It’s very difficult not to finish those sentences but you need to learn how to. When you stop communicating with yourself, you stop miscommunications. There isn’t any need to have conversation with yourself. If your mind is a tool, you don’t always need to be using it. When you’re done with a tool, you set it down.

Unfortunately there isn’t a good way to explain how to feel, you just have to do it. Take in the world and really experience it. Stop filling it with words and placeholders, the world is so much more than just a memory. It’s an experience! So take this as a lesson to start feeling the world and finding a silence in yourself. No more conversations or thinking about tomorrow, just feeling what’s in front of you.

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