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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Making Joy

Every night I go to the same cafeteria with the same staff. When I started I noticed something: in the food industry it seems that there’s often a lot of disrespect between the servers and the customers. People order food and treat the servers like machines. There’s little to no personal exchange between them. Sometimes servers have a bad day and treat the customer poorly. Either way, there’s a lot of negative feelings.

There’s really no one to blame. You can’t have all the workers come in joyous every day. People have bad days, it’s human. Nor can you blame the customers. After a long day of working sometimes people just want to get food, eat, and sleep. Neither party is fully responsible for the poor atmosphere.

When I first arrived on night shift, I decided to try something. No matter what happened through the day, good or bad, I was going to put it behind me. I would walk into the cafeteria with a smile on my face and be eager to talk with everyone. I would fill myself with joy and share it with each person I came in contact with.

It sounds cheesy, or maybe fake, but something started happening. Everyday I would ask sincerely how the server was doing and talk about their day. It was simple conversation but it was sincere. When I asked them, I looked them in the eyes. I cared. There was a woman who was exceptionally grumpy, maybe she just came across as annoyed, but after asking her how she was doing everyday for a week, she started greeting me with a smile.

Then other servers started to follow suit. They started to ask me how I was doing, and now they cared. When they asked, they looked me in the eyes. Within a month, conversations would start and I would begin to relate to them. The negative environment I saw before seemed to disappear. Maybe it actually change or maybe my perspective changed.

Today I was getting food and the woman who looked grumpy talked to me. She said, “You smile a lot, that’s what I like about you. If something was wrong, nobody would ever know it.” I realized that each day I was putting my problems away. The problems I had at work vanished when I walked through those doors. All that followed were smiles and genuine care, if only for a few brief moments.

The reason I write this is because I want you to know that there are small impacts you can make on the world. I feel like I’ve somewhat changed the atmosphere. People seem more joyous and I feel more joyous. I now understand that I can set my problems down and I don’t have to carry them. I can talk with others, no matter who they are, and really hear them. That’s something different and deep.

In your life, try it. Find a simple, repetitive task that you do and fill it with joy. Maybe when you’re checking out at the store you could smile or talk more. Maybe start saying lame jokes. It doesn’t matter what you do. Start really focusing and living life. Really talk with others. Really connect. Make eye contact. Meet new people. Make new friends. As it has been said, “life begins at the end of your comfort zone”.

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Flow

The activities that you lose yourself in are the ones that you should be doing. When you read a book, you forget yourself and believe that you’re the main character. In your head, you’re sailing the seas or fighting a monster. Other activities have the same effect. Painting may do this for one person while exercising may help another. In all scenarios, this state of “flow” (as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it) improves our lives.

Some days I question my path and where I’m going. I wonder if I’ve made the right decisions and where I’ll end up. Depression can come over me while I’m questioning these things. I feel lost. I feel trapped and everything is too much. The only solace that I can find is in doing what I love. For me, that means reading or editing photographs. Even writing helps. It’s when we forget time, and everything else melts away, that we feel the most alive.

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Language and Happiness (Living without Words)

What is the connection between language and happiness? We all know that we use words to define the world around us. “The ground is flat” or “this room smells like oranges“. The difficulty is that we cannot stop defining our environments. Try for the next 30 seconds to look around without thinking any words. . . I bet that your mind was full of them.

It appears that we have difficulty removing adjectives or basic words that act as descriptors. In the short phrases above I underlined the words the we have difficulty forgetting. Our minds immediately think “flat”, “hot”, and even fill with some nouns that have memory association like the smell of oranges. No matter how hard we try, it feels like we cannot stop ourselves from describing the world.

Yet, I believe that our happiness is dependent on the removal of language from our experiences. Next time you have a cup of coffee, don’t think of any words. Find a gap in your mind where there is no description, only experience. Really taste the coffee but don’t think of any words to put with it. As you look around your room, don’t describe it – just look.

It sounds silly, but when you label your experiences you rationalize them. You reduce them to the quality of words in your head. For example, when you look at the sky and think “blue”, you’ve labeled it. You don’t really see the sky anymore, your mind has filled in the details with the memory of blue. Instead of really experiencing the richness of the sky, now you’re living in the memory of it.

Here’s an easier example, bake something in your house that your family traditionally makes. If you bake, let’s say, an apple pie, let the kitchen fill with that smell. When you walk into that room, you will undoubtably remember a memory associated with the smell. Maybe it’s cooking with your grandma or when you first tried the pie. The important part of this is that once that feeling hits, the memory or familiarity, you’ve lost the real experience. You can’t smell what’s really in front of you anymore. All you can do is describe it with a memory or a simple word.

The reason I say that happiness and language cannot coexist is because you can’t experience true happiness through memory. You can only remember happiness. The only time you can have rich, full, and lively, experiences is now. The memories that are in your head are only a fragment of reality, they don’t really exist. They are a construct of the mind.

Therefore, if you want to really feel life, start to remove the descriptors. When you’re walking outside, don’t look at the grass and think “green”. Just let the grass be as it is, with absolutely no judgement. “Green” is a judgement. When you’re drinking water, taste it. I know it sounds ridiculous but we don’t really do tasks anymore; we walk and talk on our cell phones, we listen to music while we write, we sit on the computer and watch Netflix. We don’t really experience life in a full way. We only get a fraction of it.

My assignment for you is, for the next hour, try to live without words as much as possible. If you need to talk to somebody, okay, but do not talk to yourself. Stop describing your life and just live it. It’s as simple as that!

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The Mind is a Tool

The mind can be dangerous if not used in the proper way. I once read something by Eckhart Tolle that labeled the mind as a tool. It is precise and, when utilized properly, it can improve life. However, when you’re done using a tool, you set it down. After all, it serves a specific purpose and should not be used in all circumstances. You wouldn’t use a hammer to screw in a bolt. Nor would you use a saw to measure the length of an object.

Why is that we try to use the mind for tasks where it is useless? You cannot rationalize emotions and sometimes there are no answers. The simple question: “does he like me?” is not something the mind can fully process. You’re using a screwdriver to cut wire – it may work but it’s going to be messy. If you try to use that wire, it may be broken and imperfect. That’s what happens to the mind when you overuse it.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a wonderful tool for solving problems. But it is not a master tool, or something that can solve all problems. In fact, it causes many problems. You can over analyze or think too much. No matter how much you try and use a hammer to screw that bolt in, it’s not going to work.

The biggest misconception about the mind that we try and live our life with it. The purpose of the mind is not to live, it is to analyze, store, and recall, data. By only using our mind, we process life instead of living it.

To solve this problem, you need to set the mind down when you don’t need it. All day you should be taking in your environment through your five senses. You should be tasting food while you eat it and hearing the breeze outside. The mind poisons these senses because it compares. It says, “this food tastes good, it reminds me of last week when we ate out. That place was really nice, we should go back. I wonder if anyone will want to go…”. That is not living, that is processing. You’ve forgotten the real taste of the food and you’re no longer focusing on it.

That is a great shame because there are so many beautiful things around you but you cannot see them with your mind. You have to stop thinking about what you see and just see them. Don’t even think about what they mean or what they are. Just take it all in. When you’re walking down the street, look at the grass but don’t think about it – just let it in. Don’t think “grass”, because you’ve already lost yourself. Instead, let it be.

Eventually you can notice your breath. But again, don’t think about it. Allow it to happen and continue without change. Simply observe it without the desire to take a deeper breath or lighter one. These “breaks”, where you set your mind down, don’t have to be long. They can last 30 seconds or 5 minutes, it does not matter. Just begin to focus on your experience of this moment.

With time, you will begin to naturally go back to this state. You’ll forget yourself and the other moments you could be experiencing. Instead you’ll feel alive. The tastes will be more tasteful and the colors more vibrant. Life will become more. Don’t abandon your mind, you’ll need to think at certain times, but set it down when you aren’t using it. If the purpose of life is to live, then this is how you do it: simply by living!

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P.S. Eckhart Tolle is a fantastic writer with brilliant ideas. Definitely check out his book “The Power of Now”. It’ll blow your mind!

Why does pizza taste better at 3 a.m.?

The human mind is capable of so many paradoxical phenomenon: have you ever been on a temporary diet and when you finish it, you feel like food tastes twice as good? Have you ever been at the beach all day, then later walked into an air-conditioned room? What about when you spend a few hours standing up – sitting down feels incredible, right?

Nothing has changed in any of these scenarios other than our perspective. The pizza you ate after your diet has the same flavor as before you started. Most of us live in air-conditioned houses, and the only time we seem to notice it is when we leave or enter the building on a hot day. Each day we wake up and get out of bed, throughout the day we sit down and get up constantly. Why is it that when our perspective changes, these common activities become so pleasurable? The only variable that changed is us.

Is there a way that we can live and make each moment as incredible as that first bite of pizza? Can we feel relief every time we sit down to relax? What is it that conditions us to forget these simple pleasures and seek greater ones?

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Look Around

Moving to a new place gives a fresh view on life and a new invigoration. In the first few weeks after moving to a new location, you have to absorb the world around you. From the way you get to work to the nearby supermarkets, and from the culture of the city to finding what places you want to explore. When I first moved to Charleston, I couldn’t help but look around.

It’s easy to spot a new person or someone who is not from your city because they move their heads. They look around to see what’s going on. Instead of staring forward, they look at the size of the buildings and the restaurants as they pass by. New people do not keep their heads down, there’s too much to see!

In those first weeks, I think people are more authentic. They don’t know the area and they don’t have a reason to please others. When you talk to them, they are more present. They are more involved in their environment and easier to talk to.

As time goes on, we learn to look forward. We already know where we’re going and how we’re going to get there, so we go on autopilot. If we know where we’re going, we can just sit in our heads. We’re not going to get lost. So we can think about what we’re going to do today or how work was. We lose touch with the moment.

In today’s culture, this is even easier. We can pull out our phones and just sit on Facebook. When we’re sitting on the subway or the bus to work, we don’t look around. We think we already have experienced the subway and there’s no reason to look for anything new.

There’s something to be learned from those initial moments after you move to a new place. When you’re look around, you’re more involved with the world. By interacting, you are living life. Sitting in your head or spending all day thinking is not living. It’s just thinking. In your daily life, start to notice how much you look around. Do you spend all day looking forward or do you openly explore your environments?

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