Sunday night, I left earlier than usual for work. On my default radio station, NPR, was a show called “Radio Lab” and they were exploring language, the role that it plays in our communications with each other, our thought processes, and even our identity as human beings. ( http://www.radiolab.org/2010/aug/09/ ) In a way, it reminded me of the chicken or the egg question. They looked at language from a lot of different directions. One direction they looked was toward researchers who studied concept words such as “blue” and “left” to see at what age people grasped intangible concepts (around age 6). They went even further to see how adults would comprehend those words if their language skills were taken away. I’m not going to tell you how they did this, or the result, but I will say I’m curious to try that experiment for myself. Any volunteers?
I try to listen to that “small, still voice” inside-you know, the one that helps me know who I am in the world, the one that tells me right from wrong and now from then. Well, one of the people they interviewed for Radio Lab, Jill Bolte Taylor, wrote a book called My Stroke of Insight. In this book, she recalls her experience of having a stroke. One day her small, still voice was silenced, along with her chatty voice, her voice that questions, her loud voice, the voice of her intellect, the voices of her whole world- were gone. She couldn’t speak or understand language. Words meant nothing, they were just sounds to experience in the ether. She said during the interview that when there was no language for her, there was just joy. She also said that she felt experientially connected to the world in a way that is blocked by the interference of language. Wow.
Thinking about that concept reminds me of one moment that I had, about 9-10 years ago. I may have told this story here before, but it bears telling in this context as well:
I was at the beach with Deb and my sister and her partner. We were in the water at a very busy park. There were kids laughing and splashing, parents throwing beach balls, geese flying over, college boys belching and grilling, dog tails wagging, babies squealing and teenagers trying to impress one another. You get the picture, a lot was going on around me. I laid back in the water, lifted my feet off the sand and just floated, with my ears below the surface and my eyes closed to the rays of the sun. I could hear and feel the ripples of sound and movement in the water. I could feel the sun on my face and the different water temperatures. I could smell the smoke from the grills that the slight fish smell of the seaweed. I could see shadows cross my eyelids as things shifted in space. I also felt totally present in the moment and place where I was. I felt connected to the people around me. I felt present in my body, in the water, in the world, like I’d never felt before. All of this happened in a moment suspended in a silence without words, without time. It felt endless, but it was really probably no more than 2 or 3 seconds. Then, the foreign invasion of language happened. I found myself laughing out loud and thinking, “Zen! This is Zen. I am zen.” Then I said it out loud to my sister and our partners, and “it” was gone. The Zen was gone.
In my wold-up until the moment that the word “zen” popped into my brain, I believed that language had ALWAYS anchored me more securely in any experience, bringing life and reality to something otherwise not quite whole. For instance: there was the time that I saw an unfamiliar small green plant in the woods. I pinched it and smelled it and immediately gave it the name “wintergreen”. Suddenly my brain was inundated with all of the knowledge and experience that I associated with that word: minty fresh strong smell, breath mints and gum, and now, surprisingly, not looking at all like anything in the mint family whose names I knew. I catalogued those names, throwing them out of the wintergreen family one at a time for their dissimilar shape, color, texture (each named in an instant): peppermint, spearmint, catnip, bee balm, lemon balm and maybe creeping charlie (which may or may not really be in the mint family, but it spreads like mint and has a slightly warm smell and pretty purple flowers). “Wintergreen”, I believed that word anchored me to the experience of seeing it in the wild for the first time. (After that exercise, I’m kind of surprised that I wanted to place it in the category with the word “mint” at all. After all, mint and balm are not part of the verbal equation beginning with wintergreen.)
Up until my moment of zen without words, I had assumed that that word-anchoring, which widened my base of knowledge, meant also anchoring and expanding the experience itself. But really, when the word ‘zen” was put onto the moment by me, I immediately left that place of connection and visceral experience. I connected the experience with the word which connected me to all the other words I had read that describe the experience of zen, the theories, the koans, the philosophies that I had read in words about a concept of which I had previously had no concept. I had, with that one thought word, erected a buffer, a wall of language around the experience. I thought the word, the wall of language would hold that moment as one of pure unsullied existence, protected in the concreteness of solid words. Instead, my wall of words cut off all of that connectedness which I had felt before the Word, then separated it into quantified and categorized information bits in my brain. Just like that time of finding the wintergreen was not enhanced or expanded by all of the outside mental language that I attached to it. That wintergreen moment was seared into my brain during that unadulterated cold/hot eye-watering sinus clearing brain fog burning experience of being in and of that smell, under a tree, by a small creek, the instant before the word “wintergreen” entered my mind. That was the experience being seared into my being. The thoughts of Altoids and mouthwash came in the form of words into my brain, fooling me into believing that now that I had named it, it was more real than the smell in my nostrils, when really it was all just words. The smell, the feel, the taste of wintergreen were what was real.
Don’t get me wrong- as a writer, I love language, Words for me are a way of life, a way of defining life for myself and of defining the world around me. I do my best to describe indescribable experiences and thoughts within the finite bounds of endless combinations of 26 letters and some spaces. When really, it is in the silence of those spaces that authentic experiences and meanings lie. The really important “things” in life are found in those spaces and silences, the smells and tastes, sounds and sensations in that moment before any word intrudes.
In the beginning, there was BEING. And then came the Word and with the word came the illusion of the beginning. And with the illusion of the beginning came the illusion of the certainty of the word.