Words are useful and support community of understanding when those who use them are “on the same page,” as the cliché has it. Some language works against this through ambiguity or vagueness, which no doubt mirrors the corresponding weakness in human consciousness. Each person is free to spin words and concepts in a certain way, often without regard to the language of another or the confusion engendered. We can mitigate this Tower of Babble effect by paying close attention to the thinking and communicating process as mediated by words. One aspect of this pertains to the degeneration of terms and concepts.
Perhaps one of the most difficult word-meaning problems occurs in cases where the same word can mean opposite things. This sometimes occurs where unfriendly forces hijack a word with a benevolent tradition. For instance, a dictionary shows that the word “mystic” has suffered some debasement, having spilled over in its usage with the word “occult,” a term with some unsavory magical associations. So, a given word may point to it’s opposite where popular thought arrives at a strange mix of dark and light, of spiritual and anti-spiritual connotations.
You’ve probably not met The Active Enzyme Lemon-Freshened Junior High School Witch. Maybe she’s alive and well on a planet a constellation near Andromeda; we don’t know for sure and humility prompts us to realize that there are a few corners of the universe we’ve not yet visited. But she has such a charming name that, in a serendipitous mood, we might be half-convinced that she is quite real. In any case, a book for children was written about her, but unlike many related texts it does not purport to be anything other than fiction. Fiction often overlaps with fanciful abstractions and the real and unreal are intricately interwoven. We also know that many abstract words are only “shadows hiding a vacuum.” And what we know about the “The Active Enzyme Lemon-Freshened Junior High School Witch,” is that she is a high-flying abstraction pieced together from things that we do have knowledge of.
The thing about the witchery of high-flying language is its emotional appeal. It is glamorous, and at the same time often touches on matters of real importance: God, love, death, humanity, finding the right path, our place in cosmos, our true nature… These are so important, so luminous in the depth of consciousness that we may find them compelling even when badly expressed and mixed with all manner of invented balderdash. So when we encounter a truth that is distorted, watered-down, and morphed with extraneous material of all sorts–even then–we may find this pseudo-truth attractive and absorbing. The words we hear and the associations they evoke work magic so that anything with some real truth in becomes a challenge. And like the Active Enzyme Lemon-Freshened Junior High School Witch, the name can be so charming that we may be half-convinced by the name alone. This particular witch is an abstraction, selected and composed from a wide array of things.
The root meaning of the word “abstract” is to “draw away,” in essence to draw away from the things physical, concrete, and specific. If one were aspiring to things spiritual, this would seem, at first thought, to be a good idea. But some mentally unhealthy conditions are also characterized by withdrawal. So what are the differences between the benign metaphysician and the neurotic?
One difference, semantically defined, is what we might call word/reality split. It is the disunion between the words and the things or realities that they stand for. Often, we listen to someone using high-level abstract words, and we don’t know what they’re talking about. In such cases, there are at least two possibilities: either our experience is too limited or uneducated for comprehension, or they actually don’t know what they’re talking about. In this latter case the person who has “lost touch” doesn’t know it and are quite sure that they know what they’re talking about. They may be proud of their language and love the associated emotions.
We live in a “New Age” of information and misinformation overload, and this poses special challenges for us. In the metaphysical and philosophical world, there are thousands of competing verbalizations with contradictory pronouncements. If we gulp down lots of metaphysics, unless we’re an exceptionally well-rounded and clever, we’re apt to wind up with fine case of muddle-de-physics.
Naturally, many of us think—prematurely–that we’re exceptionally well rounded and clever, and so are quick to get into trouble. Which brings up the next notable difference between a metaphysician and neurotic: ego. Knowledge of a special language makes us feel special. Familiarity with lofty terms seems to elevate us, and set us apart from the crowd. We may become part of a world saving in-group. We are trying to be less lonely and be recognized for our knowledge and high status. Salvation of the world is, of course, an essential and admirable pursuit. And it would benefit all of us if more of those enthusiastically engaged in this activity did know what they were talking about, and if they actually could fly as high as the witchery their words suggests.
“It is inherent in our intellectual activity that we seek to imprison reality in our description of it. Soon, long before we realize it, it is we who become prisoners of the description.” —Aneurin Bevan
“Great God, what a universe! And we discuss it over our teacups as though it were a thing we carried in our waistcoat pockets.” –L. P. Jacks
“Men suppose their reason has command over their words; still it happens that words in return exercise authority on reason.” –Bacon
“The world is satisfied with words. Few appreciate the things beneath.”—Pascal
There is a special power that comes from learning new words and from learning new meanings for familiar words. The eminent psychologist, Dr. Roberto Assagioli, wrote, “Words possess the power of stimulating and arousing activity associated with them. They evoke and make operative the meanings and idea-forces that they signify.” But I would add, they only do so when we tap into one of the deeper levels of meaning behind them.
Everything has a multitude of levels or dimensions, and our vocabulary is no exception; it evolves as we do. So we find new words for new experiences that come to us, and we find new dimensions that give deeper meaning to the words we now use. Words like “self” and “love” have many meanings, and the meanings we give them depend on our developing experience.
We can take any word our intuition underscores as important, and use it meditatively. It’s good exercise to proceed as if we don’t really know the meanings of important words we use. On some level this is always true. For instance, we might take the new word “spirit” into our vocabulary and see it in a completely new way, as if for the first time. Likewise, the new word “love” will have for us a spectrum of meanings not yet divined. We can always seek behind our words, going one dimension deeper into meaning. And when we have done that, then stay open for the next layer of meaning, and the next….
“But customs make one customary. Therefore, I urge you to look at the sky as if for the first time.”
Leaves of M’s Garden II, 191
We can view progress as giving up or displacement, or in terms of acquisition. The first is negation and the second affirmation or inclusion.
We relinquish one thing, but obtain something else, in other words, the displacement of the lower by the higher or the supplanting of a lesser thing by a greater. Energy shifts from one thing to another, and lesser things fall away as we become more absorbed in finer ones.
Esoteric “inclusion” is the obverse of denial. We can move forward by denial or inclusion. And though the approaches may differ, inclusions and denial are, in a sense, aspects of one thing. We can express this difficult concept with an example.
Here is flower. Shall we renounce it? My answer is yes and no. We might respond to the flower as a personality in a superficial emotional or sentimental way. But there are other levels of response. The soul is artist and beauty is the essence of spirituality. The flower is symbol and gateway. We may well renounce the flower if our eyes are glancing off it superficially. But the flower is a manifestation of spirit, and hence an instrument of transformation–it can be a portal into which we are ushered into the meaning of life.
What is intuition? It may be thought of as a world or a universe of meanings. Colors, notes, and lights are the best physical analogy. Intuition sparkles in the mind and feelings with a beauty so intense as to be sharp, even painful.
Intuition has relatives. The meaning of love and unity overlap with that of intuition. The meaning of “illuminated mind” overlaps with intuition, but the usual meaning of “rational truth” and “love” are far from intuition. Probably, we must be able to really think before we can expect intuitive light. In the silence following thought, we can often see the most clearly.
Sometimes we may see in the silence following simple observation. Some intuitive fire can emerge spontaneously as the accompaniment of sight. But it is hard to say what hidden preparations lead to the moment of revelation.
“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
— The Little Prince
Often people imagine that a definition relates words to the world. But actually, a definition only relates words to other words—it is we who must, based on our experience, relate the words to the world. Definition is the substitution of words for other words, but it is experience that lets us to link words to the world. This is why experiences in common are the basis of communication, and why expanded consciousness is so vital to harmony and understanding.
A definition is only helpful when the words used link to our personal knowledge and experience. If we have an experience that relates to a word, then that word becomes like an arrow pointing to the experience. Where we have only the word, and lack a corresponding experience, that word remains like an arrow pointing to a question mark. We can, of course, also have in our minds a word-arrow that points to the wrong part of the world. What makes it “wrong?” It’s wrong because we are alone in our definition, so the mistaken word-arrow is useless and misleading as a means of communicating with others.
The practical value of reflecting on this is that it helps us understand something of what happens when we try and fail to communicate. And it also helps us think more clearly, because in so far as we use words when thinking, we can better understand what it is we are doing.
“A SONG of the rolling earth, and of words according,
Were you thinking that those were the words, those upright lines? Those curves, angles, dots?
No, those are not the words, the substantial words are in the ground and sea, They are in the air, they are in you.”
— Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
Some illumination exists in understanding when we have got hold of the words, but not that which the words point to. Our psychological condition in this respect is not always as clear and obvious as one might at first think. If it were, mutual understanding would be a far more widespread than it currently is.
The key is to be free of imprisonment in our own vocabularies.
“Each man wrappeth his thought within his own egotism and calleth the brat a new name.”
— The Case of Patience Worth, Prince, Walter Franklin