Dialogue Regarding the Use and Limitations of Language

Published on July 13, 2015, by in Uncategorized.

Q: How do you avoid the obvious implication of what you are saying: that if people are going to experience reality “as it really is,” everybody ends up living in a cocoon, harboring his own (nonverbal) reality? Because whenever you want to share your private reality with someone else, or discuss “reality” with others, you have to use language, right?

A: What I’m saying doesn’t keep people from doing what they’ve always done which is to share their necessarily limited descriptions of reality. I’m just talking about seeing that the descriptions or points of view we’re sharing can’t help but fail to capture the whole story. What I’m pointing to doesn’t negate the usefulness, even value of endeavoring to describe what is (i.e., our points of view) and then communicating that to others. Heck, that’s what I’m doing with you now! What I’m talking about is the value of including a very important yet largely unrecognized dimension of reality, namely it’s indescribability, even as we continue (as language-using creatures) to try to characterize whatever is arising experientially.

I’m simply reporting my take on reality, which is that it cannot be definitively categorized or captured in any single descriptive, conceptual, linguistic framework. If we believe that we can (which is the prevailing view), we’re essentially fooling ourselves. Simply because we have names for things doesn’t mean we know what those things are, at least not fundamentally or definitively. My experiential exploration indicates to me that the reality of moment-to-moment experience utterly transcends any effort I might make to characterize it. Reality is simply beyond the reach of my characterizations of it—life is forever wider, deeper, vaster and more infinite than our finite concepts and language systems are capable of accommodating. As the Tao Te Ching says, “The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao…”

Q: Sharing experience is for me one of the great pleasures of living. And a lot of this comes through language.

A: As I was saying, we can of course continue to dialogue and inquire with our fellow humans about experience, characterizing conceptually and linguistically, whatever ways reality appears to us to be, all the while recognizing the dimensions of those same experiences that are far more open-ended, less definite, more ambiguous, more mysterious, less conceptual or rational than language would imply. This leaves reality as it is—totally open and un-fixed, incapable of being definitively pinned down with any philosophy, meaning-making framework, religion, ideology, or belief system. That’s the freedom inherent in everything—life is simply too wild, too free, too infinitely textured and unfathomably, inexhaustibly nuanced and subtle to ever be captured in a final or ultimate descriptive framework. We never get to the bottom of anything. And that is utterly freeing, I find.

I’m not suggesting that sitting alone blissfully in one’s own cave represents some sort of ideal, natural consequence or implication of what I’m describing (unless that is what one is drawn to do!). All I’m really saying is that the way we have historically engaged with one another has included as a central component of that engagement, the mistaken belief that language (i.e., the conceptualization of reality) actually represents reality accurately. And this hegemony of our descriptive frameworks and characterizations of reality has led to many if not most of the human problems we have faced and continue to face. If we just take psychological suffering, it is primarily the way we describe, characterize, and contextualize experience that creates what we call “suffering” rather than the experiences themselves. Fear, anxiety, insecurity… these experiences transcend (at the same time, include) all the conceptualizing and labeling of them. Once we begin to encounter in a conscious way the multidimensional, non-conceptual nature of such experiences, those same experiences that were once framed (by our descriptive labels) as solid, fixed things that we are the victims of are discovered to be impermanent, dynamic, open-ended, indescribable and ungraspable movements of reality, waves of life energy, inseparable from the whole of life. The deconstruction of those states of mind we believe represent threats to our well-being occurs naturally as we come to recognize the ultimate un-definability of those states.

To be sure we can and do use language as a hugely rich and important part of human interaction. Conversing with others is one of my greatest joys in life! But the question is how are we holding language for we can, in a sense, be held hostage by our words, imprisoned by the ways we describe and characterize the world and ourselves, believing those characterizations to be “true” representations of reality which by any other name is bondage and limitation. Humans will never stop interacting, loving, playing, and learning together and language will no doubt continue to be central in all of these endeavors. But if we recognized what I’m saying about the fundamental limitations of language to describe any aspect of human experience we would begin to open up amazing vistas of inquiry, depths of richness, multidimensionality, openness and freedom. We will discover potentialities that have heretofore remained less actualized by virtue of the ways we tend to abstract about or frame experiences that cannot ultimately be captured by our abstract, conceptual, philosophical frameworks, at least not definitively.

For me, the whole point of spiritual inquiry (or any inquiry for that matter) is to get to the heart of the matter, to find out what is true, to encounter, as much as it is humanly possible, reality as it is rather than (merely) our fantasies, projections, hopes, beliefs, and ideas about reality. I’m just reporting reality as I experience it, that every moment, from the most subtle to the most obvious, transcends any effort I might make to characterize it. This doesn’t negate the characterizations or descriptions. It merely places them in a larger context. Language and concepts are very facile. “Oh, yeah, I know what that is, it’s anxiety or it’s joy…” But what are those experiences actually, beyond the mere abstract words and concepts used to characterize or designate them? If we look with openness and curiosity, we can discover that all experiences naturally open up into an unending and ultimately unfathomable array of textures, patterns, sensations, and subtleties, an incomprehensively rich multidimensionality that is impossible to fully capture descriptively, even as these dimensionalities can be encountered experientially. The problem is that what we are frequently engaged with is a kind of caricature of life, a virtual reality comprised of this layering upon layering of commentary about experiences (including I wish this weren’t happening right now!) rather than simply directly encountering experiences in their more raw, vital, energetic, non-conceptual and infinitely multi-dimensional nature.



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