Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Words Are Powerful

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightening and the lightening bug.” -Mark Twain
Words are powerful. Like anything powerful they are double-edged: they can be extremely useful, yet they also hold the potential for danger. Words aid in communicating, expressing ideas, recording thoughts, serving as a medium for art, and sharing the true nature of the world. Clearly, I find much value in words as I write this blog. Words have a powerful virtue, they make complex and otherwise daunting topics more manageable. However, there are many pitfalls to language. Words are so easy to misuse or mistake in meaning. Throughout the ages, countless arguments and disagreements have no doubt originated from simple misunderstandings, when words had a different meaning to the listener than to the speaker.

In Humanism and Democratic Criticism, Edward Said points to the power and the paradox inherent in language:
... language is where we start from as humanists. One of the best ways of putting this in the ... context that is my concern here, is to use a passage by Richard Poirier in his book The Renewal of Literature. In a chapter about Emerson entitled "The Question of Genius," Poirier states that for Emerson, "the most potent and unavoidable instrument of inherited culture was language itself," and language ... supplies humanism with its basic material as well as, in literature, its richest occasion. But while supple and flexible, language provides us with "our social and cultural fate," which is why, Poirier points out, "we must first see it for what it is, and its form, ultimately, is the language we learn in learning," and, I would add, in humanism, to know ourselves. But, Poirier sagely continues, "language is also the place wherein we can most effectively register our dissent from our fate by means of our troping, punning, parodistic echoings, and by letting vernacular energies play against revered terminologies....Language is the only way to get around the obstruction of language."
This points out that words are both the problem and the solution to that problem. Oh, how I love a paradox, there must be a valuable lesson here.

Powers beyond the obvious
Words obviously bring value in their creative, expressive, and clarifying powers. They also possess much more subtle aspects. Any tool has the potential to be used for help or harm, but words, in their nature for shaping reality, go way beyond that, even at the mystical level. I'll build up to that through a few points, beginning with how words affect our thoughts.

Years ago, linguist and anthropologist Franz Boas inspired many with his finding that Eskimos have several terms for snow. Scholars continue to explore this postulate and the implications that language has on the human brain. Wikipedia's article on the subject cite that "Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf's hypothesis of linguistic relativism holds that the language we speak both affects and reflects our view of the world." George Boole declares this as common knowledge in Laws of Thought: “That language is an instrument of human reason, and not merely a medium for the expression of thought, is a truth generally admitted.” The words composing a language affect how speakers of that language think, directly affecting their perception of the world. Language defines reality by entering and shaping our minds.

Entering through our minds, words affect our beings. Words carry a transformative power when they are written by an author in flow, they are inspired by the sublime power of the universe, the state that put the person into flow in that moment. Reading a work by an awakened person is often enough to trigger the beginning of awakening in others who are ready for it. Many religions texts are known for their power of awakening, including the Kabbalah, the Koran, the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Tao Te Ching. I also find a more recent and popular book, Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth, to possess this awakening power. Additionally, beautiful poetry and texts have the power to bring us sharply into the present moment. I'm particularly fond of a lot of work by E. E. Cummings (e.g. who are you, little i) whose words evoke so much emotion. His words provide me with a true, sacred view of the universe.

Words with truth and honesty can be a vehicle for communing with the sacred, for awakening. Each language, comprised of words connecting us to the sacred, provide a different window to the sacred. "... the language is everything. It has the spirit in it. Each word is kept by a spirit, which means that when people begin to learn the language, they are beginning to pray, to become part of a community. When people learn the language, they are on a path." (From Nov. 2008 Shambhala Sun's Q&A "Dream Catcher" with Louise Erdrich p.#29 when asked about the Ojibwe language and spirituality). This theme of language as a direct connection to the spirit, as a manifestation of universal truth repeats in many belief systems including Kabbalism. In Kabbalism, immennse power is attributed to just knowing the true name of God Those scholars believe that knowing God's true name is a source of power, like magic. Invoking God's true name literally has power over creation.

The Bible presents an extreme look at the creative (in a very literal sense) power of words: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1). Susan G. Shumsky Exploring Chakras: Awaken Your Untapped Energy interprets this as: "That Word, the everlasting hum of creation, spoken by Spirit, is the progenitor of the cosmos." She goes on to say: "In [superstring] theory, the essential component of the universe is vibration." Summarizing Shumsky: Vibrations are waves, and if you follow the long-reigning theories of sub-atomic physics, waves and particles share a dual nature, waves are literally matter, so thusly the Word was able to literally manifest the entire universe by creating a series of deep vibrations that spread across it, starting with the hum. Just as the nuance of the Word can create the whole universe, so can words be very potent in the life of a person. "In your own life, your multidimensional body, mind, and spirit are connected to each other by virtue of that hum. And the humming of thoughts in your mind and in humanity's mass mind profoundly affect your body." [Shumsky] Here Shumsky talks about the divinity of expressed language, how the sound can take shape and manifest throughout the universe in an almost magical way.
These are several of the benefits of words. They have the divinity to control and create, birthing the universe through a hum. They are a vehicle for communing with the sacred, calling the true name of something gives it power and you power to connect. The words that we choose have the power to shape our world, through changing our perception of it. We must be careful and mindful because just as another other tool, words can backfire on us.

Dangers of Words
"The yogic sages say that all the pain of a human life is caused by words, as is all the joy. We create words to define our experiences and those words jerk us around like dogs on a leash. We get seduced by our own mantras (I'm a failure . . . I'm lonely . . . I'm a failure . . . I'm lonely . . . ) and we become monuments to them."
This is a quote from chapter 107 of Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, which is a memoir that deals a lot with getting through the dark times of relationship crisis and finding oneself through the pursuit of first pleasure, next spirituality, and lastly balance. I think that we all catch ourselves from time to time rolling snowballs, they get bigger and bigger the more we pack onto them. Dane Cook's "I Did My Best" (warning: lots of F bombs in there) is a hilarious example of this, and since everyone can laugh over it, that's because we can all relate.

Another inherent danger in words is that as labels they often over-simplify the situation, thus hiding information. Labels convince us that we understand things when we do not, when they're unfathomly deep. In A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle points this out. For instance, imagine being mistreated by someone. It is so easy to just label that person as a "bully". This gives you an advantageous position of virtue relative to that person, absolves you of having had any part in the situation, allows you to identify as a victim which dehumanizes you, and does not account for any of the factors going on in the other person, hence dehumanizing her or him. The label deceives you into thinking that you truly know the situation and all that it entails, when on the contrary, it came laden with so much baggage any other meaning that there was no room for the full depth of the situation. It made parodies of everyone and everything involved.

Ezra Pound points out another way of looking at this oversimplification. "The sum of human wisdom is not contained in any one language, and no single language is capable of expressing all forms and degrees of human comprehension." The language that we are born with, or the ones that we learn, limit our reality.

Another danger lies in our attachment to the use of words. Since words are powerful, it can be deadly to have them stripped from us after we rely upon them. In this way, the mind's attachment to language as a tool can be used as a weapon or controlling force. George Orwell's 1984 presents such a scenario through a fiendish, controlling government entity known as Big Brother. Big Brother took away words in order to have more power over the masses. Similarly, Mao Zedong, took away education in order to keep countrymen down. It's a form of control through forced ignorance. Words put ideas in people's minds that may cause them to act.

As much as there are powerful benefits to words, but we also see their dangers. Some of these dangers, are that words can become a mantra of self-defeat, trick us into false understanding, or become a source of manipulation. We must learn to harness their powers and avoid these pitfalls in order to reap the rewards without suffering.

So, given that there are these benefits and dangers of words, how do we harness their benefits and avoid the dangers? The Buddhist short answer to these dilemmas is always mindfulness. Know the dangers and look out for them, know the facets and use them. The thing to keep in mind, words have many more powers than we often credit to them.

From Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, 1594:

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

This post is dedicated to William Shakespeare, who has always amazed me in his powerful use of words.

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