Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Far Too Many Words

Language is a partisan even when it’s not overtly political or preaching the unattainable. Words have histories, they encode feelings and positions implied or gathered by speakers and listeners; they belong to culture and society and so language is never private; words lean, however we proclaim an agenda of clarity or simplicity or resort to our other senses like vision or taste, words evoke, induce, and challenge our humanity because they stir and churn. Words don’t just get to us, they get into us; and that is a part, a critical part of being human.

Words can make promises, assert claims, and demand compliance without being anything more than the words themselves. Spiritual traditions usually step right into that meaning swamp without the slightest trepidation: declaring finalities, making promises that are little more than repeatable words, as if saying it made it so. That’s because saying it does make it so and there’s the irony: not everything said is more than what is said. Sometimes that’s a good thing, like the way mantras can work upon subtle processes of awareness; and sometimes, well, not so good, for reasons we can talk about.

We can go down the familiar path of the inexplicable, the transcendent, or the ineffable as if these claims resolve into “higher” or “deeper” meaning but as I see it, they are more often strategies to provide cover for being inarticulate or not having a shared language. We may not always love the challenge that words create and we may take recourse to other strategies of sharing meaning, but what we are as beings of language is human. We are human not despite language but because we live in it. (That language and voice lives within a larger circle of sound itself (nada), ah, that is another matter to which we will attend later.)

Each winter when we take the pilgrim’s path to the great temples of south India, I am reminded how much more we understand when we empower language rather than reduce it. Because Tamil is so challenging to the non-Tamil speaker, we all try to convey meaning without words in order to find our way through eddies of communication. What I find is that even a few words in Tamil changes everything for the better. Vanakam up and it’s a whole new game. Speak more than a few words and this perplexing world opens up in ways no amount of sympathetic understanding can provide. We have the pictures to prove it. We might even have recordings. But the nuance, the power of Tamil as a language crystallizes because it is, at least for me even after some thirty-odd years, still so rich, so difficult, so much more like ten million butterflies at play than a language at all. So why do yogins so gleefully abandon or dismiss the empowerment of words? (Too much nirodha in the diet? I jest.) Why not enter into the greater pantheon of communication? Words too are the gods and that formless, transcendent, and ineffable divine, what is sometimes in Sanskrit called anirvacaniya, is not much like the gods I experience among the Tamils. People are always singing, shouting, gossiping, and otherwise trading in words. The gods all have names; they aren’t just “god” generically transcendent and these same gods aren’t beyond; they are right in front of you. Tamil gods present themselves as murtis, in images and forms, not only in nature as rivers and hillocks, and they are only invisible if you want to include that in some greater vision and voice. The gods are not without their names; they are their names, no matter what more they are. The intention (samkalpa) of every ritual is implied, gestured, and placed within the feelings of the body and heart, and it is also stated and can be seen.

Silence is not something nature loves as much as sound. Sound and light may be features of each other at deeper levels---levels where darkness too is a form of energy--- but such distinctions are no less informative nor are they inseparable for the purposes of better understanding. When sound (or light) expresses consciousness, that is voice, and everything that has the ability to give voice does so as far as it is able. Silence is but another form of voice, at least for human beings and the gods. In India, the most important sounds---like the images of the gods--- are remembered and they are listened for, drawn from memory and into memory, not merely read or recorded; their existence is power.

Decoding words into thoughts and feelings, overtly expressed or merely suggested is the business of understanding. Understanding may not always incur “meaning.” Sometimes the “meaning” is the act, the mere pronouncement, like when mantra creates an instrument for the churning of unaccounted deep memory or serves as the expression of life-force, prana, without having to be interpreted further. Mantra may be understood even when it doesn’t have any meaning the way words do. Mantra sometimes cuts to the chase directly and the drama of meaning is of little significance to the act itself. Understanding a mantra is not the same as gathering its meaning or, to put it differently, the meaning of the mantra includes understanding how it exists without meaning-as-language. This is hardly an original thought but it’s not a popular one either.

How mantras do their business is a topic we should consider on (many) another occasion, suffice it to say I think of them less as language than within language. In critical ways, mantras aren’t language at all if language’s purpose is to convey meanings other or more than what is said. As Mozart put it, “Be silent, if you choose…and speak in such a way that people will remember it.” Mantras are remembered perhaps because they are the truest form of a memory that we do not remember and in them are contained expressions of power that further encrypt experience. Deciphering a mantra is not the same as knowing its meaning: mantras provide applications of consciousness, they exist within consciousness’s subtle matrix of expression and occur within the spectrum of sound, even language, but as power foremost, understanding only secondarily.

What I have in mind here however isn’t more about mantra but rather language, that is, what is being said is by definition more than what is said. In Tantric yoga traditions the valence of language, the power of words is understood to be innate, part of the way the universe expresses itself as power. The universe has voice and it acts as mantra, and I mean to distinguish between these particularly different expressions of power. The uncompromising Vedic ritualist maintains that mantra’s perfect execution alone suffices to ignite the powers of the universe and bring them to our advantage. The Tantric broadens this appeal to include the power created through voice and in language: language possessing meaning needs also to strike the unstruck sound as does mantra, albeit not in the same ways.

The usual appeal to wordlessness for those looking to express what they deem inexpressible goes one step further when experiences are moralized by meanings. Anger or greed is “bad,” serenity or generosity is “good” and the outcome too often more repression and denial. Having such feelings or thoughts is regarded as unhealthy or worse, unyogic. I should love, not hate. I should be compassionate, not cruel. Why am I unconvinced by such normative ethical imperatives so plainly stated? It’s more than a visceral suspicion of authority or the coercion of social directives; it’s because there are things I don’t love and, more than that, things that may be worth loathing like, say, injustice.

For words to arrive at deeper meanings they must have value, weight, they must carry something worth the burden of their meaning. We must learn to bear those burdens rather than merely relieve them. We must learn to occupy words and reside in their meanings. Are we supposed to talk ourselves into feeling better with all the right words, leaving aside the wrong ones and so the feelings that go with them? I have no grievance with those who want to feel better much less with the recognition that language can be empowering or debilitating. Rather I have the distinct sense that when we confine words to meet these expectations we make our world smaller. More to the point, it is better first to authenticate than to restrict our experiences.

My teacher called this process radical affirmation and if complex, irresolvable situations and unfinished, inconclusive results aren’t something you love as much as you don’t, you’ll prefer some other yoga. There isn’t an experience worth having that won’t cause you some kinda’ trouble. What sort of life purports to raise the stakes and then tells you it’s all going to be just fine? And especially fine if you realize some ultimate state in which there is no conflict? Meh. Is there any kind of love you’ve ever experienced that makes the conditional world less fraught with peril? Is there any kind of intimacy without prospects of conflict? Do you really want to transcend these conditions? A life without such peril purports to be perfect, without adversaries, when it seems rather to be without much character. Think about how much you love and then consider if there is ever a moment when not worrying about the ones you love isn’t yet another expression of love. We need not fear to have adversaries, even enemies, if by that we mean to acknowledge forces that are deliberately contrary to our welfare. It’s that kind of nature that evolved us to this experience of human consciousness, not only ponies and rainbows. I rather revel in some limitations and (im)perfectly dislike others.

Intimacy demands conditions, no matter how deeply we will experience love unconditionally. There’s no human life without unconditional love---because we came with it, we don’t achieve it--- but life may not be worth living that doesn’t include as real a commitment to its conditions, maybes, and challenges, the ones that can’t be fulfilled, only faced and engaged more deeply. There’s nothing fair or balanced about such a world, no promise that it’ll all work out to our benefit or that there exists some sort of transcendental fulfillment; nature take sides, so will we, and we going to run surpluses and deficits both. Alignment isn’t getting things all tidy; it’s learning to live creatively in the maelstrom of possibilities, in a world in which the greatest certainty is only the most certain possibility. Taking sides won’t only solve or produce problems: that’s going to be incumbent no matter how we evolve the meanings we create.

Inside our maelstrom of possibilities are words and meanings. Yoga invites us to the experience the possibility that making more meaning is better than resolving to comfortable platitudes or moral imperatives. But such a yoga will require raising the stakes. The best we can do is to continue to own our case, argue for and with and against, make our biases transparent, our opinions hard won, and invite our own dissuasion. Subvert me or persuade me but don’t expect me to agree just because I’m listening charitably and honoring your choices. I don’t know what I will do if we don’t align but I will need to understand more from your words even as I take seriously what you do. We can demand (but shouldn’t expect) reason in the face of the irrational truth that love like hate trumps all reasons but we mustn’t give up on the power of words to make a difference. Rather than moralizing the superiority of authorized feelings, we can live more fully in an empowered language of radical affirmation. Come by your opinions from the authentic place of your experience and if that differs from mine, maybe we can share it, hopefully in as few or as many words as we need. There’s nothing better than a good conversation.

Join some good conversation in the study of yoga and the history of Indian spiritualities, go to to find out more.