Living in Language (Or, Make Apple Crisp, not Apple Crisis)

We live in language. More specifically, we live a self and a world in language. Our spirituality as such does not exist prior to the words we use to bring it about. Hence, giving attention to language is almost always a creative and healing gesture.

In an earlier post I wrote the following:

The nonduality to which many folks point is simply a sustainable experience of this recursive awareness. It runs the gamut from “oh this?” to the heady thrills of a full-on acid trip. The self as such drops out; distinctions altogether drop out; and briefly one glimpses . . . well, what exactly?

The no-thing-ness out of which all things arise? The Face of the Living God? Christ? Nirvana?

I went on to talk about love as it occurs in Humberto Maturana’s thinking, and how that works for me as a descriptive moniker, but here I want to simply point out the importance of noticing that particular juncture: the moment when it appears we can give a name to that which is awfully hard to name, if it can be named at all.

The language that we use in that moment is informative – it specifies us as much as it specifies that which we observe.

Importantly, our attachment to the language we use in that moment specifies us even more so.

We tend to use the language that got us to that juncture in order to describe that juncture. We dance with the one that brung us, as my great-aunt Muriel (a gifted New England farmer) used to say.  That is, if we arrive at the nondual insight via A Course in Miracles then we will use phrases like “happy dream” and “the ladder of separation” and “choose again” and so forth. If we got there with yoga, then we will talk about chakras and Adho Mukha Svanasana.

If we got there by reading constructivists like Maturana, then we’ll use that language.

(Note that it is not so black-and-white: the language we use is often an amalgam of many languages. The suggestion here isn’t to police our languaging but rather to notice it and, perhaps, to be more intentional with respect to it)

We do this even though that which is glimpsed cannot actually be named – or, to put it another way, can actually be called literally anything at all. You can call the ocean “water” or “cinnamon raisin bread” but you’re still going to get wet when you enter it. You can call it “nondual awareness” but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be called “the Kingdom of Heaven.” We name this-that-we-glimpse for the sake of facility (it makes our social lives easier which makes our living easier) but it is a fact that the name can quickly override – can obscure almost totally – that to which it was supposed to helpfully point. People don’t burn non-believers at a stake because they’re feeling secure and confident in their belief system.

This obscuration tends to happen when and as we become attached to our description of the insight, to the name we give it, to the language we use. It happens when we invest in all of this, which is to say, when we – usually quite subtly – begin to believe that it’s right and that other names and descriptions and languages are . . . not right. Somebody fetch a torch!

A lot of spiritual teachers (I use that term broadly) are like this – they get very picky about the language that folks use to talk about, say, nonduality. Or Jesus. Or A Course in Miracles. They become very protective of their semantic preferences. I’ve attended a lot of ACIM study groups where you can’t mention Buddhism. Or refer to texts published by the Foundation for Inner Peace. I’ve talked to some very smart proponents of nondualism for whom reference to Jesus or Bohm dialogue is verboten.

This sort of exclusionary behavior is not a crime against God or Nature but it’s not especially helpful either. We are communal beings; anything confounding that is painful. I speak from experience, both as one who was on the receiving end of that sort of behavior, and as one who has indulged in it. Nobody needs to defend or protect what they know cannot be taken or attacked in any way.

If I say this red globular fruit is an “apple” and you say it’s a “pomme” and somebody else says “you’re both wrong – it’s a symbol of Adam’s Folly” – and if we get into an argument over what it actually is then we might have some interesting and edifying debates but we will never get around to making an apple crisp and sharing it with one another.

And it is exponentially more helpful and fun to eat apple crisp together than to argue about distinctions which may be moderately useful in certain contexts but are not dispositive in any ultimate sense.

In other words, make apple crisp, not apple crisis.

So the suggestion here is that we give attention to our own experience of naming our experience of ____________. Specifically, ask: 1) what language are we using to describe our experience and 2) how attached are we to its rightness?

Number 2 is the tricky one. Attachment can be very hard to notice; lifetimes can pass confusing good intentions for love.

In the earlier post referenced above I observed that “right” and “wrong” tend to arise in community – that is, when and as we encounter other people whose understanding differs in degree from our own. We have a choice in that moment! We can accept the differences as trivial – which is a form of love – or we can double down on the apparent differences and try to force the other to adopt *our preferences (and, failing that, at least resist their preferences), which is form of non-love.

Attachment to a point-of-view begets non-love almost inevitably, so it is useful to notice it happening at the outset, and to decide whether it’s really necessary or not. Hint: it’s not.

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