December 20, 2012

The Limitations of Language.

I’m simply amazed that I can get onto a mat and get quiet. Because here’s the thing: I love words. 

From the age of 10 onwards, my favorite word has been “facetious,”and just the other day I was referred to by a friend as “the vocabulary queen.” On long road trips, my mom and I learn five new words together and find as many opportunities to use them as possible. I often take significant liberties with words I choose: stretching connotations and meanings until they no longer make sense (I see no problem with this; Shakespeare did it on the daily) and I have designated friends who have taken it upon themselves to call me out on it with a robust, “Brentan, word choice!”

I think you get the point.

As overly articulated as my life is, I’m starting to realize that my obsession with language might be totally missing the point. There’s a reason we don’t speak in meditation; there’s a reason why we chant mantras—sounds in languages we don’t speak, on repeat, repeat, repeat; there’s a reason we scream when scared and moan during a delicious meal instead of saying, “I am scared” or “this is rather tasty”; and there’s a reason we get onto our mat and we get quiet.

My new awareness, words can only do so much.

Now, there’s a lot I can say about the successes and limitations of our language paradigms—beginning with the evolution of our species and wrapping around to the cognitive function of language in our brains—but I am neither an anthropologist or a scientist—I am a yoga teacher—and so I will leave that nitty gritty to someone else. Instead, I will talk about the successes and limitations of our language as it pertains to our current experience of living, and in particular, as it pertains to my current experience of living.

You see, I’m big into Kirtan. For those of you who haven’t been introduced, kirtan is a bhakti yoga tradition of group chanting. My first experience of kirtan wasweird. The melodies were a little off, the chanters were mostly out of key and I didn’t understand a word of what I was saying which really bothered me. I almost didn’t see the point. But, near the end of that night, a different song started strumming. It was a song I knew the words to; it was a song I knew so intimately that the first sounding chords allowed me to release into a sob I didn’t know was there. They started playing “Let it be” by The Beatles. And it was that moment that I realized that kirtan wasn’t just the music; kirtan was everything; kirtan was the “aum,” it was the maha mantra, it was the silence in between, it was the pure and unrestricted expression of joy on the faces of that community. And that realization slowly allowed me to soften my grip—nay, my dependency—on words.

I’m going to go ahead and say it: we are what we listen to. And, as listening is the sister of verbal communication, it’s important to talk about.

In the consciousness community, we talk a lot about pollution—air pollution, visual pollution (compliments of the media and advertising), food and water pollution, but what I don’t often hear is the mention of sound pollution, which is an incredibly important idea to me because out of our five senses, our sense of sound is the sense we have the least control over. I can choose not to see something, to not touch something, to not taste or smell something, but by golly, I’ll tell you, I cannot choose to not hear something if it’s within my range of hearing (trust me, I live next door to a fire station). So the question remains: why aren’t we taking more care of what we listen to?

It became so clear to me that night among the Beatles song and the tears. Call it what you want to call it, but listening is worshipping. And, I can either worship the sounds of Ke$ha or I can worship the sounds of ancient mythologies bringing forth archetypes of warriors, elephant-headed obstacle-removers and goddesses of prosperity and abundance. Ke$ha uses 352 words to invite us to engage in drunkenness and poor oral hygiene, yet I can use one Sanskrit sound to engage my full spectrum of creativity, empathy, gratitude and joy—the choice of worshipping made easy.

If we are created by what we listen to, are we also created by what we speak? In other words, at what point do we stop using our language, and at what point does our language start using us? For example, in English we say, “I am angry,” but in French one might say, “I have anger.” Maybe it’s negligible, but I think our internal life is different when we think about anger as something we are versus something we have.

We can pull out 5,000 years of esoteric ideas about vibration and sound as it pertains to the kundalini, to the chakras, to mantra, to systems of sound therapy, but that sort of regurgitation of knowledge doesn’t really do anything for me.

Instead, I’m going to sit in my car and put on some post-rock and listen to how different sounds make me feel. I’m going to speak my words and listen to the consonants close around the vowels and relax into wonderment: I’m going to go out and try to look at a tree without defining it or naming it with words.

At the end of the day, we use our language to effectively communicate our inner workings to other people. It’s dawning on me that I will never be able to use my words to adequately describe how I love, or what anger feels like to me, or the way my stomach feels when I’m afraid.  But, I might be able to connect my love with your love through a chant, or show my experience of anger through a drawing, or let fear tremble through me in dance.

Words, man. I have too many of them. And so this is my work: to take care of what I listen to and what I speak, to harness an awareness of what my words and actions actually communicate (instead of what I think they’re communicating), and to embrace the creative gift we have as humans to communicate fully through all means—touch, dance, song, art, yoga, craftsmanshipand language too.

I think you get the point.




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