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Naming the Unnamed

“What are you feeling?” she asked, and leaned back, waiting patiently. She knew that it would take me a while to respond.

I was certainly feeling something intense. I rubbed my damp palms on my pantlegs and looked at the floor. Thoughts whirled in my head. “Confused,” I said finally.

It was our third session of what she called “counseling.” Only, she didn’t use a name for it much; she liked to say that we were just chatting. Most people would have called it psychotherapy. The name mattered only to the extent that it affected my comfort level. I was there because of my discomfort.

Together, we peeled the onion that was my confusion. Under the surface, of course, were mixed feelings. Some I could identify readily, but others seemed to lurk behind closed doors. She helped me dig around them with words.

That was my first experience, consciously, at least, with trying to put names to my interior states. Well, perhaps there was also the time many years before when I tried to tell a young girl how I felt about her.

More recently than either of those times, I was in another crisis. I peered into my mind trying to identify just why I no longer wanted to eat meat. Something had suddenly become clear to me, but the feelings behind it were beyond my ability to put into words. It would take me years to begin to articulate them, sometime after I had begun the practice of meditation.

In some ways, giving names to feelings is the easy part. We all have feelings, and most of them are common enough that we’ve agreed on words that communicate to others how we experience them, even those we’re reluctant to admit to strangers. Much more difficult are what I can only, at this point in my life, be vaguely aware of. Something seems true to me, something profound, but I’m completely unable to put words to it. Whenever I try, the result always seems shallow and trite—and far from accurate.

This is not the place for me to try again. This is only to acknowledge that there are such real yet unnamable mental events.

Linguist Steven Pinker, in his book The Language Instinct, demonstrates that the human mind is the source of language, not the other way around. Other scientists have claimed that we know only what our particular language allows us to know. Pinker points out that the structure of all natural grammars is the same, that languages arise out of the physical structure of the brain. While particular cultures shape the content and arrangement of their languages, the beginning of language follows physiology.

It’s not hard to imagine, then, that language is only as complete as the culture has developed. We create new words and new ideas as we need them, and as we begin to identify deeper insights. Sages through the centuries have discovered things that eluded the vast majority of their contemporaries.  How to communicate these things to others has always been difficult. Making up new words for such discoveries doesn’t help. It’s only when you and I have similar experiences can we talk about them to each other. Often, the best we can do is through the use of metaphor, hoping to suggest a meaning that has no name.

In my therapy sessions, some of what I was feeling—and it could be quite distinctive—could be communicated to the therapist only if she had experienced it, or something like it, herself.

The meditator, alone on her cushion, might become aware of something in her mind that she would be unable to relate to others. If she were lucky, she would have a teacher who could know what it was that she experienced because the teacher had struggled through that maze as well.

Somewhere in the dim past of human evolution, an individual—perhaps a child—figured out that certain vocal sounds could be combined in a way that caused others to respond appropriately to her wishes. No doubt after a long period of time and a lot of trial and error, the idea began to catch on. Where what had been before a chaos of grunting and grabbing, there arose group-acknowledged behavior leading to agreement. That first insight didn’t mark the beginning of the internal state that was recognized by the individual, but only the beginning of the process of communicating it.

“So even a wordless thinker,” Pinker writes (and we can here plug in our primitive child trying to communicate something) "does well to chop continuously flowing experience into things, kinds of things, and actions. . . .  

"Indeed, experimental studies of baby cognition have shown that infants have the concept of an object before they learn any words for [particular] objects, just as we would expect. Well before their first birthday, when first words appear, babies seem to keep track of the bits of stuff that we would call objects: they show surprise if the parts of an object suddenly go their own ways, or if the object magically appears or disappears, passes through another solid object, or hovers in the air without visible means of support.

“Attaching words to these concepts, of course, allows one to share one’s hard-won discoveries and insights about the world with the less experienced or the less observant. . . .”

  That early evolutionary process continued according to a structure shaped by the arrangement of neurons in a particular part of the brain. Ultimately, it was to be affected as well by local environmental and social conditions. Another word, for example, applied to a similar object or experience, could be used as a stepping stone—the beginning of metaphor. The more words we have at our disposal, the more we can “talk around” a concept or a feeling, searching for near-equivalents.

My therapist invited me to talk about what I was feeling, even though I didn’t have words that described the feelings in a way that satisfied either her or me—at first. She might pick up on something and offer another word to see if it fit. Eventually, we might come to agree on some approximate labels, and then begin to work on why they were gripping me.

Likewise, in my clumsy effort to convince my young girlfriend that I was sincere and dependable, I used every word I could think of, hoping that one, at least, would be the key that would open her heart to me. Complicating the process for both of us was that here, too, I was pretty confused about just what it was I was feeling,. “Just say what you mean,” is not particularly helpful advice to an adolescent.

As an extension to all this, I’m convinced that we humans have not reached the limit of our direct experience with reality, that there are feelings and concepts built into us that we have yet to include in what we know and can talk about. And I don’t mean to suggest that there is a separate “spirit world” or other realm not subject to the laws of physics. There are no secrets, only things we have not yet named.

According to Wikipedia:

Mysticism is the pursuit of achieving communion, identity with, or conscious awareness of, ultimate reality, the divine, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, or insight. Traditions may include a belief in the literal existence of dimensional realities beyond empirical perception, or a belief that a true human perception of the world goes beyond logical reasoning or intellectual comprehension.

  That last idea is to me the most appealing. “True human perception” is simply what is available to us, whenever we can figure out how to name it all.

 

Donald Skiff, October 11, 2007

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