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The Power of Fog

Language is the medium through which we communicate abstract ideas and concepts. Notice, for example, the nouns and verbs in that first sentence. Can you imagine any way to tell someone else the meaning of the sentence if they had no knowledge of the words “language,” “medium,” “communicate,” and so on? If, in other words, they understood only Swahili? And you didn’t?

It’s rather miraculous, when you think about it, how rich our experience is because of language. Each new idea is conveyed from person to person by means of symbols that stand for more or less the same things to both parties. It’s easier when there are concrete objects that can be perceived—words are then anchored to such objects, increasing the probability that communication will actually take place. If I say, “Here comes Jane,” as a person enters the room, you would probably look up expecting to see a particular person. Communication is clear and effective.

The farther we get from words that “point to” concrete objects, the less certain is the effectiveness of language. If I say something about “the mind,” you might have an idea of what I’m talking about, something about a function of the brain, but you might need more words to be sure you understand me. Eckhardt Tolle, in his famous book The Power of Now, sometimes uses the word “mind” in a rather different way than most of us do in ordinary conversation. For instance, he writes, “Since mind and resistance are synonymous, acceptance [of what is] immediately frees you from mind dominance and thus reconnects you with Being.”

Our striped-shirt language referees are hurling a flurry of red flags. What is he talking about? What he’s trying to communicate (I think) is that there are levels of human consciousness, and that “mind” is only one, and “Being” is another. The mind, to use an old expression “has a mind of its own;” it’s at a lower level, and operates more or less automatically, making judgments, liking and disliking things, and otherwise preventing us from seeing reality as it really is. If we can get in touch with our “Being,” we understand more. To be fair to Tolle, he spends the remainder of his book trying to explain that. He puts a lot of words around a difficult subject.

But our discussion is not about metaphysics or spirituality. Everyone who studies psychology sooner or later runs into the difficulty in trying to define just what “mind” is. Neuropsychologists look at it from one point of view; spiritual teachers see it from another. To most of us, “mind” is a rather fuzzy concept. We know we have one, but just what it is that we have is left to the experts. Still, we use the word in everyday conversation, assuming that the people we address have the same understanding of the word. We communicate fairly well. Usually.

When we hear a politician addressing his or her constituency, we accept the fact that precision is usually not the most important aspect of what he or she says. Much of the talk is in code—the words that suggest which side of an issue one is on, without alienating those to whom the issue is seen somewhat differently. “Family values,” for example, brings a certain response from some citizens while not offending others, except those who understand the code but do not agree with “what it really says.”

Advertisers, of course, do the same thing, quite openly and deliberately. A television soft drink commercial may use the word “taste,” but what it suggests by its glamorous images is that if you drink the product, you’ll fit in with others, and you’ll have more fun. So then, non-verbal images become non-separable parts of our language.

“It means whatever I want it to mean!” said somebody in Alice in Wonderland. We all think that, at times. The word “God” means something different to nearly everyone who uses it, yet we use it a lot, and not always with the intention of communicating precisely what our words denote.

Fuzzy words, like fuzzy logic, are tools to persuade, and persuasion makes more use of emotional response than it does intellectual response. A bit of fog can be a good thing if what you want to accomplish is not readily definable in words. We talk around a subject, hoping that eventually our audience will come to get the gist of our message.

Eckhart Tolle is attempting to persuade us that we have a power to understand more deeply the nature of reality, and right now there aren’t words—at least not common words—to get his point across. In fact, what he is describing in his book are states of consciousness that are beyond words altogether, beyond our power of reasoning—what we have over the centuries come to think of as our highest faculty. “Words don’t go there,” he might say, along with most of the mystics of the ages. But we’re rather stuck with words, at least in this stage of our collective development.

The power of fog—of using words that we do have, but in ways that we’re not used to, in order to suggest things beyond their reach—is one of imagination, on a par with non-objective visual art.

The risk, of course, is not being understood, or worse, having our message rejected altogether without consideration.

For the audience, the challenge is to separate the sublime from the ridiculous, and sometimes one gets lost in the fog.

 

Donald Skiff, September 28, 2007

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