Chandira Hensey | Language and Consciousness

While many things have been written about the role of language in our living, conscious process, not much has really been written about its effects on our deeper spiritual life.

by Chandira Hensey

While many things have been written about the role of language in our living, conscious process, not much has really been written about its effects on our deeper spiritual life. Perhaps it’s because most spiritual paths advocate a quiet mind. If it’s possible to transcend the mind, though, why would you want to quiet it altogether? Is not the quiet mind really just an excuse, a kind of distraction? You can’t wait for the quiet mind, when the simple realization of a greater reality—a more tangible experience of our prior unity—is entirely possible even with the mind racing away. We are not our thoughts, even though they may shape us. Think of it as spiritual multi-tasking. 

Language has always been an absolute fascination of mine, ever since I suddenly learned to read, in one afternoon, aged 5. It was all there, as it was—words, sentences, phrases, ideas, knowledge, a stream of intelligence and awareness I suddenly saw a way to tap into. I didn’t have to fit any pieces together; I didn’t really have to learn to read in progressive stages. When I told my teacher how it happened, she didn’t believe me. It was just all suddenly “there,” my brain awash with direct understanding and excited verbal epiphany. I am a very verbal person by nature and tendency. Before that moment, I remember living in a world where my head was open. In this world I moved on feeling, rather than thought, and energy was free-flowing. Still, this new tool of language was like a gift from Prometheus himself. 

I think things like this affect us more deeply than we know. Learning to read was perhaps one of the most formative and happy moments of my entire life. It was also the saddest and most frustrating when my teacher didn’t believe me. Evidently, my way of coming to language didn’t fit the prevailing program of childhood education, which seemed to be force-feeding facts into one end in the hope that they’d come out of the other in some kind of useful fashion, like sausages, neatly wrapped, linked, and orderly. My thoughts never looked much like sausages. 
My dad was always very insistent on language being used properly, as in his eyes, it was the key to everything in life. I had to pronounce all my T’s and H’s, and not lapse into the heavy local working class Bristolian accent—which, frankly, makes the speaker sound a little bit “thick.” For him it meant me getting on in life—a better job, a better husband, better doors opening—but in my terms, it meant self-understanding, too. “I think, therefore I am” translates a lot better into consciousness if you have a broader vocabulary with which to think. Vocabulary expands the barriers of self, to some degree. It’s well known that, rightly or wrongly, language creates assumed barriers of class, culture, intelligence, and so on, and therefore, barriers in self-perception and cultural self-identity. I was raised in a “mixed-class” home: a working class mother, and an upper middle class father. So I guess it’s natural that it was my dad who insisted on the importance of language; he’d seen more of what that could mean for me. 
Language is power. Something I’m beginning work on with some friends is a digital literacy program for indigenous people worldwide. The aim is to get indigenous people on the internet, and to get them heard. If a farmer or factory worker in Brazil or Thailand can write a blog, or check their commodity prices on the Baltic Dry Shipping Index, they then have some power, voice, and the chance of getting a fairer price and fairer treatment from the global market. There is the chance of asking for assistance, survival, human rights. Simple. I have little doubt this project will encounter much resistance in the world, particularly when the forces of trade and industry that currently rule the planet consider it enough of a threat. But we’ll see. I’m hopeful that I can bring these unheard voices to the world with as few obstacles as possible. It has already had a strong effect on me: through undertaking this project, I have come to realize how privileged my life as a reasonably educated white person is.

In my late 20s, I moved to America. The move proved an interesting study not just in culture shock, but what I call “language shock”—aka the need to learn American English. I’m not sure whether, over the last 9 years, I’ve successfully made the transition; it’s a work in progress. American English has a liking for complicated words such as “beverage” and “automobile” where “drink” and “car” do quite adequately in England. This kind of vocabulary seems linked to the American Dream, that sense of pride in who Americans are. It’s almost a patriotic step-up in self-importance somehow, the linguistic equivalent of buying a red sports car during middle age. It never fails to make me smile.     

Then there’s E-Prime, a modified form of English where all forms of the verb “to be” are eliminated, which is kind of like a language of the indefinite. In E-Prime, in place of the “is” words come words and phrases like “could be” and “possibly.” This model might have the potential to open up new possibilities in otherwise closed minds. It helps us expand our thinking from binary, black and white, either/or, into a far greater number of possibilities. Indeed, the implications of this kind of communication for things like international diplomacy, health care, and business could be huge: we could make the leap from the win-lose of the Westernized world into the win-win of global tolerance and cooperation, a change that is needed now more than ever.

One of the useful things to come out of Scientology has been the focus on simple, direct communication and the checking of listener comprehension insisted on by its late founder, L. Ron Hubbard. As an example of what I’m talking about, did you really understand the sentence that began this paragraph? Try and repeat what I said. This way of communicating and listening is a useful practice. 
Throughout the last fifty years, there has been a lot of interesting work done in the realm of language by the likes of Alfred Korzybski, Richard Bandler, and Robert Anton Wilson. These men brought a renewed interest in language into the counter-culture, academia and the popular media, and helped bring about some cultural change at the level of language. What united these men was language’s hypnotic power. They recognized its capacity to lead the brain down certain subtle paths—some helpful, some healing, and some, as many marketers and politicians are now aware, sophisticated and destructive.

A book that dealt so masterfully with this last use of language was George Orwell’s 1984. It was a work that taught me a lot during my formative years. The idea of double-speak stuck when I realized, at an early age, that I was hearing it almost everywhere I dared to listen. I have my high school English teacher to thank for introducing me to 1984. He was a remarkable man. Along with 1984, he introduced me to the ideas in the Milgram experiment, which helped me see how humans interacted with presumed authority. Combine these offerings with the magic of Shakespeare’s observations on human thought and behaviour and our propensity for self-destructive tragedy, and you had one intoxicating class.
Language responds to human invention. Many quantum physicists, for instance, had to develop language to keep up with their ideas. New advances in scientific thought like Bell’s theorem, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and Schroedinger’s cat all necessitated a new way of communicating. In the process, it became clear that the thought of the scientist, and therefore the language they used, had an effect on scientific experimentation, an idea previously unheard of in the world of Newtonian physics. (Newton was smart enough to question his own answers.) Fertile ground had been found, from which new ways of communicating like E-Prime sprang.
Upon realizing the shared space between science, language and mysticism, Nobel Prize-winning Danish physicist Niels Bohr converted to Buddhism. Bohr’s understanding of the unity of reality spawned the great term “quantum psychology,” which then became the title of a book by Robert Anton Wilson. Not since the Renaissance has anything united science and mysticism as closely as modern physics. And for this, we have new patterns in language to thank. Left to its own devices, scientific materialism might not offer any better answers than the bygone eras of dogma and religious superstition. 
The second part of the title of Bandler’s major work, “Neuro-linguistic programming” (NLP), says it all. Rumour has it that he was asked to think up a title for his work under some duress, and the phrase just sort of fell out of his mouth in some kind of magical act of spontaneous poetic creation. I like to think that was true—that it’s a phrase straight from the mouth of the muse herself. Bandler realized early on that language has an extraordinarily profound affect on the constant programming and reprogramming of our brains—and, by extension, the way we live our daily lives. He realized that through changing the language in any one circumstance, we can change our responses; we can even change things as seemingly ingrained in us as our own self-image and the way we think about our health, wealth, and our relationships. Eventually, we can even alter our body chemistry and states of consciousness—and in doing so, we can change the very fabric of our lives.

Masaru Emoto, the Japanese author, documents some very interesting phenomena gleaned from his energetic experiments with water in his book, Messages from Water. In one experiment, pure water—uncontaminated by chemical treatment and, as much as possible, the field of human energy—was drawn from a well in the mountains. A little of the water was put into a number of small bottles, which were then individually labeled with strong words such as “love,” “peace,” “hate,” and “Hitler.” Music was also played to some of the samples. The water was then frozen so that any changes on its structure from the exposure to the words and music could be seen. Remarkably, definite imprints seemingly caused by the words and music appeared, frozen into the water crystals as the ice formed. Looked at under a microscope, it was clear what effect different kinds of energy and sounds did for the water: positive words and music made beautiful crystals, just as negative words and music made ugly ones.

Being, as we are, composed mainly of water ourselves, isn’t it time we became more conscious of the language we use? 
Coming home on the bus from work tonight, allowing ideas to flow freely through my brain tissues, I came to the realization: language is everything. Quite literally. It is the interface between consciousness itself and the apparently objective world of “things” arising around us and in us. Everywhere I looked, there was some form of language.
There are, of course, the many Zen masters, Christian monks and Hindu sadhus who insist on silence and a quiet mind—a world without language. But to quote pop-psychology, you can’t eat the menu. True spiritual life is very much a plunge into the realms of feeling, direct experience, gnosis, epiphany—and not a life spent alone on a mountaintop, or reading countless books in search of quiet. At the end of the day, that state of quiet mind isn’t something readily accessible to most of us, is it? Not when we have to negotiate our way through rush-hour traffic on any given day. I, like many people, have not been graced with the life—or patience—of a hermit this time around. I can’t sit around for indefinite periods waiting for this elusive state to come upon me, as I expect most people can’t. There has to be another way.

Language is not self. Self is the place of no language, ultimately. But language is certainly the finger pointing at the moon. We need to be able to communicate where the moon is. The paradox of that, of course, is that language was probably what made us look away from the moon to start with. But somehow it seems logical enough to me that it also represents the means for remembering to look back up again, until we find ourselves seeing the moon again directly. 
There is a very good reason why my own spiritual master, Adi Da Samraj, wrote so many, many books—and with not a casual or misplaced word in a single one of them. I think that in spiritual circles language has been vastly overlooked as a means to understanding. We’re all reading the words, trying to get the deeper message, without thought for the words themselves, and the structure, the flow, and the effect they ultimately have. Words aren’t just a vehicle for ideas; they are the ideas, more than we realize.

The structure of language itself is fascinating. To paraphrase Adi Da, the ego “I” is the pole upon which the tent of language is hung. So what if that pole was shifted, towards that which is greater? Studying Adi Da’s very deliberate use of language is truly rewarding. He makes use of capitalization in a unique way, capitalizing all the things of greater import than the ego. Words like “Divine,” “Love-Bliss,” “Happiness,” “Prior-Unity,” “Grace,” are all capped and given their proper respect, while words relating to ego are given the lower case to slink around in. This way of rendering language has a tangible effect on the brain, and a real shift in thinking can, and frequently does, occur after exposure to it. It causes enough cognitive dissonance to be worth paying much more attention to.
Some time ago, I heard a curious thing about where sounds are formed in the brain. Apparently, the harder sounds of consonants come from the left brain and the vowels are centered in the right brain. I’m not sure whether this has been conclusively proven, but it’s an interesting thought. If it is true, it raises all kinds of questions about the development of culture in the East and West, with Western language being more predominantly consonant-based than many Eastern languages, with their soft vowel sounds. Like all the other bits of useless information floating around my brain, I wish I knew where I’d first heard that.

Chandira is a writer who lives in Seattle, Washington. She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).





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