Words, Words, Words
Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.
Words, words, words. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.
Half of the arguments online are about words – not what the words refer to, but the words themselves and the emotional reactions they provoke in people. And not just politically hot words either, it’s all kinds of words, undefined terms being thrown at each other, creating shock and anger when you realise the other person appears to be using a different definition of that word. Or more often, no definition at all and it’s just a placeholder for a feeling, and judgment of good guy bad guy.
We all do this and it’s beyond simply getting triggered at a word, phrase or idea. Our brains have been pre-wired and post-wired in such a way that we can’t seem to separate the words we read and hear from our own emotional reactions. The word triggers a complex chain of reactions on all levels, emotional, physical, verbal, social etc. We react to words as if they are real. No western writer nailed this topic as well as Alfred Korzybski. Words are not the things they refer to. The map is not the territory. The menu is not the meal.
“Whatever we may say will not be the objective level, which remains fundamentally un-speakable. Thus, we can sit on the object called 'a chair', but we cannot sit on the noise we made or the name we applied to that object.”
“The abuse of symbolism is like the abuse of food or drink: it makes people ill, and so their reactions become deranged.”
― Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity
Words are not the things they refer to – it seems obvious when said like that but then two minutes later you are choking on someone else’s menu. If words have this much power over you can you say you are a free human being? To be clear it doesn’t matter if you like the words or dislike the words, agree or disagree. We are talking about your reactions to the words. On autopilot. Done not by you, but to you. Or at least what you habitually think of as you.
The obvious secondary error when trying to stop reacting to the “bad” words is to find yourself instead seeking out the “good” words. This is the theory behind affirmations and as you know, on their own they don’t work. Affirmations only work if you work. If the words stimulate you to action when you normally would have done either nothing, or something counter-productive instead.
So are we all just “stuck in our head” and need to “get back in the body?” Yes and no. Most people with this view – which is popular among internet spiritual practitioners– tend to throw out language and reason, and want to get away from all this pesky intellect stuff, thinking maybe if we were all just focussed more on bodily sensations, and feeling more alive that way, then most of the problems with words and the over the top rationality in western culture will disappear.
While it is true that some somatic therapies and embodiment practices, or just normal exercise for that matter, will change your relation to the words in your head - your inner dialogue, your constant companion through life – this is only half way there. And if this is the ONLY thing you do then you will end up stupefying yourself.
I was doing intensive bodywork practices for a few years, and more or less stopped reading because – hypnotised and drunk on pleasant sensations and ‘higher feelings’ – felt that I was now beyond all these silly words “here I am, live in the now, maaaan.” But what happened was my concepts became fuzzy, my thinking unclear, and I became open to believing nonsense just because the ideas appeared within the context of nice, warm and fuzzy bodily feelings.
So the way to escape the prison created by words is not to get rid of words - as if that is even possible for a human being – but to work to tidy up, organise and learn how to USE the words in your head, as TOOLS for living. This doesn’t mean all words must have a utility and practical use and there is no place for poetry and love and art. Remember all of these ‘higher’ activities also have practical consequences: changing the experience and behaviour of others, stimulating them to action, inducing feelings what you want them to have etc.
Take me for example. Here I am typing on a keyboard spewing out words words words. Where do they come from? There seems to be a central idea and feeling underneath, which I am trying to unfold into a sequence of words to share with you. These are all things I have already thought and felt in some way, and am now just transforming and integrating as I write. I’m not happy with what I’ve written so far, these words do not convey the idea-feeling I am trying to express. Or so I feel. I am also writing in order to find out what I think and feel.
Now I’m wondering if the you the reader will like these words or judge me a bad writer or think i’;m talking nonsense - or worse saying something boring and obvious and wasting his time. See how the words are being transformed and “chosen” by my reactions and emotional judgments and imaginings? You don’t exist yet, I am imagining you, but here I am letting words create a chain of reactions in my mind and writing, the sources of which I am only dimly aware of, all provoked by words.
So what can we do about this? The old way I used to try and get the words under control was to focus on bodily sensations and releasing muscular tension. This seemed to gradually break apart the connection between muscular tension patterns, emotions and out of control self talk or monkey mind as some of the meditators say.
But as I say, I felt like this approach, while pleasant, was stupefying me over time – even though I was feeling great, perhaps ESPECIALLY because i was feeling great, it was easy to believe I was making spiritual progress. A huge assumption we make is: better feelings = a better person, or are proof of spiritual progress in some way. A seductive idea, but not true. Although I don’t expect anyone in the middle of their own “somatic miracle cure” to listen or believe me, I would have ignored this too, “oh this guy just hasn’t experienced what I have, he doesn’t know, if he only he tried xyz!”
So my method now, and what I teach to others, is not to try and destroy all the words you don’t like through obsessing over low level mental impressions (perceptions), but instead to learn to take control of the inner speech system and direct it towards actions. Not thinking and imagining in your head, or feeling and sensing in you heart, but real actions you can see and point to in the world.
To make this concrete, this means using words to plan and control a series of precise movements – multiple ‘sub-movements’ all happening at the same time – in order to create new postures and ways of moving, which begin to engage the body’s bio-mechanical spring system.
It is WORDS which direct these movements, not feelings of movements, not the direct experience of sensations associated with doing a movement. I know this sounds strange. You can direct some movements by feelings alone of course, this is what most of us do most of the time. But you hit a wall after maybe 3 or 4 movements when done all at the same time, you can’t feel ALL of them, it happens too quick.
But what if you want to do 10+ specific sub-movements all at the same time - and you know it’s impossible to feel them all of them at once? Then you can’t do the series of movements you want just by feeling alone. And this is leaving aside the uncomfortable reality that your feelings of movements are not accurate, something I can demonstrate in any one to one lesson using video.
So words are necessary for advanced restructuring and control of your postural mechanisms, which requires many sub-movements all happening at the same time. For this, words are useful tools, if you remember they are tools which is a means to an end, the middle stage in a process, and not the end result.
But of course, if you’re spending all your time narrating a bunch of words to yourself, which have no connection to your actions – or are not even connected to a system of concepts i.e. the act of real thinking – then you would be better off without those words controlling your reactions and movements.
Words, words, words. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.
So many words. Perhaps we need to think more about not thinking. Hmmmm, easier said than done.
Groovy. I liked that you added to do without them where you can. My friend Mae West's Grandchild receives up front alot of agency by avoiding overly wordy characters. It had to have been a slog to write this one but we hope you do it when inspired from beginning of the idea to the end again. Because! It is house repairs and maintenance, David Graeber's damn magic word ( I donot believe he would have kept on being so magic about what we all could do if we were maintenance men if had lived longer) , but that is my money business, and I promise repainting old houses takes cycling through very many changes of posture, how you say, and being a machine in that way is almost all the way to a place you can feel like an actor instead of reactive. Lately I have been whispering instead of verbalizing, to myself, out walking, more than one counterintuitive to that, that it increases my observations of people, and both underlines and satyrizes my speculations. Who knew?