"What we have forgotten is that thoughts and words are conventions, and that it is fatal to take conventions too seriously." - Alan Watts

We humans are a beacon of intelligence and reason. Among all the sentient beings of this world, we stand among the top of the intellectual food chain (and we constantly remind ourselves of this fact). The major distinction between ourselves and the other animals on this planet is language. Through a colloquial system derived from mutually agreed upon symbols, we have created language as a means to communicate our desires, gratitude, wants, fears, and thoughts. With the ability to share in other people’s minds, and to work toward common goals, throughout the years homo sapiens have ascended to a position somewhere between animal and god.

All this is made possible with words.

With words I am able to express my deepest metaphysical concerns in a way that I myself can understand, and so can you. As a result of language we are now able to “stand on the shoulders of giants” and learn from the experiences of others, regardless of the centuries that separate us. We then communicate these experiences and their resulting wisdom across the globe, and a rising tide truly does lift all ships.

Words have given us the Bible, Shakespeare, Dickens. Words have given us the beautiful conversations of star-­crossed lovers at sunset. Words help us navigate our existential frustrations. Music. Friendship.

Language has given us everything that makes us human.

It has also removed us from everything that makes us gods. Words are symbols, representations of direct experience, and in being so, are a poor substitute for real interaction with ultimate reality. We have many different words for this reality, and they all represent the same experience. What the Hindus call the Brahman, Taoists call the Tao, Christians call the Godhead or the beatific vision, what physicists call the universe, these are all simply representations of the one reality.

In our attempt to connect with this reality, which is futile because one cannot not be connected, we throw a blanket over the world in the form of symbols, and in doing so forgot we did in the first place. Zen Buddhism has a common expression of mistaking the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself. We get lost in the expression of the experience, and mistake the expression for the experience itself. Words are that finger.

Words are the way to, and simultaneously the greatest obstacle of, experiencing the true nature of our being.

Mother and Child walking down path

From the moment we are born, all we try to do is understand the world. Once we learn that things have names, the names become all we are concerned with. “Mommy, what’s that?” you hear the child in the park proclaim with excitement. “That’s a tree” she says. “A tree. Got it.” And the child moves on.

He now thinks he knows what that object is. He has a label for it, a claimed knowledge over it, and the phenomena tree rarely enters his mind again. In ascribing symbols to the phenomena we refer to as tree, we completely miss the essence of the tree, and now view it only through the lens of symbols. As long as we still view the world from the framework of words, we will never be capable of truly seeing the world as it is, for we bring ourselves and our education into the experience. We view it as in relation to our educational framework, and not as it truly exists.

I was reading on the front steps of my home one afternoon this summer, and a bee flew up next to me. I thought, “Oh, a bee.” And then continued reading. Seconds later, I was furious with myself the shortcomings of my world view. Because I have a name for that entity, bee, I thought that I knew it. Because we have an arbitrarily defined linguistic system of symbols, where the combination of the letter B followed by two of the letter e, I claimed knowledge over that aspect of experience.

I don’t know the first thing about a bee! Where does my foolish confidence about my understanding of the world come from? Language.

bee pollinating flower

Upon closer inspection, I considered the infinite nature of what that bee really is. I saw the flowers which sustain it. The soil in which the flowers grow. The water they require. The sun that feeds it. The medium through which the bee flies. All of this, with their infinite complexity forever sheltered from my consciousness, makes up the “bee.” In my clearer moments, I am aware of this fallacy of language. In that awareness, I am awakened to a new world. I see everything for the first time through the eyes of a child.

As William Blake said:

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

The very fact that so many of us can experience boredom, as infinitely complex beings with our gifts of the intellect and senses that allow us to experience the infinitude of existence, shows just how far removed we are from the nature of things. If we are to ascend to a greater level of consciousness we must be clear on one painful, ironic fact:

Words are a substitute for direct experience.

They allow us to band together as a species and navigate the world in which we live. Words have given us wonders. But words will never bring us to the final end, and I am perfectly aware of the ridiculousness of conveying this truth through text. As Thoreau says, “I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.”

Words are simultaneously the greatest gift on the way toward, and the greatest obstacle in the way of, awakening to the divine reality that is ever present around us.

We will march forward using words as our vehicle, but we must always remember they are the menu, not the meal. The finger, not the moon. Much like a raft, they will sustain us as we sail across the vastness of the ocean toward the shore, but once we reach our end, they must be left behind.

The ocean from a sailboat