Dear reader, this includes practical exercises for reconnecting to our native powers of being and knowing. No time or desire to read the whole article? Jump down to the practices at the bottom of the page to get to the practical stuff. And may it of benefit.
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.Tao Te Ching
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
I find an open spot on the gymnasium floor and roll out my blanket. Arranging myself silently among a room full of fellow students, I sit up straight in respectful attention as the teacher takes his seat.
I’ve come to learn from this respected yogi and mystic, a wise elder who has spent a lifetime in devotion to the ancient yogic path. I’m fortunate to sit at his feet, even for just a morning.
We’ve gathered in the echoing hall of a sports gymnasium converted to a classroom for today’s lecture. Surrounded by bins of balls and nets, tumbling mats stacked aside rows of empty bleachers, every slightest sound bounces in sharp relief from the walls and rafters.
The master speaks.
“Why are you here?” His voice rings through the air like a bell.
“Have you come here today because you want to wake up? Because you want to know the truth?”
Maybe you expect to receive a mystical insight, words of wisdom that will open your eyes and give you the answers you seek.
He smiles and raises his eyebrows.
“I tell you now, there will never be any words that can give those things to you. Because truth is something that no word—from me or anyone else—can express.
He lifts his eyes and surveys the room with receptive awareness. Resting his gaze on the wall behind us, he gently raises his hand, and points.
“What is that?”
We students shuffle about, unhinging our crossed legs and cranking our necks to look behind us for the object of his attention.
I follow the pointing finger to a spot high on the brick wall behind me, and there I see it.
“Basketball hoop,” I whisper to myself.
Others speak the words aloud. “It’s a basketball hoop,” “Basketball hoop.” “It’s a hoop, man,” someone offers, in a voice warm with amusement.
“Yes,” the teacher nods. “In English we call that a basketball hoop. That is the word we use to label it. Now. What is it, really?”
No one makes a sound.
When we are just babies, our consciousness newly awakened to the world, our parents begin teaching us the words for things.
Red. Blue. Dog. Cat. Sun and Moon. Mommy and Daddy.
This is all great fun for everyone. We humans have a proclivity for naming things. It’s one of our natural ways of learning the world. Our childhood brains soak up words like dry land drinks in the rain, and the world unfurls its magic before us as we begin to know its names.
We learn a word—red—and the fiery color of blood and roses blooms into life all around us. The tiny child points and bounces on her toes with delight as she spies her newly christened color, perhaps in a box of crayons or woven into the winter parka of a passerby. “Red!” she exclaims with joy. “Doggie!” “Moon!”
Naming the world organizes our lives, makes sense of things, and brings us joy.
But what if nothing had a name?
I recently interviewed Taoist teacher Solala Towler for the Wake Up, Human podcast. We talked about about words, and names, and whether human language can ever fully reveal the true nature of things.
As Solala reminded me, shamans say that in long-ago times, we humans could talk to the animals, and the animals could speak back, in a language we both understood. They say we could talk to the plants and rocks and streams, learn their stories and their songs. They say we lived in communion with all life, with no need for the likes of human words.
If this is true—if there is a language deeper than words, one that connects our soul to nature’s song—where has it gone? How did we modern humans lose this native power of communication, the unspoken language of life we once knew by heart?
It happened, the sages say, when we started naming things.
In the Tao Te Ching, the foremost book of Taoism written some 2500 years ago, the author-sage Lao Tzu addresses the folly of naming.
The very first line of his timeless work on the Tao, or the Way of the Sage states the impossibility of expressing truth through words:
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The story goes (as Solala reminds me again) that Lao Tzu didn’t want to write his teachings down in the first place. He was connected with the lineage of the Wu—the shamans, women, and storytellers of ancient China, who would have passed their knowledge orally from teacher to student, and never through written words. He likely believed, as did the modern shamans who admonished early western anthropologists for insisting on taking notes about everything: “No, don’t write the stories down! If you write them down you imprison them.” But he was prevailed upon so he did write the Tao Te Ching. But he was careful to begin his work, in the very first lines, with the reminder not to take the words for the truth.
The Buddha expressed a similar sentiment when he said, “My teachings are but a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t mistake the finger for the moon.”
Are our words just fingers pointing to a greater truth? Have we forgotten that there is a difference?
I once read a book by the white South African author and explorer Laurens van der Post, in which he recounted stories of his time living among the Kalahari Bushmen in Southern Africa during the 1950s. In one memorable story, Laurens told of sitting around a nighttime fire with a group of Bushmen, under a vast expanse of star-filled night sky.
As they chatted and shared tales of their day’s adventures, one of the Bushmen casually remarked how beautiful the stars sounded that night. The others nodded in agreement. “Yes, yes. The music of the stars is beautiful tonight.”
The modern and civilized Laurens chuckled at the comments, thinking the Bushmen were making a joke to trick him.
He responded with something the likes of, “That’s very funny, pretending to hear music of the stars. Of course, the stars don’t make a sound, yet you are trying to convince me otherwise. But I will not be fooled.”
The Bushmen laughed as well. They in turn thought that Laurens was was playing a joke on them. For the deeply-connected Bushman, living in full immersion with nature, that the stars could sing was a given, a fact of life. The very idea of stars without music was ludicrous to them.
After some back and forth and no small amount of confusion, Laurens and the Bushmen together realized something shocking. The Bushmen really could hear the music of the stars. Laurens really could not.
In that moment all the men in the circle fell into sadness. The Bushmen felt sorry for Laurens because he couldn’t hear the sound of the stars. And Laurens felt sorry for himself, because he understood that something precious had been lost. He was devastated.
I share that sense of devastation. I have never heard the stars. Yet I sense that we have the capacity to hear them, and so much more. I believe the shamans who say we have the ability to speak the language of the animals and the trees, to understand the primordial language of life. I believe that life sings to us, whether we can hear it or not.
I ponder my own loss of hearing, and I wonder, if we do have this capacity, is it truly lost? Or is it still alive and latent within us, biding its time, waiting for us to remember?”
During my conversation with Solala, it occurs to me that understanding the power of naming might be key.
I wonder, if it’s true that we separate ourselves from other things by naming them, what if we could separate ourselves from naming?
I decide to try it.
The sages say that by naming things, we lose some of our connection to them. By building boxes with words to describe things, we separate them from other things; we separate them from ourselves.
So what if we were to try not naming? Might we, in the absence of names, find a doorway back to our original self—the self that knows things as they are, and not how we have labeled them to be? Might we hear, see, or sense something new? Or something old, remembered again?
Below are some experiments for remembering.
Practice connecting before the words come in.
Sit in front of the object you’d like to comprehend, aim your gaze toward it, and close your eyes. Sit silently for a few moments, and focus on your breath, or perhaps the sounds or sensations around you; just get present in the moment. When your mind feels quiet and your vision empty, open your eyes, and focus on the object before you. What do you notice the very moment the object enters your awareness? What is there before words come in to label it?
There may not be any earth-shattering message in this. There does not need to be. What we’re looking to practice is just the instant of connection, the flash of recognition before the name. See if you can experience it.
While going through the passes of daily life, practice contemplating things you’re familiar with, but pretending you don’t know their “names.”
Consider the flame of the candle. The pot in the sink. The shoes, as you tie them to your feet. Look, listen, as though you are seeing them for the first time. Pretend you don’t know what they are. You only know that they are.
Instead of “brushing your teeth,” there may be only movement. Instead of “music on the radio” there may be only sound. This does not need to be hard, or forced. It is just a practice of getting to know things without the words we’ve superimposed upon them.
Though we know the names for many things, there will always be new things that come into our lives, things we haven’t yet experienced. We can use such fresh experiences as an opportunity to engage without words.
When encountering something new for the first time, approach it without asking what it is. Maybe it’s a flower you’ve never seen before, or a bird you’ve never heard. A new model of car that drives by. Or a cloud in a formation you’ve never noticed. Resist the temptation to ask, “What flower/bird/car is that?”
Instead, simply drink in the experience of newness, without asking the name. You may be taught something even better, which you would never have thought to ask.
I have an old friend who used to introduce himself, “My family calls me Pancho…nice to meet you.” I appreciated this reminder, every time I heard it, of what he meant to express with his choice of language: his being was not to be equated with his name. Our identity does not depend on words.
I’ve tried Pancho’s strategy, but find I can’t say “My family calls me Shannon” without chuckling, or at least feeling compelled to explain my choice of words. So I go for a softer approach. When I introduce myself, instead of defaulting to, “Hi, I’m Shannon,” I go for, “Hi, my name is Shannon.” That’s all the reminder I need to touch in with the part of me that has no name.
Try it. This exercise may or may not make a difference to the person you’ve just met, but it can make a big difference to your consciousness.
Our world is so full of words that it can be hard to get away from them. How can we expect to practice connection without words, if words are everywhere we look?
Practice getting away from it all. Get away from the word, written or spoken, and into a place where only the language of the unspoken is known. This does not require a vacation to the mountains or the beach, or a silent retreat. It does require removing our attention from words, and making an effort to be present to that which does not require them in order to be known.
Lift your eyes from the page or the screen. Look around your everyday space and give long, loving glances to anything that has no words on it. Perhaps consider a blank wall with nothing on it. Better yet, witness your own starry sky. Listen to music without words. Touch the items close to you and feel their quiet textures. Open to receive the kindnesses that can only be bestowed upon us by a word-silent world.
Back in the gymnasium, the master breathes deep into his belly, lowers his hand to his lap, and continues.
“We must never confuse the name of something with the truth. We must ask ourselves in every moment, with everything we experience, what is this thing, when answering only to itself?”
“For everything has a life, a truth of its own, before we apply a name to it. Nothing depends on human words for existence. What we happen to name a thing is never what it really is.”
“When we understand this this, only then will insight come. Only then will our consciousness open. Only then will truth transform us.”
The master nods his head in the direction of the wall.
“Now, I want you to look at that basketball hoop again. But before you do, you’ll need to close your eyes and clear your mind.
“Turn in the direction of the object, such that your eyes, when opened, will fall upon the object with fresh awareness.
“Now, close your eyes. When you open them again you’ll notice that there is a moment, a fleeting instant, of apprehension without words. A flash of recognition where the consciousness sees the object before the mind catches up. For consciousness is faster than the mind.
“In that instant, that thing has no name. In that moment there is no “I” and no “thou.” There is only consciousness, experiencing itself.
In that moment, when there is no word to describe, in English or any other language, you may understand.
He tips his head back and laughs heartily. “And then the mind will arrive and tell you it’s a basketball hoop, and the practice will be over for today.”
“Remember,” he winks. “Naming is not the same as knowing.”
I turn my body toward the wall and aim my gaze toward the hoop. I close my eyes and clear my mind in meditation for several minutes, until my thoughts are as empty as they’re going to be. I open my eyes, no expectation. There is a flash. And for only an instant, I see it.
A split second later the intellect steps in dutifully. “Basketball hoop,” it instructs me, surely trying to be helpful. But it is too late. I’ve already seen it. I’ve already made the connection.
The yogi was right.
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