Meaningful Rocks ©Eric Platt
Meaningful Rocks ©Eric Platt

The Meaning of Words

I have noticed that even among the intelligent, well-educated spiritual folk, there is an assumption that the meaning of words is God-given or external or fixed: basically somehow sacrosanct or sacred. In other words, the meaning is in the words and language itself, not in its referent, and should be revered as such. This came up with a friend I met whilst visiting a well-renowned non-dualist teacher (Francis Lucille, a friend and excellent teacher): very devoted and serious about spirituality, and with a scientific background and university job. Knowing I did some writing, he approached me about writing a “spiritual dictionary.” This friend was big-time into various spiritual practices, as well as herbs, pilgrimages, and anything and everything else he could find to root out his inner demons.

Now, I liked this idea of a dictionary for non-dual philosophy, because I noticed, especially for those relatively new to the non-duality teachings, and trying to understand what a teacher like Francis Lucille was saying and meaning, that they got confused with the way some words were being used in a new way. This was especially clear with those that were still not really seeing, not clear on the inner meaning yet, and were also reading, or had been familiar with other spiritual teachers and philosophies, so had learned words that were used differently from their current teacher. They would be confused in the attempts to listen or to have a dialogue with the teacher.

A classic example of this verbal and conceptual confusion is with the word “mind”. In classical Buddhist teachings (as they have been translated) the word is often used to point to what is often now often called “consciousness” in many nondual and spiritual circles. In contemporary teachings, like that of Francis Lucilles’ where we met, the word “mind” is used to refer only and exclusively to the sum of the phenomenal aspects of our “inner” or “subjective” or “direct” experience: namely perceptions, sensations and thoughts. It should be mentioned that in interpretations of Zen Buddhist teachings and with various popular “spiritual” noise-makers, sometimes a distinction between “big mind” and “little mind” is heard, with the former being consciousness, and the latter being “ego”: the personal or phenomenal, local mind.

So, such a dictionary could serve as a useful and interesting tool of clarification. However, we quickly reached an impasse in our discussion. I’d mentioned, almost in passing, that yes, this would be very useful, given that meaning of words is arbitrary. In other words, I’d assumed that most serious people attending such a “advanced” spiritual arena (who have “been around the block” enough to have a taste for non-duality and the direct path!), would already have understood that words and language and other cultural arts are arbitrary and man-made.

We learn these sounds called “words” and attach them to experiences and to other words — for example a sound “cat” in our language is attached through learning of a mind-brain network to an experience of a certain class of animal appearances — in a network of meaning (as in the philosophy of Quine) but the sound could be almost anything (unless it’s an onomatopoeia), and is obviously a mere historical fact of origin, as is seen in the observation that the different sounding and written words in different languages point to same external object or inner concept. And and visa versa: I’m sure there are examples of the reverse, where the same sound in two different languages have different meanings, different “aboutnesses” associated with them.

Likewise, the association of certain words with certain experiences that are considered to be spiritual in nature (such as states experienced in meditation or under the influence of entheogens – psychedelic drugs) cultural practices, and a network of other words and concepts, form our mental “dictionary” of spiritual ideas and pointings. This is so obvious that I am surprised it needs to be said.

Words and the Idolatry of Meaning

What was interesting was that my friend had a completely different view about the meaning of the meaning of words (and this is what is so valuable about talking with others with different outlooks and worldviews). His assumption—and indeed the very root motivation for the dictionary for him—was that words were sacred: in particular the words used in spirituality and in dialogues about it. But in what sense are words sacred, or like many things in spiritual life, are seen as sacred and a given? And what is “given” anyway? This is worth looking into…

This came up in a related way in another discussion with the same friend: at one point we’d had a dialogue about AI (the study of and attempt to build artificially intelligent machines) and the questionable idea of an AI “singularity” as being somehow an existentially-saving event as seen in the eyes of believers in a “post-human” transformative age. He brought up the example of the lingam, as he believed there was an energy or intelligence somehow associated with these sacred objects that proved or suggested that a machine might exhibit similar qualities in the future. A lingam is an object with a lot of meaning in Hindu culture (you can look it up, if you like, but won’t go into it here). In other words, he believed or felt there was a real, external, actual thing, an “energy”, associated with the object, and that this was not a projection. So, for him, it was the same with words: there was an inherent, given, real, external thing in the word itself – not as a pointer, but actually something within the word itself: implying a sacredness of the sound itself, or the written appearance thereof.

To my way of seeing things, this is clearly what is called “idolatry” – and in it’s extreme forms is what we call “fundamentalism”, wherein there can be a literal and fixed meaning given to the words in a sacred book, as if handed down by a God authority absolutely, and can even lead to people killing each other over the interpretation (which is a mental position, a belief). And while idolatry in its “innocent” form is not a bad thing necessarily—since whatever “gets you there” or makes you happy, or points to the divine essence, is good to go with me—it has nothing to do with the motivation for a dictionary I would write.

Of course, I recognize that there is beauty and meaning that is evoked by, for example, the wonderful words of the Sanskrit language, such as Satcitananda (Sanskrit: सच्चिदानन्द). Used properly they can elicit deeper truths. These inner meanings are evoked by a language crafted in a culture steeped in spirituality (from what little I know) – cultures that spawned the Vedas and the Gitas for instance, the sacred literature – and so seem to have a certain power.

But where does the power really come from? It is clear it comes from the same creative Source that all sacred texts, objects, buildings, art — anything at all — all human-created and natural things — come from: our shared divine essence or universal intelligence within which experience appears, and not the objects themselves, and not a pre-programmed, dead machine or symbol processing computer, including a brain biocomputer.

Indeed, a thought does not think, and a word in itself does not talk or understand anything whatsoever. A temple built according to a sacred architectural pattern is just another convenient place to build a web for a spider that calls its arch a home, and will crumble into dust as the centuries progress and the human species has vanished from the planet. A word I love may have no meaning for a dog that does not understand its drift. My dog hasn’t a clue when I say “Anandamaya kosha”, despite the fact it (or rather it’s meaning), can bring tears to my eyes. This much is clear and obvious.

So since we could not see eye to eye — my friend could just would not let go of the idea that meaning is absolutely tied to the words (clearly a belief and not a fact to my way of seeing) — the project never got off the ground, though I made some attempts to do it on my own (which were subsumed by other writing projects).

We must face the fact we are not that important — the sweet sadness of that— as physical and linguistic-sound-making humans, as egos so to speak — and be humble before actual, real meaning, which is infinite and ungraspable. We all know in our hearts that real beauty is not “out there”, nor is real, timeless love, nor eternal truth, with a capital “t”. We can see that something we saw as beautiful one day is perceived otherwise the next day, or even in the next moment. What we witness as real and true and beautiful in a book may have been completely invisible and impenetrable until we were open to it, resonating with it, due to what we had uncovered within ourselves. It’s not in the book, it is in us, as the Real, as what is timeless and spaceless. But we humans get very serious about what is created, and want to hold on for dear life, associated and identified. Children and the child-like know better: watch them play or look in a baby’s eyes, and it’a all playfulness, fun, spontaneity. They may be fundamentalists about wanting their diaper changed or being fed, but not about the sacred meaning of words.

There is meaning evoked by words… but it’s not literally in the words, no matter how “sacred” they are. But I am certainly not saying there is no such thing as truth, or “absolute truth.” There is, but it’s hard to express. It’s an endless game, an art, a play, by countless artists, philosophers, sages, and butterflies, to exhibit and evoke the magic of Life as lived. Its essence is invisible, yet visible everywhere, and all at once. How to say that!

I realize that I am committing the crime of “essentialism” — which goes against the modern idea, such as that which was spawned with the existentialists (Sartre etc), that “existence” — meaning basically, material existence — is the real foundation, and not some invisible unreal essence that they believe is a mere assumption and a bad one (to be eradicated). Now I understand this impulse to go against religious dogma and superstition – I have always shared that, and love science and independent thinking – and I agree that we should question the old philosophical rigidity and hierarchical power structures held in place by such circular and non-testable beliefs, such as in organized religion, that an essentialism can produce. But it is a slippery slope indeed, this tendency to make everything relative and subjective (in the mental, local sense) as carried forward into postmodernism, and the idea that for example it’s all “narrative”. Or, even in spiritual psychology, I have seen the infection of the idea that “it’s all thought” and that even consciousness is “just a thought, just a story” and we project everything from this arbitrary power of thought. Similarly, the assumption is felt that words, concepts, beleifs and other mental content are solid facts, which is akin to believing that it’s all personal and/or connected with a culturally-made identity, my identity, or my group’s identity (or “everything is political” as they used to say in the 60s, and you still hear echoed today).

This is completely wrong. Not only is it incorrect, a mistake, it also has some bad consequences in outlook and behavior. All you have to do is follow this line of subjectivist and relativistic anti-reason reasoning, and you can see where it leads: what makes something true is my ability to persuade, influence, argue, force and enforce, my view, my authority and my clan’s authority. We become hit-men for ideas. It’s a closed, local, fascist, authoritarian system. It is one of control, not one exhibiting timeless qualities Truth, Beauty and Love. It’s great for one whose motivation are fear, defense, and attack. It’s perfect when all you have is an agenda. It’s the ultimate ego trip: a separate self is set up and has its army of concepts and language. What I say goes and is true, and what you say is just a narrative, a story, (so is mine, but that’s OK, apparently… as long as I’m “safe”, and feel good). Thus we have the modern war of words, where bullshit reigns, and the biggest bullshitter gets to be king (of academia or government). No one, or very few, are pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, and what is being exhibited is play of beliefs, an ideology.

Facts and Beliefs

A belief is something that is held to be true despite evidence (or reason and logic), and thus is purely a choice. In other words, no one is forcing you to hold something counterfactual as true. On the other hand, facts are true regardless of a local choice or a personal intent or entity: they stand on their own so to speak. I know this is heresy, but it’s true. For example, I may want and believe, really believe with great effort and will, that there is a million dollars in my bank account right now. But if I call up my banker, or look at the banking website, the fact is there is not a million dollars, and no amount of believing or story-telling or narrative rhetorical persuasion and artful BS is going to change that fact. Now eventually, if I focus on having a million dollars and take action, based on reason, logic, intuition, skills, by divine fortune and serendipity I may in the future have a million dollars (let’s hope and pray shall we), but that’s not the same as a narrative or a belief or a thought.

Now, while it’s true that the real world is not as solid as most think — and modern physics concurs with this: it is basically a field of energy whose makeup is ultimately unknown and where all we know is how things move and behave, and not why or what — and thus one can influence this, or witness how one’s “clear intention” or “impersonal desire” come to pass at some point. This does not imply that it’s all thought, all a story, or that one has some New Age personal powers of manifesting via thought. Rather it shows the interconnectedness of all things (which are not things in the sense of concrete independent separate-from-consciousness objects), that Reality is one, behind appearances, and that “I” as a separate entity do not exist as such. No, it’s not personal power, it’s all impersonal, and neutral. This is paradoxical to the mind, yet true and observable.

But I digress…

Words, Meaning and Facts

As far as how language and ideas are associated with facts, I see a penumbra going out from words tied to direct and unassailable, fundamental, existential facts, such as “I exist” and “I am consciously aware right now”. This direct knowing is of or from what is called the “noumenal” (known with no mediation by thought, concepts or words) as contrasted with the “phenomenal” (which is hard to establish well and impossible to know absolutely, since it’s mediated by the human instrument, and constantly changing: the world). At the door leading to the relative world, things get tricky, but in a different way. The first stop out the door is the a way-stop of science, where at least there’s some agreement among users, an international community, as to what a concept refers to in an external world, more or less (though it can change with time)… then on out to the edges, where one finds, for example, the “sciences” of sociology and psychology (and some much of modern Western philosophy of the academic sort unfortunately), where it starts to get tentative, and things slip around a lot, and one builds personal structures of meaning, systems of thought and verbiage, and where the grounding is highly debatable (though there are strong adherents to “schools” of course, and true believers, such as in psychoanalytic theory).

Then we go on out to the hinterlands, where one finds political and propaganda discourse: messages with an agenda (and the use of media, and of media with an agenda), completely unmoored from fact. Here in the dark corners of culture and in the broader society of the “noise” of the common man and media, the War of the Words – which can barely be called communication, since no one is really listening – where words become mere pawns in a game of “optics”, of perception and influence. It is a hall of mirrors with respect to meaning: merely an effort to grab bigger “mindshare”, power, money, influence, or whatever is felt to be at stake. This is happening in academia too, unfortunately…


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