There is just so much noise. We are limitless in our capacity to fill the silence with so much clutter that even God can no longer hear himself. If there is a God, I mean. Why don’t we debate that again. That sounds fun.
Humans invented writing about 5,000 years ago. But we’ve been talking for far longer than that. No one knows when humans first formed words with our mouths. 50,000 years ago? 100,000 years ago? But one thing’s for sure – once we started, we never stopped. That’s a lot of chit chat.
It cannot be denied that language and its capacity to externalize thought has been a tremendously transformative development in human evolution. The art of language has, in many ways, unlocked the cage door and released us into wider and wider freedoms. Yet it is also true that words trap us in limited and limiting definitions, squeezing the uncarved whole of the experiential realm into lifeless categories and concepts. Language promises freedom, then becomes another prison. Words obscure as much as they reveal. The more we talk, the more we feel the essence of this mysterious existence slipping away.
From Concepts to Conflict
In many creation myths, primal man is given the task of naming the world. In Genesis 2 Adam gives names to all the animals. In the Mayan Popul Vuh, God goes through several iterations of proto-humans before he arrives at the final model, one that could finally remember and say his name. The ability to allot a word to every little thing in creation seems primary to the formation of human consciousness. But this great gift costs us something. By naming the world we also ascribe hierarchy, setting all things in opposition to each other. This is especially evident when we divide humanity into ethnicities, races, and tribes. These are ,of course, useful concepts to a point. But they too readily facilitate conflict. The words we call ourselves, and the words we call each other, like flags, set us into unavoidable strife. When we identify more with our tribe than with the whole of humanity, when we lose our capacity to empathize and see our unity; we descend into ethnocentrism, racism, hatred, genocide, and war.
Twentieth century teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti put it this way: “When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why this is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind.”
It is in this same spirit that John Lennon sang, “Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do, nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too.” Language, concepts, and categories kill.
The Illusion of Self
Once we cut the whole of the world into parts, we didn’t stop there – we turned the blade on ourselves. When human consciousness became conditioned to hierarchical multiplicity rather than unity, it’s only natural that self-awareness would calcify into ego, becoming the ruling monolith of our lives. Words like I, me, and mine create a fiction – a phantom of enormous power. As Spiderman reminds us, with great power comes great responsibility. But the ego has yet to embody that wisdom. Instead, the ego exerts most of its energy on self-preservation, self-aggrandizement, and criticism of others. It takes responsibility for nothing. If everybody else is wrong then I am, by default, right.
Everybody’s a critic. Emmet Fox wrote that “criticism is an indirect form of self-boasting.” By pointing out everything that’s wrong with everything and everyone around us, we construct solidity. We know who we are by knowing what we are against.
And then there’s our meticulous tallying of every perceived slight. In his book Grace and Grit philosopher Ken Wilber writes that “the ego… is kept in existence by a collection of emotional insults; it carries its personal bruises as the fabric of its very existence. It actively collects hurts and insults, even while resenting them, because without its bruises, it would be, literally, nothing.” It’s important to bring this process out of the shadows of unconsciousness and into the light. Notice how we use our perceived woundedness and victim status as glue to hold our fictional self together. What if we let go of our tired grievances? Who would we be without our resentments and self-righteousness? For many people, that question is simply too frightening to consider. But the answer is simple. We would be free.
The Power of Silence
There is an alternative to this madness. And it is nearer to us than our jugular vein.
The first thing we need to do is stop. Just stop.
Stop clothing every experience, every passing impression, every iota of awareness in language. You don’t have to name everything. You don’t have to reduce every dynamic and nuanced experience to a concept. You don’t have to compare and judge everything on some arbitrary and self-serving hierarchical scale. Let it be. Learn to be still. There is a Zen Buddhist saying: “Don’t seek enlightenment. Just get rid of all your opinions.”
Meditation is a good idea. By practicing the art of silence and no-thinking, we learn to slip beneath the waves of our incessant thought stream and descend into the depths of our own stillness. Each of us carries an infinite boundlessness within us. It goes by various names in the world’s many wisdom traditions – Atman, Buddha-consciousness, the Kingdom of Heaven. But they all agree. It is not somewhere out there. It is within us.
It is what we are.
We do not have to struggle to become something different. We have only to let fall away the hindrances that inhibit our awareness of our primal oneness. “God is not attained by a process of addition to the soul,” wrote 13th century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, “but by a process of subtraction.” What we must subtract is the busy mind and its addiction to language and concepts. What we do is so much more important than what we think. Who we are is so much more important that what we say. Instead of delivering a learned treatise on theology or arguing yet again with the Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus knelt and washed feet.
And he didn’t say a word.
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, and singer-songwriter as well as chair of the humanities department and professor of philosophy at Southwestern College, where he teaches comparative religion, Asian philosophy, ethics and world mythology. Everything you need to know is at www.peterbolland.com