Friday, February 4, 2011

The prison of language

I'm surrounded by ideas, or at least the way I engage the world is through ideas and concepts. "Inside," "outside," "me," "mine," and "yours," these are all ideas. According to most Buddhist traditions, this is the root our delusion, and the source of human suffering. We reify thoughts by superimposing them over reality, and then forget that we've done it-- classic case of what George Orwell would call "Doublethink. Then we grasp at the "objects" in the hopes of possessing them, all to satisfy the most complicated concept of all--"me."

For instance, when I hold an apple, I tend to think that there is a solid entity in my hand possessing some sort of "appleness." This is far from a conscious process; for if you ask people whether they think a boat possess "boatness," I'll put my money on it that they'll say no. But that doesn't change the fact that on an intuitive, pre-rational level we grasp at objects, experiences, and phenomena as though they were solid.

And no idea is more subtle, persuasive, and dangerous, than this"I"--some separate, solid entity that lives in my body. The ghost in the machine. With it comes a whole host of other supporting concepts. For instance, no matter how hard I try to shake it, I can't escape the idea that "I" am "in" my head. There's "me" "in" here, looking out at the world "out there." Even though I'm fully aware that what I call "me" (which is a whole other subject unto itself) isn't "in" my head in the same way as a fish is "inside" a fish tank, that doesn't change the fact that I've been so subtly conditioned by language that I can't break free of this conceptual prison. I feel like Stephen Dedalus, James Joyce's famous character, when he says, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake."

I am bound by the confines of language. This obviously causes all sorts of problems, the most obvious being the subject/object duality, which pits me against the world. Living this way--where my will is posed against the world's, in silent antagonism--is sheer madness; it really is. I don't have to look beyond my own frustration, anxiety, and downright anger, to know that something is wrong with viewing the world this way. It feels like bending a finger back too far--"OWWW!"

That's where practice comes in. I like to think of zazen and mindfulness as the practice of letting go--to false views and our attachment to them. Now when I sit, I can literally spot an idea, see it for what it is (an empty, conditioned phenomena) and identify all of the unstated consummate assumptions that support it--"me," "mine," "them."

I don't think that ideas in themselves are inherently bad (or good, or inherently anything for that matter); it's our inability to see them for what they are (empty) that causes attachment, and thus suffering. For it needn't be this way--Dogen is a classic example of someone who uses thoughts and language to express Enlightenment, without being trapped in them. It's not about transcending language (for that traps us inside yet another duality) so much as it is about liberating ourselves and language.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user :DaR.

No comments:

Post a Comment