“We live in illusion and the appearance of things.”
Last fall I was happy to stay for two months at the Outer Banks in North Carolina. I developed a habit of rising early to sit on our balcony and sip a cup of tea while my kitty purred happily on my lap and the blackness of the night sky over the ocean slowly opened into morning light. Each dawn became an exquisite experience of wonder, as light and sound and color and movement all danced together and were known. My brain formed words. I soon came to reflect on those words and how little they either predicted or captured the variety and mystery and joy of my experience of those precious mornings.
I understand that I had about eleven million synapses firing in my brain during any given second of my tea-sipping, cat-purring and sunrise-seeing mornings. Raw sensory data of light and shadow and shape and form and color, sound with varieties of loudness, pitch and timbre, sensation from the body’s muscles, bones and skin in surrounding space all became solidified by words into chunks and patterns of information called “sunrise.”
I became more and more aware of the ways that my words, though useful as summaries, nevertheless contracted my actual experience into little prisons of as each unique moment became solidified into a “this” or a “that.” Despite their limits, though, those words had a certain efficiency. For that, I am grateful. Without such strategies, I would have quickly become overwhelmed by those eleven million neurons in each moment of early morning sitting. Even now, words enable me to (sort of) share that experience of “sunrise.”
I often forget to notice, however, that beneath words, beneath this conscious mind, all is fluid, a constantly moving process. Words – including these words here – are all little summaries that my brain constructs. Neuroscientists note that, in this way, the words that my brain forms actually present not a full experience, but, rather, helpful labels: what some call “newspaper headlines.” These headlines offer sketches or overviews or caricatures of sorts which, once in place, tend to become very robust, filtering and storing experience in such a way that I then very likely notice and value only that which is already familiar to my brain’s storage system. Despite their limitation, of course, these headlines are practical; they enable me to ask my husband to “Please pass the teapot” and we are, together, able to understand and navigate that reasonably well.
I’ve been reading a story by Robin Wall Kimmerer in which she describes her efforts to learn the words of Ojibwe, a language closely related to that of her own family’s ancestors. She notes that, while most words in English are nouns, referring to what we think of as things, verbs comprise 70 % of that Native American language. As such, that language offers respect to the impermanence and aliveness and ongoing wonder of our world. She writes that, at first, her brain “knotted” and objected as familiar “things” were instead rendered as verbs: “To be a Saturday…Pfft! Since when is Saturday a verb? I ranted…There is no reason to make it so complicated…A cumbersome language, impossible to learn and, more than that, it’s all wrong. A bay (for instance) is most definitely a person, place or thing – a noun and not a verb.”
Nevertheless, Robin persisted. She soon was delighted, she says, to discover that rendering the English word “bay” as the Ojibwe verb meaning “to be a bay” opened her to awareness of a world that was vibrating and dynamic: water momentarily taking a particular form “…with (the) life that pulses through all things. (It is) …a language that lets us speak of what wells up all around us.” I, too am delighted to consider what wells up within me; I contemplate the word that names me: “Sharon,” which becomes, as a fluid and ephemeral verb, “…to be a Sharon.”
As The Buddha carefully watched his own experience, he saw all of this. His teachings invite my discovery of how phenomena that is infinitely complex and dynamic becomes captured and solidified – deadened, in a way – as my brain constructs words and thoughts, views and then whole stories which I then fiercely believe. I begin to see that I live, dwelling in limitation and ignorance. Over the years, so many of my own and others’ words have worn deep paths which program my brain to unconsciously filter all of my new experience through the lens and headlines of what has come before. The Buddha’s teachings invite me to see and appreciate this thinking/wording/story-telling process and to practice taking it a bit more lightly.
So, I practice an awareness that does not condemn or disregard my mind’s words and perceptions and summary narratives, but one that simply becomes less dedicated to them and the ways that they isolate and divide: “this and that, me and you, us and them, good and bad, right and wrong.” I practice a seeing and a softening of opinions, even my words about this morning’s political headlines or about whose turn it is to do the dishes. I learn to let go, opening and resting in deeper and more mysterious ground. “It’s being like this now.”
If I try to hang on, if I insist on clinging to the brain’s efforts to stuff the world of experience into my static words and concepts, the Buddha reminds me, I suffer. My practice invites me to continually “lose my self,” really, in order to sense directly, to come to know intimately all of experience, as it unfolds, continuously new. As I release, over and over and over again, the confinements of words and concepts, I sometimes glimpse the richness and freedom of ongoing and simple being, which always patiently waits for me there.