At one point or another during play, every child pretends to have supernatural powers and may even dream of having a book of magic spells. With the utterance of certain secret words or sounds, ordered in a particular sequence, one could bring to life a slew of otherworldly creatures or alter physical reality. But one must be sure to utter these sounds correctly; otherwise, a mispronunciation could have dreadful consequences and unleash a monster that could devour the earth, for example. Ironically, this is not far from the symbolic truth and children intuitively know it.
Many of our mythologies and religions recount tales of the beginning of the world through the utterance of a few ordered sounds by some deity. Whole cultures and societies are sustained and organized through customs, taboos, superstitions, ideologies, propaganda, advertising, fashion trends, etc. These are all founded on systems of communication. But that's not all. While we recognize that the world operates through different types of language, there is something much more astounding of which we have a subtle, intuitive sense in the back of our minds. It is that the world itself is language, an open book of enchanted words of sort. And for better or for worse, those who learn to read its symbols can mold the world as they see fit.
In this essay, I wish to explore the linguistic nature of the world. I am not referring to the obvious fact that our lives revolve around different forms of communication. Rather I am suggesting that the world is composed of a type of three-dimensional syntax and that our lives are mythic, symbolic stories that reflect our relationship with the world. This means that all phenomena under the sun, including people and events, can present themselves as part of a dynamic alphabet, metaphorical in a very profound sense and readable in a variety of ways. Unfortunately, we do not readily recognize this magical quality of the world and of life. We are rather preoccupied by a flat, two-dimensional, conceptual language that orders things and categorizes them for us. That is our virtual world. This ignorance is ironically and naturally reflected through symbols such as television, money, plastic surgery, the office cubicle, mountaintop removal mining and the destruction of rainforests, to name a few.
Our minds are used to being continuously immersed in or arguably even anesthetized by a sea of social rules, obligations, habits and mental constructs without much questioning. These come at us through two-dimensional images and print found in magazines, scriptures, television or movie theater screens, law books, employment contracts and so forth. But there are occasional moments - and we've all had them - when we spontaneously lift our heads above the surface of that numbing sea and behold specific events or people to be more "real" somehow. They break through our ordinary conception and become synchronized with some inexplicable and fundamental, ever-present truth. Where normally we see them as governed by chance and having no particular inherent significance or purpose or connection, suddenly we are gazing at them as living, enchanted symbols transparent to a profound meaning that seems to reside outside of space and time. This incomprehensible meaning is impossible to confine to thoughts, words or print, to flatten out and pigeonhole with the anesthetized and programmed portion of our minds. When perceived in a certain way, such symbols can bypass our rational, fragment-oriented and analytical thinking to resonate directly with our deepest sense of experience or understanding. Because of their multi-dimensional, iridescent nature, they are open to a wide range of interpretation. Most people probably recognize this phenomenon in the experience of art. But for most of us, art is compartmentalized and relegated to the corridors of a museum or to the echoes of a concert hall. It is bought and sold and hung on our walls or piped into elevators and played during candlelight dinners as a show of success or sophistication. That certainly won't suffice. If we are to behold this enchanted syntax in the streets and in the faces of our neighbors, we must open the eye of imagination with childlike innocence. Perhaps then our perceptions will be sharpened enough to see the world transformed into language.
We can distinguish between "two-dimensional" and "three-dimensional" systems of communication, for the sake of this topic. Two-dimensional forms of communication are conceptual. They include the thousands of dialects on this planet that are used for writing, speaking and reading. Another form is mathematics, a system of numbers and equations indispensable to much of our science. Musical notation is yet another such language that represents ordered sounds: melodies and harmonies and rhythm. We can also include in this group computer language, Morse code and many others. Common to this type of communication systems are conceptual and predefined rules that are consciously agreed upon collectively by users. The meaning derived is also dependent on the linear ordering of the symbols. In other words, these symbols must be scanned linearly, no matter how quickly, in order to glean their reference. Three-dimensional systems of communication are experiential as opposed to conceptual and linear. These are the living, linguistic elements of the world capable of certain vital resonances. They include anything that can be experienced such as people, places, events, animals, etc. They do not come at us in a linear fashion but rather all at once. In other words, these systems operate simultaneously on multiple levels. A tree, for example, presents itself to us all at once with its branches, leaves, roots, bark, colors, textures, sounds, smells, etc. This is not to mention the infinite other processes, hidden from our view, that may include insects, birds, worms, bacteria, etc. When we look at a tree, our conscious minds only pick up its salient features because our limited attention cannot take in everything all at once. We have grown accustomed to using the word "tree" to signify the magnificent, indescribable phenomenon that it is. We can say then that much of three-dimensional language goes unnoticed by our conscious observation and that we live in a virtual, two-dimensional world of language. Let us take a look at some other examples.
Body language is one type of communication that is often expressed without the conscious or consensual knowledge of the individual. Crossed arms, sweaty palms, and facial expressions are all examples of body language and they all communicate different messages. These are all visible signs of communication that are particular to human beings. There are also behavioral signs of communication. Psychologists speak of people unknowingly "acting out". They exhibit behavior that is the result of unconscious or repressed thoughts or feelings. They act out of insecurity, fear, desire, boredom, guilt, jealousy, resentment, etc, without being aware of the root cause. This behavior can be unconsciously used to manipulate a situation or another person. We have learned as human beings, by paying close attention, to identify these signs or patterns. Those of us who recognize them in a given situation are oftentimes at an advantage because we see something that the offending person may not. Ironically, it is easier to recognize them in other people than in us. Regardless, it is clear that we as human beings did not consciously agree on or shape these types of communication. We never formed a consensus by committee to turn our palms sweaty, for example, when we wanted to express nervousness or fear; however, these types of signals most certainly express a message and are inherent to our humanness. We recognize then that even within the human being there are dimensions of language that we do not control. Even our own physicality is beyond our grip. Within our own bodies, at any one point, there is an untold number of interactions going on that are beyond our conscious awareness. In fact, our physical bodies are multi-dimensional communication systems that are driven by relationships. At the most fundamental level, the genes we inherit from our parents are the blueprints for our organism. A language is encoded within them instructing and directing the division of cells, the coloring of the eyes and hair, the formation of our fingers and toes, the shaping of the retina and cones in our eyes through which we see the world and a myriad of other things. Human beings are only one part of the virtually infinite array of nature. As we look out onto the various landscapes of the earth, we recognize that our entire field of vision is made up of communication and relationships. The environment goes with the creatures that inhabit it to form the ecological system. Nature communicates with itself through the language of colors, shapes, sizes, textures, tastes, sounds, etc. Certain plants and flowers develop and bloom in a certain way or color to attract insects and birds. Their aim is to capture food or entice these flying creatures to ingest their seeds and deliver them far and wide. Certain butterflies develop patterns on their wings, perhaps to look like giant eyes, in order to ward off predators. These are just a few examples from nature at our level of magnification. These marvelous interactions occur at all levels, from the tiniest of molecules to the largest of cosmic bodies.
Common to all language is a pattern, which is composed of individual symbols, but the information or meaning derived from them is dependent on their order. In other words, meaning is a function of the relationships between the symbolic forms, which are the foundations of language. These symbols have to be transparent to some other "something." In and of themselves, they have no real substance. Moreover, they must be ordered in a certain way to yield meaning. For example, the ordered group of letters "ntsaa" has no significance as a word in the English language; however if we change the pattern of the letters we get the recognizable word "santa." We can rearrange the letters again and get a different, recognizable word "satan." The meaning is dependent on fixed rules and the linear ordering of the letters, in this case from left to right. It is perhaps easy to see how the individual symbols of a two-dimensional language, like the alphabet, have no meaning in and of themselves. But in what way is the three-dimensional syntax of the world lacking substance in and of itself? And what is necessary to make their pattern transparent to some significance? We now know through science that the world in and of itself is in fact "substance-less" in that it is not made of any material. As we probe deeper and deeper with our microscopes, we find that all material is made of smaller and smaller elements. When we try to isolate and slice these elements into further bits, we find that we can never get at their core substance. They are not graspable because they don't really exist individually. These elements are like the letters in an alphabet. They have no real substance of themselves but are part of a larger tapestry or language, which can contain meaning based on their order or pattern. Slowly, we are coming to realize through empirical, scientific methods that the world is not made of things but of patterns based on relationship. Also, everything that we see is a function of our eyes. We never see reality or the world as it really is; rather we construct a depiction of it through symbols. In that respect, it makes sense to speak of the world as language. In conceptual, two-dimensional language, the meaning is determined by a sort of collective consensus and we learn in a mechanical way to associate words or connect symbols or sounds with what they signify. However, in the three-dimensional syntax of the world, the connection between symbol and meaning is innate, already programmed somehow. In that sense, we never truly learn or experience anything new. Rather, we uncover patterns that are already within us. Some psychologists call them archetypes. Deciphering the language of the world is simply discovering through dormant connections the landscape that already lives in the human being. Religious enlightenment can be thought of as the awakening of the connections between the symbol and its reference, between the outer world and that inner landscape, whatever that may be. So in essence all the mythological gods, demons, heavens, hells, heroes, crucifixions, and resurrections are within us.
To illustrate further, we can imagine the visible world to be like the two-dimensional shadow or reflection of a constantly moving, three-dimensional sphere. The shadow cannot contain any substance in the same way that the sphere can. In that sense, the world in and of itself has no substance but is symbolically related to a higher-dimensional phenomenon, which holds tremendous, incomprehensible significance from our two-dimensional vantage point. Fundamentally, the energy of this mystery, which lives in some other dimension of hyper-meaning, creates the visible drama all around us. This phenomenon, represented by the sphere, can be interpreted in a variety of ways but ultimately it is dynamic and forever holds its mystery. In other words, it cannot be pinned down to an objective and factual meaning. It can be interpreted as the hidden movement of some omnipotent and omniscient deity that commands us to behave according to a moral order. It can also be viewed as the underpinnings of a chaotic or chance existence that has no significance beyond the physical aspect of being. We can also see this phenomenon as a host of psychological forces and impulses that shape the world, distort it and drive it. There are other interpretations; however, the two prevailing views of our time are the idea of a first mover or creator and the idea of natural selection and evolution. Both views try to fit the world as it is perceived into a flattened out, easy-to-digest image that can be taken apart and analyzed. Clearly, the conceptual languages we have to describe the world are limited. To express their perspectives, they employ linear symbols: equations, numbers, letters, creeds, scriptures, prayers, etc. Scientific explanations and religious doctrine may try to explain the dynamic, natural world through their concepts but they can never give us an experience of it. This is similar to capturing a bird and analyzing it on the dissecting table. The animal in flight is not the same creature that lies captured or dead in the laboratory. Flight is an integral aspect or function of being a bird; therefore, it is impossible to truly know everything about a bird. The moment that we capture it, we have somehow altered it. Science itself tells us so. Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle states that certain pairs of physical properties, such as position and momentum, cannot be accurately determined at the same time. In other words, the very act of measuring actually interferes with the organic processes of nature or at best distorts the information that we are seeking and creates paradoxes. Something fundamental is lost when we try to take three-dimensional symbols and make sense of them through two-dimensional language. This fact says a lot about our conscious minds; by nature they cannot grasp reality through concepts! Furthermore, they cannot process multiple bits of information at once. Our conscious minds only catch a very small percentage of the daily world that comes at us, as mentioned earlier. One would be hard pressed to listen to a conversation while reading a book with focused attention on both. Computers process information or code in a linear fashion, no matter how fast they may be. Even a well-trained musician can read only a few lines of music simultaneously. The energy of our entire organism however is not limited to the same linear function of our conscious minds. At any given moment, there are countless processes simultaneously taking place within the body, which is fundamentally multi-dimensional. These processes take place outside of our waking consciousness. From the perspective of our conscious minds, we can say that these processes happen unconsciously. They are driven by the same energy that moves the natural world and the farthest reaches of the Universe. We should all be alarmed that we, through our conscious, linear minds, are trying to master and control the vast domain of nature.
Unlike conceptual languages that speak through static symbols, the natural world speaks through living symbols. They are a point of intersection or link where fundamental truths or patterns meet the physical world through expression, much like a word composed of various visible scribbles expresses an image or idea. Myths and metaphors are vehicles, powered by imagination, that attempt to evoke a sense of these patterns through standard, static language or words. It is for this reason that they are often misunderstood or taken literally. The great religious texts from around the world are full of metaphors that are believed by many of their followers to be facts. To read them literally is to emasculate them and rob them of their power. In the Jewish tradition, we read that Jonah lived in the belly of a whale for three days before he was spit out intact. Jesus is said to have changed the composition of water into wine. Muslims believe that their prophet Mohammed literally ascended to heaven. Buddhists speak of the Buddha's mother giving birth from her side. And the Hindu god Vishnu is reported to have four arms. These are just a few examples of the numerous supernatural or miraculous phenomena that saturate the religions of the world. Many believers take them for facts because these people have dissociated themselves from that vital, inner element of imagination that can turn water into wine. These mythological figures are resonant of some truth that cannot be articulated or analyzed. Their function is to link the conscious mind with the energies that operate in nature and drive the unconscious. They speak to that part of us that experiences rather than thinks; and they reflect, in psychological terms, the psyche itself. What they reveal may be horrific, grotesque, beautiful, radiant, sublime etc.; however, their purpose is not to be a moral judge or guard or interpreter but to be transparent and true to the movement of that energy that supports the world and operates locally in our own field. Mythological figures or symbols have their counterpart in science also. The atom is a prime example. No one has ever seen one with human eyes but its structure was generally thought of at first to be like that of a solar system with the nucleus in the center and the electrons revolving around it. Later, scientists came to argue that an atom could be more accurately described as a waveform, as an interaction between different energies. In any case, these representations should not be taken factually but symbolically. Just as subatomic particles are said to be symbolic expressions of the interaction between fields of energy, mythological language asserts that the world is a manifestation of the interaction between conscious and unconscious energies. We are in a sense the tension between who we really are and what our minds think we are. The world is a symbol in the same way as atoms, subatomic particles, myths and savior figures. It is fundamentally a pattern of relationships; it gives the illusion of being composed of material things just like a standing wave in water appears to be solid.
Imagination, which is sometimes symbolized in certain mythologies by the third eye in the center of the brow, is the bridge between the linear conscious mind and the multi-dimensional processes of nature that are unconscious or beyond the capacity of our conscious attention. Therefore any language that is based in imagination is always fluid and its meaning is open to various interpretations. Where one might perceive something glorious or sublime, another may see nothing special. Here there are no predetermined concepts, rules, definitions or structures that can be grasped or collectivized. Art is a good example. An artist like Vincent van Gogh can take ordinary, everyday items, such as a pair of shoes, and portray them in a way that instantly arrests the viewer's mind. There is an interruption of the mind's constant habit of turning the graspable bits of the natural world into linear concepts for mental consumption or interpretation. During that interruption, the viewer does not take in the painting brushstroke by brushstroke or pixel by pixel but rather all at once, as a unified whole of relationships. Similarly, when we listen to a symphony orchestra, we take in the music all at once emanating from the string section, the woodwind section, the brass section, etc. Somehow, the object of the art bypasses the bit-by-bit, analytical mind and speaks directly to or resonates with the entire existential or experiential, multi-dimensional aspect of ourselves. This aspect speaks that same fluid language that operates in the whole Universe, including our bodies. The viewer connects at a fundamental level to an experience of the object. In that way, the REAL - whatever that may be - is experienced, not conceptualized or interpreted. We often use the word "timeless" to describe a work of art that gives us such an experience because it arouses an experience that is outside of the progression of time.
We can never underestimate the power of symbols. They can give birth to ideas, paradigms and myths that are horrific, grotesque, oppressive, revitalizing, magnificent or liberating. For a while now we have been taking the symbol literally and mistaking it for what it represents. The pattern currently emerging has us moving from the living, natural world to the virtual realm of concepts. We have been increasingly corralling the multi-dimensional impulses and operations of nature and forcing them into the narrow slits of our limited perceptions or consciousness. Naturally, any relationship that arises between these two dimensions is reflected in the world through meaningful symbols. In this case the relationship is discordant and the symbols that emerge reflect an oppressive pattern. We are quickly transforming our lives into virtual hallucinations and imprisoning ourselves in a flat, colorless and barren landscape. Because we have forgotten the power of language to create and to destroy, we are languishing in apathy, alienation and powerlessness, symbolically reflected of course in our daily preoccupations and even in our art, music and religion. These forms have become lazy, cheap and instantly gratifying, even pornographic.
In my view, the greatest and most powerful symbol of our time that reflects our alienation and break off from nature is the television. This machine that emits flat, two-dimensional images is taken by a vast majority of us to be the prime authority on the world out there, from news to politics to cooking to medicine, psychology and much more. We do not depend on our own experience of the world; rather, while huddled alone in our homes and apartments, we rely on a host of talking heads beamed through the screen to interpret the world for us and to some extent reproduce an array of experiences, which everyone uniformly adopts. Television does not offer real content but a reproduction, a mirage and a fantasy that shields us in a monochromatic and false psychological bubble of sorts. Moreover, the hypnotizing effect of television's electromagnetic waves is perfectly symbolic of the lethargic state of our minds. We buy whatever the television is selling, from entertainment to news to political views to religion and a host of other products, desires and fears. Simply, the television represents our conversion into drones and the loss of uniqueness. It is a symbol of the severance of the link or balance between our conscious and unconscious mind. It is important to remember that television is not the enemy; it is only a symbol that perfectly reflects profound movements in our collective depths. We could interpret it as the loss of our unique identity and imagination.
Another great symbol of our social order is money. Fundamentally money is made of paper and minted coins the value of which is determined by the faith of those who use them. In and of itself, money is useless. It serves no purpose out in the realm of nature, in the desert or the forest. We cannot eat it or drink it or build shelter out of it, but the vast majority of the world chases after it with a voracious appetite. Those who have it hunger for more and those who lack it live in squalor and poverty. We equate money with wealth when in fact wealth is the spending and not hoarding of it. In fact, money has been transformed from an efficient means of bartering and obtaining what is necessary for physical survival to a way for enslaving ourselves through debt. Money is not the problem. It is only a symbol of our displacement from the real, experiential world of nature and of our enslavement by a concept or idea.
Elective plastic surgery is another example of the world's linguistic nature. For the sake of looking younger or more beautiful, many are willing to be implanted with synthetic material such as silicone, injected with toxins that mimic botulism and to go under the knife to remove, tuck and pull portions of their flesh. Patients treated with a toxin, commercially called Botox, can lose their ability to some degree to display facial expressions associated with smiling, crying, frowning, etc. The drug works by blocking natural nerve impulses and essentially relaxing wrinkles and freezing the look on one's face. Patients come to eerily resemble mannequins, frozen in time. The look-young paradigm is so strong in society that people are willing to become (often shoddy) reproductions of their former, youthful selves. The natural, beautiful human face, with its lines and wrinkles that tell the winding story of a life, becomes usurped and smoothed over behind a fake, plastic veneer, unable to smile or cry. The symbolism is so clear that it is sublime.
There are other numerous symbols that reflect our disconnection with the symbolic and our collective descent into madness, alienation and a hollow, meaningless sense of life. Although we have some recognition of this in the back of our minds, most of us are too busy consuming and turning the resources of this planet into a mountainous heap of garbage. In fact, the paradigm demands it and makes it difficult to avoid participation. We strip-mine the earth for coal, chop down rain forests, poison the environment and exploit others for our benefit. We overfish the oceans and pollute the skies. We herd wild animals into enclosed areas, inject them with hormones to make them grow faster and treat the resulting diseases from their grotesque, unnatural development with antibiotics. We later consume them in large, unnatural quantities. We spend most of our days sitting in the enclosed, synthetic spaces of the office or the factory performing repetitive, mind-numbing jobs that dehumanize the most creative among us. And we do it all in the name of progress without too many questions. These are all magnificent symbols for a horrific illness that we are collectively enduring. What are we doing? We are in effect flattening out and consuming three-dimensional language at an alarming rate and converting it into two-dimensional concepts to be bought and sold and exploited. Mythological stories used to inspire us and maintain our connection with the psychedelic quality of nature, but we have little of that left in the modern world. We are killing our heroes and silencing the oracles. We are forsaking our guides and imprisoning our prophets. We are crucifying the saviors and robbing the skies of their power to lift us up into the clouds of wonder. We are banishing the gods to stone, freezing them in position on dusty old pedestals. Where once the Word was made flesh, we now repeatedly betray it and condemn it to die on the cross of our ignorance.
With the literalization and subsequent loss of the symbol, we no longer perceive the world as a living, resonating, spontaneous, multi-dimensional language, the real meaning of which is to be found in the experience thereof. The modern, conscious mind demands that meaning should be articulated and formulated into concepts. It demands to know why and how. Therefore, we are always looking to understand what nature is saying or what the world means. But if we allow ourselves to "think" with our imagination, we would awaken the symbols from their two-dimensional ghetto and encounter gods and goddesses that were once imprisoned in stone and relegated to museums and books upon dusty shelves. All of them point to us, to the human being. It may seem that the conscious mind is at odds with the vast unconscious reservoir that animates our organism and the Universe. It appears so because we refuse to acknowledge that this precious bridge of imagination is a vital part of being human. In fact, psychology tells us that the conscious mind is an extension of that reservoir of unconscious energy, much like an iceberg that is mostly submerged beneath the surface of the water with only its tip protruding into the air. Imagination is not fully recognized today for its vital importance in the human being. It has always been associated with artists, shamans, mystics, dreamers and followers of fantasy, those who would escape the "serious" nature of life and the world. They are often accused of promoting an escapist attitude, as a reaction to the visceral and sometimes horrific nature of reality. But in fact, without imagination in its rightful place, we are all in exile and enslaved. If anything, only with imagination can we escape to the real and return to sobriety.
We will not find the ultimate answers through conceptual words but through living symbols, if we allow them to resonate with our imagination. They hold the key to experience. No amount of prayers or scientific experimentation or reading of books or scriptures can bring that about. Rather, living symbols intercede on our behalf. In the Christian tradition, Jesus is that perfect symbol but unfortunately most Christians take it literally. Metaphorically speaking, our salvation lies in the power of the symbol; it is the bridge between heaven and earth. It is the reconciling principle between the conscious and unconscious. But in the end, the ultimate function of the symbol is to disappear. There is no longer a need for it as a bridge; therefore, ultimately there is no distinction between the conscious mind and the vast, unconscious well of the energies of the body and the Universe, between the observer and the observed. All along, they were functions of the same phenomenon. Mystical experiences and the use of psychedelic substances testify to this. Everything is perceived and experienced but not named or put into words or concepts. There is no longer a thinker to interpret through symbols. The world is seen for what it is and it is literally what we perceive it or imagine it to be. It is essentially psychedelic in nature, composed of poetry, drama and metaphor. The challenge for each of us as individuals is to recognize the world as language in our daily, personal business. If we can recognize the symbolic forms in our individual lives, then perhaps there is hope for all of creation. It is possible to rearrange the words in this grand, magical book that is the world and remake it through a magnificent spell, cast with full awareness and responsibility.
© 2009 The Forbidden Heights