Language #3: Thinking and Language as the Bridge of Love

Mindsprings blog post Language Part 3

NOTE: I think in this last blog I am in some sense arguing myself OUT of a position that I have thoughtlessly held for many years. That is, the idea that liberation is a wordless affair, best done in the silence of the heart. What is dawning on me that this is only half of the journey. We liberate ourselves, it’s true, in the silence of the meditation cushion (as the Buddha did under the bodhi tree). But that the Bodhisattva Vow (the vow to help all beings across the Universe to find liberation) demands that we enter into the complexity of the web of shared symbols.  And that thinking and word-use are no distractions on that path…, but instead, they are the paving stones that make the Path go somewhere. 

I spent a good portion of my 30s and 40s demonising thinking. 

The form of Buddhist practice that I followed seemed to make thinking the enemy and tutored me to rest awareness in less flitty things such as sounds or the breath. 

This wariness of thinking constitutes a strong strand in Theravadan Buddhist practice (as I outline in ‘Loving the Monkey’) and is really useful when we’re first working with the chaos in our minds. But it can (and in my case, it did) lead to a squint-eyed suspicion of all things linguistic. 

I imagined a village…. where people communicated without words altogether 

I was once asked to write the libretto for a mini-opera by the composer Jeremy Thurlow and I chose this theme of wordless experience as the subject. The text was full of allusions to the wordless language of deaf people or the structured language of birdsong. And in the final section I imagined a village, high in the remote mountains where people communicated without words altogether: 

It’s an urbane and sophisticated civilisation where the adults spend most of their afternoons in busy teahouses, communicating in fluid gestures and with the tiniest nuances of their faces. The only sound to be heard is that of hands in the air and the clinking of china.

People from the valley live in blissful specificity. Since every person, animal or meadow flower can be judged on their unique merit – it makes no sense to give them names. There’s that bird and this one. Same markings and song but clearly different birds.

The children don’t have names either because they know each other by sight.”

After the premiere, an old university friend, a writer, chided me for giving up on language even as I was using it. And now when I look at that text again, I see that I was indulging in wishful regression. A fantasy of that world around the cave-fire when you simply had to point at things to be understood. The dream of perpetual presence. 

In giving up the dream of being perpetually present, I open up the possibility of sharing and comparing experience.

This dream is very prevalent in meditation circles and I think it’s a mirage. I would argue that we need to let that dream go if we are to be really liberated and liberating in the World. Rather than branding language as an Edenic fall from a meditative presence. I think we need to recognise that it is an amazing conduit for compassion. 

In giving up the dream of being perpetually present (in the way that perhaps animals are) I open up the possibility of sharing and comparing experience. By paying the price of not being present all the time, I am able to imagine what others are feeling and communicate my inner world as well. 

Returning to the neolithic ancestors we encountered in the first part of this blog, we saw groups of early humans naming things-that-are-not-present in order to thrive better. Then our individual cave girl took these useful symbols inwards and turned them into thought. 

Thinking and speaking weave together with reality to create a whole and more serviceable human life 

Thinking about things-that-are-not-present removes her from the here-and-now and that makes her a little anxious. But it’s worth it because it allows her to survive and thrive. But plugging her imaginary inner world into the shared symbolic world of the tribe makes her thriving even stronger. 

It’s worth pausing to contemplate this. 

The Symbolic (the shared language of the tribe) cross-pollinates the Imaginary (the private thought of the cavegirl).  The Real is still the real – she still has a body that can be torn into pieces by a bear. But those two other spheres (thinking and speaking) weave together with her reality to create a whole and more serviceable human life. 

Let’s look at an example. She’s up in those possibly bear-infested woods again… 

She moves from the Real (her fear as she is walking in the woods). To her Imaginarium (beary-scary images and semi-thoughts) to the Symbolic. (asking back in the cave, “Mother, do bears live in that wood?”)  

Her Imaginary is updated either by the Real (she sees a bear). Or by the symbolic (“No, child, there haven’t been bears in these woods for hundreds of years”) 

This is a very important aspect of language. It purifies misperceptions in our Imaginarium and keeps us healthy. 

Buddhism is not about returning to some pre-linguistic state and whitewashing the necessary costs of human connection


When we insist – as we sometimes do in meditation – that only the Real is worthwhile then we are making ourselves like animals. We are regressing to the fantasy of perpetual presence.  (It’s what the philosopher Ken Wilber calls the pre/trans fallacy.) 

Mature human life is necessarily woven through with the absence and anxiety that thinking occasions. And that is a worthwhile price to pay for the ability to connect with the world of others. 

I would argue strongly that Buddhism is not about returning to some pre-linguistic state. Whitewashing the necessary costs of human connection. 

We are extraordinary beings because we can rest in the Real like our animal siblings. And we can tolerate the anxiety that comes from lifting experience into a symbol and sharing it. 

And this is the crux. 

When thinking is cut off from the real it curdles into abstraction. And when thinking is cut off from shared language then it gets out-dated and inaccurate fast. But the fact remains: thinking is the crucial bridge from the private real into the shared realm. 

Thinking, the internal chatter that we so demonise on the cushion – is, in fact, the holy bridge that takes us from the private to the shared. And we have a name for that kind of bridge. We call it love. 

We are clearing the walkway of the most important bridge there is

Seeing, clarifying, testing and re-tuning our imaginary inner talk is the path to love. It is the necessary work we do in order to connect our inner world with the world of others. And vice-versa. Unless we can use shared symbolic language and import it back into the closed world of our Imaginary. Then there is no possibility for love and communication. We are stuck in a self-enclosing circle where our inner-chatter (our imaginary) imposes itself on the real and the symbolic. 

When we impose our inner Imaginarium on reality then it is called psychosis. When we impose our inner Imaginarium on the symbolic shared world, then it is called narcissism. 

But if we can see our imaginary sphere of thought, memory, inclination, prejudice and half-baked opinion clearly. Then we are clearing the walkway of the most important bridge there is. The bridge from private to public and back again. 

Reach out through the network of language and make a lasting and meaningful connection into another Mind

I would argue without language there is no real bodhicitta. We have innate animal empathy, and mirror neurons can give us a taste of what another being is feeling. Lab rats have that. But what is unique about the human is the ability to interweave. To cross-check, try out forms of words, and risk exposing our private Imaginariums in the business of speaking.
Taking that risk, speaking out our innermost feelings and thoughts as words make a bridge over to another person. Who can then take those symbolic forms into their Imaginarium and compare and contrast. Maybe even re-fresh and retune. 

This is the work of the bodhisattva. Not just to sit there being privately compassionate. But to reach out through the network of language and make a lasting and meaningful connection into another Mind. And for that ripple of symbolic energy. The chain of meaningful power-words that constitute a Dharma – to touch other people. And then other people and then other people. 

The Buddha is THE Buddha because he spoke. A pratyekabuddha is one that realises nirvana but never shares it. 

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I’d love to know your thoughts about language and thinking. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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7 Comments

  • Jane Davis says:

    Yes, Lord, to every word! I have many feelings based on my experiences concerning the ideas stated but I’ll just mention that this blog brought back to me something I wrote in a letter to a white South African man with whom I had a very close but bumpy relationship that had more than its share of miscommunication. In one of our ‘making ups,’ for lack of a better phrase, I ended a letter by quoting the ending of Richard Wright’s autobiography, “Black Boy,” where he reflects on a very tumultuous experience and reflects on why he wants to keep communicating and to write. I think the passage begins with him saying something like ‘I walked home, really alone now’ and continues: “…Humbly now, with no vaulting dream of achieving a vast unity, I wanted to try to build a bridge of words between me and that world outside, that world which was so distant and elusive that it seemed unreal. I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.” Very poignant…

    • alistairappleton says:

      That’s beautiful, Jane, though it does rather miss the interactive quality of language I was hoping to express. The words are not going out into a void – but they are themselves part of a delicate network (a pre-existing network) that we are part of from birth. Our daring to express sends out ripples that others pick up – and then we have to listen back to what they put into the network. It’s not quite as ‘solitary prophet’ as Wright makes it sound…

      • Jane Davis says:

        I agree. I think Wright was (somewhat depressively) hoping that his words would bring him out of feeling isolated (even when surrounded) and reawaken his connectedness…with whoever might be receptive….

  • Anne says:

    Hi Alistair: I read all three today, beginning with your Blog Part 1, then Part 2 and kept thinking: but surely the ability to express an emotion, like human love, was a core stimulus for cave folks creating language (alongside paintings of tigers in their caves as maybe the first Netflix)? Any ‘absence’ I had guessed was related to NOT being able to describe feelings (sensations/emotions) rather than things. Like creating sounds to explain the oxytocin rush post-partum that might not have been communicatable in the same nuanced way by apes or cave beings, for example, through the physical acts of grooming or procreation (or indeed more aggressive emotions). Then I saw you come to ‘love’ in Part 3. While I’m not familiar with the theories around language origination, I imagine an ape mother listening to other ape mothers cooing at their newborns and when it came time for her to give birth and see her first child, she spontaneously erupted with an original sound based on an epiphany that there was another texture of love she’d ever known before the child was born. And how the other apes who morphed into cave type people over time were entertained by that sound and the sing song new way that the young mother used it. So they imitated her sound and the group attached that call-sign to the newborn—much the way today we might ascribe a funny but affectionate nickname. And thereafter these ape/cave moms attracted the attention of that newborn with that sound so it became the child’s ‘name’. And calling out that name both distracted and protected that child from falling into the fire. So child, parent and group learned the warning anxiety of identity, symbol and possibly the creation of ‘self’ as part of a distraction from the ‘anxious’ feeling (which also need a name). And maybe later the ‘named’ child garnered cachet in the eyes of the others because s/he was unique and distinguishable through her naming AND because of her long survival because s/he could be warned of the dangers of fire and bears separately from the others. And the sound of that word or name which expressed ‘compassionate love’ provided some protection when the new mother didn’t want to procreate: she was able to use the name to both discern what she was looking for in a partner AND to name and protect her infant. Because in the ‘absence’ of that kind of loving care, hers and the child’s chances of survival were lessened. And the ‘naming’ vaulted the child’s position in society and provided tools (as s/he added her own new sounds) to those in that society (women, children, the elderly) who felt separated and down a peg from the physically strong or those who gained status from acquiring/providing material things like food or shelter. So identity married to an ability to communicate ‘names’ or ‘no’ or ‘I love him’ or ‘I want’ might begin to separate levels in a group and distance them from ‘the real’ present moment. And so on as the cycle of language built. Because imagining has many ‘uses of enchantment’.

    As someone who often makes up words to describe sensations and emotions more accurately related to my own experience and because I want to connect deeply, I appreciated the stimulus of these blogs and how they might add flavour both to my life and to my meditations–although these these days those two things are pretty much the same 😉 ! So thanks, Alistair and for sharing…

  • Jane Davis says:

    I agree. I think Wright was (somewhat depressively) hoping that his words would bring him out of feeling isolated (even when surrounded) and reawaken his connectedness…with whoever might be receptive….

  • Jane Davis says:

    Looking for something completely different, I came across this NY Times review of a theatrical adaptation of R.D. Laing’s “Knots” and was struck by the idea of communication sometimes being beset by knots. So this part of Clive Barnes review stood out to me as relevant to some ideas about language:

    “In his book “Knots,” Dr. Laing is concerned with behavioral patterns of human bondage…..

    Our relations with one another are both interdependent and subjective. This very often causes a social or sexual impasse. Conversation, here acting for feelings as currency acts for wealth, completely loses its symbolic market value.

    Here is a simple, but typical Laing knot. We all recognize it. “Jill feels guilty … that Jack feels guilty … that Jill feels guilty … that Jack feels guilty.” It could go on, couldn’t it? And it often does.

    Once one has caught the pattern of Dr. Laing’s concept, examples become fairly obvious. Here are all the linguistic dead ends of people trying but failing to communicate. Sometimes Dr. Laing relentlessly pursues simple cause and effect and cause. For example: “How can she be happy … when the man she loves is unhappy … He feels she is blackmailing him … by making him feel guilty … because she is unhappy that he is unhappy…’”

    Intriguing issues regarding communication…

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