We can’t help seeing through words, but it’s worth trying.
Pretty much everyone I’ve ever met knows that children’s rhyme, “sticks and stones may break my bones / but words can never hurt me.” I recall coming home in tears from some schoolyard altercation and my mother hugging me and repeating that rhyme
The hug helped, the words didn’t.
There was something wrong with it, although throughout my childhood what the problem was, I couldn’t say. I didn’t have the words. Now, so many years later, I’ve found what the problem is.
In thinking of that children’s rhyme, it is true that words can’t harm me in quite the same way as a stick or a knife or a bullet might. But that’s a small truth that burns away in front of the larger truth that words can cut to the quick and create wounds that don’t heal. Words can even set into action a series of events that can in fact lead to death.
Words are powerful.
I am a person of words. They provide my livelihood, and they tell me who I am. I see a significant part of my self-identity as a crafter of words. Even more, words provide me with the ways in which I can understand who I am in this world. Words create my identity.
I see the world through words. My experiences flood into me through my senses, and words are how I order those experiences, giving them shape. Words are how I make meaning of the world.
I see the world through words piled together into metaphors and images. And here’s where it gets dangerous. Words are not reality, in the sense that Alfred Korzybski meant in his famous phrase “the map is not the territory.” But words are so compelling, images so powerful, that it is easy for us to make that fundamental mistake.
In fact words and images are so compelling that the wonder is that we can break free, if only for moments, and see through—and beyond—the words. Even as we’re seeing through the words. . . . Don’t you just love the power on display here in all its majesty, all its magic? Seeing through and seeing through. Both true, both needed.
If we don’t see through our words—in that sense of separating our story out from our body presence, even for a moment or two—we are completely at the mercy of the words. They use us, and they misuse us. They give us an identity, but they also force us to stay in that identity as always separate from others, when in fact there are larger truths available if and when we find ourselves able to shake it all off, again, just for a moment or two.
I love words, and yet the most important part of my life’s project has been focused on seeing through words, exploring the contours of silence, spending what now amounts to years out of my life in Buddhist meditation, sitting down, shutting up, and paying attention, with emphasis on that shutting up.
I’ve noticed people can set aside time for sitting down—or for standing up, walking around, actually even lying down.
Shutting up is the harder thing. In one sense it is impossible. Our brains are never off, we’re always secreting thoughts, words. But in the process of noticing our thoughts, our feelings, our sensations without following them down the way into stories, we can break the pattern of construction.
Again, only for moments.
But that turns out to be enough. More than enough.
Then our paying attention is a paying into a bigger perspective, a place where the words arise, and we use them instead of being used by them.
A good thing.
Even for a person of words.
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The Rev. James Ishmael Ford, a UU World online columnist, is a Zen Buddhist priest and senior guiding teacher of Boundless Way Zen as well as senior minister of First Unitarian Church of Providence, Rhode Island.
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