This is Part 2 of a series on language. The piece stands alone if that’s what you want out of your reading life, but for best results read this first.
‘When people say “surreal” they mean “real”, it’s just most of your life is not very real, just repetition and routine.’ — Norm Macdonald
The language we use from day to day seems neutral, but it isn’t. At the moment the progressive movement is laser-focused on the way everyday language subtly reinforces racism, sexism and power dynamics in general, but the problem goes way beyond that. Every single thing you say has assumptions built into it, many of them resentful, regretful and reductive. ‘Back to the grindstone’ (I don’t like my job). ‘Better get on with it’ (I don’t like what I’m doing). ‘Can’t complain’ (wish I could though). Etc, etc, etc.
The reason we like art, poetry and mythology so much is that they take us away from all the boring “real” stuff. But the whole point of art, poetry and mythology is that the real stuff isn’t boring. We’re just describing it wrong.
Here’s literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky on how art can make us re-see things that overfamiliarity has numbed us to:
[As] perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic…[Art] exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make an object “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.
The more we strip away the stale, cynical, boring language that we’re used to imposing on the things around us, the fuller and richer the things become. Maybe you habitually describe your experiences in overcomplicated, abstract terms that cause anxiety and take you away from the immediacy of the moment. In that case your language could benefit from becoming more simple and precise, leaving no room for equivocation or evasion. Hemingway’s prose style is a famous example of this approach:
How little we know of what there is to know. I wish that I were going to live a long time instead of going to die today because I have learned much about life in these four days; more, I think than in all other time. I’d like to be an old man to really know. I wonder if you keep on learning or if there is only a certain amount each man can understand. I thought I knew so many things that I know nothing of. I wish there was more time.
Or maybe your experiences tend towards flatness and banality: boring at best, oppressively irritating at worst. When you’re in this mindstate it can be restorative to immerse yourself in the worldview of someone who adds as much breathless poetry, as many adjectives to experience as possible. My favourite example of the “embarrassment of riches” approach to life is Ray Bradbury:
There was a smell of Time in the air tonight. He smiled and turned the fancy in his mind. There was a thought. What did time smell like? Like dust and clocks and people. And if you wondered what Time sounded like it sounded like water running in a dark cave and voices crying and dirt dropping down upon hollow box lids, and rain. And, going further, what did Time look like? Time looked like snow dropping silently into a black room or it looked like a silent film in an ancient theater, 100 billion faces falling like those New Year balloons, down and down into nothing. That was how Time smelled and looked and sounded. And tonight — Tomas shoved a hand into the wind outside the truck — tonight you could almost taste time.
I lied, it’s actually Bob Dylan:
Darkness at the break of noon / Shadows even the silver spoon / The handmade blade, the child’s balloon / Eclipses both the sun and moon / To understand you know too soon / There is no sense in trying
Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn / Suicide remarks are torn / From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn / Plays wasted words, proves to warn / That he not busy being born is busy dying
Obviously we can’t all be great writers and poets, but we can add a surprising amount of richness and depth to our lives by taking charge of how we describe them. Your existence-in-time is a story you tell yourself, and if you don’t control the narrative yourself your subconscious will control it for you. And seeing as life’s tough and you’re carrying a lot of wounds around, it’s practically guaranteed that its version of events will be a lot angrier and more disillusioned than you’d wish.
So you decide to do the washing up and your “monkey mind” starts into ‘Suppose I’d better wash up — boring chore — waste of time — rather be painting — how long is this gonna take — man, that’s more dishes than I thought — better get on with it’. But there’s nothing tedious about washing up itself, only the story you’re telling about it. It’s surprisingly easy to turn the story around if you focus on the sheer physicality and immediacy of the task, so that the adult’s ‘What a waste of time’ becomes the child’s ‘I’m splashing my hands about in water, this is fun’. Another trick is to link your tasks to grand mythological concepts: there’s a reason Jordan Peterson describes cleaning your room as bringing forth order from chaos.
Then there’s the broader arc of your life. We can’t not frame our lives in narrative terms: anyone who thinks they’re “just getting on with it” has merely pushed their life story down to the subliminal level without examining it (‘Slog away, achieve a little security, escape my pain as often as possible, retire, die’). Stories are far more important than the experiences they describe, which explains how poor people can be happy and rich people can be depressed. A well-told story can lend dignity and wonder to even the most seemingly mundane existence, so that ‘Oh great, another working day’ becomes ‘Can’t get to the Grey Havens without passing through Moria’. No-one can be the victim of circumstance and the hero in an important drama simultaneously.
When I used to gig a lot I enjoyed thinking of myself as a ‘gun for hire’. I could have called myself ‘a keyboardist who plays a lot of boring songs in dingy pubs’, but what fun would that have been? And now I could describe myself as ‘someone who does a lot of typing when they should be earning a good living or planning for the future’, and if that’s what I called myself, that’s what I’d be. But if I frame myself as fulfilling an ambition,putting a unique skill to work or even answering a calling my perception of myself changes, I feel better, I write better, my experience becomes richer.
The more cynical statement might seem more neutral or more objective, but it’s neither: I’m incapable of perceiving reality either directly or objectively. All I have the power to do is use language to my benefit and (hopefully) the benefit of others.
My favourite take on language’s power to enlarge reality is Chögyam Trungpa’s concept of drala. The “drala principle” asks us to extract the maximum juice from each moment of the day, so that we can get the same sense of heightened reality from sweeping the path that we can from a hiking expedition, an amazing holiday or an uplifting painting. According to Trungpa, the realest — i.e. most fully human — way to perceive the world is through the eyes of an excited child:
We may have been interested in our world when we were little children, but then we were taught how to handle it by our parents who had already developed a system to deal with the world and to shield themselves from it at the same time. As we accepted that system, we lost contact with the freshness and curiosity of experience.
What does drala mean? It used to refer to a class of god in various Asian religious traditions. But Trungpa redefined it to mean something like “the qualities of beauty and wonder available to us in everything we see, touch and experience”.
Once we stop thinking of the physical world as a flat, neutral reality “out there” and our experience of it as something we’re imposing on it, we realise that everything is what our language and attitude make it. So developing a more contemplative, awed attitude towards the beauty around us doesn’t mean superimposing mystical fluff on the world, it means exploring reality’s innate potential more skillfully and deeply.
Bill Scheffel puts this really well:
The dralas are not really part of some other world, but latent everywhere…In the drala teachings, each of the senses is considered an “unlimited field of perception” in which there are sights, sounds and feelings “we have never experienced before” — no one has ever experienced! Each sense moment, if we are present for it, is a gate into the elemental wisdom of the world, even a cold sip of coffee could ignite the experience of Yeats: “While on the shop and street I gazed / My body of a sudden blazed.” Every perception is a pure perception; from the feel of a meager pebble stuck in our shoe to the meow of a house cat. Through this kind of perception we discover that we live in a vast, singular and unexplored world.
Scheffel doesn’t mention mindfulness, but what he’s describing sounds an awful lot like it:
Each moment of perception can potentially be experienced as a moment of pure perception — experience not yet mediated through discursive thought and conceptual process. These moments are not yet conditioned by hope and fear, by our opinions, desires and beliefs. This immediate awareness of pure perception is “without choice, without demand, without anxiety”.
I’m not convinced it’s possible, or even desirable, to escape concepts and language altogether — then again I’m not a Buddhist monk, so what do I know.
What I do know is that our language has to get better. The business of life is to remove the conditioned stories that steer our reality in harmful directions and replace them with stories that expand our possibilities, ennoble us and enlarge the world. This means dropping our habitual language of “choice, demand, anxiety”, resentment, bitterness, regret, cynicism, reductionism, dissatisfaction and aggression, and replacing it with a fresher, simpler, more undemanding, more accepting vocabulary — a language that elevates and dignifies everything it touches. Our experience of the world, ourselves and each other will instantly become a thousand times richer.
There are potential dralas everywhere we look. It’s up to us to speak them into being.