The other morning I was listening to Tara Brach ,when my sweetie groaned “what was I thinking” as her alarm clock sounded, alerting her to the need to get up in order to bring the car in for it’s oil change. She had made the appointment but after sleeping poorly several days in a row prior, she was now regretting, at least in part, the early appointment. I told her I would take the car in. She said “are you sure” I said of course it was no big deal. She again repeated “are you sure – that doesn’t feel fair, I made the appointment” I repeated cheerily that it was no problem. Her comment “it’s not fair” struck me as incredibly interesting and worth unpacking. Separate from what exists to be explored around how couples negotiate chores, duties and tasks, which could be another interesting post, I realized that there are a number of words whose meaning I seem to have a much different relationship to currently. It prompted me to reflect upon exactly what is in the words we use.
Recently I had the experience of hearing a story about a child, Florence, who was having difficulty learning to tie her shoes. My “own” child, who is several years younger is also having difficulty. It has caused him much strife as he believes that he is the only child in his class who cannot ties his own shoes. I said to a third adult, Alice -- not the parent of Florence, “see other children cannot tie their shoes either “ It was an odd comment generated perhaps in part as way to placate hurt feelings as I tried to understand (and perhaps alleviate my child’s pain or perhaps my own pain at seeing him suffer) –– as if the comparing and contrasting actually helped resolve the hurt feelings for either of us. But we’ll address that in a moment. Alice responded to me -- “Yes, Florence is dyslexic”.
What was interesting is that I had this very clear insight into how our words can block us from seeing what is really present. Prior to Florence being called dyslexic she was just a child struggling to tie her shoes but with the name “dyslexic” I could now box in her limitless potential. This entity Florence was now seen through the lens of “Florence who is dyslexic” and all that the word dyslexic means to me. Maybe I have known many incredibly smart dyslexics. Maybe someone who was dyslexic beat me up in 7th grade. Maybe my favorite uncle was dyslexic. Maybe the dyslexics I knew struggled a lot. In any case, I could feel my perspective shift with the availability of the label. I felt like I now understood something about Florence that I did not before. But did I really?
A few days later I learned that another child I have known her entire life had recently been diagnosed as autistic. My mind again gyrated and boxed the child in. It sought a nice neat little way of interpreting or understanding past behavior and interactions. But does that “label” really help me to understand? Rather than reach for the vast multitude of reasons why a behavior showed up – I could “explain” it by assigning it to the category autistic. When I call something by a name – am I interacting with the name and the label or am I interacting with the person or thing itself. When someone is assigned a label – cancer patient, mentally ill, autistic, palestininian, disabled, gay or lesbian, criminal – what do we see? Are we still able to interact with what is showing up at that moment and how much are our interactions colored by what we think we know because of the label?
Imagine the layers of words that we use each day for our experiences and for people, circumstances and situations in life. Imagine the many, many ways that these labels reduce something infinite to something smaller. When we give something a name we feel like we understand it better, and at some relative level we do. I would not pretend that there is not great utility in description and analysis. But might we also be missing something in doing that? What are we missing and how do we engage if we are not aware, at least in the background, that everything has such infinite depth that it could never be captured or confined.
Labeling is not wrong and it is not a problem. Words themselves are incredibly beautiful. Of course we need them. Words are an amazing invention. Language itself in any form is simply astonishing and magnificent. That somehow we figured out a way to communicate to each other is simply a true wonder. Words are symbols but they are marvelous and powerful. They help us live and act in the world. They are phenomenal tools. When we take them too seriously however, when we mistake what is really behind a word or a label or a form and miss the essence that everything is in its unity, suffering occurs and violence manifests.
Even all the most spiritual texts, the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, the Sutras, the Tao Te Ching, they are just words, powerful words pointing to something beyond themselves which must be realized individual by individual, but they are still just words. So often the texts are taken literally, fundamentally, as if they themselves are the truth. As if they could deliver TRUTH itself that would be unmutable and unchanging. Do we really think TRUTH could be captured by words? Sometimes I find it heartbreaking how so many wars have been fought over these spiritual and religious words. Can you imagine anything more insane? What “you” just said is so against what “I “say, that now I need to kill you? But where did each “you” come up with “your” ideas? Do you believe you really could have a thought independent of all the history that has preceded you? If your thoughts then, are products of something else, culture, education, history, race, genetics, circumstances etc, is it really worth killing someone or even arguing with someone who has different thoughts? Are they even your thoughts? Are the other person’s thoughts hers? What would happen if you were curious about how you came to those thoughts?
There is an old saying that says “if you meet the Buddha along the side of the road kill him” it’s a kind of shock-tactic statement in a spiritual tradition that is so gentle and full of compassion and non-violence. What could it possibly mean? Well, for me, it means not to take false permanent refuge in form. The moment you have locked in, the moment you are identified with a position, (even if the position is “I won’t have a position”) you have ceded the keys to the kingdom of heaven. The moment you take your thoughts or your words too seriously you will suffer. For me it’s the notion that even the ideas/concepts/experiences that initially row the boat of spirituality/seeking/enlightenment must dissolve too. It's like if you think you've got the truth - that ain't it. The mind’s desire to think “Iv’e got it” once and for all misses the point. I am reminded of another sutra – cultivate the mind that dwells nowhere. This is the beginner’s mind that is filled with possibility. This mind recognizes that all is new each and every moment. It is a mind filled with wonder, awe and gratitude. It is an incredibly deep gratitude that is not necessarily for a particular thing - though it can be expressed for particular things but in some ways, it is a gratitude that anything even IS at all. It is a gratitude for existence itself, that this amazing beautiful anything is even here.
So what is in the words we use. It has become clearer to me that though we manage to communicate and we have dictionaries and thesauruses and translators – and that generally we understand each other we can’t ever really be sure that through our minds that we actually mean the same thing when we refer to something. How could we be? How could we take the infinite and sum it up in a few letters and sounds. I think it is why I have always been drawn to poetry. Poems are readily open to multiple meanings and easily change through time with our experiences and they can very easily point beyond themselves to the infinite. One of my favorite books of poetry has always been Adrienne Rich’s Dream of A Common Language. It’s a beautiful book of poetry that is poignant, insightful, reflective, earnest, spirited and always courageous. The incredibly touching and sincere book explores through language what language can never ultimately do and yet paradoxically in the spaces between the words and the meanings perhaps does. It is a book that reflects on what is for me the charge of poetry: “ The drive to connect, the dream of a common language.”
In part, because I have been resisting less, when my sweetie said “that was not fair” I did not know what to do. It felt like it did not compute. What exactly is fairness? It seemed to me that at that moment fairness might at least in part be about arguing with what is. It seemed to me that fairness might be about thinking something should be different than what is appearing. I looked it up in the dictionary to get some help.
Fairness – what is fairness?
1) free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice: a fair decision; a fair judge.
2) legitimately sought, pursued, done, given, etc.; proper under the rules: a fair fight.
What I am struck by is that it seems both definitions hinge in some ways upon a subtle separation. Each depends in part upon something external. They depend upon some external arbiter or two or more entities.
In definition 1) Who or what determines what is free from bias, dishonesty or injustice?
In definition 2) who or what determines what is legitimately sought, pursued, done, given, etc. ?
What happens to the concept of fairness if we consider that there may be multiple “fairness es”? What happens to the concept of fairness if we really experienced things as one and whole? Do we think that one “fairness” exists in a given situation?
I do not pretend to know the answers to these questions. I don’t really try to answer them with my thinking mind. For me, the questions can do a beautiful job of actually arresting my mind. I am not even sure my mind feels like it can wrap itself around how to answer the questions. And in that space it is easier to let go of that which feels like it needs to know and needs to be right or even needs to understand. And what is left then? Can you feel that?
Language is so magnificently beautiful. It helps us cross the great divide among each other but it can never get us there fully. It is always limited in its capacity as beautiful as it is. Each of us is alone. And in this aloneness we are one.
The “eyes” of love make everything whole.
Here is a poem by Rumi translated by Coleman Barks that I would like to leave you with.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other"
doesn't make any sense.
Let’s meet in that field.