I recently read a story of a woman who was suffering from semantic dementia, a condition that caused her to lose her words. She had just 4000 words remaining (most adult English speakers have 20,000-35,000). This woman’s husband had recently passed away and she lived alone. When asked by a neuroscientist how she felt, she said “well, when I am at my place… it’s only me and the place…”. The word she was looking for was loneliness. The words she found are so much more. They leave a space which aches for completion: the words are the empty house, the reading of them is loneliness.
Despite her limited vocabulary, this woman managed to convey a felt sense of the emotion she was experiencing in a way that all writers aspire to. Every writer wants their words to make such a strong impression on the reader that the words themselves are obliterated by the feelings they evoke. We want that magic to occur whereby the word becomes the thing; to achieve bodily communication between reader and writer that feels like touching. This is the hunger of the writer, a desire which Derrida encapsulates beautifully when he says,
“I would like to write you so simply, so simply, so simply. Without having anything ever catch the eye, excepting yours alone, … so that above all the language remains self-evidently secret, as if it were being invented at every step, and as if it were burning immediately.”
There is a yearning for emotion to be packaged in words and sent from one body to another with such an immediate sensuality that as the feelings land, the words themselves dissolve. That language might be a Trojan horse that smuggles sensations in to the body.
Too often, the experiences we wish to put into words evade description: they rise up, only to disappear as we try to explain them.
I am utterly captivated by the 800 year old teachings of Zen Master Eihei Dogen, particularly by the way in which he talks about language itself. He acknowledges that there are some experiences which can never be completely encapsulated by words, ‘enlightenment is ungraspable’, and ‘cannot be known by those who study words’, and yet he also fully embraces language and scripture as a way of conveying the truth of existence, the realization of enlightenment.
Dogen deals with this paradox in his writing by employing a particular kind of word play and a style that he terms ‘intimate language’. We can see this in his beautiful poem ‘worship’:
A snowy heron
on the snowfield
where winter grass is unseen
in its own figure.
In the poem, the heron arrives in the mind of the reader only to be quickly subsumed by the whiteness of snowfield around it. It is here and then it is gone, before the reader has had a chance to wrap their imagination around its presence. It leaves an imprint, a longing, a taste of absence.
The poem itself is so brief; the words themselves arise and then return, almost immediately, to the blank page. When reading the poem, the mouth wants to continue but the words run out too quickly leaving a visceral sense of loss. The heron returns to the snow, the page to whiteness and the words to silence. Yet, for me, there is also a sense of comfort at the end of the poem: the soothing quiet of a snowy morning and a realisation that whatever arises – images, sounds, thoughts or life itself – will always return to that from which it came.
As I read, I find that the language in the poem camouflages itself, like a white heron in the field of snow. What remains after the reading is the trace of physical feeling. Dogen has used language to evoke immediate somatic response and give a felt sense of that which is beyond words.
He uses similar techniques in his teachings. His words have a visceral impact on the body and can leave you feeling as though you have been spun around at high speed until incapable of telling the ground from the sky…
‘When the sky flies away, the bird flies away. When the bird flies away, the sky flies away.’
His teachings double back on themselves, seeming to say one thing and then saying another. He embraces paradox without seeking to resolve the dissonance he has created.
‘Walking forward does not obstruct walking backward. Walking backward does not obstruct walking forward. This is called the mountain’s flow and the flowing mountains.’
Reading Dogen can leave you perplexed and almost physically dizzy; the words seem simple and yet the meaning is hard to grasp, somehow seeming to float just beyond the reach of the rational mind. It is this state of confusion and dislocation that we may get a fleeting sensation of boundaries dissolving. Of course, this is exactly the essence of the teaching of non-duality: the dissolution of the boundary between self and other. ‘Great enlightenment right at this moment is not self, not other’.
Although we may feel that the ground has been taken out from beneath our feet, we must recognise that we are present and alive in the moment: we are, after all, actively reading the words. Thus the words both cut us free and hold us. There is a sense that even when we have lost all of the signposts that usually locate us in the world, we are still held by something greater: by the immutable ground of being.
When we receive the direct transmission of felt sensation from a text, we feel the pull of connection. Language that conveys a somatic experience from the one body to another offers a direct taste of non-duality: the realization that ‘one mind is all things, all things are one mind’. It conveys the felt sensation of inter-connection.
Both Dogen and the patient who had lost her words accomplish this by leaving some things unsaid. Neither is able to completely pin down what they want to describe, and yet both convey the immediate essence of an experience. They achieve a form of direct communication, perhaps what Derrida speaks of when he says “I always dream of a pen that would be a syringe” : the transference of emotion from one body to another through words.
According to Dogen this is achieved by coming back to the body and to the present moment, ‘you bring forth sutras [scriptures] by cracking open the world of phenomena’. We too might find our best form of expression when we have fewer words in our heads, when we focus on the bodily sensation of emotion rather than continually trying to pin down the ‘right’ description. We must constantly remind ourselves to let loose the chattering words in our heads and return, over and over, to the body.
When I am struggling to find the right words, I often find that the best thing I can do is to take time to clear my mind, to actually turn away from language for a while. I try to notice words as they arise and then allow them to float away like falling leaves. I trust that they will return to the ground of being, to the subconscious, and will arise again as new ideas when the time is right.