HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated November 27, 2011
The best things can’t be told. The second best are misunderstood. The third best is conversation, political life, economics and all that. – Heinrich Zimmer (writer, Indologist)
Now that seems like a pretty limiting mindset to have as I write this article on a rainy Tuesday morning. It looks like I am already stating an excuse, or even a judgment on what I am going to be writing about, right at the outset. The very tools a writer uses to write are, of course, words, and the quote above suggests that the very use of words means I am limiting myself with regard to my subject, and worse, the substance of what I wish to express.
And Zimmer is probably correct. The truly great experiences we go through in our lives cannot be captured by words. They are just way too complex, and open-ended. Any attempt will leave us blank, speechless and incoherent and the whole endeavor of trying to write about the best things reduces our work to the second best, which exposes us to being misunderstood, misinterpreted and dismissed as crazy, if we follow what the above quote is suggesting.
And so, to be a good writer and have a good following, we must stick to the “third best thing.” Perhaps. But it does not mean writers do not try to go for the best things. Like Icarus who flew to the sun and saw his wings melt, many writers continue to try. But even when they seem to succeed in describing what they see, Zimmer is suggesting that their attempted flight will never be high enough to really get intimate and describe fully what they see.
And just what are these ‘best things’ that Zimmer refers to? Joseph Campbell, a mythologist and a good friend of Zimmer, ventures that these topics are those that touch the very core of human experience.
God, the Divine, being Awake in the deepest sense such as the attainment of Enlightenment, kensho, satori in Zen experience or other spiritual contexts are just some of them.
One of the first things I learned in Philosophy when I was in college is that language is probably one of man’s earliest technological inventions. He needed to establish some kind of aural references to things to be able to communicate them to his fellow humans. He needed some commonality to reach out to other beings. Thus words were invented. From grunts, to words, to sentences, to syntax to paragraphs, to elaborate speeches with their rules about grammar, man has been able to communicate ever greater chunks of what he has experienced.
But just as man’s experience of reality has made him create words to share what he is going through, it is also true that the use of words, or even speech itself has created new experiences that have defined reality for him. Words are not objective descriptions all the time.
Words are contextual, loaded with meaning and so the use of them also creates meanings and contexts as they describe objectively what is being seen. For example, the word snow may have different emotional, affective meanings to someone who lives in the tundra where it is abundant, and to someone who lives in the desert.
Languages are like operating systems of computers that attempt to make sense of the objective world. Some languages seem more scientific, while some are better at romance or at being personal. Some are seemingly cold and objective while some are more emotional. Each one has its own nuances and sensibility since they have their own point of view, so to speak.
Knowing the complexity of language, many mystics or explorers of the best things of various religious and spiritual practices have taken to silence, or the practice of very limited use of words. This is why many monasteries are quiet places, so that one can soak in the experience of the divine without words getting in the way.
For example, the practice of Zen focuses on ordinary experience which, in an awakened state, is always fresh and even primal. Beyond words, concepts, opinions, takes and explanations, there is only experience that is indescribable.
“Those who know don’t tell and those who tell don’t know,” is a Zen saying that cryptically tries to point this out. Because the moment we try to capture in words what we have experienced, we begin to diminish its nature and stature.
Words necessarily put experiences in neat boxes. For example, expressions and feelings of love must find commonality between giver and receiver. “Only that in you which is me can hear what I’m saying,” said the philosopher Baba Ram Dass. Therefore, more often than not, to be understood means to express love in the clichés found in Halllmark cards.
So what’s the message in all this?
It is a paradox that those who speak the truth end up ‘lying’ since to start with, the very attempt to speak about what cannot be defined, captured or talked about is already some sort of misrepresentation.
That’s why the word “paradox” was invented to capture what seem to be two conflicting realities that, when put together, present a higher truth.
And yet the compulsion that seizes one who has experienced “the best things” is to talk about it and spread the word. And to speak the truth about the experience, one must lie. To tell it like it is, one must use metaphor. To point out the inexpressible, indescribable, one must use words.
To be a writer of truth therefore is a contradiction in terms. And that’s the truthful paradox, or the paradoxical truth.
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