The Potency Of Words



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            IT IS AMAZING how little we know about the words that we use, and how we often speak without really understanding what we are saying. Is this because the words we use are not of our own personal crafting, but were originated by others long ago, and we just acquired most of them in our childhood, before the age when we were able to ask what they meant, etymologically? How casually we use these means of communication, and often, how unskillfully. Words are tools, the correct use of which can help us to produce masterpieces, but if used unskillfully or unwisely, can cause disaster. Merely having the tools is not enough; we must know how to use them properly. Much trouble is caused by words, intentionally or unintentionally. Much wonder is bypassed each day because we do not appreciate the beauty and import of words, and what they are capable of conveying.

            With words, we can 'press each other's buttons' that is, touch each other in countless ways; we can inspire, inform, influence, enlighten, soothe, encourage, educate, persuade, elevate, cheer, stimulate, enliven, relieve, excite, charm, and energize, provoke, sadden, tempt, discourage, bore, deceive, deflate, enrage; we can exhort, impress, entertain, pacify, incite, and so on. Words are incredibly important in our lives.

            Ask people in Australia: "How are you?" and you will probably receive the response: "Good, thanks!" Now, that's quite a claim to make, isn't it? Who dares to say he/she is good? Of course, we understand that they mean 'fine', or 'well'. Then there is the common misuse of 'can' in place of 'may', as when people ask, for example: "Can I have some more tea, please?" or "Can I go with you?" the best answer to which, of course, would be to say: I don't know: can you?"

            It is not uncommon to hear people say: "I'll do my best," or to exhort someone else to do so. After trying, and failing, to do something, we might say: "well, I did my best" and this is often an excuse or a cover-up. But, you know, we have never done our best, for the simple reason that we do not know what our best is, and we can always see how, upon looking back on something we've done, how we could have done better; there is always room for improvement and indeed, learning from our mistakes is how progress has been made throughout the ages. Therefore, to talk about 'doing our best' has no meaning.

            Most people most religious people, at least have ideals. The ideal that Hindus aim for is 'Moksha' ('Liberation from Samsara'), or 'God realization'. Christians hope for salvation from their sins, and Heaven, while Buddhists aspire to Nirvana, or Enlightenment. So, there is a dichotomy in our lives; we are caught between the actuality of 'mundane' life, and the supra-mundane ideal. This is bound to lead to frustration, but, perhaps this is necessary and unavoidable and should not always be regarded as something negative; it, too, has its purpose and leads to many breakthroughs, as artists, scientists, inventors, and creators in any field would probably aver (and frustration is deliberately cultivated by practitioners of Zen in order to 'bring the pot to the boil', as it were). Frustration is seldom a pleasant thing, being something that will not permit our minds to be at ease; but if, after many attempts and failures to achieve something, we finally succeed, we might look back on the whole process and recognize that frustration had a part to play in it, and indeed, might have validated it all; for if we were to succeed in whatever we did at first try, without ever knowing failure, success would have little value to us; as it is, success can be seen as success only because of failure; so failure is also important.

            When aiming for some far off spiritual ideal that is difficult to attain we must take care not to disregard, or think lightly of, our lesser successes on the way, in case, not realizing our grand aim, we consider our lives to be failures. Holding onto narrow, fixed goals, might make us unable or unwilling to settle for anything less, or to switch to something else; this can easily result in disillusionment, lethargy, despair, or even madness.

            It is important not to try to run before we can walk, and to be happy with what we have so far achieved, for even minor achievements are part of the journey. And if you feel that you haven't achieved anything, it is a sign that you need to apply this advice. Haven't achieved anything? Is it nothing to be what you are right now? You could say that you have achieved nothing only if you have not thought about, understood, or appreciated what it means to be a human being. In this, however, you are not alone, but are surrounded, on all sides, by vast numbers of other people who have not understood, for we have not been taught, shown, or inspired to think about what it means to be alive or, if we have, it hasnít affected us very deeply. We have grown up with it, have treated it superficially, and have taken it all for granted, without question and without wonder. If we could begin to break out of this habit (for it is a habit), we might begin to understand something more of ourselves than does the average person, who is really quite ignorant and dull in this respect, even though he/she might otherwise be sophisticated and well educated.

            If we were transported to another planet where everything would probably be quite strange and different than on our own, we might be very excited and alert, noticing everything in detail, as we would expect it to be strange and different. But we have grown so used to living on our own planet that many of us notice very little about it; it no longer excites wonder in us (if it ever did!), and we behave as though we've 'seen it all, know it all, have done it all.' Have we been so overdosed that our brain cells have become stupefied, and no longer capable of wonder and appreciation? Is it the fault of our education systems worldwide, which have over-stressed the role of the teacher and the teaching, and neglected learning and discovery?

            Education has become, to many of us, merely something that equips and enables us to function in the world, and to earn a living therein, rather than a means to overcome ignorance and help us become more enlightened. But surely, we have reached the stage those of us who are fortunate enough not to live in places like Somalia or Ethiopia where life is more than just a matter of survival and the drudge of earning a living. Many people in the past have struggled, suffered, sacrificed, and died so that we might now enjoy better living and working conditions than they knew; but now that we've got them, many of us don't know what to do with them, and show our gratitude by complaining of being bored, and not knowing what to do. I imagine that the people of Somalia do not complain about being bored, when they are constantly preoccupied with trying to survive! Boredom is a rich man's disease. It is so funny how we overcome one set of obstacles and, in so doing, create another set for ourselves: Our wealth, luxury, and leisure hang upon us like chains and are not the blessing that they should be. Might this not be because we played little or no part in their creation, but merely inherited them from others? We therefore lack the appreciation that creation brings.

            I once knew someone whose husband's sickness and death led her into Dharma, but she later complained that, in spite of her 'practice,' she had never had a 'spiritual experience.' I'm sure that she's not the only one who thinks like this, and it's probably just a case of 'not being able to see the forest because of the trees.' She has concepts of what a 'spiritual experience' is or should be, and has never glimpsed that life in all its apparent 'mundanity' is one big spiritual experience, simply because we are spiritual beings, much more so than we are physical beings! But since it is not easy for us to grasp this, it necessitates a spiritual experience to see this spiritual experience, sort of like needing to be educated to be educated, or like fish in water: they would never think about water (supposing fish can think and reason about anything) while they are in it, and there is plenty of it; but if they were pulled out of it or their pond dried up, water would be the only thing they would think about!

            There is a little anecdote from India that might be pertinent here: "Where shall we hide the Truth from man?" the gods all cried when man was made. "How can we guard our secret now?" they asked each other fearfully. "If we hide it in the earth, he will dig it up; if we hide it in the mountains, he will climb them; even if we hide it in the sea, he will find it. Where shall we hide the Truth from man?"

            Quite beside themselves, they cried: "This little man will take our throne; we have made him far too smart not to claim our heaven home! Hide it in matter, he will analyze it; hide it in water, he will crystallize it. Even in Hell he will surmise it! Where shall we hide the Truth from man?"

            They thought of stars in outer space, or in the nature of a tree, but they knew that man would solve each and every mystery. "Hide it in the wind, he will pursue it; hide it in the act, he will do it. Even in the atom he will view it. Where shall we hide the Truth from man?"

            They solved the mystery of how the gods should win. The wisest said: ''Let's take the Truth and hide it deep inside of him. Hide it in his heart, he will doubt it. Hide it in his soul, he will live without it. Even if we should reveal and shout it, he won't believe the Truth is within him!"

            Many times, I have heard expatriate Vietnamese talk about going back to live in Vietnam once the communist regime there has collapsed, and it has become 'free'. Even before this longed-for event, however, some of them have been back for a visit, as Vietnam slowly opens up. Upon returning to their countries of domicile, they tell not only positive tales of how nice it was to be with family and friends there again, and how the situation there is improving, but also complain about how inefficient are things like sanitation, transportation, communication, and so on things that they were at ease with and probably didn't notice too much before their escape to the West. But now, having lived in the West for some time, and grown accustomed to conveniences like washing machines, refrigerators, private cars, etc., they find it hard to adjust to being without them. But in any age, and with any people, it is much easier to make the adjustment from not-having to having, than to make the adjustment from having to not-having. Life, however, pays little regard to our feelings and wishes, and we sometimes have to take a step backwards.

            Have you ever been to a country where no one spoke your language, and you didn't speak theirs, and where you felt terribly alone, unable to communicate, but then someone came along who spoke your language fluently, and with whom you could converse freely about anything? If so, you will probably recall how relieved you felt, to go from trying very hard to communicate by means of sign language and the few words of the local tongue you might have been able to pick up, to 'normal' speech.

            It is good for us to be in situations of deprivation and simplicity at times, as it helps us understand and appreciate the good things we have in such abundance. But, apart from just having and appreciating things that have been made by others, it would be better for our souls and self-esteem if we created something anything by ourselves, instead of merely buying everything, because even if what we make is inferior to what we might buy reasonably cheaply, we would have the satisfaction (which is a spiritual quality), of knowing that, "I made that myself." We have overemphasized the academic side of our education at the expense of the artistic, creative side, and stand in need of a re-balancing. Therefore, creativity is something that should be nurtured and encouraged in us from childhood upwards, and when children come home from school with things that they have made or drawn there, they should be praised for their efforts, and encouraged, so that they might find joy in creativity. In no way should they be ridiculed or discouraged.

            Unless and until we begin to doubt and question the standards on which society is based, we will not be able to go very far along the Way; it is necessary that we stand back, and view things from a distance, in order to see them in perspective. Most great teachers have said, in one way or another, that the road upwards is hard and narrow, while the road downwards is easy and wide. Modern society is constituted overwhelmingly on a material basis, with very little consideration for our spiritual well being, and this brings about all kinds of ill effects. I would like to quote here something pertinent from Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World Revisited" to illustrate this:

            '... modem technology has led to the concentration of economic and political power, and to the development of a society controlled (ruthlessly in the totalitarian states, politely and inconspicuously in the democracies) by Big Business and Big Government. But societies are composed of individuals and are good only insofar as they help individuals to realize their potentialities and to lead a happy and creative life. How have individuals been affected by the technological advances of recent years? Here is the answer to this question given by a philosopher psychiatrist, Dr. Erich Fromm:

            "Our contemporary Western society, in spite of its material, intellectual and political progress, is increasingly less conducive to mental health, and tends to undermine the inner security, happiness, reason and the capacity for love in the individual; it tends to turn him into an automaton who pays for his human failure with increasing mental sickness, and with despair hidden under a frantic drive for work and so-called pleasure."

            "Our 'increasing mental sickness' may find expression in neurotic symptoms. These symptoms are conspicuous and extremely distressing. But "let us beware," says Dr. Fromm, "of defining mental hygiene as the prevention of symptoms. Symptoms as such are not our enemy, but our friend; where there are symptoms there is conflict, and conflict always indicates that the forces of life which strive for integration and happiness are still fighting." The really hopeless victims of mental illness are to be found among those who appear to be most normal. "Many of them are normal because they are so well adjusted to our mode of existence, because their human voice has been silenced so early in their lives, that they do not even struggle or suffer or develop symptoms as the neurotic does." They are normal not in what may be called the absolute sense of the word; they are normal only in relation to a profoundly abnormal society. Their perfect adjustment to that abnormal society is a measure of their mental sickness. These millions of abnormally normal people, living without fuss in a society to which, if they were fully human beings, they ought not to be adjusted, still cherish "the illusion of individuality," but in fact they have been to a great extend de-individualized. Their conformity is developing into something like 'uniformity.' But "uniformity and freedom are incompatible. Uniformity and mental health are incompatible too. Man is not made to be an automaton, and if he becomes one, the basis for mental health is destroyed.

"In the course of evolution, nature has gone to endless trouble to see that every individual is unlike every other individual. We reproduce our kind by bringing the father's genes into contact with the mother's. These hereditary factors may be combined in an almost infinite number of ways. Physically and mentally, each one of us is unique. Any culture which, in the interests of efficiency or in the name of some political or religious dogma, seeks to standardize the human individual, commits an outrage against man's biological nature."

            Should we not then rejoice in being ourselves, and try to discover what it means? How terrible it would be if we were all like photocopies of some prototype!

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Last Updated on:  03/01/2001 08:04 PM