The Connection Between Language and Suffering – One Part

As a physician, one of my primary charges is to try to minimize people’s pain and suffering. Being both a pragmatist and a generalist, my tools are quite wide-ranging so it was with some interest that I learned about the connection between language and suffering. There are many levels of this. Here is one part.

Some of the world’s greatest sages, including the Buddha, have noted that much of the misery of the human species can be traced to a misuse of language. It seems that not all of our pains come from the body. To use a computer analogy, much of our woe comes from the software. Their idea is that a surprising amount of suffering results from the misuse of words and thus misapprehending our ordinary work-a-day reality. Specifically, it is the naïve and inappropriate presumption that words refer to independent entities and there aren’t any! Independence is an artifact of language.

Let’s back up and see how this can be. First, notice that everything depends on other things. For instance, there is not a single thing in this room, including me, or outside my window, that came into being without depending on something else. The book depends on paper and ink. The light depends on electricity. The earth depends on the sun and gravity and so on ad infinitum. Strange isn’t it? We tend to think that the world is populated with separate things that interact. But things are not ultimately separate. Separateness is an illusion caused and propagated by language. No wonder we have some problems. The map doesn’t fit the territory.

This language mismatch that posits, by default, the separateness of things is taken as normal. We don’t generally think about the interconnectedness of all things, because thought itself is made from words – the very source of the dilemma. I imagine similar confusion arising a few hundred years ago when we discovered, to our genuine disbelief, that the earth spins around a stationary sun even though it looks, with absolute certainty, like the sun moves across the sky. It took a hundred years for the average person to incorporate the new knowledge in their world view. This language issue, this software mismatch, may be of similar magnitude.

Take the word “tree” for example. Like all words, it doesn’t refer to an independent “thing” — even though it seems to. Trees depend on leaves, and branches and air and sunlight and so on. They are not independent entities (i.e. dependency renders independence moot). But here is the catch: the parts themselves, like the leaves and roots, are also composites and hence dependent on other “things.” Independent entities are nowhere in sight. Words are merely convenient and useful designations that refer to clusters of inter-dependent parts. They function like cleavers to hack off useable chunks of reality while concealing their provisional and somewhat arbitrary nature. In the roaring tumult of conversation, we overlook the totality. The word tree is merely an abbreviated way of saying: leaves-branches-roots-trunk-green-living-etc. that appears on the hillside in a lollipop shape. Yet, we live our lives as if words referred to real things. All nouns are like this: useful, true on a nominal level, but ultimately misleading. They don’t have any ontological purchase on the (so-called) things in this world. They cannot reach the ground of existence, if indeed such a ground exists.

A classic literary example of this conundrum regards the dismantling of a carriage because a merchant wanted to purchase only the carriage, not anything else. The story goes that, despite very careful examination of each disassembled piece, no one could find the carriage. It wasn’t to be found in the wheel. It wasn’t to be found in the frame. It wasn’t to be found in the axle. It just couldn’t be found because it only existed in language. There is no carriage apart from the parts. And so it goes. We regard as real whatever can be named, yet paradoxically and ironically, whatever can be named cannot be found beyond the conventions of naming. It isn’t a difficult idea, just profoundly counter intuitive. It looks as though the sun moves across the sky – it looks as though words refer to real entities.

Clearly, words function very well. They are wonderfully, almost miraculously, useful. But we don’t think about the tool much, we just use it. Words are handles or handholds that we grab, but they are unable to vouchsafe a substantial reality beyond that function. It can become a problem when we believe that the world is exactly as we say it is (or believe it is).

When words reach beyond their grasp they can cause havoc – societal and personal. Emboldened with an inappropriate reach of language, we may feel justified in any number of proclamations, justifications, intolerances, subjugations and faulty thinking because we think we know the ways things are. But things aren’t! At best, words present a nominal and conventional perspective on a situation, but they cannot faithfully capture any objective reality. There really is no entity tree, nor leaf. Look as we may, we can’t find the entity itself because it is always hooked to (dependent on) something else. Entification or, say “thing”-ification, misses the mark. Every day, with every utterance, with each thought, we are unwittingly casting upon ourselves a hypnotizing spell that enchants us into a metaphysical position that is ultimately untenable. We are constructing a strictly nominal reality which may useful, but always limited, because the map will never be the territory. For those people disposed towards imposing their version of reality on others, (who may have a different perspective), it can become a source of unimaginable woe. Dogmatic religion is a good example.

Returning to the personal, we can see that our bodies are like the carriage example I mentioned above. The word body, like the word carriage, is useful, of course. But it is also misleading. The body like everything else depends on other things: air, water, mental states, food, friendly bacteria, temperature, gravity and so on. So when we say “my body is sick’ (or “I am sick”), it is only true on one level because the body expands to greater or lesser extents into and throughout the environment. The illness might in fact be poor water, or bad food or radiation. Our environment may be ill and the body merely manifests the symptom. We can no longer think in terms of man vs. nature. We are nature – ultimately there is no separation — anywhere. Language, while true in conventional ways, has betrayed us on a deep and fundamental level and we vote every time we speak.

Hopefully, insight and understanding of the limitations of language can help us live more organically, more co-operatively. It may diminish some of our societal suffering by recognizing the limitations of the literal. Every (non) thing depends on circumstance and context. Ironically, it was a misplaced sense of independence that caused the bondage in the first place — a sense that had its origins in language. Transfixed by thought, we became convinced of the possibility of independence, yet it has never been found by anyone. Every molecule in the known universe is dependent on something else – even if it were just the observer. We can’t repair language because of the structural limitations of words. They will, to some degree, always be reifying. But we can learn to incorporate a certain amount of provisionality into our thought and talk. We can step down from hell-fire proclamations of certainty about the ways things are to a more modest position that reflects the perspectival limitations of language. With understanding, we might limit some of the damaging consequences of a single vision. For instance, we might more closely embrace the idea of multi-causality. If things are co-dependent, then so too are causes. The streptococcus does not cause the sore throat. It is the confluence of the strep with genetics, and perhaps poor diet and in adequate sleep and overwork and so on. This kind of reorientation is very achievable but requires a greater contextual sensitivity. We can, at last, feel embraced by manifestation and not at odds with it. We can act in ways that reflect the understanding of the co-dependency of all things even if that can’t be said.

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