A Few Words About Words
Our lives are full of words.
Written or spoken, they express our thoughts and feelings, our questions and insights. When we share our stories with other people, we use words to do it.
Many of us find it hard to trust ideas or experiences we cannot put into words. When we try to understand something we struggle to find the exact word to explain it. The conversation within our own heads is a verbal one.
The rest of us, for whom verbiage is not our primarily means of expression, have a hard time. Those of us who experience life through colors or music, for example, must deal with a constant verbal torrent.
It is particularly difficult for us to express spiritual life through speaking or writing. We try to talk about something we have experienced and find there is no word for it.
When we look to rely on ancient descriptions of spiritual experiences they do not help us. Many of the analogies we find were written from a context which no longer exists. They require skillful attention to explore and are a challenge to understand.
Some of our difficulty is more than shifting contexts. For many of us, spiritual life can be too deep for words.
We experience spiritual life in ways which are beyond our ability to talk or write about them.
Listening to sacred stillness can be the most effective way for us to experience spiritual life. We may be unable to share spiritual experiences other than through contemplative listening.
How do we explain things, or even share stories about them, which are too deep for words? Are there ways for us to understand and communicate about spiritual life which are not limited to words?
Can we trust insights which we are not able to communicate verbally?
When Words Fail Us
For many of us spiritual life carries us back to a time before we were so verbal. We begin to question the words we use most often to write or talk about spiritual life.
For example, many of us assume we have a clear understanding of what our words mean. When we say we “believe” something, we think we know what we are saying.
What do we mean when we say we believe something?
Many of us understand believing as a primarily analytical act. We have thought about an idea, weighed the options, and think we know our own perspective. Some of us are familiar with an approach to belief of, “God says it, I believe it, that settles it.”
We may look at believing something as our final answer, a commitment to an intellectual position. Once we decide what we believe, we stop exploring and begin defending what we believe.
My experiences with contemplative practices show me a different aspect of belief.
I understand belief as more of a place to begin rather than a firm, final stance. Spiritual life, for me, is not a military exercise. We are not opposing forces struggling to defend our positions in a war of attrition.
Belief is not about lobbing words at each other trying to shake each other loose. Spiritual life is not a debate or a military campaign.
My understanding of the word “belief” has fewer hard edges than it used to have. Words are often not enough to express what I believe.
Spending time reflecting in contemplation is like chewing on ideas. I digest what I read and hear, peeling away the layers to get at the spiritual nutrients.
We clear away the words to to find the meaning within them.
Listening Beyond Words
Some of us assume contemplative practices to are about sitting still. We know we need to sit down, take a deep breath, and listen beyond thoughts, words, and feeling. Many of us believe we need to clear our minds of distractions. We can become frustrated when we get caught up in something and need to return to our word.
Our contemplative practices, though, are not about avoiding mistakes or distractions.
We are practicing being open to spiritual life. When we are praying we are open to our own consent to the presence and action of spiritual life within us.
Spiritual life is not something elusive or ethereal. We do not need to listen to sacred stillness because spiritual life has a weak signal.
Words and thoughts and feelings can distract us from what spiritual life is trying to tell us. We are so accustomed to listening to all the words and they distract us from what is significant.
Our minds work to analyze and organize the words which are streaming toward us. The challenge for us is to relax our grip and our need to control.
We practice getting out of spiritual life’s way in our own lives.
Too Deep for Words
We listen to sacred stillness to hear the meaning within and underneath the words.
It is easy for us to lose track as the verbal flood washes over us. We are challenged to pay attention as the words, other people’s as well as our own, saturate our lives.
Listening to sacred stillness is a practice through which we learn to appreciate meaning. We take time to contemplate the meaning which flows within the verbal flood.
It is not enough for us to merely dissect what people say, or what we tell ourselves. Spiritual life lives in the meaning within and beneath our words.
We practice listening to stillness as a way to get beyond the noises on the surface. There is meaning waiting for us in the depths of stillness.
Our lives are full of distractions designed to get and hold our attention. Each shiny object diverts us from recognizing the meaning in the stillness.
A contemplative practice helps us get past the words and listen for meaning.
When will we take time to be free of words today?
How will we practice catching our breath in the torrent of words this week?
[Image by Nina Childish]
Greg Richardson is a spiritual life mentor and coach in Southern California. He is a recovering attorney and a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s website is StrategicMonk.com and his email address is StrategicMonk@gmail.com.