One of the first things I heard at University was that “the English language is organic”, although it took me many years to truly understand what the lecturer meant. Our language lives, breathes and adapts itself to new situations. What he didn’t teach was that when we learn to master this language, we can master our lives and master our reality.
A common misperception is that the Bible begins with the phrase “in the beginning was the word”, when that phrase appears at the start of The Gospel of John (1:1). The Hebrew Bible introduces “in the beginning…there was chaos and confusion” (Genesis 1:1). Rather it is the final book, Deuteronomy, whose Hebrew name Devarim means ‘words’. A more accurate phrasing to the mis-quoters might be; in the beginning was chaos and in the end was words. The value of these words is that they provide structure and containment to hold the chaos.
Words are energy-forms, vessels for communication and repositories for experience. George Steiner pointed out in Language and Silence that when the German word for ‘vermin’ was used instead of ‘Jew’, that part of the German language was forever compromised. The words Arbeit Macht Frei, ‘work leads to freedom’ will be endlessly associated with the sign at the gate to Auschwitz, and those words are irrevocably sullied.
What do you want to create with your words? Do you use your words with emphasis, intention, consciousness and mindfulness?
Living in Los Angeles is a profoundly rich experience but linguistic challenges regularly present themselves. I’ve long questioned the devaluation of the word ‘awesome’ which can be applied upon seeing an incredible awe-inspiring mountain range or a new pair of shoelaces (“New shoelaces? Awesome!). Recently I lamented that people here ask “how are you?” without stopping or caring to hear your answer, but then I discovered on a recent trip to England that the latest pervasive verbal flab is the phrase “you alright?”. Barely disguised as a question, the “you alright?” almost sounds like a statement, “you are alright”, as if the answer is unnecessary.
Apparently there is no linguistic immunity on either side of the Atlantic. How does it make you feel when someone truly cares about your welfare, as opposed to a meaningless ‘how are you?’? If you were to use your words in a way that will really touch other people, what sorts of results could you create?
In Hebrew, the word for word, Davar, is also a word for thing. In Deuteronomy 1:1, the word Devarim (plural) means ‘words’ but it also refers to places where a growth experience took happened(1). Elsewhere these words create can create a Divine contract (brit) and they can also create reality (e.g. ‘God said: “Let there be light, and there was light”)(2).
There is a deeper level about how we use words inside our head. When an event occurs in our life such as somebody insulting us, we can choose to make it mean something; “he is awful”, “I am awful”, “life is hopeless”, “I am hopeless”, or we can choose to make it mean nothing other than somebody said some words. We create our entire reality based on words. If we can master the language we use inside our heads, we have the power to change reality on the outside.
One of the practices I have been working on recently is to become keenly aware of the effect my words have on others. There is a paradox in this as we negotiate the shift between speaking and listening, to listen as we speak and to carefully notice how our language is ‘landing’ with our fellow conversationalist.
The energy of the coming days is upon healing through words. Tuesday marks the low-point of the Hebrew calendar with Tisha B’Av, the commemoration of the Jerusalem Temple that was destroyed through hateful speech. Whatever our background, culture or language, we can respect words for what they are; living organisms which can hurt, heal, destroy, or rebuild build. The choice is on your lips.
By the way, how are you?
HOW TO USE THIS IN THE BOARDROOM: Where are you not being true to your word in your business? Where have you or your company made verbal commitments and not followed through on them?
HOW TO USE THIS ON THE MEDITATION CUSHION: Use your meditation to tap into stillness, silence and what is. Become carefully aware of sensations and allow them to just stay as sensations – not translating them into words. Explore how meditation can take you beyond language and into a space of the Infinite.
HOW TO USE THIS ON THE YOGA MAT: Become aware of the stories you are telling yourself about your body – “I am not flexible”, “my backbend isn’t good”, “my legs are too short” – and allow yourself just to be. Imagine yourself as a whole, perfect, a complete creation of God, and try to operate from that place. Don’t limit yourself with your words, but use words carefully to experience tremendous freedom.
Based on Parshat Devarim, and prepration for Tisha B’Av.
(1) Rashi ad loc on Deuteronomy 1:1: ‘Devarim’ refers to the 42 places where the Children of Israel were rebuked along the way to Israel: the 42 opportunities for elevating and refining their spirit and practice.
(2) Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks refers to this as a ‘performative utterance’, because the word itself creates the reality.