When we pay attention, we confront the most common threads in the tapestry of our defensive illusion - words. Understanding and experiencing the pattern of thinking, talking, ideas and beliefs is a large part of Zen practice and feeling therapy.
What are words?
Right now, you are reading a collection of shapes, which we call letters, in groups called words. The material is called paper and is the crushed bodies of living things we call trees. The letters are made of a dark liquid called ink that is pressed onto the paper.
Letters. Words. Paper. Trees. Ink.
Printed words on paper are shapes that represent sounds. These sounds represent things, actions, feelings, ideas and situations in our world.
The Limitation of Words
Words are simple labels. The sound "apple" is not remotely like the thing which is called an apple. The word "apple," spoken or written, doesn't look like an apple, sound like an apple, smell like an apple, act like an apple or feel like an apple. A sign that is a painted representation of an apple is not an apple. If you chewed on the sign, it would not taste like an apple. It is a symbol, a sign that may, for instance, direct you to the farm where these things called apples grow.
Words are meant to direct. Although they are classed as "communication," or an act of sharing from person to person, words cannot give the experience of that which they symbolize. If you only talk or read about eating, you will eventually starve. If I say the word "apple," it may trigger various mental sensations based on your memories of apples, but they will be your memories, not mine. I have not in any substantial way given you my experience. My words can only direct you to experience, like a pointing finger. If you had never tasted an apple, no amount of words could actually give you its taste. The words can only direct you to taste it yourself.
The Danger of Words
Words are useful symbols, like signs and maps. Excess thinking and talking, however, crowds out the rich simplicity of experience. For various reasons, we humans think and talk so much that we are virtually drowning in words. We have come to feel that words and thoughts, and the images they trigger, are the experience that the words represent. It is as if we are so engrossed in the map of a beautiful park that we never actually go there. We have chosen the little paper symbol, the map, instead of the beauty and depth of the land itself.
The Idolatry of Words and Concepts
We have forgotten that words are just words. We worship them as being the actual things they represent. We also worship concepts, or large groups of words gathered together to explain something apparently more complicated. No concept is the thing it describes any more than a word is. To worship a word, a concept, or an explanation of anything is idolatry. It is the act of living and dying over words - grunts, groans, and shapes on paper. The most extreme examples of this are religions, belief systems, and scientific theories - all of which provide complex explanations of the universe and how it works. Consider the effects of both religion and science on our society, despite the fact that neither institution has hard facts or evidence to definitively prove its claims. It is important to examine the degree to which we worship the explanations (the words) rather than the reality they represent. The universe cannot be contained in mere words, any more than the nourishment of an apple can be contained in its name.
The Key to Using Words
It is our challenge to be aware (as we think, talk, read or listen) that we are only using words - that they have limits. What they leave out is as important as what they say. When I call something an "apple" or "the universe," I am aware that it is only a name, an arbitrary tag or label for something that is indescribable. It is not an apple or the universe - it is beyond any limitations that words and ideas set. However, in order to direct or indicate that either an "apple" or "universe" are something to consider, a pointing finger, grunt, or word will have to do. Myths and belief systems, whether scientific or religious, are just masses of words and are best treated the same way. Be aware that every explanation is only an explanation - only words, which, by their nature, are inadequate. No one, not even Jesus or Buddha, can use words in a way that can surpass their limitation.