The inconceivable lightness of being

People think in words, but the world is not words. Language is an expedient method to describe reality using words in an attempt to communicate what we or others actually experience, but it never quite suffices. Life has an ineffable quality that’s hard to pin down. Try describing the color blue.

When it comes to animals, of course, human language is mostly useless. When we talk dogs bark and gesture, cats may or may not respond, and birds appear to care even less about what we have to say. Thus, the internal life of animals largely remains a great mystery. Some scientists claim animals don’t have feelings or emotional lives remotely of the sort people have and that, like programmed robots, animals behave solely through instinct, genetics and survival mechanisms. This narrow view has led to widespread animal experiments, many of them horribly cruel and damaging.

Others researchers believe like people, animals have a full range of emotions and feelings including love, anger, loneliness, sympathy – in short internal lives of complexity and meaning. When Elephants Weep, the 1995 book by Jeffrey Masson, details a remarkably wide variety of documented animal behaviors which make sense only when viewed through the lens of emotional meaning.

Through empathy and attunement, people relate to others, associating what we observe and hear with our own personal experience. The solipsist avers that reality exists in mind alone; true or not, it’s certainly accurate to say we cannot directly enter the mind and emotions of others. Yet, our empathetic nature deeply connects us to family, friends and society. Acts of altruism, compassion and bravery highlight our positive social narratives, while selfishness, greed and cowardice are viewed negatively.

It might be interesting to be truly omniscient, completely aware of the internal feelings and thoughts of others, but I suspect full understanding of our own inner life is job enough. Our internal lives are so often veiled and hidden from ourselves that maintaining insightful self-reflection is itself a rather prodigious accomplishment.

Life can be imponderable, sometimes a confusing and mysterious metaphysical mess. At such times, thinking does not solve it, nor talking or reading. The harder I try to impose a fixed reality, the quicker it slips through my psychological fingers. If my world changes from the inside how might I know it? Is it possible to step out of one’s own mind?

On some days I’m confident and assured, satisfied the world is in order, and I along with it. As if I’ve finally mastered living, everything in its place and all my ducks in a row, I even begin to think I really know what’s going on. As I’ve grown older I’ve learned that such arrogance generally precedes a fall.

The truth of existence is inconceivable and inexpressible. Nothing we can say adequately describes it. We yearn to convey our experience of the inconceivable, doing so in words, art, dance and music. Though alone in our own intensely personal language of reality, in every instant we are the unobstructed moment-to-moment expression of the ineffable. Confused, we ironically seek to join the ineffable by attempting to confine and conceptualize it. Settling into this paradoxical realization one confronts the limits of doing. Open and relaxed, completely in the moment – not doing – one enters the inconceivable.

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