Words and meaning

Communication between people defines us as social beings; all our senses are employed in the act of establishing contact and sharing information with others. Ordinarily, our senses work in concert with each other, creating a synesthetic blend of information from which we continuously convey and receive impressions of momentary experience.

The creation of phonetic language in written form transformed our sensory blend, vision dominating our sensory experience above all others. As Marshall McLuhan observed, we developed an “eye for an ear” — reading words replaced hearing them. The press technology of printed phonetic writing further deepened dependency on vision, and extended its orderly, linear and reproducible qualities across all social and cultural boundaries in all disciplines. Understanding how the qualities of a cultural container affects all within it is essential if we are to maintain full awareness of what is happening in and around us. Conversely, a lack of understanding results in unregulated stress, impulsive behavior, a loss of identity and the confusion, terror and violence that flows from it.

It’s easy to make judgements about what we like what we and don’t and we engage that pursuit relentlessly, racing from object to object in pursuit of happiness. Fickle as we are, the objects of our attention soon bore us, and we cast our attention to finding another. Consumer society, one outcome of our social container, spares no expense in satisfying our needs for objects of attention; as we pursue we are pursued. Virtually every nook and cranny of modern life is filled with advertising calling our attention and cajoling us to spend money. Watching commercials between Spongebob cartoons on Nickelodeon with my granddaughter Isabelle provides an opportunity to explain the purpose and meaning of advertising and how it is intended to work. Alas, such explanations are too rarely provided; the nature of an impulsive consumer society is entirely dependent upon lack of awareness. We are trained to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

Ironically, each of us is behind the curtain. The words we use have outer, inner and secret meaning. The outer meaning is what we call “obvious,” which is to say conventionally accepted terminology designating an object, experience or feeling. Called “objective reality” it is analogous to printed words on a page, instructions presented in a sequential linear order. Operationally, outer meaning forms the basis of work-a-day society.

The inner meaning is not as easily communicated; inner meaning is synesthetic and feeling-based, essentially indescribable using words only. Called “subjective experience” it is analogous to witnessing a live performance. Gesture, movement, intonation, volume, cadence and pitch are variously employed with speech to convey inner meaning, and from these emerge art, dance, song and the skills of oratory.

Finally, secret meaning resides deeply and forever within; there is no analogy except mystery. This is the veiled world of symbol and imagination, the realm of the subconscious and the collective unconscious. It manifests in dreams and comprises the formative illusion of reality we project upon waking life.

This is a description only, not a hierarchy of values. Outer, inner and secret meaning are all valid and necessary. What is important, however, is that these simultaneous realms of experience together constitute the totality of being fully human. Realization of this unity moment-to-moment is what lamas, alchemists and sages have called “the great work,” illumination, and enlightenment.

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