Levels of Silence and Conscious Abstraction: Where Language Meets Mindfulness
Practicing mindfulness suggests attention towards elementary sensory experience in the present moment.
Quite often we imply that being verbally silent is the ideal setting for practicing mindfulness.
However, there is something very important, and not less primary than observing the body-mind in this practice.
As Steven Hawking’s voice hypnotically reminded us in one of Pink Floyd’s gorgeous tracks:
“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk … (and we learned to listen.)”
First time I heard about mindfulness 12 years ago, I was a student of theoretical linguistics department. This was nothing close to meditation or spiritual discipline. In fact, it was a lecture on General Semantics.
Today it seems anything but “linguistic” to me, and in fact, relates directly to the developing mindfulness.
We speak neurology
Semantics studies the meaning of words and thus is thought to be a part of linguistics. However, it’s a huge and fascinating field, reverberating in many other areas.
If you think about a “word” as a separate unit, you will see it can only seem “separate” in the dictionary. Once it is taken out of the dictionary into a written or especially live speech it becomes something else. Its meaning changes, expands, contracts becomes nuanced or generalized …sometimes it vanishes completely.
Moreover, once it is vocalized, the word becomes inclusive of your present experience, i.e., your body, senses, and even the listener.
As opposed to what it is in the dictionary, even the simplest “Yes” can become vast because of the tons of contextual information, which goes with it. This is indeed when less is more.
General semantics studies the total mind-body neurology included in our language.
Alfred Korzybski, the founder of general semantics, said that the main reason why he started it was the so-called “time — binding” aspect of language, which is a fundamental human capacity to pass on information in time, from generation to generation (1948).
Being also a brilliant engineer Korzybski was posing a question: why is this that structures built according to the mathematical descriptions and sketches, made by engineers, endure for ages. And in case they collapse the errors can be easily identified.
While other types of “man-made systems” which rely on language including human relations, can fall apart very quickly or become extremely complicated and traumatic within the time span of one conversation.
And the “errors” are often impossible to trace back.
It leads to an uncomfortable realization that the language we use to interact and reach out to each other is much less efficient than the language of mathematics and geometry. Math passes over a neurophysiological aspect.
Indeed lines and figures don’t include senses, past experiences, intonations and personal evaluation of whatever they are conveying.
Human language is vice versa 100 % “neuro — semantic”.
Map is not the territory
For ages, humans have been demonstrating that despite our awesome brain potential, we don’t take advantage of it most of the time.
Our language as a response to what we perceive is intimately defined by our nervous system.
However, we continue ignoring this understanding and often rely on the high — level (almost vocabulary) meaning of the words when talking and listening to each other.
The basic postulate of General Semantics, which was later exploited by a couple of other adjacent fields including psychotherapy: The map is not a territory.
Indeed map only depicts a limited number of objects and details of routes, and not necessarily reflects all the relationships between them, the atmosphere of the territory, the nuances that we explore when we are at the new place.
The map is also an offshoot of human imagination, and personal perspective, i.e., a map — maker decides the features to include, the purpose of the map, and the scale of it.
Map is only an abstraction, but if it is correct, it has a structure similar to a territory and fulfils its purpose.
General semantics transfers this analogy to language. Our language behaviour can be thought of as a map of our experience. And our verbal expression of what we think and feel should reflect the” true territory” of this actuality as near as possible because sometimes these maps last long….
Taking into account our neurophysiology and the enormous amount of information we receive from our senses before we speak, a pre-verbal level of our experience is already a neurological “snapshot” delivered to us by our brain in the most affordable abstraction.
This snapshot represents only a fraction of “what is going on” and is largely defined by our “cognitive repertoire,” i.e., things we already know and have a reference to.
All sensory data that we receive is only available to us after our nervous system recognises it and finds a word (or a label) for it.
Then the words we choose to express our “contact with the world” are the next level of portraying the present moment.
When verbally articulating our feelings and thoughts we are, basically, extracting another map out of the “neuro” — map. Furthermore, abstracting on the level of words by nature involves evaluation (conscious or not).
With that said — what we put into words is an abstraction of what our brain registers as an experience, which is also an abstraction of our initial sensory input, which is also NOT THE SAME as the actual event.
Abstracting is a natural process of our body-mind system.
General Semantics teaches how to be conscious of several levels of abstracting with verbal being the final one.
Levels of silence and neuro — delay
Neuro — evaluation of what we see, hear, sense happens in the instant before it triggers any response (including speech).
Korzybski was meticulous in studying human neurophysiology and described several levels of this instant neuro — evaluation, i.e., several consecutive levels of “abstraction”: first on psycho –chemical nervous level, then on the level of body reaction or feeling, and only then the verbal level. Preceding the last verbal level are the levels of silence.
Being mindful about how we speak and listen means “prolonging” these unspeakable levels of silence.
Alfred Korzybski called it a” beneficial neurological ‘delay,” which is basically a skill to internally “mastermind” our verbal reactions.
Although General Semantics’ core concern is language behavior, its main emphasis is on our non- verbal behavior before we speak.
Lots of attention here is being given to the fact that our reactions are not less physiological than psychological.
Not being able to acknowledge the physiology of language often leads to highly chaotic communication.
What Buddhist tradition calls “bare attention,” or simple registering of the facts without giving them our opinions should often be reflected in our language.
Talking about prolongation of non — verbal reaction, Korzybski underlined that being silent on the level of senses, or the level when there are no words appearing in our heads yet, is the only way when we are able to treat each situation as new.
It’s at the preverbal level of our communication that we can hear others and ourselves, make ourselves available and “to allow what is needed.”
Sensory awareness in our language
Charlotte Schuchardt, a linguist who was working along with Korzybski and provided unprecedented accuracy and wealth of insight to this knowledge wrote: “One of the important principles of General Semantics is to observe and be in touch with what goes on, and to realise that we all have to abstract, because we are humans, but let’s bring our higher abstractions down to earth and see if they fit this particular situation, that we are in” (1999).
She was working more on the sensory awareness aspect of General Semantics and how we include our senses into our verbal speech. “We all have built up habits over the years … but to allow what we feel is needed — this is a big thing… We need to be interested — How can I meet this situation better? … And to allow what is needed. Do we need more air? Do we need more keen observation? Do we need more silence?”(1999).
… we all have to abstract, because we are humans
Indeed we don’t separate thinking from feeling- we evaluate with our whole body.
Once we have something in our head — it is a state of the whole organism and how it functions. Being aware of the words we use and the structures we speak can help us be aware of the “structure” of what and how we are experiencing.
Observing our sensory awareness within the context of speaking will not only give us an understanding of how much sensory data we are cutting off when we “pronounce” even our least significant experiences, but it will also refine our observational acuity…
Try looking at something very simple in front of you.
Look at it without words.
How fast the words come in response to what you are looking at? Notice how these words abstract your experience of looking?
Try it with touching.
Put your fingers on your clothes.
Notice your sensations. Is there any word for it?
What meanings are you willing to convey through words to let somebody know how your fingers feel?
Notice how you are inclined to “label” what is hardly describable?
Imagine you have a magnifying glass for all your senses. Eyes, touch, sound … how many more details are there in each of your most simple experiences? How and why you are prioritising one detail over the other?
Notice how many details are NOT in your maps without this magnifying glass — both sensory and verbal…
Notice how what you describe is NOT what you sense.
Identification and Bypassing
Most of the time we are not conscious of how our verbal maps are being born. General Semantics outlines two basic deviations in our language behaviour connected with this: identification and bypassing.
The experiences of what we are receiving through our human neurology are unique.
And even though what we receive is already “edited” by our organism, how we put it into words “reduces” it even more.
“Identification” is basically a “failure” to discern the gap between the sensory experience and the verbalisation of it.
Or “whatever we may say something ‘is’ obviously is not the ‘something’ on the silent levels” as Korzybski put it (1948).
The main idea here is that each minute we experience an abstraction of something else.
“Bypassing” is when we are focusing on the message instead of a person.
As if words had their own meanings.
We forget that the verbalization of one’s experience is only a “map” and it has no definite way of interpretation. Bypassing is also assuming that what one is speaking and what the other is hearing is directly equivalent.
Our verbal maps would serve us better and not destroy us, if we were conscious of these two “features” of our language behavior, especially when we engage in some emotional conversations.
When Maps are Messed up
Every day we are “drawing maps of our territories” by expressing ourselves through language.
Look at how many distortions happen at the level of our maps when we don’t pay enough attention to where our responses come from.
Maps without Territories
Every day we produce numerous so-called “maps without territories.”
These maps represent our process of self –talk and accidental hijacking of our brain by emotions when the mind starts producing monologues that refer to emotions only and have “no territory” of the actual event.
Old Maps new Territories
We have a tremendous tendency to apply “old maps” to the new territories…General Semantics views these cases as distortion in time and space, which any normal human demonstrates in varying degrees.
When unconsciously using an old map for the new territory we diminish our observational sensitivity by finding an old pattern of thinking and the “relevant” body-mind (and hence verbal) reaction in response to the new scenery.
Unconscious of reacting to a new event as if it had the same quality as the situation from the past we create a loop where the whole new experience is defined by “an old map.”
Making silent levels consciously observed (or provoking neurological delay), we give ourselves space to feel the ambiance of a new experience, recognize it and consequently “ask” for a different resolution within us, or a new map.
We distort other peoples’ maps by assuming more than listening.
We adopt other peoples’ maps by copying someone’s language without any insight into the “territory” of their experience but because we like the language and apply it offhand to our own unknown territories. This is especially true when we speak or listen about experiences that are not physically observable.
We get lost in each others’ maps. We go 180 degrees in two different directions while sitting at the same table and talking in front of each other.
An interesting observation was made in some Neuro — Linguistic Programming exercises utilising “map — territory” principle, that indeed when two people have very different “maps” (read: “understanding, way of thinking”) for “the same territory”, it is very unlikely that they will meet, even physically.
This is yet another way of looking at why our paths meet or diverge during lifetimes.
Although many of the outlooks Korzybski laid out provoked initial ambivalence at that time and couldn’t be appreciated broadly, later the Gestalt Therapy’s principles were built on it.
Today as people become more interested in conscious living, mindfulness is a part of our culture.
And yet the exquisiteness of thought, which permeates all the work of General Semantics, even today brings lots of subtle understandings of our nature in the pursuit to become mindful and more intimate with ourselves.
Many important conversations between us happen without words, but when words are inevitable — let’s prolong the silence before we speak.
Let’s appreciate our human nature of abstracting and learn how to listen to the NEW experiences that are wanting to come through when we are talking to each other…
Even a millisecond can change the world … and some words endure with us forever …