Tuesday, March 27, 2007

After Words: Retracing the Patterns of Language

After reading Language Garden, by Susanne Antonetta, in a past issue of Orion Magazine, I was reminded of one of my early heroes... whose books and articles I had read intensely before I became an adult, in those years from about 1968 to 1975.

Language Garden posits this: An orangutan with attitude meets a writer with a weakness for Shakespeare. And a writer wonders, if we give animals language, do we free them, or imprison them?

The same magazine features archived articles by Jane Goodall, famous for her work with primates, and I knew much research had been done over many years exploring their capacities and abilities to think and communicate like human beings, so I had become transfixed by this question put forth by Ms. Antonetta.

So what if one were to put forth this same question about human beings? How can children be taught ways to adopt language in ways which might improve our species, by their parents improving the methodologies by which they better communicate its meaning to them?

Furthermore, to address the central issue raised in the article, does language actually harm us more than it helps us, or does it follow that perhaps we might need to rethink how it is we indoctrinate our children - with language - to this world?

Adults themselves are already fearful, for instance, of putting their foots in their mouths; and cognitive dissonance - the uncomfortable tension that arises from holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time - in and of itself creates a type of fear.

So fear emanating from unscripted emotion... can only be perpetuated by scary thoughts - themselves borne from our words for them... in language.

An interesting article in Live Science suggests we may already possess the ability to read minds, much like clairvoyants. But what language symbols would we ascribe to whatever it is we read, if indeed this faculty actually exists?

Man had created language in order to attach signs and symbols to bits and scraps of observable phenomena commonly experienced by us the living - presumably so we could communicate in coherent ways - as signs and symbols had seemingly become necessary to his survival... and with them he'd hoped their usefulness might cause him to better adapt - or conform - within the environment he'd found himself.

Heck, our ancestors only wanted the ability to talk to each other! What could be harmful in that?

Our defenseless children needed protection and guidance. And we adults needed protection from fear - the reassurance that by our relative safety in numbers we could ensure our survival... in such a harsh bewildering environment... so full of life's mystery and wonder.

And people today are not so different from people in the Stone Age. We still need to draw from our natural world the same resources other living things need to survive - be it air, water, food or shelter, etcetera. And competition forced all living things into certain collaborative arrangements within this environment, so we could feel safe from our would-be protectors - or our predators - much like today.

[Oh how I love games of irony and wordplay! :)]

Alan Watts understood this conundrum better than most. Which is why I'd decided to select him as one of my mentors. His words resonated more truth than I could read or hear about elsewhere at that time - and I had a voracious appetite...

... For words... and their truthfulness. And for my selfish pursuit of pleasure.

Even after revisiting recently much of what I'd come to appreciate about his teachings - and learning anew so much more about the man in the process - I'm empathetic still.

Which just means I can still relate to his takes on the significance of what he taught me - about language arts - even after learning more about his heroic journey to discover meaning in this life... knowing full well what he'd learned and shared with many others beforehand.

The man was not this scholarly old gentleman - a real life guru, as I had supposed, after all; he was youthful in his spirit. In fact, he was just as flawed as I am. As you are... as we all are.

He was an iconoclast, to be sure. And an autodidactic personality. But he was also a hedonist with an extraordinarily inventive passion for breaking the bonds of conformity... within society's self-imposed boundaries.

It was said he could suck all the oxygen out of any room he entered, and he could go through a bottle of vodka, by himself, in a day. And I imagined he could command attention alright, almost at will, simply by virtue of his presence.

But he also enjoyed casual walks outside his rural compound in northern California, or cavorting in a converted old ferry tethered beside San Francisco Bay... and his time spent in quiet contemplation - contentedly alone with himself. He loved good food... gardens... and nature... women... and architecture... the finer things of what we call living.

And he made me laugh, because he just didn't buy into any convention - especially with his repetitive allusions to boxes and wigglies!

In 1973 he was found dead at his beloved nature retreat, at the commandeered round house called Mandala, having apparently died in his stupor - or his sleep - ravaged from exhaustion... by all his pleasurable [sic] pursuits... at the ripe old age of 58.

Off the top of my head, the books I remember having read by Watts were, if I remember correctly, in this order...

"The Way of Zen" (1957)

"The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing who You Are" (1966)

"Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion" (1948)

... But I'm sure I read a whole lot more. What I really remember is I had to read each of these more than once - to make sure I would absorb and hold onto the words they contained.

But then this was a violation of what I'd learned to be true, so I let it all go, just as he had schooled me... like in this essay from The New Alchemy.

In the end though I was mindful that - like these words - they were still... only words.

I but retained what he had learned from D.T.Suzuki, something called the "science of 'no-mind'" - the essence of which is "of no matter" anyway.

Watts was not so judgmental about himself or the world that he needed to subjugate his animal desire for pleasure - wherever it could be found. On the contrary, his intrepid investigation into many of life's curiosities proved he was possessed of a playful spirit... endowed with a noble and towering intellect. A notorious womanizer, the notion that he had to be or act in a certain way - at any given time - would have been to deprive himself of nothing but his freedom... for the cosmic wanderlust... he so craved.

In the mid-60s a term was coined called a "self-destruct trip" - for me, one of those memes which informs undesirable behavior. It'd be a pity today if we were to discard Watts' lessons because of his own obvious self-destruct trip through life...

... Because the example of his personal journey - and what he left behind - can still serve as a wake-up call for us all.

This is the ultimate value I place before the altar of Alan Watts - the theory of everything... can be reconciled... to all that is provable... to be good... in the end.

After words you read and hear are done, here's some more to soak in - before surrendering to their wisdom... as we trust you will.

"I have realized that the past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is."

"I find it a little difficult to say what the subject matter of this seminar is going to be, because it's too fundamental to give it a title. I'm going to talk about what there is. Now the first thing that we have to do is to get our perspectives with some background about the basic ideas that, as Westerners living today in the United States, influence our everyday common sense, our fundamental notions about what life is about. And there are historical origins for this which influence us more strongly than most people realize. Ideas of the world which are built into the very nature of the language we use, and of our ideas of logic, and of what makes sense altogether."

"Some believe all that parents, tutors, and kindred believe. They take their principles by inheritance, and defend them as they would their estates, because they are born heirs to them."

"We are all basically scams and if you haven’t found that — you are very unconscious. I know all sorts of people who are full of outward love, but of course it always turns up that they need money. And where it comes to money, the virtue flies out of a window."

"It is said that playing-cards were devised by the ancients to hide a secret where those not "in the know" would never think of looking for it. For heresy-hunters are serious-minded people who would never think of looking for religion in a game. It is curious to think how men have gambled, fought and slain one another over these unknown symbols, and it is interesting to wonder whether the most accomplished 'poker face' would fall a little on discovering that he was playing for lucre with emblems just as holy as the cross, the chalice and the crown of thorns. Probably not, for men have done things just as terrible in the name of symbols whose holiness they recognized. However, it is no less strange that the puritanic mind should see in diamonds, spades, hearts and clubs the signs of vice, to be avoided at all times and more especially on Sundays."

"The subject of this seminar is "Self and Other," and this is therefore to be an exploration into the subject that interests me most, which is the problem of personal identity, man's relationship to the universe, and all the things that are connected with that. It is for our culture at this time in history an extremely urgent problem, because of our technological power. In known history, nobody has had such capacity for altering the universe than the people of the United States of America, and nobody has gone about it in such an aggressive way."

"The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego."

"Faith is a state of openness or trust. To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don't grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float. And the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging to belief, of holding on. In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe, becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be."

"Inability to accept the mystic experience is more than an intellectual handicap. Lack of awareness of the basic unity of organism and environment is a serious and dangerous hallucination. For in a civilization equipped with immense technological power, the sense of alienation between man and nature leads to the use of technology in a hostile spirit---to the "conquest" of nature instead of intelligent co-operation with nature."

"I find that the sensation of myself as an ego inside a bag of skin is really a hallucination. What we really are is, first of all, the whole of our body. And although our bodies are bounded with skin, and we can differentiate between outside and inside, they cannot exist except in a certain kind of natural environment. Obviously a body requires air, and the air must be within a certain temperature range. The body also requires certain kinds of nutrition. So in order to occur the body must be on a mild and nutritive planet with just enough oxygen in the atmosphere spinning regularly around in a harmonious and rhythmical way near a certain kind of warm star."

"That arrangement is just as essential to the existence of my body as my heart, my lungs, and my brain. So to describe myself in a scientific way, I must also describe my surroundings, which is a clumsy way [of] getting around to the realization that you are the entire universe. However we do not normally feel that way because we have constructed in thought an abstract idea of our self."

"Can any melting or burning imaginable get rid of these ever-rising mountains of ruin – especially when the things we make and build are beginning to look more and more like rubbish even before they are thrown away?"

"It would be, of course, much better, if this occasion were celebrated with no talk at all, and if I addressed you in the manner of the ancient teachers of Zen, I should hit the microphone with my fan and leave. But I somehow have the feeling that since you have contributed to the support of the Zen Center, in expectation of learning something, a few words should be said, even though I warn you, that by explaining these things to you, I shall subject you to a very serious hoax."

It's time to retreat! To pleasure or to wanderlust...

... But let's do talk soon!