A Word on Semantics

“Conceptual substitutes for ineffable experiences are not adequate.  They are products of rational thinking.  All forms, according to Samkara, contain an element of untruth and the real is beyond all forms… And yet we cannot afford to be absolutely silent” – Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Religious Experience and it’s Affirmations

According to Google, there are over a million words in the English language, but the options seem paltry indeed when an individual is faced with the challenge of describing a spiritual experience. Worse, the words that would normally seem appropriate in such a situation are often either abused or so loaded with negative connotation they make most of us cringe when we hear them.  Faced with this challenge, the spiritual practitioner battles the simultaneous conflicting urges to be silent and to spread the word.  When I was ‘in the thread’ (the phrase I use to refer to my own experience of union) I used to wish I could just ‘touch people’ and ‘give’ them the sensation inside of me.  I realized that even in crafting the most beautiful poetry, I could not express this feeling.  The message of the heart struggles with the words of the mind.  And yet, as Radhakrishnan says, we cannot be silent – the deep desire to share, to bring about more love and happiness in the world, is also part of the experience.

As I have walked the path I have encountered a few ways of handling these challenges, most of them variations on a theme.  Many practitioners end up co-opting common words or phrases and giving them their own “special” meanings.[1]  I am no exception to this rule.  As evidenced above, I refer to my own experience of union as being ‘in the thread.’  Thread is not normally considered a spiritual word and yet I settled on that one because it most captured my experience.  As a single thread is woven into an intricate tapestry it is both itself and integrally part of something much larger.  A person looking at the finished work would have difficulty distinguishing an individual thread, yet without all those single threads there would be no tapestry at all.  In Greek Mythology, it is also a thread that Clothos weaves, Lachesis measures, and Atropos cuts to represent a life.  And let’s not forget that it was a thread Theseus used to navigate the famous Labyrinth and avoid the bloodthirsty Minotaur.  Even a humble thread can have references that make it perfectly appropriate as a spiritual path term.  To be fair, it is not that I researched possible words to use and picked ‘thread,’ the phrase ‘in the thread’ spontaneously occurred to me as the ‘right’ one for me to use at the time.  However, it’s possible that my pre-existing understanding of these concepts subconsciously contributed to my choice of phrase.

One of my meditation teachers refers to her experience as “when I was in the river.”  At first glance these two ways of describing a similar experience may seem quite different.  After all, a thread is a fairly stationary item unless someone is using it and a river is constantly moving; dynamic.  A river can be vast or narrow, but will always be larger and more diverse than a single thread.   I instantly recognized where she had been, however, because it is the feeling that the words are trying to describe that promotes the understanding rather than the words themselves.  In fact, I could have used that phrase to describe my own experience – it just isn’t the phrase that occurred to me.  This sort of translation is like understanding the concept of “Ow” in almost any language when you hear someone, in pain, exclaim it.

In reading descriptions of the spiritual experience, you may notice that a single word can have dual (or more!) meanings or multiple layers of meaning. If you’ve read Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu-Li Masters or have done any work with Tarot or other symbology you are familiar with this concept. An example of this most people will be familiar with is the word ‘see;’ sometimes it refers to using one’s eyes and sometimes it refers to an inner observation that has nothing to do with rods, cones, and optic nerves.  As another example which may help with readability of this blog – I often use the term ‘energy’ (if I haven’t used it a lot yet its only because I’ve been holding back 🙂 ).  I think energy is the root of all manifest existence so it pops up everywhere across my spiritual landscape.  I use this term the way many people use the term ‘science.’  There are types of science; Biology, Chemistry, Physics, etc.  But “science” is not just the sum of all these individual parts.  For many, the word ‘science’ is an approach, a philosophy, a worldview.  That is linguistically analogous to my use of the term ‘energy.’  There are lots of different types of energy, but my concept of energy is all of those and more.  It is the stuff our universe is made of and ‘energy’ is simply the best term I’ve found to describe it.

For those who are suffering through the use of casual terms to refer to weighty spiritual matters in your reading, I appreciate your frustration.  Let me apologize in advance, because I am quite sure I will hardly be consistent in my use of terms even across this blog.  The best advice I can offer is to recommend you keep meditating (or if you aren’t already, start! start!) and keep reading on the topic and understanding will come.  I remember reading somewhere that immersion is the best way to learn a language. 🙂


[1] This is yet another parallel with Alchemy – see post “Full Frontal Alchemy” for more speculation on Alchemy as a Spiritual Path tradition.

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