Tuesday, July 29, 2008

you don't need to..

In working on my next book, Storyteller Consciousness, I have become increasingly aware of my own unconscious language patterns and what they reveal about my relationships and beliefs. First, I'll say a bit about this new book. It is about how to exercise that most fundamental means of human creativity: words. Ancient traditions associated a magical power to words; indeed, in Western religions it is through Word that God created the universe, while in Eastern religions the universe IS word. Om, the sound that generates all things, for example. Moreover, any leader exercises power through words. If George Bush starts World War Three, it will be because he commands it to start. He has the power to speak a war into existence. More prosaically, everything that Congress does is, on one level, nothing but generating a bunch of words. This book examines how to recover the power of word in an age where words seem increasingly ineffectual.

Like Ascent, the book has a personal and a social aspect. How can we create the world; how can we create our lives? Many authors have already pointed out the insidious effects of words like should, can't, and but. Their observations are the starting point of this work.

Somewhat naively, some people decide to stop using "should" or "but" or "try to" in hopes that it will magically lift them out of victim mentality. This shortcut will not usually work: it is entirely possible to stop using those words while continuing to entertain the thought-forms behind them, substituting euphemisms that to the unconscious mind actually mean should, but, and try. I see these words instead as symptoms. When we bring awareness to our habitual use of these words, it brings awareness as well to the attitudes and beliefs underlying them. Awareness, attention, is itself healing. When old hurts come to light, when they rise to the surface of consciousness, then healing has reached its final stage, just as certain deep diseases end up as skin eruptions before they are finally healed. Only when the underlying attitude is truly changing will a willful change of language patterns be effective.

If you mean should, say should. If you mean but, say but. If you really feel helpless, say can't. Don't lie to yourself. Let the words, though, shed light on your state of consciousness.

Today I was writing a letter to someone and noticed the phrase, "You don't need to tell me..." All of a sudden I realized the arrogance of telling someone what they need or do not need to do. How patronizing! Certainly there may be times when I actually do perceive another person's need, maybe better than they do, but this was not one of those times. The truth was not, "You don't need to." The truth was "I don't need you to." My reflexive use of "You don't need to..." reveals an unconscious habit of manipulation, of trying to control other people. Don't get me wrong -- probably no one who knows me would say I'm a particularly controlling person -- but I am like all of us inculcated with the habits of civilization. Today, however, I am no longer comfortable telling people what they need, especially when I don't know.

I went on to ruminate on how often I hear the phrase "You need to..." especially directed at children. Many parents use this phrasing as their primary way to deliver a threat. "You need to put that down and come inside right now! One, two..." I think this sows confusion in children. It says that needs come from outside themselves, and desensitizes them to their own needs. It also stymies the development of their own internal authority.

I think it is much better to speak the truth to children. The truth could be, "I need you to put that down and come inside right now." It could be, "I am feeling very impatient," or, "I'm really getting angry." At least then, the truth comes out that it is not the child's needs at all that are being served by coming in right now, it is the parent's needs. Sometimes we believe that as parents, we are supposed to always put the child's needs first, and so we pretend to be doing so even when we are not. We do the same in a relationship. It is part of the self-denial that goes along with the War Against the Self whose origins I describe in my books.

It is time to stop pretending and to stop denying ourselves. As I shake off the Age of Separation, I become more comfortable with my own needs, and less prone to projecting them onto other people in order to validate them. This naturally happens as I become more comfortable with my own self, which is not the isolated, disconnected self of Descartes, but interwoven with all the other selfs around me, because I see then that my truest needs are not in opposition to the needs of our planet.


At July 29, 2008 at 12:22 PM , Blogger thailandchani said...

Very good post, as always!

I find myself still using "commoditizing" language and am trying to purge it. Unfortunately, it sometimes does express it so perfectly! "I'm invested in this" or "I bought into that", "That's what counts".

Any suggestions? :)

At July 30, 2008 at 10:43 PM , Blogger Stefene said...

I agree with Thailandchani! Almost done with Ascent of Humanity and can't wait to read this book, too. I make my living at writing for a magazine, which means a constant string of wake up calls when I hear from the people I write about. It can be easy to not think sentences through carefully when I'm on deadline, but having heard from people I have hurt (without meaning to) or people that I have helped (also often without meaning to!) it's given me a really deep appreciation for the power of language - it's been a sobering experience in a really good way. Every time it happens, I work on being more conscious, but like everything it's a process ... I'm a long way from having mastered this. One writer who I think is very honest but very conscious and compassionate is E.B. White. His book of essays on moving out of New York and trying to raise pigs and chickens in Maine is a really beautiful, funny, sad, smart book. But I guess you can't expect much less from the guy who co-wrote the Elements of Style which is old school, but a really elegant meditation on how to think hard about what you write before you write it.

At July 31, 2008 at 12:31 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Trumpet of the Swan is my favorite story by E.B. White.

I also like the following, attributed to Einstein, about separation being a kind of "optical delusion of consciousness."

A human being is part of the whole, called by us "universe," a
part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, has
thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest--a
kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a
kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires
and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task
must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our
circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the
whole of nature in its beauty.


At August 2, 2008 at 10:08 AM , Blogger Charles Eisenstein said...

Yeah, I understand about using money metaphors in language. The biggest is, "I can't afford to..." even when there is no money directly involved. My only suggestion is to be aware of it. In a way, all language is a lie; there is nothing fundementally "wrong" about saying "I bought into it." There is more on this theme in the Storyteller Consciousness section of Ascent, toward the end of Chapter 7 somewhere.

At August 31, 2008 at 5:37 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...



At August 8, 2009 at 3:58 PM , Blogger Liam said...

I agree that merely changing the words we use (should, but, can't, etc.) is useless if we don't change the underlying "frame" we are using to understand our world.
However, I have noticed that changing the words can, and often does, lead to a change in frame, an "aha!" experience.
My theory is that changing the words we utter leads inwards, to changing our subvocal chatter, which ultimately leads to a change in how we frame our experience.


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