Language, Perception, and Reality
by Michael Maciel
Studying words and their meanings helps us to understand the way we perceive reality. It can also help us to understand the role that words play in our thinking. If we can understand how words influence us, we can more easily see through them, and not let them get in the way of the reality they represent.
Words are the representation of things. The things that words represent are more important and more "real" than the words that represent them. But when words become more important than the things they represent, they begin to conceal the "reality" of those things. The purpose of words is to help us gain access to the real world that they are supposed to represent, not create a barrier between us and that world. Unfortunately, words more often than not do the latter. "Words conceal more than they reveal."
The trouble with words
Let's take the word "door". Doors are part of everyday life. There are many types of doors, but what is it that all doors must have in common in order to qualify as doors? Adjectives such as wooden, metallic, plastic, large, small, swinging, revolving, sliding, and overhead only describe the different ways we use them, but they tell us nothing about what a door "is". In fact, the more words we use to describe a door, the less we see the thing itself.
The words we use to describe a door conceal its "door-ness". The reason is simple: "door-ness" is not a thing. Neither is it another word. The "-ness" tells us that we are stepping into new territory - a new domain altogether. This new domain is the domain of direct experience, not the domain of description. "Door" describes the reality of "door-ness", but it is only a label, not the thing itself. We can describe the experience of the thing itself with this new word "door-ness", but "door-ness" is not really a word. By taking the word "door" and distorting it in this way, we turn it into an impression, an idicator like Buddha's "the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon". Because of its over-familiarity and the way we use language, "door" conceals the reality that "door-ness" alludes to.
The unseen is "more real" than the seen
So, as a first step towards "door-ness", let's place "door" within its context. A door is only a "door" when it's in a wall. If we transport an ordinary door to a world without walls, it can no longer be a door. It might be a table, if we support each corner with a rock, or it might be a cover, if we place it over a hole in the ground. But without a wall, it cannot be a door. If a metal door is welded shut, for example, it is no longer a door, even if it still looks like one. It is nothing more than a variation in the surface of the wall. In order for a door to be a door, it must open and close.
Why is this important? Because if we can understand "door", we might be able to understand "God".
The door's identity hinges (pun intended) on yet a deeper meaning. In order for it to qualify as a door, something must be able to pass through it, or be prevented from passing through it. Unless something can pass through it, the door is simply a moving part of the wall. Therefore, the word "door" depends for its meaning on the principle of passage.
Let's push this idea open a little farther, and then we will look at the word "God".
For passage to be possible, there must exist on either side of the door/wall something called "pressure differential". Energy wants to move across the barrier. It's the pressure differential that gives "wall" its meaning. Without it, the wall keeps nothing apart, controls no interaction. It is simply part of whatever exists on either side of itself.
This is not hard to understand - to divide, you must have a wall. A wall is only a "wall" when it prevents two dissimilar conditions from interacting with each other, e.g. cold air on the outside and warm air on the inside, or public space from private space. The door, however, which is only a door when it is part of a wall, allows for a controlled interaction between two dissimilar conditions.
What gives words their meaning?
So what's really going on here? Which element is primary - which element gives the other elements their meaning? Wall and door, which are elements or things, only exist within the contexts of "passage" and the prevention of passage. We can say that wall and door are EXPRESSIONS of these principles. The principle of "controlled interaction", nested within the larger principle of "passage", gives "door" its meaning. While "wall" and "door" are secondary, their principles are primary.
Walls and doors take various forms without changing what they are. Doors in biology, for example, can be semi-permeable membranes or the receptor sites on cell walls. Both structures control the interaction of substances across a barrier. The particular forms of these structures are secondary to their principle of "controlled interaction", and they can take many shapes, but the principle itself is "eternal".
A new definition for "idolatry"
The principle of "controlled interaction" is not a thing, but a principle. We live mostly in the world of forms, or things. We idolize a thing when we ignore its underlying principle. Any concept, "image", or embodiment we ascribe to God, for example, is an idol. God is in the world of things, but God is not the world.
Back to the wall
When we see "wall" and "door" as changeable forms that depend on their underlying principle of "controlled interaction", we emphasize the principle. We could say that the principle, though intangible, is nevertheless "more real" than the form - so much more real, in fact, that by comparison wall and door are "unreal". This is why we sometimes read in metaphysics that "the world is not real". This does not mean, however, that matter is unreal, though we could certainly question its solidity. Relative to its underlying principle, it's the form that matter takes that is entirely changeable and therefore illusory.
How many examples can you see in the world of principle's primacy over form?
How long is eternity?
Principles are absolutely intangible, independent of time and space. Therefore, we call them "eternal", which means always existing. Principles however, including the principle of "controlled interaction", are always nested within larger principles. So while they are intangible, each principle deriving from another, they are also an organized structure. Together, they constitute the "real" world. We can surmise, as Moses did, that there is an ultimate Principle to which all other principles cohere. "Know, O Israel, the Lord our God is ONE." But all of these principles, including THE principle, are not "God" - they are aspects of God. God, though operating within the domain of principle, is greater than that domain.
Seeing the world for the first time
If we persist in seeing the world this way, it soon becomes transparent. Instead of living in a world of things, we're swimming in a world of principles. These principles exist nowhere and everywhere simultaneously - they are "omnipresent" and, in a certain sense, "omniscient", because they are the intelligence of God. And yet still, they are not God.
Who put the "pan" in pantheism?
The ancient philosophers and seers identified many distinct principles similar to the ones we are calling "controlled interaction" and "passage". Modern thinkers believe that they were referring to a pantheon of gods - thus the term "pantheism". However, no matter how many principles we can identify, they must all exist within a larger context. In the case of "controlled interaction", we could ask WHY or for WHAT PURPOSE is the interaction being controlled? This larger context would itself have to be part of a still larger context, e.g. WHOSE will is the purpose serving?
How many larger contexts can you conceive of? Are you beginning to see why God is said to be infinite and indefinable? Priciples are only a part of God, and yet they are infinitely nested. Just think how much greater God must be in order to contain this hierarchical complexity.
Form is entirely dependent upon the principle that underlies it. If we could focus more upon the principle than we do the form, forms would be under our command and at our disposal. This is the metaphysical interpretation of the passage in Genesis that says Man was given dominion over the earth. This passage, along with the details that accompany it, are veiled instructions in the use of the Law of Mind.
Using the example of door and wall, it should be clearer now how we put the cart before the horse in the way we perceive and define reality.
Principles all around us
If we focused more on what we were trying to accomplish than on the way things look, our world would be radically different. How would your career be different if you placed your highest values first? How many of us can say that our careers serve us instead of the other way around? What major advances could we make in the areas of food production if our governing or primary value was optimum nutrition? And how would the world of transportation be changed if we emphasized the purpose of travel, rather than its various modes?
The "spirit" of wall and door is the principle of "controlled interaction". The "spirit" of "controlled interaction" is PURPOSE, and so on. What, then, is the spirit of YOU? And what larger context is your spirit nested within?
Sages, philosophers, and theologians have addressed these questions for millennia, but they used different vocabularies and visual images to get their ideas across. For us at the beginning of the 21st century, their descriptions and insights seem clouded over by a language we no longer use, but our modern insights into truth are no less valid. In fact, ours might even be enhanced by our increased knowledge of the laws that govern matter and energy.
We live in a world of miracles that the ancients could hardly imagine. Is it any wonder that we see things differently? It is to this different vision that we must form our new spiritual language and let go of ideas and terminologies that are no longer useful in our quest for truth.
Does this mean that we have to turn our backs on God? No. It means that we must train our vision to see God everywhere and in all things. God can no longer be relegated to a heaven that is physically remote from earth. As St. Paul said, "In Him we live and move and have our being." God is closer than we ever imagined.