The written word, it turns out, is a really really poor way to communicate. I read an article recently about an emerging area of psychology that studies how and why we make decisions. Not the decisions themselves, but the method that humans generally use to determine things. It was pretty interesting but to me the most fascinating part was the fact that scientists discovered that people had only a slightly higher than 50/50 chance of reading a written lines a sarcastic or not. In other words, almost half the time we are likely to read a serious e-mail or internet post as being sarcastic, and vice versa. Anyone who has gotten into an argument over a text message or email because the reader completely misunderstood their intent already knows this, the fact that it is almost impossible to have a civilized discussion online is further proof if any were needed.
Communication in the real world, it seems, can’t be preserved in writing without some loss of essential meaning along the line. In fact writers of fiction depend on this strange disconnect to make their medium work at all. If you read the line “the killer came running out of the alley with his axe raised” you mind fills in what the killer, the alley, and the axe look like, but it does more! Your brain also fills in what the lighting is like, how fast the killer is running, how he is holding the axe, and his expression, none of which was in the sentence at all. This is great for fiction, not so great for any other sort of communication where the writers intent needs to be understood explicitly and not inferred.
Writing is an attempt to put reality into a conceptual form. It’s a way to take a bit of the real world and make it into a form we can show other folks, but when we do this it turns out that the real world we wanted to show gets changed! What the next person reads is their version of our concept of what we were trying to say!
Ok, so what is my point? Simply this; we live most of our lives as misinterpreting the real world as much as others misinterpret what we write to them. Our minds are forever trying to put the real actual world into some concept that we can grab hold of. The result is that instead of the fluid ever-changing reality of being a person we become “a tattooer named Jason” and then instead of accepting that later on we are “a guy eating a salad” we try to hold onto it all becoming “a guy named Jason who is a guy who is a tattooer who is a salad eater” and on and on til we have 5000 layers of things our brain feels like it absolutely MUST hold onto or else it wont have a “clear” concept of reality. The fact is that if i meet you face to face and we talk there is very little chance that you will misinterpret what I mean to say (and bear in mind that spoken language is still conceptual, but with all the other cues a face to face discussion has it far more direct than writing) .
When we talk directly, we have a (more) direct experience of the other persons thoughts, when we do zazen for a while we have a direct experience of he world itself.
Sometimes the brain is not a fan of this, especially at first there is the very palpable sensation of trying to hold onto its habitual patterns and routines. Yesterday i spoke with a good friend of mine who has been sitting for about a year now, he recently got his car totaled by a driver who was on her cell phone and rammed into his car. Due to her lack of attention and her crappy insurance he will be getting almost nothing for his ruined car, he said to me “I know I’m supposed to be more upset by this, but i just am not.” His mind knows that in the vast majority of his past this situation would make him stressed out and rageful and yet he isn’t. We marvel at the fact that we can SEE our minds trying to take us to that habitual place of conceptualizing, but we also now just watch it go without biting the hook. Of course he was upset when the event happened, and when he first got the news about her insurance situation, but his displeasure came and went naturally, without holding onto it, without reinforcing it; we find that strong emotions have a finite lifespan.
The world just can’t be put into a conceptual thought and still accurately reflect reality. We sometimes need to use these concepts to function but we can do so without holding onto them unduly. I can go to work and be a tattooer without needing to carry all the baggage of acting or behaving in a way that reinforces the artificial concept of myself as a tattooer ( like growing a lumberjack beard and drinking too much). In the same way that writing doesn’t really convey the authors reality, our habitual patterns do not really convey reality. Life, it seems can only really be experienced, not ‘understood’.