22 October 2012

Demystifying the Mystical - Language and The Master Who Makes the Grass Green

One of my favorite authors, the polymath Robert Anton Wilson, used to discuss the koan: Who is the master who makes the grass green?

When I asked a friend this question, his logical response was chlorophyll. As we all have learned in elementary biology studies, chlorophyll is the essential element of photosynthesis by which plants absorb sunlight and convert the energy into a usable form. Without chlorophyll, grass would not appear green to us, so my friend's answer makes perfect sense. It is scientifically accurate. It is totally correct…and completely untrue.

At some disputed point in history, man became conscious in a much more profound way than any other animal known to us. Then mankind domesticated himself with language. Language is a system of substitution – I cannot transfer my direct experience of a chair to you, but I can use the symbols of written and spoken language to represent the thing that I experienced, and you will understand me. Even if I do not tell you that the chair I am experiencing is made of a wooden frame, surrounded by cotton padding, and covered in blue fabric, you can use your own experience to create your own mental image of a chair and know that I am experiencing something similar.

As I add details, you can form a more complete idea of my chair. But there is no way for you to experience my chair without coming to my house and sitting in it yourself. You can interpret my symbolic representation of my chair, thus creating a particular inner experience – though it is real, you are not experiencing the material reality. So far as you can know, my chair is imaginary. However, you trust that I know what a chair is and that the experience that I’m describing is reality because I’m talking about a common material object – it’s easy to accept that I have such a chair and that I am indeed sitting on it.

But am I truly experiencing it?

Do I experience the chair, or my impression of the chair? What I experience is an internal impression of an exchange with an object that I perceive outside of myself. However, my own experience of that chair is limited by my means of observation. I say that my chair is blue, but that blue I’m seeing is not my chair. Indeed, knowing the way that my eye functions, my brain interprets that my chair is blue because my chair reflects a particular frequency of light – truly, my chair is every color but blue. The chair that I see is my own brain’s interpretation of the frequencies of light that the chair reflects.

This issue of language as a substitution for experience doesn't really affect us adversely when we’re talking about things we consider “objective reality” – that is, the empirical facts that exist regardless of our own subjective, or individual, perception. My chair exists, I can experience it and so can you if you meet certain conditions; certainly you would not say that no chair exists simply because my chair is imaginary. If you were here with me, you could observe my chair firsthand, and your description would probably be similar to my own.

But when we begin to explore mysticism, we find that language presents different problems. I can talk about my chair, and you can reference your own experiences of various chairs to form a fairly clear idea of my chair. The subjective experience of a particular object is easy to recognize as a chair regardless of the form it takes because we have an understanding of a sort of archetypal chair, the characteristics of which are inherent in all chairs. But if I’m talking about a state of mind that I produced through a “mystical” practice, what experience of your own can you reference to know what I’m talking about? Take the Tao Te Ching, for example. The entire book is full of metaphors to define a single concept for which there is no means of knowing without experiencing.

The fact that most other people experience a similar impression of the same object does not mean that those qualities are inherent in the object itself – it means that your brain and my brain work similarly. Through language, we anchor states of being to objects – the chair is blue, the grass is green – simply because our impressions of those things are fairly static (green cannot be blue). It’s easier, more practical, and more efficient to accept the false statement that the grass is green.

These ontological issues are ancient. They are exactly the sort of thing addressed in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and his discussions of a “world of ideas.” Of course, Plato’s solution was that there was a sort of other plane of existence, accessible only by certain people (philosophers) through the power of reason, in which the ideal or archetypal forms of all things existed. Everything that we experience is a somewhat inexact or imperfect copy of some immaterial but tangible ideal. His advice, given in “The Republic”, was that society should train certain individuals to be philosophers and that those philosophers should rule as kings with their knowledge of the world of ideas. He wasn't the first or the last person to draw these sorts of conclusions, but that's not important at this moment.

Consider that language, in a very real way, gives shape to the way we experience the universe. It allows us to think abstractly; indeed through language, we transform concrete existence into abstract ideas. The modern brain assigns more meaning to those abstract ideas than the concrete reality; thus we generally define concrete reality through subjective belief rather than actually observing what is really there. Simultaneously, we use language to fool ourselves into thinking that the opposite is true. Language shapes consciousness - it structures the way that we think, thereby structuring the universe in which we live. We don't consciously experience the universe as it is; we experience the universe as we think it is. 

Who is the Master who makes the grass green?

image courteousy of Jiri Hodan

Resources/Further Reading:
Plato: The Ideal State, The Dialectical Method, Educational Programs, The Cultivation of Morals

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