The Limits of Language

I sat in the crowded, small auditorium as Gregory Cajete, a Tewa author and professor at University of New Mexico, tried to help us understand a reconciliation between Western science and indigenous integrated science-religion.  In the question and answer session following, a number of academics who study indigenous knowledge and religious systems questioned the distinction between metaphor and reality: “The Earth is not like a mother.  The Earth is mother.”  He nodded, agreeing: “The stories would be different in Tewa.  I can’t tell them properly in English.”

I understood this basic translation problem, except I have no native tongue that inherently makes sense for describing reality through the lens of nature mysticism.  Mysticism in general is a rather difficult human experience to put into language, and English is a particularly poor fitting language for nature mysticism.  The Spirits I Serve remind me of this constantly, because Their way of communicating is so much more elegant and expansive than English.  It takes me a lot of effort to translate what I come to know through my intuitive work with them into English, and it is never quite right.

While the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – the idea that language constructs and limits our perception and conceptualization of the world – isn’t entirely correct, there is some truth to the idea that it is difficult for us to fully express ourselves, or to conceptualize our experiences, if our language doesn’t provide us words and grammatical structures that map onto those experiences.  There are many instances in which I’ve seen this to be true, even in more mundane topics than religion and spirituality.  In a support group for women coming out as gay later in life, some of the older women described how they didn’t know how to conceptualize their same-sex attractions when they were young because they weren’t taught a word for it.  Anyone who speaks multiple languages sometimes struggles to translate a concept that has no real equivalent in English – like “forest bathing” in Japanese or the feeling of coziness during the winter in Denmark.  And that is before we consider languages like Tewa or Mayan that conceptualize the relationship of subjects and objects or the way time works differently than English, and therefore whose stories can’t be easily encapsulated in a linear-based language.

Cement and glass towers reaching toward the sky.

Watt’s Towers, Los Angeles (Kimberly Kirner 2017)

English is my first language, but it isn’t how I primarily communicate or understand the world.  I understand it through images.  Every academic paper or blog post or poem I write starts as images.  Sometimes these are graphics that depict my findings from research projects.  Sometimes they are a single photo or a series of photos in my mind.  When I work with nature spirits – animals and plants – they are often a combination of visceral, embodied sensations and images from nature.  When I work with the Spirits I Serve, they are symbols.  Symbols that have no meaning in English, because language doesn’t work that way for Them.  Symbolic language is for generating an experience, for creation itself.  It isn’t for describing – it’s for inducing.  My whole life, I’ve lived in a world of images that I translate into words, and I’ve lived in a sense of non-linear time that I translate into a linear existence.  Sometimes this feels creative and artistic and wonderful.  Sometimes it feels alienating and upsetting.

Mostly, it feels like I’m up against the limits of language.  Mystics in many religions describe the limitations language has for describing the sublime experience of direct divine touch.  As a nature mystic, there is nothing in the English language to adequately describe what it feels like when I’m fully “plugged in” – when my sense of self erodes and what is left is the interdependent web of which I’m a part.   It’s more than interdependence.  It’s a deep-seated realization of interbeing – that I don’t exist without the existence of my relationships to other existences.  It’s a sense of interanimation – that what gives me life is embedded in the spirits of nature, and yet somehow my self-aware participation gives them life, too.  It’s a sense of immanent deity: the divine lives and breathes and moves in me, through me, as me.  It’s more than a sense of direct connection with the gods.  It’s a sense of being inside of them, and they are inside of me.  It’s an expansion and loss of self all at the same time.  And it can’t be fully expressed in language, nor can it be fully held in my body, which is why it usually moves me to tears.

Hearts made of concrete and glass

Watt’s Towers detail, Los Angeles (Kimberly Kirner, 2017)

The sense of expansiveness of self: that we are interconnected webs of being, not individuals in relationship with beings – fundamentally shifts how I relate to beings I perceive as “others” in my normal waking state.  While I can’t function normally in a state of acute altered consciousness, the experience is retained as a generalized and deep-seated sense of union with other existences, and it changes how I relate to “others.”  The sense of time as non-linear – not just as circles or spirals, but as a fabric through or on which the self expands and travels, generating a sense of parallel selves in multiple times and places – fundamentally changes my sense of action, consequence, and synchronicity.

Ultimately, English has no way of effectively describing this mystical awareness and experience, and the point isn’t description anyway.  You have to feel it, experience it, live it to understand.  But humans have tools at their disposal to help us communicate this deeper awareness more effectively: art, music, and ritual.  These are our languages that provide symbolic communication in ways that generate experience, rather than attempting to describe it.  We live in a time of significant questions we will face as a species.  Within a short two hundred or so years, perhaps sooner – just a handful of generations – we could face the extinction of our species as the earth’s climate changes and biodiversity erodes.  Yes, arguably we need science and language to work on these problems.  But that isn’t enough.  We need motivation, perspective, and a deep sense of love and respect for other beings as well as an awareness of our tenuous existence as a species.  This comes from an experiential connection to the earth and each other, and we can induce this experience through art, music, and ritual action that helps us open to interbeing.  Now, more than ever, we need to break free from the limits of language and reach into the wellspring of intuitive wisdom that waits beyond our words so that we might become the fullness of who and what we are – no longer disconnected and alienated, but instead deeply and beautifully alive as a web of interconnectivity.

About the Author

I'm Kimberly Kirner, a Druid (in the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids). My spirituality is focused first on serving the nature spirits of this lovely being we call Earth. I'm a professor of cultural anthropology by profession, specializing in environmental and medical anthropology. I started this blog to collect my thoughts and experiences that arise from my spiritual and creative (rather than professional) practice. I wanted a space, a time, to move differently in the world (and with a different group of people): to balance between an analytical approach and an intuitive one. For me, Druidry is about expanding our capacity to connect and communicate with the non-human world, deepening our commitment to justice for all beings, and re-enchanting the world so that we heal the brokenness and discord that exists between humans and our home. In many ways, my Druidic practice is a path toward walking between the worlds - of waking and dreaming, of the world as it is and the world as it could be. It is an attempt to love all beings through service, study, and art. I am not always great at it, but it's the commitment and perseverance that counts.

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  1. Thank you for this! My paradigm is very rooted in fairy lore, and my metaphysical/cosmological system is very linguistics-based to supplement my understanding of fairy glamour (“grammar”).

    I find it’s often a relief to have developed or found a word for something that yearns for that sort of reification…true too, though, there’s a lot that can’t be said, even with a serious effort to, without losing some of the integrity of the nonverbal(…able) liminal/numinous/mystic/whatchamacallit experience.

    1. Hi, Faemon- Thank you for sharing your experience and practice. The Spirits I Serve are what some who work with faeries would call a type of fae, but others might disagree. 🙂 What is similar, in either case of classification designation, is that They don’t communicate in words at all. Visuals, symbols, feelings… all must be translated by me into words if I want to talk about it with any other human being. A lot is lost, but I also find that in translating some of Their wisdom, perspective, and messages, there is also something to be gained. I try to discern when I should be translating, and when I should simply let myself steep in the ecstasy and “being-ness” of Their touch.

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