Words & Selves
Clearly then, if we accept the arguments put forward in the previous post, we are not reducible to speech: there is far more to us than words. And we already know that words cannot capture the essence of reality in any of its aspects. We can perhaps get a glimpse of the attributes of a flower or a gazelle, and that is useful, but we are nowhere close to its deepest reality. Physics has had to accept this experience as a given of the universe. It is time we did also especially when it comes to descriptions of other beings and of ourselves. We can’t take our descriptions literally.
In their explanation of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), that I referred to last time, Hayes et al, who feel language does well with practical realities, deal with one of its major limitations:
The fact is that language has a very limited capacity to apprehend and decipher personal experience, but we are taught from the moment of first consciousness that language is the tool for developing self-understanding.
In discussing their clinical work they write:
Most clients are initially so thoroughly trapped by this conceptual prison that they do not know and do not believe that they are imprisoned. The conceptual world in which they live is taken to be a given.
What is true for a client is, in my view, true for all of us and they put that same position elsewhere in the book.
There usually comes a point in therapy where the conversation between the client and the therapist (I’m not fond of that word for reasons I won’t bore you with right now: see my sequence of posts on An Approach to Psychosis) when the lack of literal correspondence between world and words becomes painfully obvious. Our descriptions don’t work anymore. In fact, believing them keeps getting us into more and more trouble. They use a very simple metaphor, worked out by a client confronted by this very issue, to illustrate the point and make it memorable. They describe a chair experience to demonstrate that you can’t sit in the description of a chair.
This sceptical attitude towards descriptions has to be maintained equally if not more strongly in relation to descriptions of the self:
. . . when a person identifies with a particular conceptualisation, alternatives to that conceptualisation can seem almost life-threatening. The . . . frame here seems to be “Me = conceptualisation” [i.e. I am exactly what I think I am] and its entailed derivative “Eliminate conceptualisation = eliminate me” [i.e. If you destroy my idea of myself you destroy me]. [Thus], we are drawn into protecting our conceptualized self as if it were our physical self.
To help people step back from such identifications they liken the mind to a chessboard. We mistakenly identify with the pieces, not realising we are also, perhaps more truly the board.
The point is that thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, memories and so on are pieces: they are not you.
They place store by this aspect of the self, the one that remains the same as changing experiences flow past: they call it the observing self and believe, rather implausibly in my view, that it is formed through our use of language. They believe that operating from the observing self enables us to unhook ourselves from disabling scripts and discover, choose to live by and enact our deepest values in spite of all the discomfort that inevitably attends upon such a commitment. Our lives become value- rather than language-centred.
The Faith uses a different and an altogether more powerful image and sees its origin very differently:
O My Brother! A pure heart is as a mirror; cleanse it with the burnish of love and severance from all save God, that the true sun may shine within it and the eternal morning dawn. Then wilt thou clearly see the meaning of “Neither doth My earth nor My heaven contain Me, but the heart of My faithful servant containeth Me.”
Words, Deeds and Inner Being
The image of the mirror makes it possible for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to say:
This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God. . . . Through this faculty man enters into the very Kingdom of God. . . .
The meditative faculty is akin to the mirror; if you put it before earthly objects it will reflect them. Therefore if the spirit of man is contemplating earthly subjects he will be informed of these. . . .
Therefore let us keep this faculty rightly directed — turning it to the heavenly Sun and not to earthly objects — so that we may discover the secrets of the Kingdom, and comprehend the allegories of the Bible and the mysteries of the spirit.
May we indeed become mirrors reflecting the heavenly realities . .
Every experience we have is but a reflection in the mirror of our souls, which of course are reducible neither to language, to any experience nor to the brain.
Koestenbaum, an existential philosopher, in his penetrating analysis of the human condition , expresses fundamentally the same truth when he writes of the process of reflection as ‘separating consciousness from its contents’ and how reflection, or, to use Assagioli’s term in Psychosynthesis disidentification, leads into the deepest levels of our being: ‘The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God’. It is crucial that we do not mistake consciousness, the mirror, for its contents, ie what is reflected in it.
The purpose of this mirror in Bahá’í terms is to reflect divine light. We must not mistake ourselves for the earthly things we reflect: that drags us down. Neither must we mistake ourselves for God when divine light is reflected from our hearts: that way lies one of the most spiritually corrosive emotions – pride.
It is important that we remain true to our deepest self. While we can correct the way that we use words, and if that is done for the right motive it will change us for the better, it is just as, if not more important to align our inner being with spiritual lines of force. This involves action.
CXXXIX: . . . Beware . . . lest ye walk in the ways of them whose words differ from their deeds. Strive that ye may be enabled to manifest to the peoples of the earth the signs of God, and to mirror forth His commandments. Let your acts be a guide unto all mankind, for the professions of most men, be they high or low, differ from their conduct. It is through your deeds that ye can distinguish yourselves from others.
It is easy to see how certain words in that quotation lend force to what ACT prescribes. ‘Strive’ embodies the idea of commitment. ‘Commandments’ suggest the idea of values, so important in ACT. And the emphasis on ‘acts’ makes the connections obvious.
 Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl and Kelly G. Wilson Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (The Guilford Press: 1999) page 151. There is a website at http://www.contextualpsychology.org. However, be prepared for a severe attack of jargon-shock. It is best to dig down into the Discussions/Forums link to get at more accessible material. The ideas are well worth grappling with.
 Ibid: page 183.
 Ibid: page 182.
 Ibid: page 192.
 The Seven Valleys (SV) by Bahá’u’lláh: Wilmette (1984) pages 21-22.
 Paris Talks by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 176.
 The New Image of the Person: the theory and practice of clinical philosophy
 Ibid: Page 69.
 Ibid: Page 99.
 Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh