Posts Tagged ‘language’


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Table on TrainAcross the table of the train, as it slowed down pulling into Paddington, a big grin spread over his slender wife’s face. There were three of us at the table.

‘You should’ve started this topic in Worcester.’

We all grinned. She was right but hindsight is 20:20.

It’d been almost the crack of dawn when I had set off from Hereford. Just before my alarm went off at 4.45 am I was creaking out of bed as quietly as I could so as not to wake my wife. I was a bit anxious about the journey as there were no trains from Hereford itself over the weekend due to work on the line between Newport and Crewe. I had to get the bus to Ledbury to link up with the London train. I couldn’t drive myself there and park because I knew I would be coming back via a bus from Newport.

As it turned out, it was a pleasant ride on the bus to Ledbury, and I was able to catch up on my morning meditation, just finishing as the viaduct near the station came into view.

When the couple had boarded the train at Worcester Shrub Hill I was sitting alone at the table in the seats they’d booked, my bag on one and my bum on the other, and my flask of coffee half-consumed. There were no tickets in the slots to warn me of my transgression. At least I had made sure it was not the quiet carriage though: I didn’t want to repeat my previous mistakes in that respect.

Anyway they happily sat opposite me across the table until they realised the train would be dragging them backwards, which neither of them liked. I offered to swap seats and they gratefully accepted.

We settled down for the long haul up to London, stopping at every station this side of Oxford. They both had their Kindles and when the train started moving the portly denim-clad figure of the husband headed for the buffet car. He returned with her tea and his coffee, which he grimaced about as he took the first sip.

We sympathised with each other over the quality of railway coffee, though he did admit he’d had worse. We agreed that instant was undrinkable and at least this was real coffee.

Their heads went down over their Kindles and I pored over my copy of The Prodigal, determined to finish it before Paddington.

Not difficult when gems such as these passed before my eyes:

                                         I sat on a plank bench
by the wooden table and listened to the sound
of papers being shuffled by an enquiry
into the parasitism of poetry by the dry-lipped leaves.

The ProdigalWe occasionally exchanged remarks about the landscape or sudden wobblings of the train, disquietingly reminiscent of an airplane in turbulence. Not at all what you expect on a railway line.

They talked between themselves rather more often, and it wasn’t until after Reading that all reading stopped and he and I hit on the theme of dyslexia, triggered by the way the station had highlighted the pitfalls of written English.

The conversation took off. We both agreed that such conditions conferred gifts we boggled at.

‘My mate can set up electronic systems, some huge, some tiny, that work perfectly and I haven’t the faintest idea how he does it. But when he writes, he writes phonetically. Once you accept that it’s easy to understand what he’s written. It just looks odd because he’s spelt every word exactly as it sounds.’

I shared the story of the mother who took her daughter to be assessed by a psychologist for ADHD. The assessor left the young girl in a hall with music playing and took the mother off behind a one-way mirror. They watched her daughter together as she began to dance.

The assessor said. ‘She not got ADHD. She’s a dancer.’

‘The challenge,’ came the reply from across the table, ‘is that to work with people outside the middle in our education system is time-consuming and costly. Outliers get neglected. We don’t make the most of their special gifts, but maybe it’s not possible to do so. We’d do a lot better if we were freer to make our own decisions. We need to get out of Europe and get control.’

By this time we had left Slough, another pronunciation head banger for someone learning English. Even so, with little time left, I launched into my spiel about the issue. I am sharing a mercifully short summary.

‘The problem is we have a polarised debate on this when what we really need is to put our heads together on the far more important issues facing us like climate change, that we will never solve until we operate on the basic truth that we are one human race. Our culture is too divisive. Our economic system is based on competition. In this country, though not everywhere, our legal system is based on a courtroom battle rather than an investigation of the truth. And as for our politics, it’s the same. Different parties fight it out as though their slanted point of view was the absolute truth, rather than recognising that a more accurate version of reality would come with all viewpoints coming together to create a consensus . . . . .’

‘But at least we’ve got a democracy not a bureaucracy,’ he interrupted as the voice over the tannoy announced that we were coming into Paddington and needed to collect our belongings rather than debate our differences.

His wife was right. We should have started earlier. We shook hands on good terms as we picked up our stuff to leave. I think, though, that I was right to feel happy that we had at least begun to have the kind of deep conversation about something important that satisfies the introvert in me, rather than remaining at the level of superficially discussing coffee and the countryside in a way that reduced them to the froth on a cappuccino.

I set off for my hike across Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park with a level of humidity hanging in the air that turned me into a grease-spot under my backpack by the time I arrived at my meeting place in Knightsbridge.

The meeting went well and my return journey led me into quite different territory as we’ll explore next time. It was as though the universe was saying, ‘So you want deep conversations. Try these for size!’

Heron Kensington Gardens

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The Buzzing in our Brain Cells v5

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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.

ACT Manual

A more accessible version of ACT

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

For source of adapted image see link

For source of adapted image see link. It’s a fascinating article by Sam Harris.

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.”[5]

Mirroring the Light

Mirroring the Light

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 . .[6]

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[7] , expresses fundamentally the same truth when he writes of the process of reflection as ‘separating consciousness from its contents’[8]  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’[9]. 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.[10]

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.


[1] 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.
[2]  Ibid: page 183.
[3] Ibid: page 182.
[4] Ibid: page 192.
[5] The Seven Valleys (SV) by Bahá’u’lláh: Wilmette (1984) pages 21-22.
[6] Paris Talks by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 176.
[7]  The New Image of the Person: the theory and practice of clinical philosophy
[8] Ibid: Page 69.
[9] Ibid: Page 99.
[10] Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh 

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Beneath the Debris

Some years ago I prepared a talk that was never delivered in full. Recently I rediscovered my notes and they seemed worth pulling together into a sequence of posts. So, here it starts.

The Limits of Language

A good place to start[1] is with a brain-teaser that’s even older than I am.

You are a prisoner in a room with two doors and two guards. One of the doors will guide you to freedom and behind the other is a hangman – you don’t know which is which.

One of the guards always tells the truth and the other always lies. You don’t know which one is the truth-teller or the liar either.

You have to choose and open one of these doors, but you can only ask a single question to one of the guards.

What do you ask so you can pick the door to freedom?

This little puzzle, which you can find at this link (do not click if you want to work out the answer for yourself – I’ll be including it at the end of the last post anyway), contains the three elements we are going to be most concerned about: reality, minds (or selves) and language. It won’t have escaped your notice, though, that in the puzzle all of these are rather simplified: they’re basically binary. Two doors and two guards.

Our reality is more spectral both in the sense of ghostly and along dimensions rather than in boxes. Our minds are more subtly diverse. Our language is capable of infinite variations. But it’s a good lead in because in the puzzle we have to do in simple form what we are constantly seeking to do in more complex ways with words in the real world of things and people: relate to others and develop a useful model of the world as it is. And all of these endeavours have a great deal to do with identity in the sense of who we think we are and our assessment of others as well.

Language though is anything but a straightforward ally in this endeavour. Graves was very suspicious of it:

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.
But concluded that we couldn’t stay sane without it:
But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
. . . . .
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.

'The Ready-Made Bouquet' by René Magritte

‘The Ready-Made Bouquet’ by René Magritte

And a system of psychotherapy (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: ACT), which draws on many traditions of psychology, philosophy and spirituality, shares this same suspicion about language and seeks to undermine our simple confidence in it in various ways. For instance they point out that it can lead to such circular and irresolvable torments as:

This statement is false.

You have only to ponder that for a few seconds to realise there is no way out!

What have the Bahá’í Writings to say about language?

People for the most part delight in superstitions. They regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude. By holding fast unto names they deprive themselves of the inner reality and by clinging to vain imaginings they are kept back from the Dayspring of heavenly signs.[2]

Language is cast here in terms that summon up the idea of ‘veils’ as used in the sense of things that come between us and the truth.

Let not names shut you out as by a veil from Him Who is their Lord, even the name of Prophet, for such a name is but a creation of His utterance.[3]

Obviously names are not all there is to language. ACT uses language to cover all symbolic activity. In which case names are an important subset of that category as they are used to label everything we know, can imagine or conceive. They are also, in one of their main aspects, the most concrete part of our vocabulary and you would think the least treacherous of all!

If you accept the possibility of a spiritual dimension, as I have argued at length elsewhere on this blog is almost certainly the case, things may not be as simple as they seem:

When we consider the world of existence, we find that the essential reality underlying any given phenomenon is unknown. Phenomenal, or created, things are known to us only by their attributes. Man discerns only manifestations, or attributes, of objects, while the identity, or reality, of them remains hidden. For example, we call this object a flower. What do we understand by this name and title? We understand that the qualities appertaining to this organism are perceptible to us, but the intrinsic elemental reality, or identity, of it remains unknown. Its external appearance and manifest attributes are knowable; but the inner being, the underlying reality or intrinsic identity, is still beyond the ken and perception of our human powers.[4]

And what is true for things outside us is even truer for what lies inside:

LXXXII. Thou hast asked Me concerning the nature of the soul. Know, verily, that the soul is a sign of God, a heavenly gem whose reality the most learned of men hath failed to grasp, and whose mystery no mind, however acute, can ever hope to unravel.[5]

The same would apply to those other aspects of our character referred to by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, i.e. the inherited and the acquired (if we assume that the soul is the innate part).

fireIn a moment we will be returning to the issue of self and identity. But first we must grapple a bit more deeply with the Bahá’í view of language.

To describe this, and the view of many spiritual traditions, as radically different from any conventional worldly view would be an understatement. Language is seen as potentially dangerous even lethal. Bahá’u’lláh wrote:

The essence of faith is fewness of words and abundance of deeds; he whose words exceed his deeds, know verily his death is better than his life.

The essence of true safety is to observe silence, to look at the end of things and to renounce the world.[6]

And as if that were not enough:

. . . the tongue is a smouldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison. Material fire consumeth the body, whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. The force of the former lasteth but for a time, whilst the effects of the latter endure a century.[7]

If I had more spiritual insight I might well be reduced to silence forthwith. I am certainly forced to give serious thought to my speech and why and how I use it. I am also forced to revise my view of silence, something not much valued in our culture.

What can silence do? What happens when we still the chatter of the prosy mind?

Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time — he cannot both speak and meditate[8].

It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed. . . .

Through the faculty of meditation man attains to eternal life; through it he receives the breath of the Holy Spirit — the bestowal of the Spirit is given in reflection and meditation. . .[9]

Anyone interested in looking at the power of silence more deeply check out these links.

Next time the issue of self and identity.


[1] This post does not focus at all on some central and important aspects of this theme, for example the Word of God, backbiting, the new etiquette of expression including consultation, and criticism because that would be cramming too much in and I have already dealt with two of them in detail elsewhere (see links above) and others more incidentally.
[2] Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh (TB) Haifa 1978: page 58.
[3] Epistle to the Son of the Wolf: page 176.
[4] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Promulgation of Universal Peace (PUP) Wilmette 1982 pages 421-422.
[5] Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh
[6] Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh page 56.
[7] Kitáb-i-Íqán: (KI) UK 1982 page 123-124)
[8] This is of course not to argue that we should not meditate upon the Word of God but indicating that to do so effectively we will need to still the distracting chatter of the mind.
[9] Paris Talks pages 174-176.

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The sequence of posts reviewing Karen Wilson’s book on the power of meditation seemed to make this a good time to republish some related posts of my own from the past. As the last review post was dealing with the need to change our priorities, I felt that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy had something useful to say about that. Last week I republished two of four posts: this is the last in the sequence.

It has proved impossible in a few short posts to feel I have done justice to all that ACT has to offer. I have barely mentioned mindfulness at all, yet it is a key part of their approach. Perhaps this is not so important given how much literature there is around dealing with that reflective skill.

Less forgivable is the fact that I have only hinted at one of ACT’s most powerful antidotes to stuckness. They are very aware of the ways that language can be a trap (page 71), and very aware that most of us don’t see it like that:

Language is an extremely important element of human existence, but it is not everything. Perhaps more than any other behavioural domain, language products have been cultural sanctified to the point that seeing language itself as a problem is quite unlikely.

Hayes et al feel language deals very well with practical realities, but it has 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

(Acceptance & Commitment Therapy: page 151):

In discussing their clinical work they write (page 183):

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.

This is something very important of their own that they bring to the mix of other ingredients that are not unique to them. The way they have combined what is often found elsewhere is powerful and appealing in its own right: this lifts their recipe for change to another level altogether.

From a Bahá’í perspective this view of language makes a great deal  of sense. Paul Lample, in his excellent overview of the current work of the Faith Revelation & Social Reality, writes (page 18):

It can be argued that social reality emerges through the vehicle of language and, at the same time, language is a component of social reality. In essence, social reality is made up of words and meanings that human beings have agreed upon.

What words do not give is a complete and accurate description of reality (page 173):

. . . .reality does exist, but human beings are limited in their capacity for understanding and, therefore, must struggle over time to derive more useful descriptions and insights about reality that can guide more effective and productive action in the world.

One of the ways that ACT uses to help people free themselves from language traps is the liberating power of metaphor. It is using a richly evocative non-literal form of words to loosen the chains prosaic words have shackled us with. The Man in a Hole is a good example (pages 101-102)

The Man in a Hole Metaphor is a core ACT intervention in the early phase of therapy.

The situation you are in seems a bit like this. Imagine you’re placed in a field, wearing a blindfold , and you’re given a little tool bag to carry. You’re told that your job is to run around this field, blindfolded.  . . . . Now, unbeknownst to you, in this field there are a number of widely spaced, fairly deep holes. You don’t know that at first – you’re naive. So you start running around and sooner or later you fall into a large hole. You feel around, and sure enough, you can’t climb out and there are no escape routes you can find. Probably what you would do in such a predicament is to take the tool bag you were given and see what is in there . . . . Now suppose that the only tool in the bag is a shovel. . . . [Y]ou try digging faster and faster. . . . Oddly enough the hole [just gets] bigger and bigger. . . .  [D]igging is not a way out of the hole . . .

This metaphor is extremely flexible. It can be used to deal with many beginning issues.

And they go on to discuss how the need to understand the past can be a form of digging. They imagine an exchange with a client (pages 103-103):

“I’m not saying your past is unimportant, and I’m not saying we won’t work on issues that have to do with the past. . . . . [but] it is only the past as it shows up here and now that we need to work on – not the dead past. . . . [D]ealing with the past isn’t a way out of the hole.”

They also explain that the scariest step is stopping what doesn’t work before you know what might (page 103):

“Suppose someone put a metal ladder in there. If you don’t first let go of digging as the agenda, you’ll just try to dig with it. And ladders are lousy shovels – if you want a shovel you’ve got a perfectly good one already.”

What’s needed here, they say, is a leap of faith (pages 103-104):

‘[Because you are blindfolded] notice you can’t know whether you have any options until you let go of the shovel, so this is a leap of faith. It is letting go of something, not knowing whether there is anything else. . . .  [Y]our biggest ally here is your own pain. . . because it is only because this isn’t working that you’d ever even think of doing something as wacky as letting go of the only tool you have.”

This, as they put it, is the ‘opportunity presented by suffering.’ It needs to be added here that ACT distinguishes between pain and suffering. The latter is what we add to the pain life inevitably brings, and in general in their view (page 79) ‘suffering is the intrusion of language into areas where it is not functional:’ in other words we add to our pain with the suffering thinking, usually in words, can bring in its train.

So, where does all this leave us?

In previous posts on this issue we have seen how powerful a force for change acting courageously on our values can be. We have seen how important it can be to persist in the face of discouraging and uncomfortable experiences. We learnt the importance of distinguishing between the values we hold and the steps we take towards goals we believe express them: these may or may not be the same thing. Only a dispassionate look at the results will tell us whether we are moving in the direction the compass of what we truly value points us towards. All of this, I feel, is useful in deepening our understanding of the implications of what the Universal House of Justice is seeking to communicate to us.

In this post we have looked at how language can betray us into traps from which metaphor can help release us and we have touched on the importance of being mindfully aware of what we are experiencing. We have already seen, in many other posts, how mindfulness of that kind can allow us to step back from inhibiting ideas of who we think we are and release energy to go in new directions.

This too is helpful. It seems to me that the Universal House of Justice, in its 2010 message, is re-emphasising once more how important reflection/mindfulness is (paragraph 10) when they describe how those working towards a vision of community building should operate:

. . . it is only through continued action, reflection and consultation on their part that they will learn to read their own reality, see their own possibilities, make use of their own resources, and respond to the exigencies of large-scale expansion and consolidation to come.

Consultation, as we have seen in a much earlier post, is a group process of reflection complementary to our work of reflection as individuals. Mindful awareness and detachment is at the heart of both ways of experiencing our inner, outer and social worlds.

In its exhortation to us to grasp the total vision, not just fragments of it, the House is also pointing up the traps of language we could fall into by turning guidance which is rich in implications into one-dimensional slogans. They are, in a sense, reminding us that we could end up in a hole as bad as that from which we wish to climb and as a result fall far short of the whole to which they are urging us to aspire (paragraph 37, already quoted in full in an earlier post):

. . . . achievements tend to be more enduring in those regions where the friends strive to understand the totality of the vision conveyed in the messages, while difficulties often arise when phrases and sentences are taken out of context and viewed as isolated fragments.

Seeing things as a whole is a right-brain gift that our left-brain culture in the West has taught us not to value. It seems to me that a book like the one about ACT can help us redress that imbalance if we are prepared to make the effort, and enable us to reach behind the wall of words and touch something closer to reality. If we do not make such an effort the complex coherence of texts such as those the Universal House of Justice creates will forever be beyond our understanding in practice, and, if so, we will be handicapped in our most important work and this will seriously delay us in helping to heal a broken world.

This is work that will not wait. I am hoping that writing my way towards understanding, on top of trying to put it into practice, will speed up my learning process. I also hope that by sharing it in this way I am at the very least not slowing you down in this work as you read.

A Wall of Words?

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The Buzzing in our Brain Cells v5

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