On a Fall morning some twenty years ago, I was in my canoe on the Chatahoochee River at the northern edge of Atlanta. I paddled upstream, away from both the sight and the sound of the crowd on the bank where I’d launched the canoe. I soon found myself in a side channel, surrounded by trees shimmering with bright yellow leaves. The sun warmed my face and out of clear blue sky October sunlight sparkled upon the surface of the placid river.
For a moment I was completely lost in the moment — a body feeling the sun on its face, the cool air on its skin, hearing the chirping, rustling and burbling that surrounded it. Then the other part of my monkey brain spoke up and queried — innocently enough — “How will I describe this moment in words?”. Like a junk-yard dog lunging for the postman, I was yanked back from reverie by a short steel chain of “thought”, and was painfully aware of having just put an abrupt end to the (then) rare pleasure of self-forgetfulness and intimacy with nature.
My description is a bit severe, yes, but at the time I was still early in my struggle to deliver myself from the tyranny of my noisy brain (the “committee” as one friend called hers) and it was a rare achievement to find myself in a state of real presence in “the moment”, free of my analytical mind’s ceaseless commentary. So I was mad at my brain for butting in, and bargaining away my sensory experience for a concise tale to be told. It was then that I had a bit of a revelation: that for all it’s power, beauty and utility, verbal language is (by it’s very nature) reductionist. In short, words will never be up to the task of capturing the breadth and depth of any human experience, transcendent or pedestrian. How could they be?
A few years earlier I had stood on the snowy crest of the Sandia Mountains above Albuquerque, unsteady on cross-country skis, as swiftly-moving patches of cloud would in one moment envelop me, in another reveal a glorious vista of a craggy mountain face dappled in light and shadow. I pulled up my camera to “capture” the scene and looked through the viewfinder to frame and focus my shot. I soon lowered the camera in despair and recognition that whatever picture I could possibly make would contain but a fraction of what I was experiencing in that moment, and, frankly, whatever fraction I caught would not be worthy (even as a reminder) of what I was seeing right there, right then.
There came a time, then, when it seemed that I had a clear choice to either continue to experience a moment OR to document it with a camera or words. It seemed a terrible paradox that only animals were truly completely present in their experience of life (assuming that they had no words that their analytical brains could use against their experience), while us human animals could not now escape our verbalized brains (which would appear to be the cost of re-entering a truly full-being experience of living).
(In my case being an “artist” only added to my sense of being an “observer” of life: condemned to having only enough occasional “real” experiences to feed my creativity, like a dog grabbing a bone only to run and bury it for later).
Over time, however, I worked to shift the balance between experience and documentation, experimenting with it. I began to develop an antipathy toward the camera and the story, choosing as best I could the experience of the description of it. (My brother Bill once quipped that “There’s no such thing as a bad experience: only a good story”. But I gradually came to the decision that no bad experience is worthwhile only for a story).
I’m happy to report that I finally reached a state of being where — instead of the constant internal commentary being occasionally interrupted by self-forgetfulness — the interruption of my enjoyment of my own physical presence in time by my noisy brain is the rarity. If I shift my internal focus right now (as I am doing now just to check) I can almost hear the hum of my brain running behind my forehead. I’ve heard it called the lizard brain, the dry brain, the survival brain — it is that analytical part of my “mind” that uses comparison, logic and memory to prepare plans for any potential danger it might encounter. It’s the part of the brain that is instantly supercharged when our lives are threatened. It is the thing that has made it possible for you and I to be here right now, alive in this moment (in no small part because it kept our ancestors alive long enough to reproduce!). But the inescapable burden of having the big human brain our ancestor’s evolved is that this pulsing biological, chemical machine in our craniums has no “off switch”.
And our challenge is how to live with this machine in an age where we are no longer facing danger at every turn. Which, in essence, comes down to re-calibrating our ice-age-appropriate fear response.
Another thing our brain does is construct narratives — short stories about the how and why of our experiences. Every animal does this on some level (whether we call it “instinct” or learned behavior) so we hominids were probably doing it before we developed verbal language. But in a way our memories don’t exist before language (try remembering your first year of life, or the day of your birth). Language is what allows us to store and transfer information. The scientific revolution would not have been conceivable without it. Some researchers have proposed that it was the human adoption of verbal language that led to the “Neolithic Revolution” some forty-thousand years ago when the heretofore just-another-band of hominids made the leap into “modern humans”.
But just like the agricultural revolution, we have paid a price for our progress. In the process of Evolution, nothing is ever gained for free (we walk upright, but we have weak backs and stretched abdominal muscles, and our internal plumbing is often convoluted and tricky). We can talk and write and read and communicate with total strangers with a certain degree of efficiency and accuracy, yet we have large brains that have over-developed certain capacities while taking resources from others. We are highly visual creatures — and as such have lost a great deal of our olfactory capability.
I don’t think any of us would suggest returning to walking on all fours and grunting just to be more “one” with nature (were such even possible), but it’s worth noting the “loss” for the understanding it offers for our frequent discontents and inability to relax and enjoy life.
The combination of a large brain and our highly social nature means that we are burdened (in a real sense) by our need for narrative — the need to write the story of our own lives, to tell to others, to tell to ourselves. I wonder if this propensity isn’t being exacerbated by our steady diet of movies, reality television and newscasts that process and package the “human interest” story of individuals struggling to overcome some tragedy or disadvantage (proof that the world is fair and God is just and that we, too, might have our story told in a similar way).
This state of active brain, verbal language and story is so completely common to us all that I find nothing in it to seriously criticize or demean. I do, however, think it’s a good thing to recognize. On some level we all understand the limitations of verbal language, even as we experience it’s tremendous power.
As out of fashion as poetry seems to be these days, it is the poet who comes closest to bending words to living reality and their best echo of the richness of our “animal” sensory existence. Poets use words and phrases as evocations that slip past the dry analytical mind and reach us in a more musical place. Perhaps that is why music is so ubiquitous in modern culture, pumped out from every electronic orifice we can muster.
But the power of language is often the power of a hammer more than a scalpel, and we are endlessly left to wonder if what we’ve meant to say is actually what the other person heard and understood. Or, for that matter, whether what we wanted to say is really what we wanted to express, or whether a shriek or a howl or a roar of deep delight would have done a much better job. For sometimes there really isn’t a story to tell. There are not always words. Sometimes there is only our animal body and mind wrapped up in the overwhelming sensual embrace of air, sun, water, sound, sensation. Sometimes, there is only life.