The Name’s the Thing — 3

[Part 1 | Part 2| Part 3]

If you think about it, of course, you soon realize that words and names in every day use very often don’t have a single or “true” meaning. In that case, what becomes of the “right” or “true” name of a thing?

Bards reply with at least one answer to that: they show us how the sound of a name is a chief component of its fit or rightness. Almost all of us have had the experience of encountering a name that just doesn’t fit the person or thing it names.


In that sense, a rose by any other name obviously isn’t a rose — it can’t be — because the sound of the word rose is an essential part of the name of the thing. That’s where the magic comes in. Through the use of word, sound, song and chant, a magical space and state of consciousness transforms our experience of “the everyday”.

Everything She touches changes, sing the Goddess-worshippers. Jesus is Lord, and at his name every knee shall bow, celebrate the Christians. Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō, recite the Shingon Buddhists. Lā ʾilāha ʾillā llāh, proclaims the voice of the muezzin. Om mani padme hum, chant the Tibetans. Four score and seven years ago, writes Lincoln, on his way to the Gettsyburg Address. I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way, choruses Lady Gaga, assuring herself and us. We both seek out special language to express what we’re experiencing, and we rely on such heightened language to help us move into states of awareness that match the experiences we seek. (In what ways are these sets of words “the same”? What would — or could — we do with an answer to that question?)

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Though the rose, or more specifically the word/sound that is approximately rosa, roh-sah, is a widely-shared name in many European languages, in part because of its rich cultural associations over hundreds of years in European religion, literature, painting and music, we also have many other names on the planet for the flower, including Chinese méiguī, Turkish gül, Arabic warda, Swahili ilipanda, and many more. Are these still “roses”? Are any of them more “rose-like” than “rose”? And what do any answers to those questions like “yes” or “no” even mean?

You’ll have your own and better answers to that question after you chant warda or ilipanda or gül or méiguī for ten minutes. Does it make sense to ask whether an ilipandais” a warda or a méiguī?

In that case, what happens to a question like “Who am I?”

Especially in the presence of trees, Spirit, whatever god(s) we look to, and our own wonder, this can be a powerful theme for meditation, if held lightly in the attention, and turned like a gem or a flower in the sunlight, or a candle-flame in the dark.

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Animals live in a largely pre-verbal world, and get along quite well without formal language. True, the more intelligent animals can interact with human symbol systems like language, because they have finite sets of symbols themselves, with calls, cries and intentional patterned behaviors. From time to time we read about apes able to manipulate quite complex symbol systems of hundreds of elements. And studies of bird intelligence suggest impressive equivalent capacities among the smartest birds. Perhaps the best current understanding sees animal communication existing along an evolutionary continuum, sharing some but not all of the key features of human language.

With the Druid love of threes, we can ask, if there’s a pre-verbal world and a verbal world, then is there a post-verbal realm? Intelligence, literally the ability to pick out or select (Latin legere) from between (Latin inter) things, to notice and make distinctions, is closely linked to language and awareness. Among other spiritual practices, Zen attempts to point to realms beyond words with its koans like this one: “What’s your original face, the one you had before you were born?” (You might find this insight productive if you attempt to draw, paint, etc., one or more responses to this question. That is, get out of your verbal head-space and try a different mode.)

For we know of other kinds of intelligence besides verbal intelligence, and these point to some of the possibilities of a post-verbal world. If, in some worlds, we don’t have physical bodies subject to time and space and the laws of physics, analogues of human language — and naming — may work quite differently, or not be needed at all.

All of us have had intuitions and hunches enter brain consciousness and only then arrive into some kind of language, even if it’s “I’m not sure, but I have a feeling that …” or “I don’t know why, but …”. In such cases, the non-verbal perception comes first, and only afterwards makes its way into words. Simultaneously such experiences point to the profound value of naming as a way of understanding and clarifying our choices and best directions, but also the impossibility of discussing things we cannot name. (For a related link, see apophatic thought — the idea that some things can only be hinted at in terms of what they are not — in the world’s major spiritual traditions.)

On a related theme, if you haven’t watched brain researcher and neuro-anatomist Jill Bolte Taylor’s marvelous TED talk about her experiences during and after a massive stroke, take a look at My Stroke of Insight. Here’s the 20-minute video:



Many spiritual practices are intended to open up consciousness to experience some of what Taylor talks about in her video — without the unwanted side-effects!

In the next post, as a way of illustrating some of what I’ve talked about in these posts, I’ll look at deriving magical and spiritual practices from a popular film from last year.

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Image: rose —

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