The Limitations of Language and Thought

If you use a trap to catch fish, once you succeed you can forget the trap. And if you use language to find meaning, once you find it you can forget the language.
-Bodhidharma, “The Snaggletoothed Barbarian””

I don’t know if my experience is a universal experience, likely not.  I seem to move in and out of different ways of being and there are challenges in the expression of that. Whenever I use language in expressing these experiences there seems to be an ephemeral satisfaction with the completed effort. I also notice that whenever I attempt another expression in writing of the same topic at a later point it seems to take a different form all together.

There is a place in my experience that is not dependent on language for knowing the truth of that experience and for the truth of existence. I often refer to it as a subjective place because there is no way that we can find right words to express our authentic and immediate perception of life. It always seems to end up so limited and fragmented. There are some people and some ways of expression that seem to be better able to capture the timeless nature of existence. That perception for me seems to be influenced by something more fundamental and beyond conventional and formal use of  words and concepts. That experience is not a place that I could have without an individual body, at least it seems not to be possible.

I am aware in my meditative experience of a place that is beyond even this or for the sake of not having the proper words, a place within, where there is no apparent reliance on perception, that is a place that is without boundaries and that seems to be a place of familiarity, extreme contentment and vast and authentic in its essence and influence on being. In some way this is at the core of my experience as a human and is a fundamental part of and influence in all other states of consciousness that I experience.

A problem seems to arise in that the more evolved subject-object consciousness that is a more refined and selective and the normative way of experiencing existence in our modern times tends to forget about these more fundamental aspects of my being. And although the subject-object consciousness is a gift in the way of seeing it is at the same time, if left on its own, separate from these others ways, a creator of catastrophe of a sort. In its refined perception it has the propensity to isolate and separate and to not include other aspects of being and its fragmented and selective way has had disastrous consequences for myself and collectively for the greater world in general.

Contemplation and meditation have helped me to re connect with and more include these fundamental aspects of my being.There is an intuitive sense that it is a more complete, encompassing and content and authentic way. Although I use them both as there could be no other way in this reality that we have created, I am aware of the limitation of my words and of my thinking in the negotiation of life and the realisation of truth each day.

I am not a supporter of what Bodhidharma suggests, that to throw away language is the answer to our problems, and I am not sure if in the end he would believe this himself. I think that it is in the realisation of the limitations in our thinking and use of language that we experience a liberation of a sort.

2 thoughts on “The Limitations of Language and Thought

  1. It is so difficult to describe experience and awareness in ways that do not somehow corrupt their actuality. Whatever word template/blueprint we use always leaves us with the sense of it being just slightly out of focus, incomplete, or misaligned in some un-correctible way – as you say, we may try a different formulation, and then another. . .

    What is obviously clear from the article though, is that you are one who is fully familiar with a distinction between the representations of mentation in general, as against an a priori awareness which subsists before any (re)cognitions of sense datum. Then again, these are merely my own ways of interpreting in words what (I think) it is that you allude to!

    I agree with your closing conclusions, that it is a mistake to believe that in order to be free of any confinement in selfhood we must somehow escape the natural flow of mentation. I think it’s very useful to do that, say in meditation or whilst out in nature, and yet ultimately mentation is not itself what imprisons us, so to speak.

    Very best wishes and thanks for this thoughtful and eloquent article Gord.



    1. Thank You Hariod. For me I always make that effort to return to presence. Things become much clearer there and than I can use that clarity to go back into the world. I have been reading and enjoying your book but it is the kind of book that I like and it requires being attended to. Anything with such wisdom and insight does.


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