Stop Making Sense.
You can never accurately describe an experience in words.
For example, if I say the word "house" to you, the image that you see in your mind will never be the same as the image I see in mine. The house I see in my mind may be brick and in Brooklyn with an iron gate in front, where you may visualize may be a wood bungalow in California. We could be standing side by side in front of the same building, and I could spend an entire day describing what I see to you — but the experience that my words invoke for you will never allow you to share my experience.
Not only that, but things always change.
Everything that we see and describe (“Look at the beautiful old Chevy truck over there!”) has no substantial basis to it because it will always change to something else later on (“Oh wait, it’s not a Chevy it’s a Dodge!”) or disappear completely (”Whoops, it drove away...”).
It’s as if in the moment we try to hold on something and make it real by saying “it is...” with certainty, the thing changes or disappears. It slips right through our grasp.
This goes for how we understand ourselves, too.
It always amazes me how human beings spend so much time describing others with so much certainty (”My husband is such a selfish asshole!”), without realizing that we have no really accurate way to describe ourselves to begin with. We're a bit like computers that keeps spitting out facts all day long, but who have never bothered to examine the workings of the machine.
“I am Paul,” is not a very accurate way for me to describe myself.
“I am an artist and entrepreneur,” tells you how I spend my time, but not much more than that.
“I am a human being with red hair that stands six feet tall and wears size 13 Nikes” probably describes twenty thousand people in New York city right now... And so on forever. I can describe a hundred or a hundred thousand things about myself and never pass on to you the core of who I am.
Here’s an exercise — close your eyes and yourself:
Who is it that is actually reading this right now?
Where are you located in space?
How big or small are you?
The deeper we look back on ourselves, the more we discover that we are at core empty, infinite, and boundless, with no fixed location in space and time. We cannot really understand or describe who we are.
It is only when this realization comes from actual self-examination and experience and not simply from understanding or ideas alone, that we begin to get that the same is true for everything else in the world, too. Nothing has independent substance. Everything that we describe always depends on something else to compare it to, and that is dependent, too. “This coffee is too cold” is only accurate until it is set next to a block of ice.
A tibetan Buddhist master once said to me that there is no way to describe reality in words — at best we can only point and say “hey — look over here!” and hope the other person eventually gets it.
This is why the concept of enlightenment is such a bitch, because it isn’t a concept at all. The more you think you understand it, the further you are from understanding it.
Uchiyama Roshi, the great Japanese Zen master, described this paradox by pointing out that two people can’t even share the same fart. As complex and interconnected as life is, even something as tiny as my fart is mine alone.
All this matters because much of the suffering and hurt human beings inflict on one another is caused by people with set ideas and good intentions. Certainty always creates suffering. The less sure we are about things, the less rigidly we hold opinions as we move through life, which allows us the flexibility to do what's needed in the moment, without worrying if we're right or wrong, without concern that we're violating a closely held principal we've decided to live by.
Certainty is the basis of all aggression. Beliefs inevitably come into conflict with something else that doesn't fit into a rigid view of the world, and we either have to turn a blind eye to reality we don't want to see, or blame the world for not being what we expect it to be. Or ourselves for not fitting smoothly into it.
And even this statement is not strictly true: it's an approximation of something that can experienced but never completely described.
/ Photograph: Untitled, 2014 by @photodre.