By Leatrice Asher
Language is a medium of communication, but the words we choose to convey our thoughts and feelings often reveal much more than the information we are explicitly conveying. They also reveal our beliefs, our prejudices, our partialities—our inner world. They reflect who we are, what we have become. We all know the power of language to define a culture and a people, to create war and peace, and (especially when spoken through the mouths of orators and demagogues) to move the minds of millions. Today’s censorship and movie ratings wars sometimes have as much to do with language as with “sex and violence” in themselves. Clearly, language is a tool like almost no other for molding and changing our minds and perceptions. Is it surprising, then, that language also exerts a major influence over the sensations we experience—including our pain?
Language is powerful enough to release us from pain or keep us lodged in it. Idioms, for example, are a colorful and legitimate use of language, but they include many expressions that we utter automatically, without awareness of what we are actually communicating to others and to ourselves. Often those words are a way of separating ourselves from a disease or condition that we consider foreign or undesirable. They may include fighting words, such as “battling obesity” or “fighting depression.” (And how many “wars” have we fought against diseases lately?) Or they may include terms of condemnation
What exactly are we conveying when we use these expressions? Are we saying that we want to disown and go to war with a part of ourselves? Or that all it takes to do away with obesity and depression is a good wallop (as if these conditions were mere aberrations and were not a part of the same set of universal laws that created us)? If what we want is resolution and freedom from our pain, we must first investigate it. This will be easier to accomplish if our language supports that investigation; otherwise, whatever we speak of as an aberration will remain just that.
Language is often greatly undervalued, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. We speak of “mere words” and may even feel that their power to inflict damage—or to heal—is imaginary. And yet, time and again, words alter the course of history, or of an individual life. The labels we use—and our resulting valuation (or devaluation) of our physical, mental, and emotional states—can make all the difference between a destructive, degenerative course and a creative, productive, profoundly enriching relationship with these parts of ourselves.
Words have power because they transport and broadcast our inner perceptions to the outer world, concretizing them in the process.
Language is also a way to become more familiar with our bodies. Even when I utter such an apparently innocuous phrase as “I am sick,” or “I have a cold,” I give credence to the notion that I am the body. I can begin to challenge this habitual tendency to identify with the body by changing my language. If I say instead, “My body has a cold,” I bring my language into alignment with the actual relationship of body and inner self. This is important, because if my language is not in alignment with what I am, as separate from the body, I contribute to a contradiction that will result in some kind of discord.
The attitudes and judgments that have become part of each person’s belief system are more transparent than we may think. An expression many of us have encountered, or uttered ourselves is, “I have a bad hip” or “I have a terrible headache.” What kind of image is conjured when we refer to a body part as bad or a condition as terrible? It’s a negative image, isn’t it? There are no bad or naughty arms or legs; rather, there are parts of the body that now demand more of our attention. If I feel achy everywhere, does that mean “I” am bad? The word “bad” implies that a person or thing is not functioning or behaving in the proper way. By that logic, there can be no good reasons for something or someone being bad—therefore, it’s a term of condemnation. If we continue to disassociate from various body parts or states of mind, or use language that scolds them for not performing as we want them to, how can we possibly heal them? If a sore shoulder bothers you to the point that it stimulates your desire to look deeper into its cause, is this bad? Pain brings about necessary adjustments precisely because it does demand our attention. To attribute the word “bad” to anything will skew your ability to learn from it.
“Hate” is another word that clouds our reasoning. If you pay close attention you will be surprised how many times a day you will hear yourself (or someone else) uttering hatred of something: “I hate getting up in the morning,” “I hate this weather,” “I hate waiting in line,” “I hate my thighs,” “I hated that movie,” “I hate brussel sprouts,” and on and on. These expressions are not as innocuous as they may seem. Every time you use the word “hate” you distance yourself not only from the object of your hatred, but from the serenity and composure that comes from learning to live with reality. So the language we choose to express the condition of our lives really does affect our lives. When pain (sensation) is referred to in derogatory terms such as “awful” or “terrible,” or when a person says, “I hate this pain,” or “I’m sick of this pain,” that is exactly how that event will be experienced.
That is not to say that we should lie to ourselves, to say we feel fine when we don’t. In fact, both hating something and denying it are strategies of dismissal. What we “hate” we are rejecting—attempting to cut it off from the approved, “official” version of ourselves that we would like to experience and would like others to see. We cannot inspect and learn from that which we simply reject. On the other hand, to deny that we feel bad and to say that we’re “fine” accomplishes the same purpose: We cannot inspect or learn from feelings that we deny we have.
How can we bring our language into closer alignment with the nature of the sensations we are experiencing? One suggestion is to substitute the word “strong” for “bad,” “awful,” or “terrible”—or to substitute the word “acknowledge” for “hate.” This demonstrates how we can change the way a sensation is experienced. This calls upon us to focus and engage our experience with enough clarity to then articulate it a more workable form.
For many individuals, using language in this new way will help them inspect their pain more closely and carefully than they ever have before. If a person makes the sojourn within and returns with an assessment like, “It feels as if energy is rushing through my muscles,” they might then use that word—rush—whenever that particular overwhelming sensation arises. To say “I feel a rush” positions us in a very different relationship to sensation than saying “That hurts,” which is sort of a static, dead-end place to be with pain. Because this process comes out of each individual’s experience and language it is one we can trust because it comes from the repository of our own being. Simply changing the language we use to refer to our discomforts permits us more factual information about them. And if we want to be pain-free we need to have accurate information about our pain.
Sensations are just sensations. The only attributes they have are what we assign to them. We give sensations power when we refer to them as good, bad, uncomfortable, life-threatening. We don’t have to add, subtract, embellish or deny them, but simply note exactly what is perceived—nothing more, nothing less. It is our opinions and preferences that create the narrow perspectives within which we operate, and it’s in this very milieu that we set ourselves up for pain.
Of course, some sensations are warning signals of serious medical conditions, and we must always be alert to this possibility. Whenever this is suspected, diagnostic medical intervention is appropriate. But even when a serious medical condition is suspected or known, we can engage the same processes described above in addition to appropriate medical treatment.
The Language of Blame
“I am not to blame” (or “he/she is not to blame”) is something we frequently hear these days, especially when friends or family are confronted with seemingly sudden illnesses, accidents, accusations, or other unforeseen events. But this attitude—which, as I will explain below, is actually an attitude filled with blame—can only keep us further removed from recognizing the lessons inherent in adversity. Paradoxically, most of the time when people talk of their blamelessness, the often unstated but clear message is that others are to blame. In other words, there is plenty of blame—the only argument seems to be where to place it! When we say “I am not to blame,” too often we’re saying, “I am an innocent victim, and someone else is to blame.”
Blame is a potent word and clouds the issue. It conjures up images of good and bad, right and wrong. Blame is a word that does not in any way contribute to our ability to see pain through a clear, neutral lens—as an adjustment, not a problem.
Let’s try a different configuration of words, a different viewpoint. Why not regard ourselves with all the power that we truly possess, even the power to create our destiny, including illnesses. I like it that my life is in my hands and not up to some amorphous chaos of events that descends on some and not on others. Life seems incomprehensible and chaotic only if we don’t take in its offerings with gratitude and listen to the messages it provides. If you wish to know this order, you have only to regard every aspect of your life (the lovely and the not so lovely) as bearing important information. If you do this, meaningful patterns will emerge. Once you observe this patterning in your own life it will not be such a stretch to comprehend the same meaningful and orderly constructs surrounding and supporting us. In other words, we look to the microcosm to understand the macrocosm, because they mirror each other.
Our illnesses are a part of this order. They are one of the primary mediums through which our purposes become known to us. And we are intimately involved with them. They are not foreign invaders, but expressions of our own needs. To get in touch with this, feel your own pain the next time it arises. Ask yourself if your stomachache is some unfathomable phenomenon that was floating around in space looking for a place to deposit itself and just happened to find you. The cause of a stomachache is often obvious, and it is fruitful and productive to learn why and when you get them. The same is no less true of heart disease, cancer, depression, headache, autoimmune disease, or accidents. And you are the one uniquely suited to make this discovery.
If we believe things “just happen,” then there is no possibility of anything making sense. We are then left weak and angry, and with an attitude to match. The word “luck” betrays a misunderstanding of how events occur. We shake our heads at our own good and bad luck and that of others, yet we are and have always been in the driver’s seat. We just haven’t yet grabbed the steering wheel!
Our misconstruing of the workings of the world is what leads us to blame others for our problems. It eases our mind, eases our frustration, eases our pain, to have a place to relinquish our uncertainties. But if we are only able to feel good about ourselves and our circumstances at the expense of someone else, we are setting ourselves up for more pain.
I do not accept the notion that luck is behind who gets what, nor do I think it is helpful to say that I am to blame for my condition; rather, that my condition is the natural outcome of not being fully present in some circumstance when I have been called to do so. When we don’t take responsibility for what has arrived at our door and instead blame others, the universe will find a way to reveal to us (sooner or later) that we are wrong. If we learn the lessons given to us the first time around, then we can grow into new and more fulfilling experiences rather than endlessly repeating the same old ones. Meanwhile, pain is our greatest ally. Pain forces us to delve below the surface of our lives, where we seldom look. It’s here that events are forming in response to our thinking and attitudes. At some point in time these events will surface in our lives. We have the ability to comprehend how this process works; in fact, it’s imperative that we do so. Otherwise, we will continue to be perplexed when something difficult arises, lost in the apparent incomprehensibility of the very life we have participated in creating.
It’s not so much that we are trying to get rid of adversities but to change our relationship to them in such a way that we grow beyond them. When we understand why they are in our lives they may still be there, but not larger than we are. And then we will find better words and metaphors to describe our pain.