The Limiting Nature of Words

If you look it up, you’ll find dozens of different definitions for the word “consciousness.” There are many competing theories that attempt to explain the phenomenon which we understand to be crucial to the human experience as well as for all of life.

The reason there are so many different ideas about this word is because consciousness is a thing beyond words. Further, words are inherently limiting. 

As a writer, it was hard for me to admit how weak my preferred communication tool is.  I have only recently accepted that when it comes to consciousness, words fall very short. We can do many beautiful things with language, but adequately describing consciousness is not one of them.

This is because we use words to talk about something, but we can never fully show what we mean with them. You may be able to vividly describe what it’s like to visit Australia (the heat, the animals, the culture), but a person would need to go there to really know what it’s like. Even a picture or a video couldn’t capture your experience, because there is a feeling—an energy—to every distinct location. Similarly, I could describe my experiences with expanded consciousness (and I plan to), but ultimately, one would need to expand their own consciousness to understand what it’s like.

Books make an excellent metaphor for the innumerable ways we each experience consciousness. Consider that you imagined the Chamber of Secrets in one way, your best friend imagined it in another, and the director of the Harry Potter movie made it in his own way. Nonetheless, each of you took the words and made something consistent and wonderful in your minds. And so it goes with this: Each human interprets consciousness in an entirely unique way, even though there are many shared emotions and experiences through which we can relate to each other about it. When we realize this, we see how useless it is to try and argue about its definition.

All attempts to pin it down also fail, because consciousness is changing at all times.  Here we are doing the mental equivalent of trying to stab a needle into a puddle of water. As soon as it’s done, the water has moved, and you see that it must be something or somewhere else.

Sometimes I use the word “consciousness” interchangeably with the word “God.” Many people who are new to spirituality or consciousness studies avoid using the word “God” because it has become a very loaded word. However, there is no logical reason for any word to be emotionally charged. They are just marks on a screen and sounds made with the mouth. It is the mind which does all kinds of gymnastics to accept or reject that God is fake, fearsome, benevolent, illusory, omniscient, peaceful, etc. And, too, it is the mind which makes emotional associations between words: peaceful = good feeling; illusory = bad feeling. True, some words may give you a nice feeling, but that does not mean they accurately describe God/consciousness/universal mind/the divine/the way/light/Truth/etc.

The word “God” is loaded because there are so many different interpretations for it, and also because most people who believe in God think it’s important that others fully agree with their personal interpretations of it. This is inflexible and egocentric, but very common. When we insist that God is not fluid and demand that other people agree with this position, we back ourselves into a corner and make life very unenjoyable. This can be true of any word or opinion.

If we wish to understand God (which, deep down, is a wish to understand ourselves), we will get over our attachments of what “God” means. We will be flexible and let people be as they are and take no offense when our idea of God is “denigrated.”

One cannot even “take the Lord’s name in vain.” The implication of such a concept is this: God has feelings that are like human feelings and God gets offended if we talk about Him in the “wrong” way. Even the wisest religious people tend to unconsciously (or consciously) assume God is pretty much a very wise, powerful, and loving human being, though still with issues such as jealousy, greed, and pride. This incomplete view of God is merely a projection of how people see themselves and the state of humanity.

The reason I use the word “consciousness” instead of God is because I know many of the things I say about it may cause closure and defensiveness if I come out and call it that. I respect that the world is in a particular place of egoism and closure, as I can also be at times.

To take an example of someone who perhaps spoke too forcefully for his time (or maybe not), consider Friedrich Nietzsche. He likely understood more about consciousness than anyone in his immediate surroundings, and famously wrote that “God is dead.” This statement continues to ruffle the feathers of religious people. I once watched a ridiculous movie about an atheist professor going toe-to-toe with a plucky Christian student because this statement is vastly misunderstood 117 years later. (Granted, that’s only a handful of generations, but still goes to show how slow humans can be to learn.) Some people use this quote to deride and write off the philosopher, who was, at most basic, speaking what was true to him.

Whether we “like” or “dislike” someone’s truth, we can at least respect the fact that it takes bravery to speak out. Speaking the truth always takes courage and is always revolutionary. The words “God is dead” are only offensive if you believe God is a thing which can die at all—that is, if you apply the primary defining quality of human life to God. This is a strangely self-absorbed position to hold if we believe humility is a value worth striving for, as most Christians (and myself) would claim.

For these times, I have found that the word “consciousness” is inoffensive and lacks a solid definition, which, somewhat paradoxically, is exactly how one who knows God might describe Him (Her/It/Ou).