Spiritual Language


The use of eloquent words

will not illumine this path.

Sophisticated argument

will not convince others of its truth.

Books without number 

will not teach this path.

Simplicity is the joyous and practical guide

that teaches us this way to walk.

     From The Tao Te Ching, Chapter 81

Whenever a person tries to learn a new language, it is filtered through the existing language — “this means this” — so that the old language continues to provide the framework and world view for the new. Almost any language expert will insist that the only truly effective way to become fluent in a new language is by immersion; putting ourselves into the new culture with no reference to our old language; learning from scratch the way we learned our native language as children. At first we necessarily translate in our thoughts, but eventually we stop thinking in the old language and begin to see the world through the new. This is terribly difficult, especially for older people.

Developing an authentic spirituality is like learning an entirely new language, one with an unfamiliar way of seeing the world. It can only come through the same kind of immersion. We have been educated, trained, and conditioned to be afraid. We have been taught to handle that fear by consumerism, achievement, and violence. These are the nouns, verbs, and adjectives that the mind has incorporated and they are not easily replaced. Fortunately, authentic spirituality was present in our mind before the conditioned culture replaced it. We’ve forgotten it, but it remains. Immersion is still difficult, but if we are willing we can develop the ability to see the world through an entirely different map; one with a new language and new understandings from an entirely new paradigm – a paradigm that was in place in our original mind.

Most of our training in spirituality has been “religion as a second language.” Our beliefs, rituals, and structures have been constructed from our conditioned language with all of its built-in assumptions. We therefore are always translating the spiritual world back into the “real world.” Some of us may be somewhat “bi-lingual” but are really fluent only in our existing cultural paradigm. This bi-lingual approach to spirituality will no longer work. We do not have the leisure for that strategy. I, at age 72, certainly do not. Our culture, on the brink of disintegration, certainly does not. The time has come for immersion; for leaving behind our so-called “native language” and giving ourselves no option but to learn to communicate in a new, deeper, more authentic manner.

To truly become fluent in a new spiritual language we must find the places where we sense this deeper language might be in use: in the natural world of trees, rivers, and stones; in the presence of animals and plants; with traditional tribes and peoples; any place that inner and outer silence is common. It will be difficult to discern this new language with certainty for we will keep trying to translate back into familiar ways of being and seeing. We may easily slip back into the old language out of fear, or habit, or desire. We don’t punish ourselves for these slips. Punishment is never an effective teaching tool. We simply keep returning to the places where we know that this deeper language is being spoken, no matter how faint or unintelligible it seems to us. We will learn if we just keep listening and practicing, letting the unfamiliar feelings and ideas gradually impress themselves upon our waiting minds. We once knew this language by heart and will soon respond with increasing ease and fluency.