Beyond words

Words have always been magic for me. From the time I learned to read (well before my first conscious memory), they have held the key to my understanding of the world around me and of my own inner experiences. The realms of enchantment and wonder spoken of through fairy tales, myths, poetry, and works of the fantastic imagination were as real to me as the things I could see and touch, or even more so.

While I sensed a kindred magic in nature, its language was comparatively veiled and obscure. It was through stories, through words, that I could most directly awaken to the true reality, for which all that appears to our senses is only a metaphor. I felt tremendous faith in the power that I experienced through this medium of language.

As I grew up, I came to realize that each and every human being encompasses a world as strange and fantastic as any I could encounter in a book, as rich and complex as any of the wonders of nature. And words are not always able to bridge the gap between us, to open the gate to that hidden country. When communication breaks down, when language cannot convey what I mean or even becomes hurtful and counterproductive, the pain is immeasurable. Is there another tongue to be learned, a language of the heart?

Working with people who are to some degree non-verbal, the so-called developmentally disabled, has helped me to begin to grasp this other way of speaking and listening. I’ve had to become more awake, more flexible, more attentive to the individual before me and less lazily reliant on habits and assumptions.

Sometimes “I” actually means “you” and vice versa; sometimes there are code words that mean something completely different to the other person than they do to me. I’ve had to figure out how to make my intention and inner focus the strongest aspect of any attempt at communication, rather than relying on spoken syllables to get my meaning across. And I’ve had to try to intuit the inner world of the person before me with very little help from anything resembling ordinary syntax.

When there are no words at all, behavior has to be read like a language of its own. Screaming, flinching, bed-wetting, sluggishness and hyperactivity, outburst and withdrawal all have meaning, all represent cries for help or comfort or security. I’ve had to pay heed to cues like skin color, changes in breathing, sleep patterns. Nothing is insignificant; each phenomenon is like a letter in a great script that must be lived through in order to be comprehended.

I’m by no means an expert at any of this, in fact the merest bumbling amateur. But at least I’ve gained the experience that our ordinary language often forms a kind of smokescreen of unconscious verbiage that deflects us from the underlying reality. Even when we’re trying to be more aware of what we say — or maybe particularly then — the limitations of words quickly become apparent, if they’re not supported by other kinds of awareness.

Much as I still love and reverence language, I now know that there is another way to understand and meet one another. Without being rooted in this wordless foundation of pure meaning, words themselves become dead, empty husks. They can only be redeemed and brought back to life when we find our way to the source, creating each utterance anew out of our own living perception of the tension between self and other, and of its potential resolution into a higher harmony.

Words are the writing on the wall that divides us. Whether they will harden into stony barriers, or become transparent windows showing a way through, depends on how we use them.

Have you also been challenged to go beyond words? What other ways of speaking and understanding do you experience?

Odilon Redon – Mystical Conversation, 1896

15 thoughts on “Beyond words

  1. I very much like the way you’ve taken this line of thought beyond spoken and written words to body language and how in many ways the latter is the more effective means of communication.

    We all know about the weasel words of politicians and their ilk, and the issues surrounding fake ‘fake news’ and Humpty-Dumptyism. Actions speak louder than words, but we must also ‘listen’ to body language, especially as ‘spoken’ by those who are unable to speak up for themselves with action.

    Another excellent and thoughtful post, Lory. For me, music is often the language that speaks to me at an emotional level, particularly instrumental music where I can converse with others in an ensemble.

    (By the way, I discussed some of the words we use to describe how to effect magic in this post, if you’re interested:

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  2. Gorgeous post (and accompanying art!), thank you using words to craft your journey and experience into a gift. The last couple of years I’ve been exploring looking at the world and our dynamics more and more in terms of energy, and I now look at words as containers for energy. Much communication is energetic in nature, and we express that energy through words, behavior, and other forms of creativity. Also that each word, as a medium, carries its own collective reverberations to notice (which of course often connect differently to different people) and consider… language is such an incredible art form.

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    1. I didn’t mention eurythmy in here, Susan, but what you describe is so much what that art form (as visible speech) is about. Maybe I’ll write about that at some point.


      1. Having only read briefly about it, I haven’t yet really understood what eurythmy offers. I’ll look forward to your illumination of it, as a possibility!

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  3. There is an interesting dichotomy between language and other forms of communication – I sometimes think that is one of the major issues in the generation gap – each generation has its own non verbal cues brought about by the specific elements in their upbringing at that particular time.


  4. A wonderful post and responses. I think tone can often be as important as words and gestures (though sometimes it can confuse), emoticons are a way of replacing this in written communications but they are quite limited.

    To music I’d add art and dance as ways of communicating without words, but they of course generally only occur in particular spaces, in galleries or theatres, or at festivals, and they often have their own sets of codes. I hope you will write about eurythmy.

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    1. All the arts are important as a means of and training in expressive technique. There’s so much richness and complexity there that we can’t even grasp with the rational mind. Maybe that’s why we tend to under-value them or dismiss them as mere entertainment.


  5. So lovely and a lot to think on! I work mainly with children and many times what people may call “bad behavior” is actually a form of communication. That they are tired, scared, or uncomfortable. Very interesting to consider.

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    1. Yes, being a parent or working with children also brings us to this challenge of nonverbal communication, although it is also so wonderful to see how they develop language.

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  6. I was really moved by this post. For all of my life words have been a second or, more accurately, a third language. My first language is the language of actions. If someone says “I love you,” it means very little except that there are strong feelings flying about uncontrolled which is basically a bit scary. But if someone does something to help me, even a small thing, like letting me out when I’m queueing in traffic on my way to work, or picking up something I’ve dropped, then I feel their love and know it to be true. Words have always had a way of back-firing on me so I don’t always trust them, even when I write them myself.

    When you said
    “When communication breaks down, when language cannot convey what I mean or even becomes hurtful and counterproductive, the pain is immeasurable”.
    Your description really got to the heart of the difficulty of having autism, even though, for me, it’s fairly mild. In that sentence you captured the pain and struggle of my life. Thank-you so much for finding these words.

    My second language is pictures. It’s why I’m an artist I think. It’s why I love comics books or books where a film has been made. I can see the characters then. Very often I dislike the films made of favourite books because they always fall so short and the details which I love in books are often missing in films unless some set designer or costume maker has noticed that thing and put it in. But where there are films of books I can see and know the book more and that is a joy. It’s like the film gives me metadata on the book.

    Words are my third language, something I use when I can’t use anything else. Don’t get me wrong, I love words and the purest magic of all is that of stories. I just find words difficult, especially those spoken between people (like this comment). I hope I haven’t gone on too long. Thanks again for a great post.

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    1. I think actually actions and pictures are the first languages for all of us. Words are tremendously powerful tools, but they are not the primal reality. It’s important not to forget that, and that’s why for me people with autism or who are otherwise non-verbal have been my greatest teachers.

      Thank you for sharing your experience, I am so glad to hear from you.

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