Thought without words

water

“Love you!” says my granddaughter, wearing a huge grin and blowing soggy kisses She still can’t pronounce the words quite right, nor does she really know what they mean. She only knows they always bring smiles when she says them. She has learned them from the big people who feed, cuddle and play. The ones with whom she is safe and happy. She knows they mean something to do with that… but can have no real definition of the words at one year old.

Although she is never quiet and babbles away constantly, she has, as yet, no real use of language above the few nouns and verbs with which she navigates her world. She is learning fast, having grasped this concept of verbal communication. Expression and intonation she has already acquired and we have long, involved conversations, that are still communication regardless of the fact that technically, neither of us understands the other. Sometimes she will pause in her chatter, with her head on one side, as if she is considering what to do or say next. She reminds me of a puppy when she does that.

Dogs and humans communicate too, though there is a lack of shared language here too. We have learned to read their visual and audible language, though not always well. They bring all their senses to bear on understanding their humans and often seem to read us better than members of our own species.

I’ve often wondered how babies and dogs think. You have only to watch a small child or puppy working out a problem… like, for both species, how to open the forbidden cookie cupboard… to see that think they do. With children and dogs, you can almost see the cogs turning. But how do they think?

Not everyone thinks exclusively in words, even in the surface mind. Some think in pictures and process experience and problems that way. Other non-verbal forms of thought include kinaesthetic, musical and mathematical thinking. I am no expert…barely have a toe in the murky waters here… but I wonder if all these are forms of conscious thought, with verbal thought being the simplest to transmit and therefore the most commonly acquired.

I think verbally. A nice easy statement. I use the acquired tool of language to frame my thoughts. Dogs and small children have no access to that. But when I think about it… do I really use language in order to think or merely to translate the real thoughts into a readily transmittable format?

The surface mind uses words, dressing thought in such a manner that it is ready to go out into the world. They are neatly framed in the local language so that I can speak or write those thoughts, sharing them effortlessly. But are they the thoughts themselves, or merely their shadows? Does true thought accept the constraints of language, when the realm of imagination is wide enough to encompass more than just words? And if our verbal thoughts are merely shadows on the surface of the brain, then like our own shadows, how two-dimensional might they be in comparison to the original thoughts that cast them?

There are moments, lost in contemplation when an idea or concept that is usually hazy becomes crystal clear. For a split second, you know that you understand perfectly what you have sought. You know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this time, you really ‘got it’. But the instant that thought hits the conscious mind, it is wrapped in language, becoming clouded, fragmented… the flow of understanding becomes little more than the staccato reflection of a broken mirror and understanding is lost…at least to consciousness.

Perhaps it isn’t language that is the real constraint, but the limitations of the conscious mind.

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What could we discover if we could trace our thoughts back to their source and bring them back into the world whole?

Mankind has always used symbols to suggest in visual form concepts too abstract to translate into words. There are words associated with them, names, descriptions and meanings… there are stories attached to them, designed to engage the emotions and imagination… but the deeper meaning of a true symbol is difficult, if not impossible, to express. It can only be experienced and known.

Within the Silent Eye, we use this principle to teach through imaginative ‘journeys’; visual meditations based on an unfolding story designed to allow students to experience a scenario in the realm of the mind. We are working backwards from surface consciousness towards the source of thought, beginning with the crafted words, and painting them as moving pictures that the imagination and emotions can bring to life. The Companion of the School experiences these journeys at a level of thought beyond words… and what is brought back to the conscious mind from these meditations adds a new perspective to the way we see the world and the way in which we walk through our days.

The flow of thought, in this respect, may be said to resemble a stream within which our normal consciousness drifts like a canoe with the current, always flowing downstream. There are many techniques for meditation, such as the ones we use in the School, and these could be equated to giving the canoeist a paddle that allows them to explore and retrace their journey upstream to the source and move in a controlled manner on the stream.

We use a similar approach for our April workshops, spending a weekend living out a story in imagination and scripted drama. You could just call it playacting…but doesn’t every child begin to learn through play?

We may never know how the mind of a child thinks. There are theories galore and more studies and papers than you could read in a year on various aspects of their perception, learning and expression. There are amazing distinctions of tonal expression that are heard by a child, but lost once they have acquired language. What else do we lose when we allow words to clutter the pathways of the mind? Is the white noise of language masking the real content of our thoughts? And how wide a vista could we find if we still the incessant chatter and access the source of understanding?

water vista

48 thoughts on “Thought without words

  1. This article was great! Philosophical even. When I think of kids and dogs, I’m reminded how much of our language is facial expression, gestures or symbols with are hands, and tone of voice. For small child and certainly for a dog these three are more important even then words. For instance, my old dog knew if we were talking on low voices as low as we could go, she was in trouble. Or when we put our hand flat on the ground once it meant ‘sit’ again it meant ‘lay down.’ I’ve been reading about mothers who use symbols with their hands for young children too. Fascinating subject especially relating them to meditation. Thanks

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    1. Thank you, Mandi. My Ani knows my true mind, even if I say the words and use the gestures that mean I am annoyed, she knows when I am just laughing inside at her antics. Like the latest incident.
      We do tend to think of communication in terms of words, but the variety of ways in which we communicate all the time goes far beyond that.

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  2. “merely to translate the real thoughts into a readily transmittable format?” Yes. I’ve long believed that the sub-conscious [or whatever you choose to call it] is the true powerhouse of the human mind, but it’s a holistic thinker so if the main thread is to be communicated, it must be squeezed into the linear form of expression we call language. -shrug- We do the best we can with what we have. 🙂

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    1. There are many layers to the mind and whatever you call that powerhouse, it is undoubtedly a long way beneath, or beyond, the form of language. Still, without it, we could not explore as we do the reaches of the imagination.

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      1. Not knocking language, just recognizing that sometimes language itself can be a barrier to that creativity because the translation process is not always perfect.

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  3. Great post Sue!
    The other thing is as adults we can learn to manipulate our body language, expressions and words to show something we don’t feel….
    Kids don’t have that skill, they are honest and pure…. What they mean, shows! Tantrums and all! But those heartfelt hugs are the best!

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    1. Children have such an appetite for life and just jump in feet first to every emotion. Not always easy when you are on the receiving end of some of them.. but as you say, the hugs are just gorgeous 🙂

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  4. Deep meaningful thoights for us to ponder,and the pictures are so peaceful. A long time since I was at the coast, could not walk it now, so with these pictures, I can walk it in my mind. Thanks Sue.
    Evelyn

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  5. I have read that SOUNDS ARE THE WORLD that means through them we create pictures and symbols or stories. hank you very much fr this beautiful post with the most impressive pictures.Best regards Martina

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  6. Children and dogs are not restricted by social niceties. Sam used to make every effort he could to communicate HIS needs including verbal attempts and body language and after a while we began to read each other’s minds and his clock was second to none! Familiarity does play a role and I notice after 36 years David and I have developed a non-verbal communication. We work in sync.

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    1. Ani does vocalise, but her body language is the most eloquent. The vocalisation is more for my benefit than hers, I believe. I recognise the accuracy of the canine clock too and her reading of me is uncannily accurate. I think that living so closely together, both animal and human relationships seem to find a shared ‘harmonic’ that allows a wordless communication of great simplicity and sophistication, particularly where there is a strong emotional bond.

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  7. You’ve uncovered something special with this post. Very philosophical, and parallels Daoist philosophy as their mantra is basically to return back to the mind of a child…where there are no biases and just the curiosity of life. The feeling of absolute love and loyalty with children too is something so special, and strangely shared by dogs as well. I love this…truly, I now wonder what are the limitations of the conscious mind?!?

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    1. It is an idea shared by many belief systems… even Christianity urges its adherents to become as a little child. Can you imagine combining the innocent wonder and delight of the child with the intellect and discernment of the adult? For those choosing to walk a spiritual path, finding that balance, I think, is one of the goals.
      For myself, I wonder how many limitations we construct in the conscious mind.

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      1. My hope for the future evolution of the human race is just this ~ the mind opening up and growing and realizing the absolute magic the mind of a child holds. As you say, can you imagine politics with minds evolved with the “innocent wonder and delight of the child with the intellect and discernment of the adult”

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        1. It is very much in line with my own hopes for the future. There are more and more people seeking to open up to the world… perhaps we are seeing the beginning as the pendulum swings away from the cage.

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  8. A wonderful post, Sue. My psychotherapist explained my dyspraxia to me as I think and see in patterns, visually. They had me do a test where there was a series of numbers I had to link and I couldn`t do it, why asked why I told them that they had put the numbers in the wrong order on the page. They had messed up the pattern, I don`t think the lady quite knew what I meant but visually the numbers were wrong. Guided meditation is wonderful for me, I`m often away down the road already. One of the visual tools I use when trying to calm my anxiety down is a vision of a lotus flower floating in the middle of darkness. Words can clutter, tasks become mountains when explained with words, problems become horrendous. Instructions can seem like Chinese and yet I`m a writer. When I write I`m only explaining the story that is like a movie inside my head and therefore words are useful. So, double edge sword I guess. So sorry for rambling but your post inspired me very much.

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    1. Patterns matter to Nick’s way of thinking too since the attack… he sees them in many abstract ways and scenarios. My mind likes order and symmetry too (though it doesn’t make it as far as my desk…) so I understand where you are coming from, Adele.
      Guided meditations are a really useful way of exploring the inner levels of being. Like daydreams, they go beyond words to the wordless in an experiential manner, but unlike daydreams they have a quite specific direction and intent. A favourite of mine for calming the mind is a Zen meditation… drinking tea from an empty cup.
      Words are the way we have evolved in order to communicate. The vision of the dreamer or the writer can use words to craft images that lead back to the wordless… or, as you say, depict the story unfolding on the screen of the mind. A double-edged sword indeed, but all the finest blades cut both ways 🙂

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  9. Great questions so often asked. Reading this I thought of the goal of meditation as ‘no thought’ or pure stillness of being. So hard to work ourselves back to that place we were before language.

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  10. Terrific post, Sue. I often look at my granddaughter and wonder how she processes what she sees? When she is concentrating on something, I wonder what she is thinking. Without enough words to verbally communicate all of her thoughts, what is the process she uses? She talks quite well for a two-year-old, but when she is conversing with someone, she will substitute made up words for those she doesn’t know. I would love a peek into her mind. At an early time, did we have words at all, or did they evolve through the ages? A lot to ponder here,

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