Over the weekend I attended a retreat in Huntington Beach. It was led by one of my favorite thinkers, Eckhart Tolle, and it centered around living a life of presence. I was able to hear some brilliant speakers with varying perspectives and despite their differences, I noticed that almost all of them spoke about the consequences of “naming things”.
Names are extremely reductive and realizing this has completely changed the way I look at life and language.
When you reduce a person, place, thing, or idea into a single word, it completely detracts from its essence. Words are generalizations and they eliminate the wonder of all that they represent.
I first noticed this idea with author and Buddhist practitioner, Jack Kornfield. He spoke a lot about meditation, which is something I have consistently struggled with. In the past, I have always fallen victim to the relentless voice in my head and have never been able to silence my mind. This is not a problem exclusive to meditation for me. I am constantly unable to enjoy the present because of the narratives my mind is telling me.
Kornfield provided us with an awesome visual this weekend that has already helped me to overcome this, and boy does it feel good to have some inner quiet! He said:
While you are in meditation, notice the thoughts that come up and name them. Then, watch them dissolve away like clouds under the sun.
This works for much more than meditation. It is a strategy that I am trying to use as frequently as possible in my daily life.
When you assign a single word to a complex situation or emotion, it loses so much power. You are able to understand that you are familiar with the word, you have seen it before, and you know how to process it.
For example, if you are someone who is constantly thinking about the future and worried about uncertainty, you probably create a narrative that is far beyond what is necessary. You imagine every option and outcome you can think of (none of which are “real”). You obsess and stress about potential problems and you let thoughts of your future take you away from your present. Every time you find yourself in this thought pattern, name it. Think, “This is fear. This is anxiety. This is nervousness”. You will realize that you have felt all of these emotions before and instead of going through an extensive script, you can acknowledge your thoughts and feel them dissipate.
That is the benefit of utilizing names. There is also a major detriment.
Eckhart Tolle gave an example that I felt illustrated the next concept very well. He told us a story about a hummingbird. One morning, he and his wife were standing on the porch of their home in Canada when a hummingbird flew over to them. It stopped right in front of them and seemed to stare at the couple right in their eyes. Eckhart explained that many people would have made the connection in their minds that it was a hummingbird and then would have stopped wondering about it because it was a bird they were already familiar with. This is a major de-emphasis of one of God’s creatures. In doing this, the need to know more is eliminated. As Eckhart so perfectly stated, “If you teach the child the name of the bird, the child will never see the bird again”.
It is our human instinct to look at things and analyze their functions and any potential harm that they could pose. Love is about so much more than that. Love is looking at the hummingbird and thinking about its past, where it came from, how it flies, the way it is colored, how it interacts with the rest of the world, in what ways it is similar to us, and the infinite amount of other properties that make a hummingbird what it is.
This same way of thinking applies to all people, places, things, and ideas. When you call me “Eden”, you are not thinking about my soul, my family, my childhood, my hardships, my joys… You are assigning everything that I am and have ever been to four meaningless letters.
I find this to be extremely applicable to relationships, as well. When I introduce somebody to my best friend, I give her a title. I call her my roommate or my best friend. These words do not even come close to encompassing all that she is to me. They do not explain all of the times we have cried together, laughed together, or grown together. They do not account for her gifts, her strength and resilience, or her compassion. I think about my dad, my mom, my step-dad, my siblings, and my past relationships. No combination of letters could ever illustrate their essences and when I get locked into using a single word I often forget the true miracles that they are.
Whether it is a chair, a meal, or a person, try to start looking at things without naming them. The wonder that becomes present when familiarity is gone is one of the best ways to feel gratitude and love.