Language in Mystical Traditions

It’s common knowledge that Webster lets us sleep peacefully, there he is within reach, with all the answers. And it’s true, but only because we’re no longer capable of asking the questions that would liquidate him.—Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch

There is no singular world religion, no concept of God or ethics that every person believes in. There have been countless attempts to describe what exists beyond this world, who or what created it, and how a life should be lived. The reason that no consensus has been reached is because, I will argue, the very nature of language prevents it. No person has been able to produce a watertight argument for God or divinity using words because these are things that exist outside of time and space, and language does not. Language can’t reflect what it doesn’t mirror. Divinity can be experienced, and many mystic, saints, and believers have claimed to experience it, but the metaphors they have used have varied wildly. There are clearly shared traits in what it is people see, namely something infinite, outside of time and space but that causes all things and contains all things.

Given this essay’s argument that language has inherent constraints, its writing is somewhat of an exercise in futility. Unfortunately, I must use language to show the limits of language in the hopes of demonstrating there is something beyond those limits. I will argue that language necessarily turns processes into permanence, and makes units of the diverse parts that make up a unity. Due to its inability to transcend time, language will never adequate for the kind of arguments many have tried to use it to make.

Despite the abstract nature of the argument, some grounding is possible. Naming, specifically the naming of nations, can provide an earthly foundation for my analysis to stand on as it reaches for the heavens. Nation-states, which are processes, have been given names and treated as self-contained entities. For Anthropologist Eric Wolf, “Concepts like ‘nation,’ ‘society,’ and ‘culture’ name bits and threaten to turn names into things.”1 Wolf argues that global relationships and global processes, which are fluid, dynamic, and evolving, become reduced to static bodies when they are named “nation” or “culture.″ It bounds them and fixes them in time. For example, the United States doesn’t stand alone; it was a process of the trade of fur and slaves, of colonization, and wars. To speak of “American history” is impossible without naming a series of processes and turning them into the unit “America.” There is a paradox, however, with the naming of nations. The “bundles of relationships,” as Wolf calls them, that a nation’s name indicates, have only recently been referred to as such but are treated as ancient.2

Benedict Anderson argues that one of the main paradoxes of the nation state is “the objective modernity of the nation to the historian’s eye vs. the subjective antiquity in the eyes of nationalists.”3 Anderson clearly demonstrates how populations began to see themselves as units. He shows that the printing press created a unifying language that people could identify with, which allowed them to identify with other speakers of the same language. Anderson also shows that this language creates a new form of historical time, by which a group of people becomes a nation and sees themselves as a unit, with a shared history, progressing forward in time.

When something is named, it’s perceived as a bounded entity placed within a stream of time, rather than a process. A name gives space borders that only exist on a map,  turns that marked space into a named place, and, most nefariously, creates an “us:” of those within the place and an “other” of those from outside. Setting boundaries is definitely a necessity of language. A speaker needs to name things so that organization can be possible, to speak of relationships between objects. The problems arise when these names are treated as real things, rather than as useful but flawed tools. Concretely, this issue arises when nationalistic spirit takes hold of people and the name the other and kill it. German History becomes more important to Germans because it’s named. Who is included in that history, and gets to be part of its future, becomes prickly and, often times, exclusive.

This suppression of non-named content is demonstrated in music as well. William O. Beeman discusses this tendency in regards to John Cage’s piece 4’33”, which consists entirely of rests. The piece is meant to change the audience’s perception of sound and challenge preconceptions about what qualifies as music. Because the audience is seated in an auditorium, but the pianist sits at the instrument without playing music, no particular composed sound  is foregrounded. All the ambient sounds then become the music. No name or note is asserting itself at the expense of the totality of sound, and that is where the genius of the piece lies.4 The listener is actually creating the song based on what they choose to pay attention to. 4’33” also contradicts exactly the definitions it attempts to subvert. Because it is attempting to elevate everyday sound to music by presenting ambient noise in a formalized concert setting, it is still naming itself as music; the audience only pays attention to sound when they’re told to. Perhaps Cage should have named the piece “The Life of the Audience” to force them to listen intently even after they leave the performance.

In everyday life, humans pick out what’s relevant to them and discard the rest. Language is always higher information than other sounds; it means more to us and we pay more attention to it. Murmurs, easy-listening music, and car horns in a crowded café or restaurant seem to fall away if a listener is focused on a conversation; background music stays in the background in the face of a conversation. Sound isn’t a neutral medium in which all content is equal; language naturally thrusts itself forward. That is why, to really find meaning, it is often better to be silent. Eva Hoffman, a bilingual professor and memoirist, problematizes language in her memoir, Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language. Because she straddles two languages, Polish and English, she can see the fault of the form as a whole. She recognizes that words only hint at something, which silence can render in full. “The silence that comes after words is the fullness from which the truth of our perceptions can crystallize,” she writes.5 Words filter; silence doesn’t. It’s unclear which “truth” Hoffman is referring to, but there is a truth of mysticism that can only be borne of silence.

The traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufi Islam, and Kabalic Judiasm each make the argument that, just like Wolf and Anderson’s nation, the individual is a construction, only existent because of a name. The self, and the concept of the self, needs to be dissolved in silence so that the divine can be experienced. Conveying to someone unenlightened what the experience of merging with the divine felt like is impossible, by language’s inherent need to divide when the divine infinite is indivisible.

In The Upanishads, a central Hindu text, a man is granted three boons from the personification of Death. For his third boon, the man asks for knowledge of death and infinity. Death responds:

What name can man give to God? How can the Infinite be bound by any finite word? All that language can express must be finite, since it is itself finite . . . His form is not to be seen, no one beholds him with the eye. He is imagined by the heart, by wisdom, by the mind. Those who know this are immortal.6

The passage reveals several key features of Hindu metaphysics, as well as aids as an illustration of the limits of language. Since language consists of discrete units, names, and shows the relationship between these units, it takes the units as real things, rather than modalities of the divine united being central to Hinduism. Things are not in themselves self-contained, but words are; language has to draw borders on things so it can refer to them. However, in Hinduism all existence is united, and a failure to realize that results in reincarnation upon death. The Being must be “imagined by the heart, by wisdom, by the mind” and not through language, because the being is the totality of matter and energy in the world. Any attempted description of The Being becomes part of The Being by simply existing, and can’t step outside it to reflect it. Words can’t break their finitude to describe the infinite, and that’s why meditation and silence is central to Hindu practice.

This isn’t exclusively a feature of Hinduism, the poverty of language and the unity of existence are themes frequently repeated in the poetry of the Sufi mystic and poet Rumi. Rumi’s poem, “The Reed Flute’s Song” begins with the line “Listen to the story told by the reed / of being separated / since I was cut from the reed bed / I have made this crying sound.”7 Rumi saw his poems as reed flute songs, attempts to return to The Source or the United Being. This theme of being cut from the source, being made a discrete unit through separation from unity is the guiding thread of a great deal of his poems, and has echoes of the Upanishads. In the poem “Enough Words” he writes “The soul lives there in the silent breath / And that grain of barley is such that / when you put it in the ground /it grows.”8 To Rumi, the soul is a part of the world, and grows through a silent communion with the world. The ego is a barrier between the soul and the world, and the ego is created and reinforced by language. In the same poem, Rumi writes that “your boundaries are your quest” which can be understood as the poet advising some form of ego dissolution. To reach the boundaries he writes “be quieter than a dove / don’t open your mouth for even a cooooooo.”9 Despite being one of the most gifted and widely read poets, Rumi also writes, “when I finish a poem / A great silences overcomes me / and I wonder why I ever thought / To use language” again, demonstrating that language becomes a barrier to enlightenment.10

It’s no coincidence that one word, or one letter, is often used in mystical traditions to express all of infinity. For Buddhists and Hindus this is the word “Om”; for the kabbalist it is the letter Aleph. Aleph, the letter, is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet (א) and the Arabic Alphabet (ا), and for mystics it represents the entirety of divinity. The Arabic word for God, Allah, begins with the letter Aleph. The fact that aleph signifies totality is, in my interpretation, a factor of possibility. The first letter of an alphabet precedes every other letter in it. It is possible to combine all the letters in an infinite way to get at every conceivable sentence, which would describe every single thing in the universe. Since it would be impossible to actualize all possible facts, the Aleph signifies the possibility of every conceivable proposition by being the first letter building block of language. Infinity necessitates every combination. For something to truly be infinite, it must contain all possibilities. Language, of course, forces the user to choose from among the possibilities. Choosing then destroys every possibility that isn’t spoken, erases them, which is antithetical to the idea of the infinite.

In a short story, Jorge Louis Borges renders the idea of the Aleph concrete in physical space. The Aleph becomes a point through which someone can see every point throughout time simultaneously. When Borges’s protagonist sees the Aleph, a point that contains all points in a literal sense, he is unable to describe it. “How can one transmit to others the infinite Aleph? . . . What my eyes saw was simultaneous; What I shall write is successive, because language is successive.”11

Language can only communicate in succession. One sound, must come after another when spoken, and one word must come after another when written. This entrenches language in time. Whatever the divine being is, God, nature, or infinity itself, must stand outside of time. Language is incapable of escaping the temporal, it can’t stand outside time, which is why it will be incapable of ever communicating, in literal terms, what the divine is. Borges elaborates on this theme in another story, The Writing of The God,

I reflected that even in the languages of humans there is no proposition that does not imply the entire universe; to say “the jaguar” is to say all the jaguars that engendered it, the deer and turtles it has devoured, the grass that fed the deer, the earth that was mother to the grass, the sky that gave light to the earth… No word uttered by a god could be less than the universe, or briefer than the sum of time. The ambitions and poverty of human words—all, world, universe—are but a shadows or simulacra of that Word which is equivalent of a language and all that can be comprehended within the language.12

Borges’s Jaguar, Rumi’s reed and Wolf’s nation are all the same, processes and series of relationships that are named incorrectly. By being named they become separated from their source, which is the infinite divine being. The issue isn’t that a different word must be picked to name these things, it’s that the words themselves are incapable of doing what they’re being asked to.

Words must function as boundary creators to have any meaning at all. They have to turn process—the deer turtles, grass, earth, sky—into self-contained units, jaguars. It would not be expedient at all to refer to things by the complete set of circumstances that brought them about, it wouldn’t even be possible. This is why words can’t convey the visions of ecstasy, the divine, or what is seen through the Aleph. What the mystic grasps through meditation, fasting, and revelation, what Borges sees through the Aleph, is Infinity, the sum total of all processes happening at once, and language can’t do that in practice.

Our consciousness and our language force us to see things as discrete events with causes and effects. There’s no shortage of philosophers—Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, among them—who tried to provide proofs for divinity using formal logic, showing that God was the first mover. None of these arguments have been accepted as sound arguments, because God must be cause-and-effect and the language used to show both cause, effect, and everything in between. The twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein outlines a theory of language that he claims demonstrates why none of these proofs can stick.

Wittgenstein outlines a theory of language, stating that it is a picture of reality. In reality, in space, there are objects which are interrelated. In language, these objects become named and claims about the objects can indicate how things are interrelated. All possible claims about the world can be reflected clearly by language, according to Wittgenstein, but what those claims are is limited. You can paint a picture of the world through language, but say little about the picture. If every true proposition about every set of objects is made, then a picture of the entire world is created, with no analysis. The exact logic of Wittgenstein’s theory of language is less important for our purposes than the conclusion Wittgenstein arrives at, which is the claim that if something exists in the world, a clear proposition can be made about it. The rub is that “all happening and being-so is accidental. What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental. It must lie outside the world. Propositions cannot express anything higher . . . How the world is, is completely indifferent for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world. Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.”13

It’s not the fault of any metaphysician that they couldn’t adequately describe the infinitude they beheld. They tried to show it, sure, but if Wittgenstein is right, then they embarked on a fruitless journey. Human silence is the only language that the divine communicates through, because everything becomes of equal value. Everything, all of it, every noise, sight and atom loses its meaning as a relation. Rather, they all become part of the Godly creation unfolding. Everything at once, all together. And the rest is silence.

  1. Eric Robert Wolf, Europe and the People without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 3.
  2. Wolf, Europe and the People Without History, 40.
  3. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2016), 5
  4. William O. Beeman, “Silence in Music,” Silence: The Currency of Power, edited by Maria-Luisa Anchino-Loeb (Boston: Berghahn Books, 2006), 23-34.
  5. Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language, (London: Vintage, 2008), 276.
  6. The Upanishads, translated from the Sanskrit by Swāmi Paramānande, (Boston, MA: Vedânta Centre, 2002).
  7. Jalāl Al-Dīn Rūmī, “The Reed Flutes Song,” The Essential Rumi, translated from the Persian by Coleman Barks (New York: HarperCollins, 2004) 17/1-4.
  8. Rūmī, “Enough Words,” The Essential Rumi, 21/32-35.
  9. Ibid., 14; 21-22.
  10. Rūmī, “A Thirsty Fish,” The Essential Rumi, 21/28-31.
  11. Jorge Louis Borges, “The Aleph,” Jorge Luis Borges: Collected Fictions, translated from the Spanish by Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin, 1998)
  12. Borges, “The Writing of The God,” Collected Fictions, 252
  13. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, translated from the German by C. K. Ogden, (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2014), 88-89.
Back to Top