“We create the world with our minds.” I’ve been hearing some version of this teaching for the last thirty years, ever since I started studying Zen. The actual saying is “the three worlds (of form, formlessness, and desire) are nothing but mind,” but “the three worlds” is simply another way of saying “everything.” We create all of reality through the way we use—or misuse—our minds, which in turn extends to the way we think, speak, and act. Each of these three fields of activity constitutes a world in itself, but here I’ll just focus on speech, partly because of my own love of words, and partly because of a recent conversation that made me reflect on the nature of language and its shape shifting, shape molding qualities. In this way, language also creates worlds, and as practitioners we do well to pay close attention to the ways that our words shape our experience. 

Take, for example, the concept of “indexicals,” linguistic expressions that reference different objects depending on the context in which they occur. The words I or today are indexical because when I use the pronoun I, I’m referring to myself: Zuisei, or Vanessa. When you use the pronoun, you’re referring to you: Rosa, or Charlie, or Hiram, or the eight billion other Is that inhabit our planet. Likewise, when I use the word today today, I’m referring to November 4, 2022. If I use the word today tomorrow, or a week from now, it will mean something else. Certain classes of words are specifically categorized as indexical—personal pronouns (“I,” “we,” “you,” etc.), demonstratives (“this,” “that”), and deictics (“here,” “there,” “now”)—because they are context-dependent, as are many other terms that rely on tone or punctuation to be understood. 

“You see me through you.”

If I call out, “Lucas, baby,” when talking to my dog, the meaning of the phrase is quite different than if I yell, “Lucas!” or resignedly say, “Oh, Lucas…” There are worlds in those words, and the wonderful thing is that Lucas understands immediately what I mean, simply by the tone of my voice, and responds accordingly.

Let’s take a slightly more complex sentence. If one morning I call out, “No, no, no! Don’t eat that!” the that may be referring to a sprig of eucalyptus that fell off the dining room table after I’d made a flower arrangement, or the last chocolate chip cookie in my jar, or a glass marble that’s rolled under a chair, to name just a few of hundreds or thousands of possibilities. The implied you in the sentence could refer to Lucas, or to my friend’s baby, or to my friend. By itself, the word that means nothing—or rather, nothing specific. The same is true for the implied I and you. And yet, as soon as the words leave my mouth, the other being in the room (who may not share my language level or even my species), will immediately know what I’m referring to when I exclaim and in some way point to whatever it is I want them to avoid. That’s the magic of language.

We’re constantly deriving meaning from the world around us and we respond congruently—in most cases—to whatever we experience. Even more astonishing is that we do this consistently, even though we often have very little information to go by. This is wonderful—until it isn’t.

Take a phrase like “I love you,” the kind of statement we make all the time in all sorts of situations. If you’ve ever uttered these words, you likely assumed you knew what you meant when you said them. You knew who you (the I) were. You knew the you you were addressing. And you knew, at least vaguely, what the word love implied. But did you? Did you really know? 

Your idea of me is fabricated with materials you have borrowed from other people and from yourself. What you think of me depends on what you think of yourself. Perhaps you create your idea of me out of material that you would like to eliminate from your own idea of yourself. Perhaps your idea of me is a reflection of what other people think of you. Or perhaps what you think of me is simply what you think I think of you.

That’s Thomas Merton in No Man Is an Island. Another way of saying this might be: “You see me through you.” We don’t usually see others as they are; we see them as we are. Actually, we see them as we think we are. When I see you, what I see are my wants, wishes, habits, and well-worn memories. I don’t see you—can’t see you—because my I is in the way. So, in order to make sense of you, I make you in my own image, and then I fix you in a now that is long gone. The you I’m speaking to is not the you you were six years ago or six months ago or six minutes ago. It can’t be, given that reality is constantly shifting. This means that even when referring to specific objects, indexicals are pointing to ever-changing entities. Is it any wonder, then, that we misunderstand one another? Is it any wonder we misunderstand ourselves? 

Our misapprehension extends to everything we perceive, from things to beings of all stripes. Yet it’s in our human relationships that the gap between our fantasies and reality is most glaring because we’re so invested in wanting others to be the way we imagine them to be. Yet it’s possible to see clearly, and express what we see. The task may feel a bit like standing on a curb and trying to count the freckles on the face of a driver as a car speeds by. But this is only because we insist on fixing a rushing stream with our language. We use words to label an event that’s long gone. It’s like the story of a fisherman who, after pulling a great catch one day, took a brush and a bucket of paint and drew a big X on the side of his boat.

“What is that for?” a fellow fisherman asked.

“To mark the best fishing spot,” the first man answered.

One of my teachers memorably said, “The self can’t move at the speed of impermanence.” Neither can our words—unless we let them do what they’re capable of doing: flowing, changing, adapting to, and reflecting a reality that won’t stand still because it’s not in its nature to do so. But when we let go of the idea of a fixed self and of fixed meaning, the I and the you and the that and the now—plus all the words we can think and articulate—can shift at the pace that they need to.

In truth, all language is referential and therefore indexical because, like the finger pointing at the moon, our words denote a reality that’s always becoming. Even in its isness—its suchness, as Buddhism calls it—it never is the same for long. How do we speak then, when nothing stands still long enough for us to name it? We could begin by using more capacious language— language that wonders instead of ascertains, and that acknowledges, not just what we think we know, but the vastness of what we don’t yet know.

The poet Galway Kinnell once said: “Never mind. The self is the least of it. Let our scars fall in love.” Maybe, when talking about love, we could say, “Let our blind spots fall in love. Let the stranger in me fall in love with the stranger in you. Let the I that I’m becoming fall in love with the you I haven’t yet discovered and can’t even imagine.” That would be a more realistic way of relating to one another. And, ironically, also more loving.

Practically Speaking

• Begin with the assumption that when you see something or someone, what you’re seeing is some reflection of yourself.

• Decide you want to see more deeply, more truly, more lovingly.

• Ask yourself, “What is this? or “Who are you?”

• Follow with, “Am I sure?”

• Refuse to be satisfied with the easy answer.

• Ask again: “What is this?” “Who are you?”

• Repeat as necessary (that is, often and sincerely).

• Never stop asking.