Nothing Is Missing

October, 1998

Aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam


            I first noticed it when I was seven years old, attending school for a year in Canada. I had been living in the San Fernando valley, in Southern California, which a few decades later would be the epicenter of the "valley girl" dialect. It was the first trickle of intuition which would later become a flood over the years.

            I attended school in rural route 9 in Crumblin, just outside of London, Ontario. The issue was the pronunciation of the letter Z. I had grown up from my earliest nursery school days pronouncing it zee. But in Canada, they pronounced it zed. The same letter had two different pronunciations. I could understand color becoming colour; this was two different symbols meaning the same thing. But Z was the same symbol working two different ways, depending on where I was living. This made an indelible impression on me as a seven-year-old. Language was not quite the rock solid foundation I had assumed.

            I next experienced it in Göttingen, Germany. I was 15, and found myself sitting in a German Gymnasium classroom, listening to teachers speak in an entirely different language. Instead of one sound being different, I discovered a whole new world. As I gradually became fluent in German over the next 3 months, I realized that the German world was different from the English world. They had names for things and concepts which simply did not exist in English. Things which they took for granted, I struggled to understand.

            When I came back to California after 9 months of immersion in the German world, I found myself stuttering when I tried to speak English. Thoughts would come to me in German, and I would have to translate them back into English. German was not just a sound or a language, but an entire culture – a language shell within which they lived. My German friends all expanded their German/English language shells together – so it became a shared cultural experience to them. I, on the other hand, had to build my own shell, making my own connections and associations.

            I had a very hard time explaining this situation to my English-speaking friends. I could relate endless examples of the differences I noted, but I could not explain the whole situation. It was as if I had words to describe the atoms, but not the molecules. Something was missing in my ability to express things about this situation. I could see things which I could not talk about. No one else had my particular amalgamation of language shells. Neither language could express things which were outside of it. It was if I were living in a cognitive no-mans land.

            Reality was not a perfectly precise, enclosed shell in which everything was rational: a word for every thought and a thought for every word. There were always holes in the fabric of reality, which normal people simply ignored in order to maintain their rationality.

            For example, consider the sentence, "This sentence is false." Is the sentence true? If so, it must be false. Is the sentence false? If so, then it must be true. Paradoxes like this abound in any language which is capable of referring to itself. Somehow, we manage to construct a meaningful reality with language which uses both logic and self-referential logic. We ignore the paradoxes inherent in our language, and carry on as if the world is completely rational. There was something missing in our language shells which kept us from falling into irrational self referential gibberish. Like the blind spot we all have in our field of vision, we simply overlook what is missing and carry on.

            I came to see my linguistic shell with great ambivalence. On the one hand, it provided a comfortable environment, safe from the paradoxical or the unknown. On the other hand, however, it trapped me and my thinking within a restricted, confined realm which did not allow the discussion of things outside of it.

            Very few people realized this – that their entire linguistic reality was ensconced within a language shell in which they could think everything they could say, and say everything they could think. The problem is, there are very powerful things outside that speech/thought shell which are simply "nothing" to their normal reality.

            Those who venture too far outside their shell do so at great peril. Rip the fabric too far, and we can not communicate with anyone, not even yourself. Language simply fails to operate when attempting to wrap words around this phantoms outside of language.

            Travelling to Japan jolted me into understanding the "nothings" outside my Western linguistic shell. I spent the night in a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese Inn. Everything was perfect. The room was tiled perfectly with fragrant tatami mats, spotlessly clean. It seemed to float above the koi ponds outside, and had a delightful private garden outside the window.

            However, the flower arrangement in the nook disturbed me greatly. The vase, to my western sense of composition, was off-center. Whey would they go through such a great effort to do the flower arrangement, then make the mistake of putting it off to one side of the nook? I almost moved it, but thought better of it – there must have been some reason for it. I went to sleep on the futon under the nook, pondering the problem. There must have been some reason for this off-center placement.

            I woke up the next morning with fresh eyes. I knew, without even looking, why the vase was where it was. The flowers arched over the emptiness of the nook, creating a negative space that accentuated the flow of the arrangement. I saw the whole thing as flowing instead of just sitting. And somehow, the emptiness of the space the flower framed was connected to the emptiness of my linguistic shell. Words created negative space, but we were blind to it. Words were sitting; reality was flowing.

            The vase was in the perfect position. It had not moved, but rather my perception of it was kind of a cognitive earthquake.

I had changed.

            This was a whole new way of seeing for me. I had never seen things flow like this before. It was as if I had been looking only at static views, snapshots of the world, and was now able to see a motion picture. I could play the frames in single image mode and analyze the difference between each frame, but now it was easier to let the movie play and see the whole picture. Things that previously could only be glimpsed with the greatest of analytical effort from the snapshots were now perfectly clear to me. I just needed to sit back and look at the flow. It was as if all of my culture, education and language had taught me to look only at the snapshots. Understanding flow required great specialization and understanding of the differences between two frames, and had to be repeated again for the third frame. People spend whole careers locked in this process, finding ever greater detail and differences between frames. They measured their progress by counting the degree of detail they discovered.

            I began to see flow in all of the Japanese art. In Hokusai’s "The Wave," I suddenly saw the canoeists in the water. Gardens suddenly had a path in them, which completely changed my vision of what they were about. Gardens flowed in time, in my position in them, in season, and in my perception of them.

             I had no word for this experience. It was simply outside of my language shell, and the generally accepted western languages. Flow was an extremely weak word for it, one of those specialized analyses of a single frame. Silence, "seeing the world from the outside in," "blacks and whites as shades of gray," "dichotomous things becoming one," are just some of the other definitions I might have chosen. It was related to the hypnotic effects of watching waves on the beach or a campfire. We are in a fixed place, watching a single thing, but it is constantly changing. And like trying to explain what I was thinking after 20 minutes of watching the surf or campfire, it is very difficult to express the experience in words.

            The flower arrangement was but a weak prelude to what I would experience at the Nanzenji temple in Kyoto. There is a dry landscape garden there, called the "leaping tiger." At first glance, it is just a set of rocks and bushes set in a bed of gravel. It was set in such a beautiful setting, I knew that there was something more to it. I sat on the steps of the veranda, feeling much of the sense of tranquility I felt in the ryokan. But I could not see the flow. I could see the snapshot, and the stark simplicity had its hypnotic effect on me. It was not unlike watching the surf or a campfire, only it was fixed and the observer had to provide the motion.

            I knew the garden was creating a negative space for something, like the nook in the ryokan. But where was the space, and what was the negative it was framing?

            I stared at the garden, becoming increasingly aggravated at the scene. Something was flowing, I knew, but I could not see it. As much as I tried to put words and concepts together, even with my new-found "flower arrangement" eyes, I could not understand it. I began to see glimpses of the emptiness framed by the garden, but every time I focused on the glimpse, it disappeared.

            I became ever more anxious about it. It seemed the harder I looked, the further away it got. It was as if it were an invisible chasm, pulling me towards it, but disappearing every time I looked at it.

            Finally, in a snit of frustration, I turned away. I turned my back to the garden, and walked away.

            And then I saw it.

            All of the fabric piecing together my language shell simply dissolved away. Not looking at the garden, I saw it. Not understanding it, I understood its meaning. Being confused, I discovered the truth. Being hot, I was cold. Being public, I was private. Being outside, I was inside. Seeing the flow, I could see the snapshot. Having no language, I had a new language. Seeing time, I could lose it. Being weak, I was strong. Not struggling, I accomplished what I sought. Big was little, black was white, hard was soft, language was no language, up was down, left was right, light was dark. I understood everything by understanding nothing.

            The negative space created by the garden was me and my own perceptions. I was at the center of a self-referential universe, one huge paradox. All of the distinctions and categories I used to describe it folded back on themselves, as if the universe were just a huge hall of mirrors, endlessly reflecting what we look at.

            From the universe-as-hall-of-mirrors perspective, shining a light on a subject only increases the number of reflections you can see. Rather than making the original thing more visible, it makes it harder to see, lost in the reflections. Turning away from the mirrors manipulated by words, I could see the original object.

            I could see my own linguistic shell – somehow, I had moved outside of it, and in the overwhelming confusion of the moment, it became clear to me that words were just a form of organizing and categorizing. The shell is a kind of prison within which we capture thought and language, in which we struggle to force them to behave in logical, consistent ways. We ostracize thoughts or language which escape the shell, calling them illogical, inconsistent, foolish, or childlike. Within our shell, it is legal to endlessly recite examples of things which are reflections of some thing just outside our shell. To reach out and grab the original thing, however, requires a huge amount of cognitive civil disobedience. The linguistic community permits only the most infrequent excursions, it exerts control over our thoughts which make even the most authoritative dictator pale in comparison.

            I found that nearly every word I had was dozens of reflections away from its source in the hall of cognitive mirrors. Things were far more connected, and in far simpler ways, than my linguistic shell would allow. It was our way of creating words and thoughts which was creating the gulf between them. I could feel public and private at the same time, they were not dichotomous after all. Somehow, my linguistic shell conspired to force them apart, into an "If one, then not the other" relationship.

            I became particularly skeptical of hierarchies. It seemed that the authority of the shell was driven by top-down delineation and categorization. In a hierarchical outline, the top left hand category was the most general. It controlled every thing else below it, not unlike a general controlling an army. Everything below this most general category is subservient to it. It got there in a process of elimination – it was not some other category. The hierarchy provides a tidy way to pigeonhole our thoughts. A place for every thought, and a thought for every place.

            Our linguistic shells control us by these huge arrays of overlapping categories. We fix our thoughts and words according to these hierarchies, allowing us to ignore the scaffolding creating by the pigeonhole process.

            This scheme works well in many cases. When I am ask for the location of the nearest rest room, I would be disappointed if I were shown a place where I could only rest. The commonly accepted English shell has bound "rest room" and "toilet" together in a commonly understood manner. It is necessary to categorize and bind specific concepts to specific words. These words and concepts support the snapshot world.

            However, there are problems and domains in which this kind of cognitive pigeonholing breaks down. Frequently, it is related to the difference between snapshot and movie modes of viewing.

            For example, we can look at a spider web and the moth as two snapshots in nature. The spider has a sticky web to collect moths, and the moth has powdery wings to defend against the stickiness of the web. The cleverness of these two survival schemes can be seen as a miracle of nature. We could analyze nature and find endless examples of this type of interaction between species, and create a huge hierarchically organize library of such effects – a photo album of all the snapshot interactions of nature, so to speak. Marveling at number and complexity of the collection, we would be tempted to assume that there had to be some centrally planned and controlled universe which could manage such a complex set of snapshots.

            Or, we could see these things as merely examples of the flow of a movie, two species coevolving over time. Evolution is the flow view, creating the endless number of snapshots in nature.

            What controls the waves on the ocean? They both existed before Newton’s F=MA. Our laws of nature are descriptors, not controllers. One could create a law of jaywalking, which states stoplights create jaywalkers.

            I am not denigrating Newton’s f=ma. One cannot help to marvel at the bridges, skyscrapers, and trips to the moon which it has allowed. It is the kingpin of a linguistic shell used by scientists and engineers with huge success.

            But Newton’s shell, like all shells, is limited in its scope. It presumed a world in which things were moving at much less than the speed of light, for example. Considering motion of bodies at near the speed of light was nothing Newton was concerned about.

            Newton’s shell also assumed a certain sense of objectivity. Scientists could watch balls on a billiard table (or, in their mind’s eye, construct a frictionless one) from the outside. They could watch a ball with a certain mass and velocity strike one another, and predict with uncanny precision the results of the collision. The scientists hovered over their virtual billiard table, assumed perfectly calibrated clocks, and watched the process as objective observers. It was repeatable and predictable.

            If I were sitting on the top of a rocket to be launched to the moon, I would be very happy to know that all of the components of the rocket were operating in a repeatable and predictable manner. The whole rocket is the sum of each of the components; I would rather not have the rocket display some unexpected property during liftoff.

            Much in the same manner as our linguistic shells exclude paradoxical sentences, Newton’s shell excluded situations where the observer is the object. If, instead of inanimate billiard balls, we put Newton and LaPlace on the frictionless table, there would be no way to predict the outcome of a collision. The observers and the objects have become one.

            Herein lies the most challenging unknown to our linguistic shells of today. How do we deal with systems which are so vast and comprehensive that they can change our entire physical world and our future generations? These systems have no central point of control. There is no king of the Internet, master of the weather, emperor of the rainforests, corporation owning the ocean, global health system, or a worldwide family planner.

            In the past, we allowed these issues to be relegated to science or religion. Science dealt with matters which could be treated objectively, religion and superstition handled much the rest. A vast reservoir of emptiness, however, lies just beyond the linguistic shell which binds these two, waiting to be discovered.

            The world is not shrinking, it is just that our notion of distance is collapsing. Satellite television and electronic mail are connecting people globally with little or no respect for geographical, political, or timezone boundaries.

            Distance is being replaced by the notion of connectivity. Two things are far away if they are not connected, close together if they are connected. Connection is not based on physical proximity, but rather the flow of bits.

            Our notion of linguistic shells – the very foundation of how we use language and thought – is based on the notion of distance. We separate things, categorize them, and create our languages based on notions of proximity which have been true over the millennia. Today, however, the boundaries of these shells are both collapsing and exploding.

            This implosion/explosion of our world as we know it will perhaps be the most significant process in our species’ evolutionary lifespan. And it will all occur as a result of something which is invisible to us now, a missing nothing.