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What is inexpressible is inexhaustible

In the film adaptation of Dr Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who!, a doubting kangaroo called Jane teaches the children that “If you can’t see, hear or feel something it doesn’t exist.”   It is only the children’s deep belief that there is a world beyond the five senses that saves the tiny people of Whoville (who live on a speck of dust) from being destroyed.  On realising that there are in fact tiny people living on the speck, the kangaroo’s mind is opened and she realises that her view of the world has been rather myopic up until now.

It seems to me that human beings have the capacity to be even more myopic than Jane the Kangaroo at times.   At least she acknowledged three of the five senses as legitimate ways of knowing.  In the day to day adult world we seem to be even more discriminatory, often discounting anything that cannot be expressed in words as having little or no validity.   If we don’t have words to express ourselves then it seems to cast doubt on the legitimacy of our lived experience.  A lack of language is often conflated with a lack of intellect.  However, as many of the early social-constructionist writers suggest, words both enable and constrain how we make meaning of the world.  The word “tree“, for example, is a helpful label to describe a particular type of plant and, at the same time, inhibits us from seeing it as anything other than “tree.”  And it isn’t just nouns that are problematic, there are a number of examples of emotions that exist in other languages that don’t exist in English*.  Does this then mean that mono-lingual English speakers cannot experience them?  Words create worlds in which things can appear more fixed than they actually are, making change more difficult.

Pat Ogden, a pioneer of somatic psychology, writes about what she calls “core organisers” – a therapeutic map for self study to help us deepen our awareness of how we experience the world in ways beyond cognition.  She suggests that our lived experience of any moment arises from a complex, interrelated dynamic between inner body sensation, five sense perception, movement (micro and motor),  emotions (affective states) and cognition.  She writes “Our inner experience constitutes an integrated whole and our behaviour emerges from a sense of alignment and integrity appropriate to our current inner and outer reality.”   And whilst Ogden isn’t suggesting that these organisers are hierarchical in how we experience them, it does seem to me that we have socially agreed a pecking order of validity that places cognition in the position of top dog.  This results in an unspoken social belief, akin to Jane the Kangaroo, that “if it can’t be conceptualised, articulated and measured then it doesn’t exist.

Whilst the cognitive top dog might be helpful in a some situations it is equally problematic in others, none more so that in our own personal development and growth.  Many times in the past when working with a teacher, coach or traditional therapist, I have found myself feeling deficient because I cannot explain my here and now experience in words.  Often I’d have a sense of something, a question, an answer, a break-through lurking somewhere other than in my cognitive awareness but become frustrated as it wouldn’t easily translate into language that somebody else would understand.  This meant that I would discount much of my experience as being invalid and find myself in loops of personal stuckness.  Either that or I’d find some inadequate words simply to satisfy the other.  I can’t help but feel that the privileging of language and cognition was taught to me at an early age, particularly in school where I was regularly asked to account for myself and “show my workings.”  I’m not sure much has changed since then either.  Despite all of the advances in education since I was at school we still rely on the written and spoken word as the primary way of assessing academic achievement which stifles novelty as well as significantly disadvantaging those who make sense of the world in a subtly different way.

However, if we are able to challenge the dictatorship of cognition, we can begin to tune into the plethora of data the other core organisers provide us with on a moment by moment basis.  And the exciting thing is that this liberates our own inherent creativity as a way of deepening our self awareness and making sense of the world.  We can tune into our inner body sensation and allow it to influence the way in which we make marks on paper or mould clay as an abstract external representation of our experience.   We can pay attention to our emotions, notice how they influence spontaneous movement and explore deeply personal questions in a physical, embodied way.   We can simply sit silently with a question and fully experience it without having to translate it into words.  The potency of these different ways of sense making is why somatic therapy and art therapy have become such an important accompaniment to traditional talking therapies.   But these ways of working are not limited to therapy, they can be brought into our every day lives and work.  In many coaching sessions or workshops I have encouraged people who are stuck to simply draw, paint, sculpt, move their bodies in an intuitive way or arrange objects in a particular constellation that has helped them towards elusive new insights.  Insights that, if I let go of my own need for a cognitive answer, need no further translation.  Such non-verbal sense making has become an essential part of my own developmental practice.  Nowadays, whenever I am feeling stuck, I reach for my paints and pens before anything else.  (The image at the top of this page is the sentiment of this blog expressed non-verbally**.  It is likely to hold little meaning to anyone other than me.)

If we can let go of our need to translate rich experiences into words then we can embrace this deeper, embodied awareness as a fruitful vehicle for personal development and growth.   Doing this liberates our creativity as a practice for learning and discovery.  And, as we don’t need to hand in our “homework” to anyone other than ourselves, if language does arise out of all of this it is an added bonus rather than an essential requirement.

If we are experiencing something beyond words then we are experiencing something closer to true novelty.   A moment of enlightenment rather than a moment of deficiency.  We have liberated emptiness from from.  Mind from thought.  As one of my favourite zen proverbs suggests “What is inexpressible, is inexhaustible.”


* Some examples include: pena ajena = experiencing peripheral mortification at somebody else’s embarassment (Spanish),  saudade = a melancholic nostalgia arising from recognising that something you lost will never be found again (Portuguese), uitwaaien = the revitalising effect of taking a walk in the wind (Dutch), Sehnsucht = “life-longings”, an intense desire for alternative states and realisations of life, even if they are unattainable. (German)

** I created this piece before writing the blog as I appreciated the irony of writing something about working beyond words!

  1. Excellent post Steve, thank you. very inspiring and insightful – its a knotty task trying to describe describe things in words that cant be described in words! felt senses are so rich and full of ungraspable meaning – I love your metaphor – the dictatorship of cognition – I feel a picture coming on !! all the best jx

  2. Emma says:

    Hi Steve, I echo what Julian has felt, a really evocative invitation to lower or even momentarily drop the reins of our need to know, rather than explore what else might be present and available to us. Thank you for the words. Emma

  3. Johnnie says:

    Bravo Steve. I’ve been reading and rereading this for several days. It’s excellent, so good that I won’t attempt to put my response into any more words than this 🙂

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