Tonight I went on a meditation walk through the Washington Arboretum. The idea was to be silent, even to myself. I noticed an overwhelming urge to name things. I saw a squirrel run up a branch and immediately named it: "Squirrel." Then I named the action. "Running. Scampering. Squirreling." I wanted immediately to assign that observation a code.
Language has always given me delight. I think that's true for many of us. As children, one of the first things we do is ask what everything is called. In the Christian Bible, naming is the first task God gives to Adam. There is a profound delight in knowing what a thing is called, and sharing that name with others so you can talk about it with them. As an adult, I experience this delight in many ways: Learning foreign languages. Developing fresh descriptions for things that are hard to define. Reading a great article can feel like an epiphany: "I felt the exact same way! I just didn't know how to put it into words." On the occasion I can write a piece that makes me feel like that, the resonance is even more profound.
Yet not everything has a name, and sometimes codification defeats its own purpose. Language has a way of flattening things. Perhaps what I saw was not a squirrel. Perhaps it was doing something that isn't fully captured by the words above. Perhaps its nature and its movements are deeper and richer than what I can give name to.
This happens a lot in my work. I spot an activity, then notice it is part of a trend, but of what, I cannot precisely say. If I only allow my brain to hold on to that which has a name, I lose the ability to observe. If my brain is busy searching for the code, it is unable to listen to its senses – the perception that allows it to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel what is happening. Essentially, by forcing myself into the confines of language, I limit what I am able to perceive. I reduce the world to that which has already been named.
For me, this little encounter with the squirrel was a beautiful reminder. As satisfying as it can be to codify something, sometimes, it's better just to observe. What I perceive to be happening may not be the thing I have the closest name for. It may be something much richer and more nuanced than that. By letting go of language, we let go of unnecessary limitations. We give reality space to breathe.