Over the last few years watching a new phase of life unfold at St Ethelburga’s, I’ve been struck by how the words we use to talk about religion, spirituality, peace and conflict increasingly no longer seem to make sense. I’m not referring to the need for a better way of talking about our work but rather to a much wider phenomenon. As humanity struggles to give birth to a new way of being that recognises the complex interrelatedness of all things, many of the words and forms of expression we habitually use begin to feel strangely out of date.
Our language informs and limits our thinking. If we talk about something as ‘sacred’ we imply there are other things that are not sacred. If we speak of peace in a way that positions it as the ‘opposite’ of conflict, we constrain ourselves to a dualistic world view that perpetuates many of the problems we urgently need to move beyond. I’ve struggled with this for a while, often finding myself inarticulately attempting to point towards things without naming them – either because the name I give might alienate those who describe it differently, or because I might inadvertently exclude its linguistic opposite and therefore invoke an unhelpful separation.
Over the last few days, members of our team had the privilege to spend time with Tiokasin Ghosthorse – a Lakota elder who lives in New York. Tiokasin is Western educated but miraculously, has kept his mind, heart and language ‘uncolonised’ by those who desecrated the Native American way of life. One doesn’t have to listen to Tiokasin for long to be completely seduced by the rich, non-linear, multidimensional consciousness that he exudes. I had expected earthiness but was instead was invited into an experience of deep respect for the Earth woven seamlessly into a completely different vision of life. The Lakota model of reality involves 22 different dimensions. In a way that is impossible to articulate, all 22 of those dimensions are present around him. It is beyond me to capture his response when explaining what the name ‘Ghosthorse’ signifies in his language and culture. It took time. It involved drumming fingers on the table to express the sound of hooves, gesturing to the stars, talking about the beginning of things, about movement, essence, relationship and how all those things come together. To sum up this rich tapestry of meaning and symbol as ‘ghost-horse’ is a travesty.
But that is what our current use of the English language does. It takes a living earth and a many-layered universe and packages it as dead matter, linear ideas, and a collection of dualistic concepts. Tiokasin would go further and say our language also has domination built in. “Saying ‘peace on Earth’ is different from saying ‘peace with Earth’”. Even writing this blog, looking for an alternative to ‘earthiness’ my thesaurus generated only synonyms linked with coarseness, vulgarity and crudity. Is it any wonder we are stuck! We have imprisoned ourselves in a way of talking and thinking that vandalises our experience of life, each other, the Earth, and what lies beyond.
But today, in the company of an extraordinary and unconditioned soul – who moves like an invisible bridge between our contemporary world and something much more ancient and evocative – we were shown another way. “Our original instructions are to listen to that cloud floating by and the wind blowing by. That’s poetry and prose in English but it is ‘wakahan’ in Lakota – it means to consciously apply mystery to everything – everything is alive and has its own consciousness.”
What would happen to our relationships, our experience of difference and conflict, to our faith, or our approach to social action – if we consciously applied mystery to all things? Can we breathe open spaces within the restrictions of our dualistic words and concepts? Can we re-envision our language so it helps us to live in harmony?
I don’t know how to do any of those things, but after today, at least I know it is possible.