The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, "The limits of my language are the limits of my world."
Science has backed him up: Language does shape our reality. Though we may not be consciously aware of the way language affects our thought processes, it plays an enormous, and still not fully understood, role in how we structure and conceptualize the world around us.
There are countless ways that different languages reflect different perspectives on the world. We've all heard that Eskimos have 50 words for snow, and interestingly, the word "fairness" in English doesn't seem to exist other languages -- economist Bart Wilson described it as a uniquely Anglo-American concept with "historical baggage" that doesn't quite equate to equality or moral righteousness. And some researchers have suggested that languages with gender systems can shape the way people think about everyday objects.
The popularity of tattoos of Chinese characters and Sanskrit script may be an indication of our desire to escape the limits of our own language by adopting the words of another -- words that somehow aren't quite the same when translated into our own tongue. These words also have the potential open us up to an entirely new way of seeing things.
Here are seven untranslateable words that reveal fundamental truths about human existence -- and can teach us all how to live better.
Being mindful is about being compassionate.
In her forthcoming book, Thrive: The Third Metric To Redefining Success And Creating A Life Of Well-Being, Wisdom And Wonder, Arianna Huffington talks about how reading the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leader in the mindfulness meditation movement, helped the vague-sounding concept of "mindfulness" finally click for her.
As Kabat-Zinn told TIME Healthland:
In Asian languages, the word for 'mind' and the word for 'heart' are same. So if you're not hearing mindfulness in some deep way as heartfulness, you're not really understanding it. Compassion and kindness towards oneself are intrinsically woven into it. You could think of mindfulness as wise and affectionate attention.
The first step toward being mindful? Being kind to yourself and others, which requires presence and focused awareness.
Fearlessness is more than just the absence of fear.
Abhaya, a Sanskrit word meaning fearlessness and protection, is symbolized by the mudra (hand gesture) pictured above, with one hand raised and one palm facing up in the lap. The term suggests that being fearless is a function of having faith -- knowing that you are and always will be protected, and that things will turn out okay in the end because of your belief, as Rumi put it, that "everything is rigged in your favor."
The Bhagavad Gita describes fearlessness as one of 26 divine qualities of Lord Krishna. In the Gita, Krishna advices the young warrior Arjuna, "Be fearless and pure; never waver in your determination or your dedication to the spiritual life."
In many traditions, faith -- whether religious, spiritual or simply the faith that everything will work out -- is a time-worn antidote to fear and anxiety. Research has linked spirituality with lower stress levels and improved immune system functioning, and prayer has been associated with reduced depression and anxiety.
Crisis and opportunity are two sides of the same coin.
The Chinese character for "crisis," which combines the characters of danger and opportunity, points toward a timeless truth that we so often forget: It's the challenges and obstacles that make us who we are, and often that lead to our greatest joys and successes.
Although some have argued that "opportunity" is not the best translation for the character jei (and that it instead is more akin to turning point or critical point), the opportunity translation clearly caught on because people could relate to the truth it expresses.
We must love ourselves to love others.
We're often told that in order to love another, we must love ourselves first. This is a truth long ago noted by Aristotle when commenting on the word philia, one of three ancient Greek terms for love, in the Nicomachean Ethics. The ancient Greeks, and their vocabulary, can help us to better understand the various types of love that we experience.
While eros means erotic or romantic love and agape means divine or unconditional love, philia is more difficult to translate. The term is loosely defined as friendship or goodwill, and it can denote the bond that exists between friends, family members or community members. But it has more to do with truly appreciating others -- something that Aristotle believed could only stem from self-love. Because, for Aristotle, the true friend is another self, a man must love himself to love his friend.
If you change your thinking, you can change your life.
Vritti, a word signifying thoughts in early Sanskrit, literally translates to "whirl pool." In early yogic philosophy, the thoughts of the mind were viewed as fluctuations or disturbances that keep us from being at peace. The image of the "whirl pool of thoughts" is a helpful one, and it can help us to conceptualize our thoughts in a new way. The countless thoughts that swirl through our mind everyday create emotional waves, but the mind that is not consumed by thoughts can become calm like a still lake.
One of the fundamental principles of the Yoga Sutras, an ancient guide to stilling the mind, is yogas citta vrtti nirodhah -- yoga is the stilling of the thoughts of the mind. In its original sense, Yoga simply meant the stilling of the thoughts, whether through meditation, prayer, selfless service, or any other path that united the individual with the divine. According to the Sutras, we tend to identify ourselves with these constant fluctuations -- although they are completely illusory -- which keeps us from seeing and existing within our true nature. Through meditation, the mind can once again become still.
We can transform ourselves through love.
There is an important word in Buddhism, bodhichitta (the mind of enlightenment/compassion), that essentially summarizes how we should live and love if we seek to become more enlightened beings. And in short, it is this: To be enlightened is to love others and embody compassion.
As American Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön wrote in Shambhala Sun, we don't have to be "enlightened" to access this state of mind. Instead, it is a "soft spot" of kindness that is available to us in both good and bad times -- when speaking of the powerful concept at a 2011 talk in India, the Dalai Lama was racked with sobs.
If we were to ask the Buddha, "What is bodhichitta?" he might tell us that this word is easier to understand than to translate.... Chitta means "mind" and also "heart" or "attitude." Bodhi means "awake," "enlightened," or "completely open." Sometimes the completely open heart and mind of bodhichitta is called the soft spot, a place as vulnerable and tender as an open wound. It is equated, in part, with our ability to love.
The takeaway? We all have bodhichitta, and we can choose to love and stay open when we are struggling. This "enlightened mind," the mind of love, is in fact our most basic essence.
"The openness and warmth of bodhichitta is in fact our true nature and condition," Chödrön writes. "Even when our neurosis feels far more basic than our wisdom, even when we're feeling most confused and hopeless, bodhichitta -- like the open sky -- is always here, undiminished by the clouds that temporarily cover it."
Art can change your life.
In the Spanish language, there's a beautiful word that has no English equivalent: Duende, which means “the mysterious power that a work of art has to deeply move a person.” The word was originally used to describe a mystical fairy-like creature that lived in the forest and possessed all humans who crossed its path with an overwhelming sense of awe, according to Altalang, but was updated in the early 20th century by a Spanish poet who used it to describe the sense of wonder and mystery we feel when observing great works of art.
And it's true: There are few other things in life that have the power to inspire us like music, paintings, dance, film and other forms of art do. As philosopher Alain de Botton wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, "Great works of art aren't just for show" -- art is truly, as he says, "an apothecary for the soul."