THE BLOG
07/21/2009 05:41 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

What We Can Learn By Not Speaking The Language

People who have the industry and intelligence to learn to speak and understand languages other than their own are to be admired and emulated. Their lives and those whose languages they speak are enriched for it.

I am not one of those people, and I'm not proud of that fact, but I have recognized a real pleasure in sometimes having no idea what people are saying. I have discovered a special relaxation, uninterrupted by specific meaning, just being with people in cafes and other public meeting areas. I am able to listen to their languages and delight in the sounds without being distracted by trying to decipher nuance of meaning, judgment of worth of their conversation or agreeing or disagreeing with their opinions.

Listening and watching people without understanding what they are saying is like listening and watching other animals. I can read about bird song and what it communicates to other birds, but to my ears it just sounds wonderfully musical. Taking time to listen to bird song is very pleasant and nourishing, and I suspect it would be less so if we knew what every song was declaring. Just being in nature without deciphering meaning is balm for the soul. And I do include human nature in "nature."

Perhaps our too familiar discomfort with other same-language humans arises from the illusion that we really do speak the same language. We don't. We can refer to authorities for definitions of commonly used words, but our inner authority is finally in charge when determining how we choose to interpret others' words. And that often gets us frustrated, misunderstood, unseen, and speaking louder as a way to get through the fog of mis- interpretation.

Does this happen to other animals? Probably. Maybe that's why birds spend so much of their time singing. But since we aren't involved in the bird's attempt to make itself understood, we can just enjoy the sound.

We can occasionally just enjoy the sound with each other too. And we can even do it when we share a common language. The trick is not to assume that you actually know what the others are saying. You can step back from the meaning. There is a bigger perspective available when you aren't determined to know exactly what someone is saying or have them know what exactly what you are saying. It is possible to experience each other from the heart center rather than the language center.

Language is one of the most thrilling powers of being human. It is day-to-day practical as well as exultant in its heights. We can all benefit from learning and discovering how to use language more clearly. As fellow human beings, it is intelligent to learn each other's language. It brings us closer together as cultures and as individuals. And it is likewise intelligent to realize that we often use the same words with utterly different personal meanings. Couples learn this as they get through misunderstandings, business colleagues benefit when they take the time to clarify each other's meanings. Nations are more likely to meet in some degree of harmony if they respect the different weights of power each holds in the same words.

Yet there is another, sweeter power available to us all, regardless of how many words we know. It starts in the heart and is effortlessly spoken through the eyes. It is what is here when no word will do. Simply, in an instant, we can freshly discover our capacity to understand with this wordless communication. And in that understanding, we meet what is best in us all, wherever we find ourselves, whatever we think we know or don't know.

Sometimes, just for perspective, take a break and hear the music.

Gangaji will hold her next public meeting in Ashland, Oregon, August 16th. She will be in Boston for a public meeting September 12th and Woodstock, for a public meeting September 14. She will hold a seven day retreat in Garrison, NY beginning September 16th. Read more about Gangaji's events and catalog of books and videos online.