Words Cloud the Sun

Photo by Andreas Klammer 

First of all, let’s all take a moment to savor the delicious irony of the vehicle I’m using to deliver this thought package to your front doorstep.

*Inhale* ahhh.

But in my defense, in our world, things that don’t have words and numbers — symbols — attached to them are usually treated by us as if they don’t exist, even if we personally feel them there. Fair to say, I’m working with what I’m given here!

I have a question for you.

When was the last time there were no words or numbers present in your whole field of vision?

Check for yourself right now!

Hold your head still, and look around as far as your eyeballs will allow you — do you see any symbols?

Everything counts, in this game — distant billboards, clothing labels, branding logos, tattoos, even a partially ripped off price tag. The rule is simple: No words, numbers, or symbols allowed.

Move your head around now, and see if you can find a completely open window of your entire perception, from where you stand. Even looking straight up at the sky, and down at the ground!

How hard is it for you to find a completely symbol-free zone in your world right now? How do you feel about that?

Reading, vs Seeing: The rising cognitive cost of living in a symbolic world

Each time we read something in our environment, it uses up a little of our brainpower to recognize the strings of letters and numbers, and translate them into meaning. This happens at the expense of processing the non-symbol things we’re directly experiencing, like a warm breeze, the smell of fresh basil, the touch of your favorite person’s hand, or the brake lights of the car that stopped short right in front of you.

We are reading, instead of seeing what’s directly in front of us.

The symbols are obscuring our ability to directly experience and pay attention to our world, like a growing smudge on our collective telescope lens — except for most of us, there is no refuge from the symbols.

“Smudge on the lens? SMUDGE ON THE LENS?? I think I know the difference between a man threatening me, and a smudge on the goddamn lens, Summer!”

It’s important to remember that we weren’t wired to understand and work with symbols out-of-the-box — it’s much more of an after-market modification. Homo Sapiens is ~200,000 to 300,000 years old (Wikipedia), and the earliest known cave paintings date back around 35,000 years (Wikipedia). This means that we’ve been illiterate for up to 90% of our entire time on Earth. And yet, the encroachment of symbols has accelerated so dramatically in the last 10% of our time, that they are already present in our view at virtually all times, by default.

How much brainpower could we reclaim for ourselves then, if each of us found our own symbol-free zone, and stayed there awhile?

How would that feel, do you think?

The Menu is Not the Meal: Symbols Aren’t Reality

This is not a pipe - Magritte's most famous painting
“This is not a pipe” ~The Treachery of Images, by Rene Magritte

If words cloud our vision, history is a cataract, and in a universe that appears optimized to produce novelty, a species that is blind to new realities will inevitably lapse into stagnation, before being efficiently dispatched into extinction.

We must not allow history alone to dictate our future actions.

“The menu is not the meal. We confuse signs – words, numbers, symbols, and ideas, with the real world.

Most of us would have rather money than tangible wealth. And a great occasion is somehow spoiled for us unless photographed. And to read about it the next day in the newspaper is oddly more fun for us than the original event.

This is a disaster. For, as a result of confusing the real world of nature with mere signs, such as bank balances and contracts, we are destroying nature. We’re so tied up in our minds, that we’ve lost our senses. Time to wake up.

~Alan Watts