God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light. — Genesis 1:1
It was an old story that was no longer true. Truth can go out of stories you know. What was true becomes meaningless, even a lie, because the truth has gone into another story. The water of the spring rises in another place. — Ursula K. LeGuin
The purpose of this essay is to illuminate how we might restore the sacred, world-creating Power of Word.
Powerful words – those that affect physical reality beyond the capacity of one set of hands – are those that create a story that enrolls other people. By a story, I mean a system of meaning that focuses human intention and assigns roles to those involved in that story. Here are some examples of stories: America, France, money, the government, property, marriage, the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, Citibank. That these things are stories becomes clear when people stop believing them. When people lose confidence in a government, it is no longer a government but just a bunch of men and women in suits. When people lose confidence in a currency, it becomes mere slips of paper. When people stop agreeing that your possessions are “yours,” they become just things.
Stories have their own life cycle. Stories that were once true and potent grow old and infirm, and eventually they die. Today this is happening to some of our deepest stories, the great myths of our civilization. In particular, two related stories have created the world we know today, and both of them are nearing their end. Ultimately, it is because they have entered their terminal phase that we have the ubiquitous matrix of lies I wrote about in Part 1 of this essay. Lies have a way of growing until they consume all life.
The first of these world-creating stories is the Story of Ascent. It is our story of the people. It says the humanity has risen from a state of nature, a state of scientific ignorance and technological impotence, to becoming nature’s lords and masters. We have harnessed natural forces, penetrated the mysteries of the universe, overcome natural limitations with technology. Someday, says the story, our understanding and control will be complete, thanks to nanotechnology, space travel, infinite energy, social and genetic engineering, etc. Humanity: conquerors of nature, onward and upward forever!
The second defining story of our civilization is our Story of Self: that we are discrete and separate beings living in an objective universe. You and I are separate – mutually dependent, perhaps, in a practical way, but independent of each other or anyone else for our basic being-ness. From the selfish gene of biology to the rational actor of economics to the flesh-encapsulated soul of religion, all of our ideologies are aligned with our story of self. And, from the medical system to the criminal justice system to the money system, all of our social institutions enact it.
Both of these defining stories are crumbling around us. Neither is true any more. Few people today greet the Story of Ascent with the same near-universal fervor of, say, the 1950s, as all the promises of technotopia (the end of disease, unlimited energy, a leisure society, space colonies) fade into legend. Collapse, not ascent, is the new meme, and this collapse ushers in new realization of connectedness, of interdependency, and along with it the end of the story of the discrete and separate self. The independent, unencumbered man of reason no longer beckons as an ideal: we crave now community, intimacy and connection.
It is time now to tell a new Story of the People and a new Story of Self. The first might be something like, “A peaceful humanity living in co-creative partnership with a wild garden earth.” It is a humanity that no longer takes unthinkingly from Mother Earth, but a humanity that co-creates and coevolves together with Lover Earth, starting, I think, with an initial centuries-long phase of healing the wounds to nature and the indigenous spirit that civilization has inflicted. The second new story is the connected self: a nexus of relationships, a node in the cosmic cycle of gifts, an individual dependent not only for survival, but for her very being, on her relationship to all that was Other.
As the old stories collapse, truth will imbue new stories that spring from “co-creative humanity on Lover Earth” and “the connected self.” The primary task is not to articulate these overarching meta-stories directly, but to flesh out the constellations of stories that bring them to life. One such example is the story of money — a currency system that embodies the truth of the connected self and which does not necessitate endless exponential growth – “more for me is more for you” – rather than the truth of the current usury-based system – “more for me is less for you.” Another story would be any medical paradigm based not on the conquest of germs and the pharmaceutical control of body systems, but on the connections among all aspects of a person’s extended being. I could list more examples, from every field, encompassing nearly anything today that goes under the category of “holistic” or “alternative.”
You might be thinking, “I’ve been telling such stories for years, but no one seems to be listening. I thought this essay was going to tell me how to invest my words with power.” Ok. For words to have power, they must be the truth for the person speaking them, and there must be listeners who are ready to move into that story as well. Let’s consider both of these conditions.
Many people who tell these new stories, based on the connected self, don’t really believe them. If you believe them, your life will be very different from the typical life of the Age of Separation. Beliefs are not mere vapors in the head; they manifest in all aspects of one’s life and relationships. To speak a story compellingly, you must live within it. Consider the difference between someone preaching the gospel of trust in Providence who is afraid to leave his job and follow his bliss, and one who walks the walk. The words of the former won’t be very convincing. Consider someone telling you all about the benefits of her meditation practice, when she is actually doing it to proudly establish a new identity as a spiritual or “conscious” meditator. Either way, even if you have no evidence of hypocrisy, you can feel it. Their words will sound like, well, bullshit.
At a festival recently I sat down for dinner next to a young man who had entered a certain Hindu monastic tradition. After mentioning several times that he is a vegan, he spent about an hour regaling me with his spiritual teachings: the illusion of all sensory perception, the principle of karma, the nature of the ego, the mastery of the monkey mind, the illusion of the self, and so on. He also expressed a thinly veiled frustration that hardly anyone listens to him, that they ignore what he says. I said little, just listening, except when I asked him if he thinks he is better than other people because he is so conscious (not as conscious as the senior teachers in his tradition, but working on it) and they are so ignorant. He said they just aren’t making the effort – spirituality requires effort you know. “You are making the effort and they aren’t – that means you’re better, right?” But my words fell on deaf ears.
In that conversation, neither of our words had much power. His had no power because the teachings he was articulating were not actually true for him. He says, “I believe this, I believe that,” but these teachings are only powerful if they spring from direct realization. When they do, they find the right words for anyone “with ears to hear,” and most likely these words won’t include much spiritual jargon, but will sound fresh, arresting. Even though the self is in fact an illusory construct, it was nonetheless untrue when he said it. Truth is only circumstantially related to facts. Truth is something you can feel. If he really knew what he spoke, that knowledge would affect every fiber of his being. You would be able to see it in his movements, in his life, in his eyes; you would hear it in his voice.
My words to him weren’t powerful either: not because they didn’t come from direct knowledge, but because I was foolishly saying them to someone who wasn’t ready to hear them. Humility reminds us to answer only when asked (though the question might be silent), but I was indulging in an arrogance that has repeatedly impoverished and isolated me in this world. It is actually quite arrogant to presume to know who needs what knowledge when. I was speaking from annoyance, impatience, and perhaps a touch of contempt. I had lost touch with the humility that knows that I am not a teacher, only the agent of people’s self-teaching, a conduit for the right message at the right time. If I had been wiser, I would have realized that he was asking for affirmation, that he was still growing within the new identity his monastic order had given him, and was not nearly ready to grow out of it. There we were, a couple of bullshitters. He was right to ignore my words.
Entry into a new story of self or story of the world is (usually) not a sudden, all-at-once process, and it never happens by an act of will. One sign of incomplete integration into the connected self is a feeling of despair in the face of the enormous forces blocking good in this world. The feeling of individual powerlessness buys into the ideology of the separate self, who can affect an objective universe of force and mass only through whatever puny force it can muster. But if you have truly entered into the truth of the connected self, you will know that your personal choices have cosmic significance.
Words that are powerful are words that are true for both speaker and listener, creating a story both enact. This truth can come from direct knowledge or, more commonly, from the ambient meta-stories of the society. Today those meta-stories are dying, compelling us to return to the original source of the power of story: truth. Today we are so immersed in a ubiquitous matrix of lies that we have nearly forgotten what the truth feels like. So my first suggestion for restoring the sacred Power of Word is to re-sensitize our selves to the ring of truth, the feeling of authenticity.
There are many ways to do this. Practice hearing the lingua adamica, the calls of the human animal that underlie all speech, the voice behind the words. You can hear it most clearly in the sounds of emotional expression, of lovemaking, of children playing, and in words that don’t mean but are: “yippee,” “wow,” “oh,” etc. These are real and intimate sounds that hide nothing. You will fall in love with a lot of people because you will hear their soul speaking. Do the same with your eyes: When you look at people, see the god behind the mask by letting go of interpretations such as “What must she be thinking about me?” You will catch glimpses of naked divinity. Surround yourself as much as possible by imperfect objects, especially handmade ones, not the abstract perfection of machine made articles, which embody the same perceptual mentality as symbolic culture. Immerse yourself for a few days in the sounds and sights of nature, without speaking or reading – when you return, the lie in almost all speech will be painfully obvious, and the occasional truth like music. (And in music too there is truth.)
I will describe the feeling of truth as I experience it. I don’t know if your experience will be the same. True words pierce all the way through me. They convict me, in the archaic sense of that word. I feel a sense of awe, the presence of the sacred. Doubt is out of the question, though I might struggle for a while against a painful truth. Yet even then, there is a sense of homecoming, a reunion with something I have always known. Often, I hear truth in the voice behind the words, the poetry. To me, true words are beautiful words, and beautiful words are true. Lies, no matter how pretty, ring hollow.
Here is an example now of some words that carry truth. It is a poem spoken by the Navajo Tom Torlino in 1890. It must be read slowly, slowly enough that you can hear his voice speaking through the words.
I am humbled before the earth
I am humbled before the sky
I am humbled before the dawn
I am humbled before the evening twilight
I am humbled before the blue sky
I am humbled before the darkness
I am humbled before the sun
I am humbled before that standing within me which speaks with me
Some of these things are always looking at me
I am never out of sight
Therefore I always tell the truth
That is why I always tell the truth
I hold my word tight to my breast.*
You know the feeling of truth. You know when someone is speaking truth. The more you pay attention to this feeling, the more sensitive to it you will become. The more sensitive to it you become, the more unpleasant will be the phony, incontinent feeling of not being in truth. You will want, as Tom Torlino says, to “hold your word tight to your breast.” You will listen for the truth not just in others’ words, but in your own. When you do not hear it, you will wish to investigate why. Are you speaking from direct knowledge? Is this knowledge something you have integrated into your life? Are you speaking it to someone who will hear?
One change I noticed in my speech, as I became more aware of the potential power and pleasure of my words, is that I began to swear less – not out of any principle, but because the resentful impotence encoded in “fuckin’ this” and “fuckin’ that,” the tired cynicism of calling everything “shit,” the helpless rage at an unchangeable, unjust world that made me want to damn things and swear at things, was no longer consistent with my story of the world and my story of self, and that inconsistency was something I learned to feel. And it felt bad! I like to feel good, so I stopped speaking in expletives so much. Habitual swearing weakens one’s words. Nonetheless I do not necessarily suggest that you make a willful effort to stop. Instead, notice the mindset and feeling that goes along with it. Notice it, and the change will come naturally. An added benefit is that when you stop habitual swearing, then non-habitual swearing becomes more fun and more powerful too. Fuck yeah!
The quintessential creative statement is: “So it shall be.” Or, as in Genesis: “Let there be.” According to spiritual literature, when spoken by a highly enlightened being such statements have enormous generative power. They work only to the extent that the speaker speaks in truth. If you say, “Let there be light,” hoping that there will be light, wishing that there will be light, or even believing that there is a possibility that there won’t be light, then there will be no light. But how could anyone stand so strongly in truth when he or she habitually uses words to deceive (“I’ll call you back tomorrow) or uses them careless of the truth (“I’m am going to quit smoking tomorrow”) or for purposes that are not sacred, like gossip? Then the connection between our words and the truth atrophies, and they become impotent. That is another reason to hold your word tight to your breast. Keep it sacred. Keep it true. That doesn’t necessarily mean solemnity – there is great truth in humor and fun. It means that what you say is consistent with the true story of who you are and the world you want to live in. In the coming age, these will derive, respectively, from the great meta-stories of the connected self and Lover Earth.
I am sure you know people of powerful word. When they say, “Such-and-such will be,” it actually happens. Ram Dass describes how his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, would travel around India and occasionally say, “There will be a hospital here,” or “There will be a temple here.” His followers and devotees, some of whom were quite wealthy, would then build one. This is a pure example of the Power of Word. You might say, “Nothing magical happened here. It wasn’t Neem Karoli that caused those hospitals to be built. It was his followers, who revered him.” But the means doesn’t matter. By whatever means, a word spoken in truth becomes real.
There is no dichotomy between some “magical” creative power of word and the ordinary means through which we create our world through our shared stories. When the state legislature says, through its layers of symbols and rituals (legislation, appropriations bills, etc.), “Let there be a road here,” a road indeed manifests. The stories that embed such documents and the agreements around them lend their truth to them. (Today, for example, for most, there is still such as thing as the “State of Pennsylvania.”) When President Obama says (not in so many words), “Let there be more troops in Afghanistan!” he has no doubt – nor does anyone else – that it shall come to pass. He and the rest of us have assistance in believing his words. Obama is President of the United States” which connotes a vast constellation of meaning. Our Story of the People invests his words with power. It is when our symbols, our words and rituals, stop creating reality that we know our Story of the People is coming to an end. When that happens, as at the end of the U.S.S.R., the words of government officials become mere noise, and no one listens because no one buys into the story that gave them power. That is why I think the failure of our elites to speak the economy back to health are significant. Their rituals are losing their power, because the deep stories of our civilization are coming to an end. What was once true is true no longer. Eventually, what was once real will become unreal: the President will be just a man, money will be just slips of paper, a nation just lines on maps.
Such a time is ripe for the creation of new stories, a new matrix of truth. Unencumbered by the world as it was, we can speak new worlds into existence. We can proclaim truths that are free of the past. In times of a crisis of story, when systems of meaning are falling apart, there are many with the ears to hear a new one. At such times, a small group of people or even a single person can weave a new world for millions. To be able to do this, you must be able to hold your story, in truth, without the reinforcement of the conventional stories that surround you. You are an inventor, a pioneer, on your own in a search for truth – a new truth, not the one you grew up with, not the old stories of what is.
For decades now, perceptive people have been sensing the lie of this world. In the heady days of Ascent, only a few cultural sensitives were aware of it, the lonely voices of romantics, artists, and Beats. Since the counterculture movement of the 1960s, we have all been growingly cognizant of the ubiquitous matrix of lies. New stories are emerging, narratives of a more beautiful world. They beckon us, but we dare not believe they could really come to pass. People love the idea, for example, of alternative currencies, but how many, even among the activists, can say in truth, “The world financial system as we know it will be gone in five years, replaced by a demurrage-charged global currency that arises organically from thousands of community currencies?” Or even in fifty years? How many activists can look upon the crumbling of the old world and KNOW that a more beautiful one will take its place? How many can see the inevitable disintegration of the story of Ascent, and KNOW that the age of co-creative partnership with Lover Earth is dawning? But this is the level of knowing that is necessary right now. To be a storyteller of the Age of Reunion, you must be able to hold onto your knowing of the truth so steadfastly that you can know it on behalf of those who do not yet know. You must know it for those who are still wandering between stories. To speak a new world into existence, you must know it before anyone else does (else it would not be new). It is of no great difficulty to speak the old world into existence. We do that all the time. But now we cannot, because the story of that world is in its last stages.
In other words, to speak a new world into existence we must have great faith in the truth. We don’t have the ambient stories of society as allies, nor do we even have evidence as our ally. If you speak the new stories from a place less than real knowing – say from hope or belief – then your words will have insufficient power to draw others into the story or to empower them to enact the role that that story has for them.
Sometimes people think I am advocating a kind of insanity. Isn’t that what insane people do: base their beliefs not on evidence, but on what they want to be true? If you want something to be true, does that make it true? Am I saying that we are greater than the truth? Not at all. I am not talking about making up the truth. I am talking about humbling ourselves to the truth, listening for it and to it. It is when we mortgage truth to evidence that we are in hubris, imagining we can become truth’s masters.
There are many stories out there today, and all of them fit the evidence. All of the evidence can be made to fit a conspiracy story involving secret cabals and alien visitors, just as it can fit the conventional story of science and politics. If he follows evidence as the royal road to truth, then the honest man eventually ends up not at the palace, but in a place called “I don’t know.”** Walking the road of evidence, the truth is visible out there, right on the horizon. Maybe a few more miles and one will reach it. But the horizon gets no closer.
Many people write me letters from the place between stories, the place of “I don’t know.” They hear the stories of a more beautiful world and basically think, “Well, it would sure be nice…” The old story is over, but they dare not embrace the new. They dare not believe, especially in the absence of evidence. (All the evidence seems to indicate that the power-hungry people who control the world will just tighten their grip forever, and the rest of us are too ignorant or puny to stop them.) The catch-22 is that the evidence will only – can only – follow the belief. When America’s “Founding Fathers” declared independence, there was no evidence of it. Only when enough people believed that declaration and carried out roles in conformity to it, did the fact of independence emerge. So it is today. The pioneering storytellers must believe without evidence. They must trust truth instead.
(I don’t suggest flouting evidence either. Indeed, the occurrences of our lives can open our hearts to the truth. Evidence is a servant of truth; we have made it into its master.)
At some point, if we want to be creators of the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible, we must let go of “I don’t know” and choose, without evidence, the story that is true. Again, we recognize the truth by how it feels. We do not choose what is true – that would indeed be insane. We choose stories, not truth. We can choose them based on many things: evidence, truth, wishful thinking, fear, ego, gratitude, and obligation. What I am suggesting is to choose our stories based on truth, and with them to manifest truth in the world.
I will leave you with a paradox. Creative statements of what shall be are powerful when they are spoken in the authentic knowledge of inevitability. Yet, if they are not spoken in that knowledge, the inevitable is instead impossible. Through us – the truth-speakers, the storytellers – the truth speaks itself into existence.
* Excerpt from Navajo and Tibetan Wisdom: The Circle of the Spirit by Peter Gold.
** See A State of Belief is a State of Being for a discussion of this principle as applied to the Scientific Method.
This article first appeared in Reality Sandwich