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Editorial: When Words (nearly) Fail Us

Joe Goodbread

Language intrigues us by promising to clarify the obscurely paradoxical world of human experience. Because of its power to explicitly communicate emotions, thoughts, and a broad range of less easily categorized experience, language is the obvious medium for the practice of psychotherapy. Whether we remember Sigmund Freud practicing his “talking cure” in 19th century Vienna, or watch the television mafioso Tony Soprano unburdening his heavy conscience by talking to his psychiatrist, we are reminded not only of the potential of the word to heal us, but of its ultimate inadequacy to completely express the depth and complexity of the human spirit.

This issue of the Journal of Process Oriented Psychology is concerned with the bridge between mystery and concept: Its authors approach from many angles the paradoxical task of expressing in words the Tao that can’t be spoken.

Arny and Amy Mindell write in their description of process work on their web site:

At the deepest nondualistic or “essence” level, process work deals with the sense of tendencies which can be felt to move us, but not easily expressed yet in words. This area of human life is sometimes like a subtle atmosphere around people and events, an atmosphere, which can be felt as a moving force, which has not yet explicated itself.

Taoism speaks of this level in terms of the “the Tao which cannot be said.”…

…This level is non-dualistic: here there are no conflicts. It is a “hyperspace” or detached distance from which we can gain an overview of events.

The essence level is most useful when an experience affects us profoundly, but words are inadequate to fully express it. How, then, can we communicate such essentially nonverbal experience?

Art is a medium for communicating essence. New York photographer Joel Meyerowitz, who published a series of photographs of the World Trade Towers before and after 9/11, described, in a radio interview with Terry Gross, the near impossibility of grasping the magnitude of the forces that caused the collapse of the building. Using visual metaphor to illustrate a wrecking crew’s attempt to bring down a four-story section of the building wall, he describes how two huge machines, straining at the ends of a two-inch thick steel cable hitched to the wall, resemble dray horses hauling an unimaginably heavy load across a field. When the cable finally snaps, foiling the attempt, he reminds us that this is but an infinitesimal fraction of the forces that must have been at work when the twin towers collapsed. Meyerowitz concludes, “…you have to do the arithmetic… the visual arithmetic to really have the emotion of what’s come down.”

The emotion is mediated not by literal description, but by the image it elicits. Through the “visual arithmetic” of his description and photographs, Meyerowitz attempts to communicate an experience for which literal language simply fails.

Art is the medium, spirit the message. When words fall short of expressing the full quality of our deepest experiences, we turn to poetry, dance and artistic imagery to bring forth its essential character from its soulful depths to its spiritual heights.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as psychoanalysis and its offspring captured the world’s fantasy, many artists and spiritual seekers viewed the new science with mistrust, fearing it would rationalize or oversimplify the most quintessentially human of our experiences. Indeed, explanation that refers our most complex and challenging experience back to a world of psychological cause and effect may fall short of satisfying our deepest yearnings, leaving us in an increasingly sterile world of cause and effect, blame and responsibility, I and Thou that divides humankind against itself, and human against nature.

The edition of the Journal you have before you seeks to reverse this trend, showing how focusing on essence and spirit may free psychology from the strictures of a purely personal world of traumatic causes and rational remedies to unite us with deepest currents of human experience, with the common root of existence.

Portland, Oregon March 2002

Uplink by Christopher McMullen

Uplink by Christopher McMullen

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