How Do We Speak from Wholeness?
This is an excerpt from Embracing Paradox, Evolving Language, forthcoming from Untimely Books in Fall 2023.
People are addicted to their beliefs. When you try to change someone’s belief they will act like an addict.[i]
What does Siegel mean by “addicted to their beliefs?” Perhaps it means that, similar to the way addicts won’t give up their addiction until it ruins their lives, people won’t give up their beliefs until they see how those beliefs are ruining their lives. Alternatively, it could mean that we will abandon our ethics just to get reinforcement for what we believe. Such social approval (likes, retweets, etc.) gives one a dopamine hit, which is a neurophysiological basis of addiction.
How much do we have to ruin life on Earth before we change our beliefs and their concomitant behaviors? How many species must die, how many rivers must dry up, how many towns must flood before we choose to stop believing that we’re all separate beings in a fight to the death for scarce resources? Admittedly, such beliefs are extraordinarily hard to change because they, too, are entrenched in many facets of life. Such beliefs have been firmly embraced by the culture through our laws and institutions. They are also invisibly reinforced by language, so that now we just take it as an unquestioned and almost unquestionable fact that being separate is what is real.
Language has served as a way to bridge a perceived gap between consciousnesses who believe themselves to be separate. By another reckoning, language has served as a crutch to help us hobble through the woundedness of feeling separate. We have been living with the language crutch for so many thousands of years that we consider it the defining characteristic that makes us human—supposedly the capability we have that other animals do not. We now know that animals and plants have a variety of ways of communicating with one another. How difficult will it be to transform and eventually relinquish our current form of language-crutch as we integrate into a new level of wholeness as a Gaianbody—without losing the uniqueness of one’s own differentiated identity?
Individually and collectively, we need to be the whole being(s) that we are, in addition to the separate being(s) that we think we are. How do we speak from those paradoxical places of wholeness within greater wholeness?
Let’s look more closely at what it means to speak about and what it means to speak from. To speak about something, one stands outside it, separate from it, and describes it as an observer. When speaking about something, attributes are applied to it, perhaps even projected onto it. Even if the something is a someone, linguistically it doesn’t matter. When we speak about someone, the someone becomes objectified.
Conversely, to speak from a given perspective, one participates in it. To speak about being a parent, one could generalize about the trials and tribulations involved in raising a child (e.g., “It’s difficult, rewarding, frustrating, and has caused me to lose sleep six days out of seven.”) To speak from being a parent, you would say entirely different types of things (e.g., “clean up your room” or “do your homework first, then you can watch TV”). You probably would not speak from being a parent to your boss, but you might slip into that mode with employees. It feels weird, though, to consider speaking from someone else, or even from someone else’s perspective. However, by imagining another’s perspective (what it is like to be in their context), it might be possible to approximate it.
To speak about the concept of speaking from wholeness, it is necessary to address the paradoxes of being whole. First, it is not possible to speak about wholeness wholly. Ultimate wholeness is greater than we could ever put words to, so silence can be appropriate when speaking about or from wholeness (!).
Wholeness defies objective description because it includes the hole in the whole.
The philosopher Henri Bortoft expresses the paradox of wholeness and partness eloquently:
Just as there are no independently separate masses on the large scale, then, there are also no independent elementary particles on the small scale. At both levels, the whole is reflected in the parts, which in turn contribute to the whole. The whole, therefore, cannot simply be the sum of the parts—i.e., the totality—because there are no parts which are independent of the whole. For the same reason, we cannot perceive the whole by “standing back to get an overview.” On the contrary, because the whole is in some way reflected in the parts, it is to be encountered by going further into the parts instead of by standing back from them.[ii]
Although wholeness cannot be cut into parts, aspects can be distinguished. Any such aspects are intrinsic, not “outside of one another.” To that, one might (inaccurately) say, “I am only a small part of the whole. How can I possibly speak from wholeness?” Bortoft’s point is that wholeness is not an object with parts, so you are not part of wholeness in the way the keyboard is part of a computer. Hence, speaking from wholeness begins in the imagination and requires a shift of perspective akin to the shift from facet-consciousness to diamond-consciousness (see Chapter 8). Wholeness has no singular perspective. As Gebser suggests, it is aperspectival.
Perhaps it is easier to grok this idea if we expand the term “speaking” to include any form of expression. Picasso, later in life, was attempting to paint from wholeness. In our attempts to come from a place of wholeness, the change in perspective that is required to get out of facetness or partness or brokenness serves us well.
If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.
The neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist shows how our brains are structured to be able to attend to and process both whole, patterned information and linear, segmented information—presenced and re-presented experience, respectively.[iii] Western culture has overvalued the latter information in recent centuries—from reading letters strung together into words and sentences to digitizing Chronos time at the expense of Kairos time, to measuring everything and devaluing what cannot be measured. Speaking and listening from wholeness will engage our innate pattern-seeking tendencies.
Listening from Wholeness
Speaking and listening define two poles of communication—production and reception. Although I have focused mainly on the language-production side (speaking/writing), the language-reception side is equally important. Much has been debated about the reception of language (especially from a “speaking about” perspective; e.g., hermeneutics and deconstructionism). I have nothing to add to those debates. Instead, let’s consider what it means to listen from wholeness by first examining what it is not. Listening from a part of you that seeks agreement, reinforcement of your beliefs, or a certain outcome is not listening from wholeness. While talking to someone, have you ever felt that the person was not paying attention to you or was reacting with silent disdain, disagreement, or boredom? You can sense when others are not listening from wholeness, and others can sense when you’re not. Thus, how you listen to someone affects the space into which your interlocutor can speak. When someone is not listening from wholeness, how free to speak your mind do you feel? When that happens to me, I get tongue-tied. I can’t even talk about topics that I really love to discuss. It’s as if the other person’s listening style has put up an unspoken barricade—“no, I won’t let your ideas in.”
If you listen from wholeness, as if the other person is your best friend or your favorite role model, or even as if they are you (at your best, of course), the space into which others can speak feels light and expansive. Because listening from wholeness, also called active listening, contributes as much to the conversation as speaking does, the interchange feels productive. However, if you listen judgmentally or only pretend to listen, you limit what can be said in that space. If you intentionally try to shut someone up by not listening, that tactic might backfire on you; it might make your interlocutor angry, louder, or more insistent. Not listening well is a double-edged sword.
Listening from wholeness allows whatever needs saying to be said. Regardless of how painful the message might be to hear, wholeness allows for all of it. Does that mean tolerating lies, hate speech, or other acts of verbal violence? Again, yes and no. It does not mean tolerating in the sense of “putting up with”; rather, coming from wholeness would enable you to see that pain-inducing speech often comes from a context of pain, and if you look deeply into yourself, you will likely find such pain there too. Our individual and collective pain needs to be acknowledged or dealt with by bringing those contexts to consciousness.
[i] B. Siegel, Love, Medicine, and Miracles, cited in Talbot, Holographic Universe, p. 6.
[ii] H. Bortoft, The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science (Floris Books, 1996), p. 6. Bortoft is thinking here about holograms. Unlike a photograph, each “part” of a hologram (e.g., if you cut it in pieces) is able to recreate the entire image, albeit with less clarity. Similarly, with regard to the meaning of a text, he says “We understand meaning in the moment of coalescence when the whole is reflected in the parts so that together they disclose the whole.” He claims that there is a circularity in understanding of parts and whole. Gebser would say that the whole is ever-present. See Chapter 17 for more on Gebser.
[iii] I. McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale University Press, 2019); I. McGilchrist, The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World, 2 vols. (London: Perspectiva Press, 2021).