“We are symbols, and inhabit symbols” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
You my friend are a mammal. This may be presumptuous of me given my dating history and strong suspicion that I’ve had drinks with the occasional reptile, but they’re not big readers. As a mammal you only have a few choices when it comes to being conscious. One is either awake, sleeping, or dreaming, physiologically speaking. For a few decades, cognitive scientists have been speculating that there may very well be a fourth state of consciousness called “silent consciousness”, that is consciousness without content. Vedanta Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, the Yoga Sutras and numerous shamanic practices across time and culture have been saying the same thing for a long time, or as Victorian occultist Aleister Crowley said, “Science is always discovering odd scraps of magical wisdom and making a tremendous fuss about its cleverness”. Luckily, unlike so many anomalistic phenomena, the study of consciousness gets a pass in the scientific community, since its awful hard to deny without getting mired in some infinite Cartesian loop e.g. “I think therefore I am therefore I think therefore I am…”. One commonality among the religious set that maintain the existence of a fourth state of consciousness is that access to it is considered a more direct ontological tap into metaphysical reality. Basically, if you want to get in touch with the universe, you’ve got to shut up, cognitively that is. One of the more typical practices designed to access this alternate form of consciousness, across many faiths, is the mantra.
Definitions of what exactly constitutes a mantra cross-culturally are excruciatingly vague, but in general terms, “Contemplative practices use high numbers of repetitions: An inner syllable, a vocalized chant, a repeated breathing technique, a precise body posture, a highly practiced skill like archery, a hand gesture, a whirling dance, or a martial arts movement. Advanced practitioners spend thousands of hours in repeated actions” (Baars, 2013, p1). The important component they share is redundancy. Psychologists have long studied a demonstrable phenomena called semantic satiation (Ganzfeld “blank-outs” are the visual analog), where it has been consistently proven that when you actively repeat a word over and over again, the meaning of the word fades. Psychologist Edward Titchener observed, “repeat a word over and over again, with sustained attention to the auditory-kinaesthetic complex. The word soon becomes meaningless; the direction of attention has given a sort of hypnotic narrowness to consciousness, the associative context of the word is cut off, and the bare perception remains” (League, 1977, p47).
What does it practically mean for a word to lose its meaning? “Repeat aloud some word – the first word that occurs to you; house for instance – over and over again; presently the sound of the word becomes meaningless and blank; you are puzzled and a morsel frightened as you hear it…When the word ‘house’ becomes meaningless with repetition, it is because the bare sound grows more and more vivid and dominant; like the nestling cuckoo, it drives out its normal associates; and these associates, the carriers of its meaning, sink lower and lower into the obscurity of the background. So the meaning almost literally, drops off, falls away” (Tian and Huber, 2010, p268).
What are some examples? James Thurber once said, “I began to indulge in the wildest fancies as I lay there in the dark, such as that there was no such town, and even that there was no such state as New Jersey. I fell to repeating the word ‘Jersey’ over and over again, until it became idiotic and meaningless. If you have ever lain awake at night and repeated one word over and over, thousands and millions and hundreds of thousands of millions of times, you know the disturbing mental state you can get into” (Thurber, My Life and Hard Times, 1933). Then there is the transcendental “Om mani padme hum” of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Notably, the same effect can be produced through the repetition of not just words, but phrases as in the chant “Dafan yinyu wuliang yin” in Taoism, and various Christian liturgies.
We apprehend our world through language, or as Wittgenstein said, “the limits of my language are the limits of my world”, thus it stands to reason that should another form of consciousness exist, something that expands beyond the symbolic prison we encapsulate ourselves in, such a thing would be accessible by deliberately depleting those constraining symbols through repetition, resulting in another effect widely referred to as jamais vu, or experiencing recognition of the familiarity of a situation that nonetheless seems unfamiliar, often grouped with other phenomena of depersonalization. The universe usually doesn’t talk directly to us. This is annoying as we have lots of unanswered questions. But perhaps the main problem is that we haven’t learned to listen.
Consequently, I propose a new kind of meditation. Repeat the following sentence after me. “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.” You may be shocked to hear that this is a grammatically correct sentence in American English, utilizing the three dictionary definitions of buffalo: (1) the animal, (2) to bully, and (3) the city in New York. Properly translated into something more comprehensible, it means “Bison from Buffalo, which bison from Buffalo bully, themselves bully bison from Buffalo.” Of course, after repeating this phrase out loud a few times, you’ll find your head strangely empty, and uncomprehending of the word “buffalo”. Pretty soon, you wind up wondering if any words really have meaning apart from the arbitrary assignment we need to explain to someone else how to surround a woolly mammoth. A lot of sound and fury, clearly signifying very little. Perhaps this is why several thousand years of encounters with the strange invariably sound absurd to our ears. We’ve attached meaning to symbols, but when our symbols fail to capture an unnatural reality, we are forced to fall back into a hypothetical state of consciousness where what appears before us seems familiar, yet is outside our experience, and the attempt to apprehend it in linguistic terms fails miserably.
Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon absolute truth”, and maybe he was on to something. We are the only creature we know that uses symbolic language (until you can have a conversation with a dolphin, don’t talk to me about them – bastards are just trawling for fish handouts). Maybe that’s why we’re so screwy. We just can’t shut up. I think I need to go to my happy place now. “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.”
Baars, Bernard J. “A Scientific Approach To Silent Consciousness.” Frontiers In Psychology 4(2013): 1-3.
League, Richard. Psycholinguistic Matrices. Berlin/Boston, DE: De Gruyter Mouton, 1977.
Tian, Xing, and David E. Huber. “Testing an Associative Account of Semantic Satiation.” Cognitive Psychology 60.4 (2010): 267-90.