Landmark Education and the Landmark Forum

June 16, 2008

Transformation and Language

Filed under: inspiration — Tags: , , — landmarkeducationinaustralia @ 4:49 pm

I was reading today about how this woman won a prize for her paper on global transformation — It was actually a part of a Landmark Education course in their Wisdom division. The paper itself was very interesting — It talked about how much of how we create our world is in language, and that our current language is inadequate for shifting our current paradigm of ‘you or me’ to one of ‘you and me’ since our language is almost by defintion exclusionary.

One thing I want to say about the idea of the world being created in language — I think some people misidentify this idea as some sort of magical thinking. What I see is clear is that the way the world occurs, the way it seems to us, is created in our speaking, and that how the world occurs then influences our actions, which then alters physical reality itself.

Anyhow, better than me talking is to read what this woman wrote. Here’s excerpts from her paper:

Would a transformed world look much like the one we have now? Would we refer to things the same way, use the same words, reason using the same principles developed thousands of years ago by Aristotle? Or would a transformed world look, sound, and feel different? Would we interact with it differently? To the extent that the world our senses perceive will always be “just what’s so,” but the world in which we be is shaped by our language, then perhaps to transform the world concomitantly requires us to transform the language we use to describe and create it. Otherwise, are we simply pouring transformed wine into old conceptual bottles?


The idea that language shapes our reality has been most forcefully and controversially proposed by Benjamin Lee Whorf and modified by Edward Sapir. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that “the structure of a human being’s language influences the manner in which he understands reality and behaves with respect to it” (Whorf, 1956, p. 23). In other words, language indicates what is important to perceive from the vast source of stimuli that comprise reality. Language shapes and delineates our perceptions, tells us which details to attend to. Without such a mechanism to weed out the important from unimportant stimuli, we would be constantly overwhelmed and unable to “behave with respect to reality.” When I use the term “language” I mean the entire meaning-making process, including speaking, listening, and interpreting within a particular context. My focus in this paper, however, is on the signs we use (spoken or written).

When we say we are working to transform the world, which aspects of it are we attempting to transform? Trees will still grow up towards the sun; snow will still fall down from the sky in a transforming world. I contend that we are transforming our perceptions and understanding of that world as mediated by language. Given that I’ve heard people say that they want a world that works for everyone, a world in which no one is left out, where every voice is heard, that we’re all connected, that there is abundance for all, that peace prevails, I suspect that the world we want to transform is a world that we perceive to be out of harmony, fraught with violence, fragmented, scarce, and falling apart. In such a fragmented, disharmonious world, who wouldn’t feel that their primary task is simply to survive (Wolf, 2007)? What is the source of such experience of the world? Arjuna Ardagh suggests that it comes from a sense of separation: “What have we come to accept as the default state of being human?” he asks, then answers, “Most agree that human consciousness is characterized by an unnatural sense of separateness, a sense of a ‘me’ and a ‘not me.’ We act as though we are separate from the source itself, from the divine. On the basis of this feeling of separation stands everything else that feels abhorrent to the heart—child abuse, domestic violence, people lying to and cheating each other, environmental degradation, war. All of these things arise from this feeling of ‘me’ and ‘them’ as separate, or ‘me’ and ‘the planet’ as separate” (Ardagh, 2007, p. 215). In my listening of the aforementioned ways that people want to transform the world, I hear a yearning to bring back an understanding of the world’s wholeness and connectedness. How can we do that if this unnatural sense of separateness is entrenched in our very language?

From Either/Or to Both/And

To transform a structural aspect of language, let us investigate two simple function words, “and” and “or.” “And” combines and “or” separates. In everyday use, both functions are absolutely necessary. What passes under the radar, however, is that our logic is weighted towards “or”—towards distinction rather than conjunction. For centuries our conceptual system has been grounded in a structure based on either/or, with both/and just out of reach except to a few poets, philosophers, and mystics. This structure served us well for survival purposes: it facilitated distinguishing friend from foe, edible from poisonous, and predator from prey. However, modern science has shown us recently that the either/or structure is not always accurate (e.g., light is both a particle and a wave). Although sages have long glimpsed a world based on the both/and structure, it has been viewed as metaphorical rather than real. Science has now shown its reality.

I am not suggesting that we replace either/or relationships with both/and relationships, as the either/or distinction serves a useful purpose. I am suggesting that we break its bonds on our thinking and go beyond the polarization it engenders. I am proposing that either/or be seen as a subset of both/and, not in opposition to it.

In other words, both/and encompasses and includes either/or in a “both/and” type of relationship. To bring this to life, consider, for example, that you can be either Democrat or Republican, but a world that works for all must work for both Democrats and Republicans.

There’s much more to this essay, and it’s all fascinating, but I’m not going to steal someone’s entire paper–Anyone interested should read the entire thing at the website of the author, Lisa Maroski.

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