The Shadow Side of Language


In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare wrote, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In a few short words, he managed to both magnify the power of language, and diminish it at the same time. That’s quite a feat. And this eloquent phrase is exactly what came to my mind on Easter Sunday when Oprah had one of my favorite spiritual teachers over for a chat: Adyashanti.

In this particular segment of Super Soul Sunday, Oprah quoted Adyashanti’s book, Falling Into Grace. Ady writes:

The great spiritual teacher Krishnamurti once said, “When you teach a child that a bird is named ‘bird,’ the child will never see the bird again. What they’ll see is the word “‘bird.’” That’s what they’ll see and feel, and when they look up in the sky and see that strange, winged being take flight, they’ll forget that what is actually there is a great mystery.

What Adyashanti (and by extension Krishnamurti) means by this is that there is a negative quality to language. Like everything in life, language has a dual nature, a light side and a dark side, or a shadow side. The light comes in when we use language to empower us.

I will never forget when my son was around two years old: the age that most children begin speaking. My son Antonio didn’t speak though. He used gestures exclusively. There was a lot of pointing going on. To say that it was difficult to communicate with him would be an understatement. It was dowright painful. And don’t even get me started on how he’d act when he was frustrated. Antonio would run head-first into walls, and bang his head on the floor when he couldn’t get his point across. Once, he even scraped his eye on the abrasive velcro of my husband’s sandal, scratching the skin around his left eye. At age ten, he still has the slight scars to show for it.

But when Antonio started school, he morphed into a completely different child. My pensive, broody, enigma of a then three-year-old blossomed like a lotus flower in a matter of months. Where there were once tears, in came laughter. Where there were angry noises, there was suddenly humor. And most heartwarming of all, where there was silence, out came the words, “Mommy” and “Daddy.” It gives me chills just to think about it.

Antonio embraced language, and it changed his entire world.

This is the transformative power of the light side of language. You see it in children learning to explore the world around them, tasting out the feel of new words on their lips. You see it in written form, masterfully-crafted sentences and paragraphs in novels that completely transport you to entirely different worlds (my favorite pasttime). And in the shadow, you feel it’s lash, equally as bitter as it can be sweet.

Examples of the shadow side of language can be found in schools, where they are wielded as the verbal weapons of bullies to keep their unfortunate targets from shining too brightly. On sports fields, where domineering tyrants, both coaches and players, crush vulnerable spirits. And where I’ve noticed it in my own spiritual journey, both in myself and others: in the ever-so malleable human mind. Knowledge can be power, and it can also be victimizing, just like language. Knowing just enough to be dangerous can also be damning…

Spiritually-speaking, when I first began looking at my birth chart and identifying the different patterns and archetypes within, I found myself going “oh woe is me, I have Mars in Libra, how ever will I manage to balance that?” And then I surrendered to the idea that I have a “peacemaking warrior” living within me. Not surrender in the good, let the Divine take over kind of way, but in the giving up, “why am I even trying?” kind of way. And that’s where I made the mistake.

I tried to split my conscious mind into a pie-slices of different combinations of personalities, or houses as astrology goes–archetypes that “ruled” me, in the literal sense. What I was missing though is that this isn’t the way that archetypes, or any spiritual/psychic/intuitive tool is meant to be used. Yes, the astrological houses are meant to be used as a model of the human mind, similar to how Freud used the id, ego, and superego (but obviously more detailed). Using any developmental aide in such a matter-of-fact way, is giving your power away, giving your free will away.

The point, and the power in using archetypes as a tool is in being able to separate out the patterns, while also understanding at the same time that you are not that pattern. Archetypes are just a facet of your personality: parts of your mind. As evolutionary astrologer Steven Forrest so eloquently puts it, it’s like stained glass flowing through a window. You filter everything through that glass. But the important thing to remember is that your mind is not you. This is where a lot of people get stuck in their stories!

You are a soul, a Self, an entity. Recognizing a pattern and proceeding to allow it to have power over you is like saying “I am anger. I embody anger.” As opposed to recognizing the archetype and embracing it as only a lens, that stained glass that you see through.

It’s critical to your development as a person and to your spiritual journey to understand that you are separate from these identities and any others that you might associate yourself with. To know and understand that you are not your beliefs, ideas, thoughts, actions, behaviors or experiences, is like taking off rose-colored glasses and seeing the world as it really is and you for who you really are: an eternal soul having a very human experience. Seeing the world in this way changes everything. It’s like having the symbolic language to describe yourself for the first time. It’s like waking up for the first time ever.

Can you tell yet what I’m going to say next? I swear this is going to become part of my motto: It’s like waking up from….. (drum roll please!)

THE MATRIX! (tee hee!)

Seriously though, you’re not a mom. You’re not a wife. You’re not a girlfriend, daughter, sister, father, brother, husband, co-worker, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, Irish, Italian, German, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Muslim, Christian, working-class, middle-class, democratic, republican, skinny, fat, light, dark, ugly, pretty…. You’re just you. A Soul. A Being. And perefectly so if I might add.

So yes, use your tools to empower you, to shed light on the story and characters of your life–whether that’s a Bible, Tarot cards, self-development books or anything in-between. But do it with the knowledge that when that light is shed, you’re creating a very real fork in the road. You’re not learning for the sake of learning, you’re learning to gain new perspective. And the mere fact that you can step back and see a the choice before you once you gain that perspective: to choose to react in a manner consistent with the archetype, story or pattern, or to course-correct, proves that you are not that archetype, story or pattern.

You have an insane vantage point with a view from the best seat in the house: the seat of your soul. So what will you choose?

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  1. says

    Do you know how hard it is to describe yourself without starting with, “I am a….”? I have tried it and have not been so successful. It’s amazing to think how freeing words can be (as in children) and how limiting (as in describing ourselves). Thanks, Nicole, for reminding us that we are souls having a human experience.

    • says

      I agree Cheryl and while I’ve never tried taking out the “I am” part, I can definitely relate! I identified as a mom for a long time, and pretty much nothing else. It did not fill the hole…

  2. says

    Nicole — I absolutely LOVE this article! The way you drive home the point that we are not our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, etc., is beautiful! We are indeed powerful spiritual beings living a human existence with lessons to learn and choices to make. Astrology, archetypal patterns of behavior, tarot, etc., are all great tools to gain awareness, which ultimately leads us to making more empowered “conscious” choices in our human existence (so that we can evolve and avoid having to learn the same lessons over and over again). Bravo — great article!

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