Emptying Your Cup: Non-Verbal Awareness and General Semantics

Article excerpt

Wishing to talk about Zen philosophy, a professor visited a Zen master. As they sat together the Zen master poured tea. He kept on pouting as the tea overflowed onto the floor. "Stop!" said the professor, "you have filled the cup, no more will go in." The Zen master replied, "You are like that cup, full of your own ideas and speculations. If you wish to know Zen, you must first empty your cup."

Like Zen, an important aspect of general semantics (g.s.) training involves guided practice in "emptying your cup": looking, listening, tasting, feeling, experiencing, etc., at what Korzybski called "the silent, un-speakable level." This includes an attitude towards living that involves an awareness of yourself as an organism-as-a-whole-in-an-environment.

Some people who come to a g.s. seminar-workshop expecting to learn about language use and word 'meanings' are surprised by this. However, g.s. is not about 'semantics', understood as the study of linguistic 'meanings'. Rather, g.s. involves a practical and personal study of what we call our semantic or evaluational reactions. Evaluational reactions include non-verbal as well as verbal 'thinking' and 'feeling' responses to any events, not just words and symbols. Our focus is on internalizing some notions that can benefit our personal lives beyond the level of verbal, intellectual understanding alone.

Multiple Amphibians, Multiple 'Worlds'

Aldous Huxley pointed out, "Every adult human being is a multiple amphibian, the inhabitant, simultaneously or by turns, of several worlds." (1956, p.419) These 'worlds' do not occupy metaphysically separate realms. Rather, I interpret the term 'worlds' as metaphorically referring to important, differentiated but not separate, aspects of the universe that we participate in.

The first of these 'worlds' is the physical 'world' as postulated by natural science. Theoretically, we can understand our functioning as physico-chemical organisms within complex ever-changing physico-chemical environments. What we know about ['world'.sub.1] is inferred, i.e., not directly known in our immediate experience. We know about it through scientific theorizing tested through experimentation and observations. Scientific methods provide more or less reliable information about ourselves and our surroundings. Korzybski referred to the theoretically understood physical 'world' as the "event" level of existence and represented it as a parabola in his structural differential model (s.d.).

The second 'world' is that of sensations/perceptions which we abstract (select-construct) from events within and around us. As infants we experience ourselves fully in this sensory-perceptual ['world'.sub.2] which includes tastes, smells, sights, feelings, etc. Korzybski referred to this 'world' as the "silent, unspeakable, objective" level represented in the s.d. by a circle. What we know at this level is not theoretical and has a direct aesthetic value.

As we mature, we enter the third 'world' that we function in as 'multiple amphibians': language. Korzybski referred to ['world'.sub.3] as the "verbal level." Language allows us to further abstract from or symbolize our ['world'.sub.2] sensory experiences. The 'world' of language contains within it many successive levels: everyday conversation about particulars, as well as the higher-order abstractions of science, mathematics, philosophy, etc.

We can easily become entranced by this third 'world' of language, to the slighting of our senses. Our education system seems to put an undue focus on the verbal, symbolic realm to the neglect of the non-verbal one. Even when we exercise or play sports, we can become dominated by fixed, symbolic ideas of self-improvement or competition that prevent us from experiencing the present moment. Consistent with g.s. goals, Huxley called for an education aimed at developing ourselves in the non-verbal as well as the verbal realms. How do we proceed to develop this potential within ourselves, 'to empty our cups'? …