the Two Truths
Through Concrete Nouns & Abstract Nouns
The way in which people talk about and describe things is a window into the depths of their world. Not only the words that people use, but the way that people use those words, is incredibly telling. An understanding of how people talk about things is a good place to notice the underlying way that people hold the ideas they are talking about.
I wanted to describe some ways of relating to language in spiritual practice that are empowering and clarifying for both students and teachers.
First let’s clarify the difference between abstract nouns and concrete nouns and how this is revealing one of the most fundamental underlying truths of the Universe.
A lot of the states, objectives and goals of spirituality are abstract nouns and not concrete nouns.
The difference between the two is that concrete nouns are words used for physical things that can be measured. Things that can be touched, seen, felt, and heard. For example, a table, a body, a sound.
Abstract nouns describe something more ineffable – a quality, a concept or an idea – love, beauty or cosiness, for example. They are real, can be experienced together and there is some collective agreement on what they mean but they are harder to pin down. They don’t have a physical manifestation that can be objectively measured in the same way as concrete nouns.
Abstract nouns are sensed and created through a more intuitive understanding of the world.
When it relates to language, concrete nouns are describing shared physical reality and abstract nouns are describing the spiritual or immaterial dimension of experience.
If you are connecting to wholeness and coming from the foundation where there is no single source of truth, it becomes apparent that experience and reality are always being created from a dance between these two aspects.
One of the ways I like to describe this is that all experience is a conversation between body and metaphor or substance and the formless.
A common issue that arises with talking about spiritual experiences is that abstract nouns are made concrete. This reifies experience and stops people being able to be in touch with the underlying felt-experience of it.
To illustrate this, here are some abstract nouns of spiritual experiences that are often reified and talked about as if they are concrete:
None of these can be objectively measured in the same way that concrete nouns can be.
To help understand this more deeply, here are some examples of some other abstract nouns:
None of these are a fixed state that are expected to be the same thing amongst everyone. Recognising their abstract nature is a part of people understanding that each of these things will be experienced subtly differently by every person.
For example, everyone experiences things like love, sadness and soulfulness and there are things you can do to cultivate more of them in life, but the actual experience is unique and different in each person.
It’s not that these abstract nouns don’t exist – they are as real as concrete reality – it’s that they operate on a different level to the more physical and objective world.
The level of nebulosity and intuitiveness to how abstract nouns are experienced, is an innate part of their nature. When teachers describe spiritual experiences like, for example, ‘the unfabricated’ or ‘mindfulness’ as if they are fixed qualities or concrete nouns, it can make it harder for people to access them because it loses touch with this intuitive element.
Words are incredibly helpful for helping people feel and experience things with more sensitivity, clarity and depth. Having detailed and precise descriptive words is incredibly important for helping people make sense of their experience.
There is another direction that people can go when talking about spiritual experience and that is that it is impossible to put it into words. There is some truth in this – many spiritual experiences go beyond what language or symbols are able to capture or transmit; however, increasing the clarity around how you describe and relate to things can open up new aspects of experience for yourself and other people.
By putting words onto things you can be forced to deepen your sense of love and understanding of an experience, if only for your own deepening felt-sense of the thing.
A really good example of how language helps people understand their experience better is the word ‘hangry’.
Hangry is one of the best inventions to come out of the last couple of decades because it describes so clearly an experience that everyone can relate to and makes it possible to recognise the experience they are in.
Before that word was invented, people who were hangry would mostly be stuck in unhelpful reactivity and stress. Since that word became popular it became a way for people to recognise their own experience, or other people’s experience, more objectively and with more skill.
Hangry creates a way to describe your experience that is relatable and understandable. Because of the word, people can understand and connect with their experience and each other better.
By making a noun, it objectifies the situation more and makes it less personal.
It feels like there is plenty of opportunity for spirituality to embrace this attitude more and normalise new ways of relating to experience.
Lots of spiritual abstract nouns are really great words for describing what it is possible to feel or experience. A good outcome is if people are be able to connect more precisely and sensitively with things that can feel ineffable.
Embracing nebulosity and the intuitive nature of the ineffability of spiritual experience can facilitate a way to let go of unhelpful fixed perceptions and open up to being more present with the more abstract side of experience, which tends to be a more flowing and changeable aspect of being.
It’s also possible to use clear, descriptive words to share states of being in a way that feels connecting and that can help people to find their own version of them. People can share experiences that feel enlightening.
The area in which experiences become more concrete is when there is a scientifically validated way of testing and proving that a truth exists. Ideally across multiple people in the same way.
Some examples that come to mind of things that will probably be able to be proved to be concrete nouns in spirituality are cessations and jhanas.
There’s still an element of care involved in how this is held; some states are bodily processes that can be understood and tested but they still fit within a wider eco-system of beliefs, experiences, wisdom, love, beauty and other more abstract qualities.
In this way, I like to compare spiritual experiences that will be able to be studied to orgasms.
If you asked 1,000 people to describe an orgasm, there would be some common themes but everyone would describe it slightly differently. In theory, it’s the body doing roughly the same thing, but even every orgasm that each person has will be slightly different. The idea that a cessation or a jhana is one thing that everyone experiences the same is kind of absurd.
The science of spirituality has the possibility to be incredibly helpful and insightful. This is reflected in how the science of sexuality has the possibility to be incredibly helpful.
There’s been lots of studies done on sexuality and orgasms and it has done a lot for developing an understanding of sex. For example, I believe at some points in some cultures it was general common knowledge that women can’t orgasm. Cultivating a scientific understanding of orgasms isn’t necessarily going to give people the answer to enjoying loving, erotic relationships, but a bit more knowledge about physical pleasure can help people move in that direction.
When it comes to spirituality, creating an understanding of what certain states actually are in the body and how they manifest could be helpful in the same way.
If the brain or body has changed its processes, either permanently or temporarily, due to a way that people practice, then that is worth studying and understanding.
The science is not going to hold the answers to meaningful spirituality, in the same way that studying orgasms doesn’t hold the answer to happy sex lives, but it could point towards some helpful information that can reveal a deeper understanding and inform better decisions about practice.
The concrete reality and how people experience this is an important aspect of true nature and embracing working with it feels vital, meaningful and alive.
Awakening is about connecting with true nature. If you can connect to the underlying nature in a direct way, then you create more space, freedom and optionality in experience.
An aspect of true nature is more ineffable and intuitive and an aspect of it is more concrete and objective.
Using clear and specific words for describing experiences, without reifying them, can help people connect with their experience better. Studying with more rigour and clarity how these things manifest in the physical world can help inform what is present.
Between these things it’s possible to see the patterns of the way that true nature dances through the more ineffable and the more concrete.
One of the most beautiful things about this is the way in which people make sense of experience in very similar and wildly unique ways at the same time. Creating shared languages, stories and meaning-structures that people can connect to is intrinsically human and part of our spirituality and natural spiritual growth.
Ideally, the meaning structures that are created can hold a balance between validating and empowering people and holding claims and ideas to a high degree of both intellectual rigour and emotional maturity.