Conversation with Pat Styer About the Role of Words, August, 2009

Beckett International Airport

I recently had the pleasure (along with my brother Brian) of meeting Tony Dias at the train station in Old Saybrook, CT. 

It was a good talk. And at first I thought we’d walked into a Beckett play.

My brother and I thought we’d arrived early. There was a sign at the intersection that seemed to proclaim the correct address, 355 Boston Post Road, but the name of the cafe was wrong. I told the bartender I was looking for the “Old Saybrook Cafe” at 355 Boston Post Road. He’d never heard of it.

So we kept waiting next to the misleading sign. I was reluctant to call Tony on my brother’s cell phone because I didn’t want to seem impatient. I have some inhibitions of that sort that I claim to find amusing.

30 minutes passed. Finally my brother asked me if there wasn’t supposed to be a train station in the vicinity. We walked up and down the street but couldn’t find one. Finally I asked a passerbye if she’d heard of the cafe.

“Yes,” she said, pointing. “It’s at the train station.” 

Tony had been waiting about 45 minutes. But he was a gentleman about it.

The weather was unusually warm. So we decided to sit on some benches on the platform between the two tracks.

The weather quickly turned cold and windy. We were constantly being interrupted by the arrival and departure of trains, and by the loudspeaker, which kept warning people not to get hit by trains.

But I love trains. And I liked the comedy of the interruptions. And the comedy of speaking about meaning and all that while being bureaucratically warned about the nearness of death

But in that setting the conversation was hard. So eventually we wandered over the parking lot, where we enjoyed a wide-ranging talk.

And since then I’ve put aside most of my mini-essays I was writing, or started robbing them of paragraphs here and there, and have been focusing on addressing some of the perspectives and questions that our conversation stirred up. 

But that’s taking more time than I expected. So in keeping with the spirit of that good talk with Tony and my brother — and because the subject matter of what follows will become relevant to the longer essay I’m writing — below is a talk I had with Pat Styer back in August, 2009.

It is very rare to have conversations like the ones I have with Tony, Jeppe, my brother Brian and Pat Styer. The difference is not necessarily the content of what we’re saying, which might be dead wrong or stupid, for all I sometimes know. But it’s the capacity to suddenly stop demanding to be right. And to do this even in the midst of digging into our own deepest assumptions and beliefs. Even when we feel resistance. Because it’s only about honestly meeting whatever is happening. And pointing it out one way or another.

You might say a willingness to be a crash test dummy against actuality. Just for the pleasure of learning. Just to find out what’s happening at the most practical level imaginable: right where the daily collisions with life start. In the thoughts and assumptions that drive behavior.

But anyways, this posting is about tangentially relevant issues and shows a kindred spirit to the conversations I’ve had with Tony. And with Jeppe and Brian. And with my nephew Justin, and my wife Margie, and with a few others. It can keep the momentum going while the various half-finished essays and new perceptions finish sorting themselves out.



Jeff: OK, so I watched thought a long time last night, wondering about words and meaning. Here are some observations:

Helen Keller: She lived in a completely shut-off world, unable to understand her surroundings. She lived in a “pre-intellectual” state of mind. When she discovered words for things she blossomed. Her intelligence grew with words. Without words she could not have grown.

Words give shape to thought, make deep-dwelling, implicit and unconscious perceptions, intentions and meanings serviceable.

Words are like a technological appendage to thought.  They are not easily distinguishable from real seeing.

Words make knowledge. And knowledge becomes the currency of intelligence to most people.

Words are conditioning. We are directed to notice things that words designate. I see “Muslims” or “whites” or “blacks” a certain way because words seem to designate actualities.

And at some point a person wonders if it’s possible to see without the prejudicial restraints imposed by words and images? (In other words, can we still have the benefits of conditioning (expecting certain things of certain situations) but recognize that these expectations are not entirely accurate and might in fact be dead wrong)?

If we think that’s not possible, then thought will seem to equate with intelligence. And we’ll end up believing that we can’t know anything unless we have words to describe it.

In that case the movement between seeing a new thing and naming that thing will seem instantaneous. We won’t notice anything but a stream of words and images from morning to night. Seeing IS naming in that case. And then there would be no such thing as silence. Not speaking or envisioning would be equivalent to being pre-verbal, or stupid.

But what if one doubts this? How do we discover if it’s possible to See without naming or re-imagining something, without being limited by conditioning?

So I tried to pay attention to the moment prior to a word forming in the mind. I noticed a flow of meaning prior to words.

And I noticed that we already perceive what is meant prior to the formation of the word or image. And I noticed that this meaning is not “knowledge” (which is verbal), but something more direct. Can we both notice the weird effect words have on this flow, how it stops the flow of meaning, gives it a conclusion, chains the flow to buoys of old meaning, prejudice?

Notice that the capacity to let meaning flow without resorting to words is NOT like a pre-verbal state, because now one sees what is happening, understands where words are needed, and where words are not needed.

It is a POST-verbal state, which still has access to words, but can swim deeper and see unvoiced meanings that words are not agile enough to follow. One can be very skilled in catching a few of these meanings and hauling them ashore as static knowledge. But one isn’t compelled to do so. It is freedom from words without an absence of words.


Pat Styer:

Maybe an important distinction is between “seeing” and “seeing specifics.”

Perhaps with “seeing” [as opposed to “seeing specifics”] “action” is implied as part of the “seeing.”

The old “Nominalist” and “Realist” debate has always found me on the “Nominalist” side of the issue. But (it appears now) this has always been in terms of specificity.

In other words, nothing specific exists before the word or the Naming. But meaning that moves us seems certainly to “exist” prior to any naming.

I say “certainly” because it is only a small portion of “life” that “Names” and whose activity is based to some degree on Naming. (Whether we say it is based on “meaning” is another question. But it seems as well that “meaning” can be distinguished into specific and non-specific categories — ALTHOUGH a “non-specific” variety [of “meaning] will leave thought ever in dismay).


Jeff: Yes, THAT is the key. I’m calling “seeing specifics” knowledge.

The assumption here is that intelligence need not be in the form of words or knowledge or anything specific. Proprioception is perhaps another way of describing Post-Verbal intelligence.

Sitting watching the moment before a thought arises reveals a lot.

Pat, what does the nominal/realist question look like in more fullness? Is that what we’re discussing here?

What happens the moment before you find the “right” word? What do you see when you begin to enlarge the space between word and perception inspiring the word? Would this be another way of describing suspension?

It seems so. But if this “suspension” does not become the goal, and we try to find out what is happening in suspension, what do we see?

Wait, in other words, I’m watching the moment before a word is necessary. I’m all by myself, no words are necessary, but there are onrushing feelings of necessity that lead to verbalization typically.

But I’m interested in seeing what happens BEFORE words. Words aren’t forming. The suspension extends and you start to feel what a compulsive reflex it is to speak. And you start to sense that one could go further without the leashes of a compulsive-style language.

Please don’t imagine that I want to live without speaking or something. I’m just saying that the vast majority of the internal narration covering experience begins to look unnecessary. It’s a compulsion to bring meaning-seeing into words.

Now I’m not sure this equates to seeing specifics and seeing without specifics. A mind that is NOT forming words when it’s alone is still seeing very deeply into meaning. There is a sense of specificity even without words. It looks to me (and please question this to the end) that insight doesn’t need to be formed into words UNLESS we’re communicating or analyzing something (which is also a form of communication).

Is this wrong?


Pat Styer:

Excellent. Things get so rich here that rereading and careful reading suffer sometimes. Quite often actually.

There is a compulsion to say though, that this states the compulsion well.

We want to say what we see. Even just to ourselves. We want to “put” the seeing somewhere; we want to “fit” it somewhere.

And it seems that we are very often prematurely satisfied with the “fit.” And this fits the category of [what I used to call] “Premature articulation.”

And all this is reminding me of “layered suspension” where upon each “layer” of suspension, the “fit” is even “fitter.” And during each “extension of suspension” there is a grateful seeing of the aborted compulsion.

All this begs even more care.

About two mornings ago I had a very significant insight. It came and went in a flash. Very shortly after this I began to speak with a friend about it. We spoke for 2 hours. And then later that night I spoke with another friend about it. During both of these conversations (and as dialogical as they were and as deeply understanding as both of the friends were), there was a sense of the vastness of the difference, the difference in quality, between the insight itself and all of the words exchanged about it. Both of these friends are very good thinkers. Their capacity for logic (and for suspension of same) is impressive. But the insight was not logical — and it is still not logical. Not that I am saying that it won’t, in time, find its way into a larger logical scheme. But at the moment, it sits on its own, and actually defies, and very proudly, all of the best logic I’ve ever known.

But (I got carried away) the relevance of this is in the clear lack of necessity for attempting to put the insight into words in terms of the insight being a change of direction in my life,

You said, “There is a sense of specificity even without words.”

Yes, I see — there is a sense of specificity, even without the words. It seems to be a “specificity” without conclusion, without interpretation of relative value, without judgment.


Jeff: Yes. without conclusiveness, without value judgement.

Words keep forming out of the “emptiness” like little pearls. But the usual way of looking at it is to value these pearls above the movements of meaning within the “emptiness” itself. So we become pearl-hunters, diving down in single-minded pursuit of new specificities of conclusiveness (knowledge).

But the process of intelligence prior to its — oh, could it be that these word-pearls burn the energy of intelligence in the same way that anger is an energy burn? You pointed out to me how the feeling of anger is actually the experience of energy being burned up.

Now it looks as if the compulsion to produce pearls of words (when we’re alone) is a burning of energy of a more subtle, more fluid intelligence. Thoughts?



To mingle our metaphors, the pearls are blocking the neck of the hourglass (through which the sands of “intelligence” would otherwise flow).

And if we relate “thinking” to an ever up to date “intelligence” and “thought” to the past/future, it is “thought” [attachment to a thought; belief in a thought] that is preventing the flow of “thinking.”

And this “compulsion” really is reflexive, automatic, mechanical. One of the mechanical thoughts is that these thoughts are meaningful  [pearls],  and there is extreme attachment to this thought [attachment to this thought about thought — which Bohm called “Thought of type B”].

But barring a practical or technical ‘job to be done’ the thoughts mean nothing whatsoever (and even if there is such a ‘job to be done’ these thoughts mean nothing if not transported by the flow of “intelligence.” The past {or “persistence” or “what was”} is only functional when ‘riding’ on “what is.” Without “what is” (which is “intelligence”) “what persists” is irrelevant).

And this “attachment” to a thought, is attachment by another thought — a thought of a central “me” that is taken to be who or what I am. So thoughts without meaning are believed to be pearls, because they are implicitly believed to be my thoughts. “I” am taken as their source. “I” am seen as ‘making’ these thoughts and yet “I” cannot stop them and “I” cannot stop “making” them (and indeed, if “I” try to stop them they amp up).

You said, “You pointed out to me how the feeling of anger is actually the experience of energy being burned up.”

It seems that in general, “energy” experienced is energy burning up.

We don’t seem to experience “energy” as it is being received, as the ‘batteries’ are being charged.

Things like sleep and rest and relaxation give us energy.

And indeed, it makes sense that belief in thought burns the energy of “intelligence.” A lot of effort [compulsive and self-sustaining effort] goes into this burning up of “intelligence.” Unseen (isolated from awareness), this effort appears to just continue to build on itself.


Jeff: OK, very interesting and clear. Looking at it as thought vs. thinking makes sense.

What I’m seeing is the desire to come to the surface with a pearl (with a thought). Almost all my life I’ve felt as if Real Life or The Home Ground existed only where thought was made (on the “shore”) — where the flow of seeing could be hauled ashore as a rock-solid idea or static conclusion.

Pat: ~~ I have especially loved rock solid principles, especially those grand and utterly simple ones [simple wordings] that apply to every difficult situation. They have been homes away from home for sure. They have seemed to be sent from home.

Jeff: A place to rest, to stop seeing.

Pat: ~~ Why does “The son of man has no place to lay his head” resonate [or elude] so much?

Jeff: So the main thing that would disturb any flow moment was the THOUGHT popping up,

“but how am I going to remember how to get back here (unless I conclude something)?”

Pat: ~~ There is an impulse [born of thought] to re-experience [what is thought of as] respite from [a thought of] seeing/being. This is born of a thought that the ‘destination’ is superior to the ‘voyage’ [“destination” though, being no more than a thought. “Destination” actually, is the very meaning of thought. And thought is a thought chauvinist – it prefers itself over non-thought. As Bohm suggests, the necessity for the conditioning as the footing for everything, is built into the conditioning].

Jeff: Or “but I need to rest on some conclusion for a while.”

Pat: ~~ There is a Wallace Stevens quote that goes: “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exclusive truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.”

Jeff:   The point of seeing then became that of a scuba-diver visiting some place with the intention of improving his life ashore.

Pat: ~~ Such magnificent wording [throughout] — that so readily and freshly embraces the seeing.

Jeff: I never considered LIVING in the flow state and letting the shore alter itself according to what was happening in the larger ocean. I never seriously considered reversing the orientation of perception.

So the objective was always — how to improve the structure of thought so that it would be more coherent with flow. Not “why live on the surface when your truer home was in the flow?”

Pat: ~~Very clear wording. Interesting. How [for me] the clarity and coherence of the wording [structure?] itself summons attention so strongly as purpose or goal. And its occurrence is so satisfying.

Jeff: Now we are considering the possibility of not coming ashore except when there is business to be done ashore. Of course, there IS much business to be done there — communicating, working, socializing. But this is still only the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the time one doesn’t need to be shore-oriented? And improvements in the structure of thought on shore do not appear to be the objective of the flow itself, only a consequence.

Pat: ~~ Specific intentionality does not seem characteristic of the flow [except we might say that there is the intentionality of self awareness –- which seems to necessitate an ‘edge’ or “shoreline” of some sort? A kind of ever ‘thinning’ or subtle-izing  horizon?].

The above question of “objective” or “consequence” seems to sum up the nature of the subtle reversal that thought achieves. Thought works by means of objectives. And thought will automatically interpret a “consequence” of the flow – as only appropriate as  an objective.

Jeff:   What I’m saying here now is not making this dawning sense of a re-orientation any more vivid. In fact. it is doing the opposite in some ways. The longer I speak of what I’m beginning to see the less I see it. I notice that words in this particular arena have a hampering effect on the flow of intelligence. I mean, they CAN have that effect if we get suckered into taking them more seriously than they deserve.

Pat: ~~ Indeed [unseen as such] they CAN.

Jeff: It is a kind of “homework” to stay just under the so-called surface (for the word surface prejudices the mind into seeing thought as “home”). But I’ll use “surface” for now knowingly.

Pat: ~~ “Surface” to identified air breathers can certainly represent “home.”

Jeff: It is strange to stay there and see how much is known in what is often disregarded as an inchoate swirl of chaos “until we find the right words.” If we don’t immediately retreat to the surface (and there is a certain discomfort that leads to retreat),…

Pat: ~~ Bohm spoke intriguingly of the importance of awareness of “the intention to think” and this is the first instance of the “surfacing” [wording] of such awareness that I’ve seen.

Jeff: … then there is so much knowing already going on. At first, one can almost feel as if one is about to drown in too much knowing. One longs to retreat to shore with tidbits, putting a stop to the flow. It is a form of greed perhaps. The desire to capture some of the richness and make it “real” by bringing it ashore.

Pat: ~~ There is something that loves the really rich and simple wordings. What was that old saying — something about eternity being in love with the productions of time.

Jeff: But eventually the shore starts feeling less real. The things we bring ashore are ersatz, lifeless, static.

Pat: ~~ Like fingernail clippings.

Jeff: That non-verbal Being is infinitely rich in knowing (without knowledge). And only the smallest tip can ever be verbalized (hence the panic and greed to take at least SOMETHING for one’s “own”).

Pat: ~~ A little inner tube to float me on.

Jeff: Bohm’s distinction of “thinking” and “thought” is great. I have trouble using that framework only because I usually assume thinking to be creating, envisioning, making, deducting, reasoning — doing useful, practical, constructive things with Thought. The assumption I’ve carried regarding Seeing has been NOT doing “useful”, practical, constructive things, but absorbing, feeling, sensing, perceiving, being intelligently aware of, whatever is already being done.

How do you see thinking in relation to that? Are there three different movements – seeing, thinking, thought. Or am I not yet quite getting what you mean by thinking?

Pat: ~~ Equating “thinking” with “intelligence” was a new experiment partly for the purpose of contrasting thinking and thought (which Bohm does in his own, but compatible ways I think). But thinking on this (because of your astute zeroing in on it) the initial thought is that this “thinking” [as opposed to “thought”] is a kind of “non-conclusive specifying.” Within this way of framing “thinking” we could say that either “yes, it is  “seeing” OR that “it is a part of seeing.”

Thinking on it further we might say that “thinking” is “thought” informed  by “intelligence.” There is no attachment to thinking of “thinking” as  “intelligence.” It’s easy to say though, that it is a form of “intelligence.” (Bohm sometimes called “thinking” “inquiry” to distinguish it from “thought”).

A general thought after numerous readings of the above: the truth will out; it will “surface.” It will and does show itself as ‘rocks’, as words, as forms of itself – but its appearance as such ‘continues’ [as you indicated] only with a continuity of non attachment to, and non rejection of, the forms. (This takes us back to “suspension” where there is non-defense of the forms in either its active or passive {indulgent or suppressive}, varieties). These “truths” are identical to Wallace Stevens’ “fictions.”

I’m thoroughly enjoying the “freshly embracing” quality in all of this “surfacing,” in all of this writing.

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