Friday, November 09, 2007

Relative Communications

Have you ever wondered why great prophets like Jesus or the Buddha spoke in such parables? Why didn’t they come out and tell us everything we needed to know straight away?

I have meditated on the nature of how humans communicate many times. Poor communication is the most common cause of conflict. It is in all our best interests to better understand the dynamics of human communications. I find it a paradox how we can all be basically the same and yet different in how we perceive reality. One thing I have noticed is that when we communicate we usually do so using metaphors. We often use linear steps in our attempts to share ideas. If we have some great truth to share we do so through parables—tales that attempt to use our common experiences to bridge the communication gap. But despite our best parables and metaphors many of us are often misunderstood and taken out of context. Yet we persist in communicating this way. As advanced as we are why do we use such a cumbersome method of communicating?

A while back while meditating on how we perceive things I found myself venturing into this communications conundrum. I believe I stumbled across a profound truth. When I share it with you it of course comes along with a story to put the idea in perspective. My readers will of course perceive it from their own experiences and many will miss the point I am trying to communicate. I will fail to clearly communicate the idea to all readers. Inexplicably I must still share my explanation. Hope springs eternal.

If someone who is ready to understand this happens to read it I hope they will be rewarded with a profound but simple truth. This is not to say that my realization stands above any other metaphor or any other observation. No, I don’t try to enlighten the world with this particular story. But I do hope you will be one of those fortunate souls to find a pearl of wisdom in my little clam (oops, there I go.)

Simply put, I believe the reason we communicate in metaphors and parables is because our brain stores them as independent experiences in order to reorganize them as needed. There’s a story around everything our brain returns to us. I believe our brains are engineered to recall things as a series of events or should I say remembered “experiences”.

Now I will venture down the rabbit hole and present my own metaphor to help explain this. The first time I drove a car my brain recorded it as a series of steps. Once I got the car moving down the road I tried to aim the car by lining up the center of the hood with the line on the road. I quickly learned the folly of this approach as it did not allow me to plan ahead for curves. I quickly learned to look further ahead and steer into curves and turns.

Now, if you have never driven a car or witnessed someone drive then this little story will not be particularly helpful in preparing you for the full experience of driving a car for the first time. But if you have some idea of the act of driving then the story may prove helpful, but only once you give it a try. Suppose I recount my story to someone from the past that has not experienced driving or riding in a car? I will have done a pitiful job of communicating the experience. To communicate clearly I’d have to endeavor to find something you had experienced before. I would need to find a common a point of reference. My brain records things as a series of events because it is geared towards learning to “do” things. Any descriptions I attempt will likely be recanting experiences I considered similar to the act of driving. Want to recall the color of a car? Your brain may play back the experience of looking at the car as it drove by.

Hidden under this simple realization lies an odd discrepancy. Our brains do not return the list of events as initially experienced. Our brain performs magic on the whole of our knowledge and applies new experiences to the old experiences. What comes out in our thoughts is a translation of what events we initially experienced. In the first week after driving the car we recalled a very different set of events than we do many years later. The nature of the human mind is to apply the cumulative and quantum possibilities before giving us back our memories. This is quite profound when you realize that the parables of our wisest people are sometimes quite out of context for many of us. This replay is not ideal for communicating with others who have not experienced anything similar. They are designed for the person’s own brain to communicate to ideas as they relate to them. They apply only to the communicator’s personal context.

Sure we can communicate many ideas and some rather complex ones as well but we have to do so by finding a common ground with the person with whom we wish to communicate. I believe the more pure the thought the harder it is to find common ground. Sure one can recite back dogma and think they understand it but if that thought carries a lifetime or more of meaning then the person receiving it has no frame of reference and the communication fails.

One cannot really teach a profound realization in one sentence. We each must advance to them on our own. Simply put, this is why we must reflect on the nature of the mind and accepts its nature. We must discard the false hope that one can simply tell us a truth and we will understand it. The Buddha knew this and could tell us but we cannot grasp it from the hearing. He wisely directed us on how to learn it on our own instead of simply telling us what he had realized. Rather than give us the truths he realized he used simple concepts that he was sure we would all be familiar with. He did this not out of some desire to speak cryptically. He did this because it was the only way he could teach us to take the road to truth ourselves. It was his best option for leading us to truth. Wisdom and enlightenment must be gained by each soul for themselves.

Spiritual communications serve as a signs to the path of obtain understanding. The real key is for the listener to understand that the communication is only a sign. Stories and parables can be helpful but we must use our own minds and experiences for the journey. A sign cannot give step by step directions or guide you over each bump. Thankfully the sign also cannot take the journey for us. The trip and all of its wonderful experiences are for us to enjoy.