Words Can’t Describe It

The Eskimo shaman Orpingalik noted to a European visitor that “ordinary speech no longer suffices” when moved to ecstasy by the Life Force.  He says, “We will fear to use words. But it will happen that the words we need will come of themselves. When the words we want to use shoot up of themselves—we get a new song.”

In our shamanic practice we usually do not fear to use words. But perhaps we should.

Western education has trained us to trust words and their meanings.  Most of us have faith that we can express ourselves rationally, logically, and in a linear fashion, telling what happened in the order of how it happened.  We trust that language can adequately describe reality, and our listeners will then know what we know.  But we know by now that ordinary language fails in some circumstances, such as the subatomic realities discovered by quantum physicists.  The early physicists themselves warned that we would need a new language or perhaps speak in poetry to account for how the universe operates on the subatomic level.

Orpingalik and other indigenous shamans know the pitfalls of trying to describe with ordinary language the alternate realities that exist alongside what we have come to call ordinary reality.  Consider the problem of relating a dream.  Every dream can spawn two kindred dreams.  The original dream is the one we have while sleeping. The second is the one we remember when waking.  The third is the one we write in a journal or relate to someone at breakfast.  By the time we relate or write down the dream, we have unwittingly changed it by packaging it in rational, linear language that might not, or at times cannot, truly reflect the content of the dream, not to mention the feelings in it—the confusion or wonder or excitement or terror. Yet we do not fear to use linear language to describe it.  We should.

Language shapes our worldview and consciousness, just as a worldview and consciousness shapes language.  Each of us is caught in a cultural and linguistic loop that reinforces our view of reality.  So how do we describe non-ordinary reality such as dreams, visions, mystical experiences, or shamanic journeys? How do we bring back the meat or essence of an experience that did not happen in an objective, rational, or physical reality?  How can we describe that reality without making it seem to be objective, rational, and stable?

In his classic work on shamanism, Mircea Eliade suggests that the ecstatic euphoria of the shaman’s experience may have been the source of lyric poetry. He poses the idea that “poetry remakes and prolongs language; every poetic language begins by being a secret language, that is, the creation of a personal universe. . . . .The purest poetic act seems to re-create language from an inner experience…that reveals the essence of things.”

I’d like to suggest that we might be truer to our shamanic experiences, whether in dreaming or journeying, if we let the words to recount them “shoot up of themselves” as close as possible to when the experiences end.  What I mean is that we could let three or four core, essential images of the experience arise in a kind of haiku-like poem that will condense the experience in three or four brief lines.  Of course this will not describe the journey in its totality, but it is not meant to.   Haiku is the poetry of glimpses.  It’s not a fourteen-line Elizabethan sonnet with an intricate rhyme pattern, but then we would not want to write such a poem.  Writing a sonnet by counting beats, wracking our brains for words that rhyme, crossing out phrases and writing alternates above them can be a left-brain activity.  The journey or dream was not a left-brain event so why should describing it be?

Being in the spirit realm is an ecstatic experience, a standing outside of our normal state of consciousness.  We might allow a short poem of very few words come together by itself while we are still in a liminal state of consciousness, thus allowing the power of that experience in non-ordinary consciousness to condense into words before returning to ordinary consciousness.  Then when we relate these words of power, or sing them, we have a new poem that really carries the essence of the ecstatic experience more truly than a linear, prose account.

We admire the short and repetitive lines of native songs and chants.  While I don’t know vocabulary in any indigenous language, I would suspect that the native words used in power songs reflect the fluid, unfolding, and flowing worldview that sees reality as continuous, whole, and sacred.  The poems themselves can stir this view of reality in both the speaker and the listener far better than language that describes the world as objective, separate, and fixed. As Eliade says, the poetic act recreates language and is better able to describe the essence of things. Like the events that often occur in the shamanic journey, the poetic account expresses the freedom, the secrecy, and the wonder and awe that we feel when anything can happen.

I suggest that we need to fear using words in their normal way to describe the non-normal events of dreams and shamanic journeys.  And we ought to stop fearing that we cannot allow a short, haiku-like poem to emerge because we are not poets.  The shamanic poem does not have to be a literary masterpiece, in fact it should not be a literary masterpiece.  Composing one would only gratify the ego and give the appearance that the poem means something.  To quote the poet Archibald MacLeish, the shamanic poem “should not mean, but be.”   It need only be—like an artifact brought back from another world.  It need not explain something that happened, nor describe it.  The poem need only represent something—the essence of what happened in the private, personal, and secret world of the shaman.

It’s not exactly true to say that “words can’t describe it.”  Some words can’t.  But some words can.