Language, Interpretation, Meaning, and Practice

A new semester has begun at the university, and we are reading and comparing theories of human nature, human behavior, and psychotherapy. While different ways of understanding vary one from another, each perspective addresses certain fundamental questions. These include the question of what is the nature of the human mind, how much of our experience of ourselves is determined by what we can put into language, how much does our interpretation alter or create meaning in certain experiences, and how does practice represent a kind of knowledge.

Does that seem deep and impenetrable? This way of writing really is an unfortunate side effect of reading philosophy. However, there is something here that is important for us even in our everyday lives. We move through the world with an ongoing active effort to understand what we experience so that we can make choices that will result in outcomes that we want. One of the significant jobs of our brain is to take raw experience and make sense out of it. One of the ways we do this is to use language: to describe the experience and what it means. In other words, language is like a tool that helps us find the meaning in our random experience. We do this by applying interpretations. Language is a tool that creates interpretations which have some kind of meaning to us.

It is easy to assume that our conscious, cognitive experience is who we are. In other words, I know who I am because I know what I think. Or even, I think, therefore I am. Sometimes we think if something cannot be put into words, it does not exist. Or it is not significant. We become impatient with understandings that are out of our cognitive reach.  When we confront problems in living, challenges to what we want or who we are, or crises, we apply our rational thought, our problem solving, and our previously created world views to try to make our lives better.

Psychotherapy has a lot of talking in it. There is a lot of interpretation and meaning attribution to how we work on ourselves in therapy. Much of the work of psychotherapy appears to take place on the cognitive, linguistic, interpretive plane. We evaluate how we are doing based on whether we have come up with better explanations, a more solid cognitive understanding, or new words and interpretations.

The fact is, we have other kinds of knowledge and other kinds of experiences that are not controlled at the cognitive level. For example, we have understanding based on practices. We know how to open a door or jump rope or ride a bike. We might not be able to explain this knowledge, but we know it because we do it. Sometimes I tell people psychotherapy is like learning to ride a bike: You are talking about it and you are trying to understand it, while you are doing it. The talking and the understanding are not the bike-riding. But they can help. The bike riding is the doing.

So when you are sitting together and you are experiencing yourself in a different way, you are being differently than you are usually being, and you are also talking about that and trying to understand it.  When we reduce ourselves to our cognition, we are robbing ourselves of connection with some of our deepest, most valuable ways of being. As our culture becomes increasingly focused on language and cognitive skills, sometimes we forget what our grandparents and great-grandparents knew: There is value in the being and doing and not just in the understanding.

About norasblog

I am a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Chicago.
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