wished-for-Worlds

The Awakened Ones have shown that it is unrealistic to engage in wishful thinking

The Awakened Ones have shown that it is unrealistic (though human) to engage in wishful thinking

 

I wish it were easier to effect kaizen ideas in the world.

I wish we could see more Changes-into-Good (改善).

I’ve written (spoken?) a few words about the Imagined World (a.k.a. the conditional or the subjunctive mood) arguing that it is more appealing and more informative to both learners and teachers of English to approach it using a matrix based on meaning.

I’ve pointed out that

  1. “If I walk fast, I will probably reach the station in time” this I is talking about a realistic Imagined world (something that is likely to happen in Reality).

Whereas, if I say

  1. “If I walked fast, I would reach the station in time” this I is describing an unrealistic Imagined world, because ”I don’t intend to walk fast, so I will (probably) not walk fast, so I will (probably) not reach the station in time (in Reality)”. Nonetheless, I can imagine this possibility: “If I walked fast… (=No intention of walking fast)”.
  2. Of course, we also have the impossible Imagined world: “If I had walked fast yesterday, I would have reached the station in time” means “Too late. I didn’t reach the station in time (in Reality).” This is an Imagined world which is no longer possible.

Now, wish is similar, but a wish is obviously not realistic, a wish is always set in contrast with the (current) Reality and it’s highly improbable (at the very most), if not downright impossible (if we’re talking about things from a Past point-of-view).

  • “I wish I had walked fast yesterday (then I would have reached the station).” “I wish I had done something” means that in Reality “I didn’t do it”. (So, impossible now)
  • “I wish I walked fast” sounds a bit strange. A more natural one would be “I wish I could walk fast” (meaning that in Reality “I cannot walk fast”, that it is unrealistic to expect me to be able to walk fast).

It’s a wish expressed in relation to things we cannot control (or we think we cannot control).

I wish it were easier to see more kaizen applied in the world.

I wish it were easier to effect (=bring about) such Changes-into-Better in the world.

The question (arising in this dialogue) is

Why imagine different worlds? Why talk about

  1. something which is not real? (imagined)
  2. something which is not even likely? (unrealistic)
  3. something which is not even possible anymore because it is too late? (impossible)

(The professor’s answer is that) Simply talking about that which is Real is often not enough to express how we actually feel about this Reality. Suppose I tell you:

“I’m sorry, John, I cannot help you”.

You have just told me you lost your wallet, you need to pay your electricity bill today, and you have no chance to do so unless someone lends you the money. To which I say:

“I’m sorry, John, I cannot help you”.

This is a statement which is very direct in putting forth the facts.

Why is it that I cannot help you? Well, it’s not clear.

  • Maybe I don’t have the money.
  • Maybe I don’t want to help you. Who knows?

But what are my feelings towards John? Well, if I’d like to express my sympathy, if I’d like to talk about a different world (one in which I were able to help John), I can say

“I wish I could help you. If I could help you, I would.”

The meaning is the same:

“I will not help you (in Reality)”,

but I’m expressing something which is essentially a refusal in positive terms:

“I wish (yeah?) I could help you. I’m on your side.”

In this Imagined (unrealistic, improbable) world I add some extra information:

  • Despite my real lack of (financial) support, I am on your side psychologically speaking.
  • I might be on your side in a future, Imagined world when the situation is such that I can help you.
  • Maybe I don’t have the money today, but next time you lose your wallet and you need the money, (who knows?) I might be able to help you.

In an Imagined world, the possibility (of helping you in the Future) is not zero, even if in the Real world I cannot help you (in the Present).

It is also another way to add information about something that happened in the Past:

In Reality, I didn’t attend as many aikido lessons as I could have (when I had the chance to do so), but I wish I had gone every day to the dojo (the Place where one can learn about the Way 道場).

It’s too late for me to go to that place (I don’t live in that city anymore), but I can express my feelings of regret:

I can say that I’m feeling BAD about missed (Past) opportunities in a way that may help me make BETTER decisions and change my approach in the Future (which is, of course, an Imagined world).

We insert more meaning in our communication practice when we talk not just about the Real world, but also about the Imagined world. The Imagined world

  • of our feelings
  • of our wishes
  • of our unrealized selves
  • of our better selves
  • of our better actions.

And that is the starting point for any kaizen: Imagine a better world.

I wish you would.

I wish we all could.

I wish we all did.

I wish this were not unrealistic.

being or riding on a train

Riding on the train between Four-Trees (四ツ木 Yotsu-gi) and Standing-Stone (立石 Tate-ishi)

As a teacher there are times when you are called upon to explain a linguistic pattern which is based on native speaker preference, as we see in the example where

  • “you must be very tired after being on a train”

is preferable to

  • “you must be very tired after riding on a train”.

Let’s look at the contrast between BEING and RIDING, beyond the formal aspects.

Of course, you can say “you’re riding on the train”, but when you say “you must be tired after riding on a train for 10 hours”, it sounds a bit strange because

  • RIDING is too active;
  • BEING is more passive, and more accurate in this situation since you’re just being there:

You’re not riding on the train, you’re just stuck there.

RIDING is more active because that is what you do with horses or motorbikes. You don’t have lots of control when you (just) are on the train (for a long time), so people prefer “being on a train” in this situation.

Why do we use RIDE at all, then?

“Catch a ride on the train”. This also sounds quite passive, after the initial active spurt: You just catch it, a verb which refers only to the original movement onto this thing or animal (a horse).

After you catch a ride on something, that object or animal can take you where you want to go.

We use to have much more control when we were riding horses, because you can control a horse much more directly than you can control a train. With the train, you might have to transfer to catch a bus.

How about a cart drawn by a horse? Again, you could steer it very easily. When you have a herd which you’re supposed to control, you’re called a driver.

Are we then driven when we ride on the train? Are we driven like cattle?

For the English-speaking psyche, being controlled by another person (as you’d be on the train by the conductor) involves losing some control over what you can do up to a point where after 1 or 2 hours a different verb needs to be used, because it sounds more natural.

On the other hand, it sounds quite okay in Japanese. You could say quite naturally in Japanese:

十時間に渡って電車に乗っていたから、疲れているでしょう

“You must be very tired after riding the train for 10 hours”.

If you use BEING, it sounds unnatural (=not well-formed) in Japanese.

Does this mean that Japanese people relinquish more control and are more comfortable being herded, driven, as a group?

We see here the insistence not just on how much control we are (un)willing to relinquish, but also on what’s actually happening around us.

Notice the Japanese tendency to state the immediate:

We are riding on the train, things are moving around us.

  1. We have chosen (in the past) to (catch a) ride &
  2. we know where we’re going even when we relinquish (some) control, but
  3. no matter how long this event extends in time, it still involves you moving at a much more accelerated pace through life than you would normally move, &
  4. at any moment something else could happen, so
  5. it’s important to describe the immediate reality as accurately as possible

even if it means that you’re ignoring for-the-time-being the more abstract issues of control, herding and so on.

Even if your personal freedom happens to be curtailed by the fact that you are in a train.

Trains…

The attitude we have towards our trains can give you a pretty good measure of how we ordered our wor(l)ds. Isn’t it?

Being shy of doing bad things

Mom & Dad, don't smoke!

Mom,  Dad, don’t smoke!

 

As an English teacher

  1. I am called upon to explain a concept like shy &
  2. later I am again prodded for an answer regarding expressions in which the concept doesn’t seem to make sense in particular combinations (the so-called idioms), such as shy of.

We know what shy means, right?

We know that if “John is a shy person”, then John is probably not that forward coming, not out there.

We know that as native speakers of English, but why do we (also) have shy of?

Let’s say that some guy scored 20 points in a basketball game which was “shy of the previous record of 22”.

What does shy of mean here?

Of course, people will tell you it means

“short of [a number]: less than [a number], but pretty near it”.

But why do we have shy? Where is the person who is shy in this sentence? Was the basketball player shy and that’s why he didn’t score more? No, this kind of shy doesn’t (necessarily) involve a person.

The common theme we have here is that of

  1. something A tending to do something B (or somebody wanting to do something),
  2. but stopping short of reaching that something B (or stopping short of doing something).

So we have “near, but not quite”, which translates into physical space as fairly close values, where one is lower than the other.

That’s one way you can explain shy of:

You imagine a line on a graph which is curbing upwards but stops before it reaches a certain point.

Maybe somebody rang the bell and the basketball game ended and our player couldn’t get more points past 20.

We have a moment when something A is shy of (=less than) something B and you cannot go back and fix this to reach that something B.

“He stopped shy of saying you’re an idiot”.

He didn’t say it, but it was leading up there, the whole talk before that, he said everything except “you’re an idiot”.

We use a human-applicable adjective in combination with a preposition that shows us only belonging (and not direction) to develop a new meaning.

The lower value is part OF (“belongs TO”) the higher value, in the same way that 20 is part of 22, even if 20 is short of (=shy of) 22.

We have a leap of meaning and we don’t know exactly how this came about.

We don’t know about the first instance when somebody used it, but once people who heard it were able to say

“Okay, okay, I think I can grasp what you’re saying”,

then shy of became a very good shorthand to say “something nearly reached its target”.

What about short of? This has a similar meaning, but is there a difference?

Shy of sounds like it was closer and there was slightly more work to be done by the subject (more self-controlled), while short of seems to imply a greater gap and some external causes (i.e., another subject) which cut you short from reaching something:

“Ronaldo fan [was] stopped short of reaching her hero”.

We have this huge network of meanings developed in English, which (as English speakers) we can dig out as archaeologists would.

In Japanese the concept shy is usually rendered as hazukashii (=恥ずかしい) which also covers the concept of shame or shameful.

You could say for example “He engaged in an act that was hazukashii (=恥ずかしい)”. In this context you cannot use shy in English:

He engaged in a *shy act: He did it, then he was not shy, so you have to use shameful.

Why do we have this difference in Japanese? We also have a more lengthy translation of shameful in Shame-Worthy Act (hajiru beki koto 恥じるべきこと), but in Japanese shy and ashamed are grouped together (i.e., one word hazukashii  = 恥ずかしい):

“You should stop shy of doing it if you want to do something shameful”

says the Japanese ethic in this situation, whereas in English we have 2 different words which seem pretty distinct.

People have devoted entire books to discussing this difference (shame culture versus guilt culture).

Is Japan a culture where “being shy of doing shameful acts” is considered praiseworthy?

Is the Western culture one where we are encouraged to “be ashamed of our illegitimate desires” with no connection with the concept of shy?

In English we don’t educate our children to be “shy of doing BAD stuff”.

In English we teach children to be “ashamed if they do BAD stuff”.

On the other hand, in Japanese the concept shy is comfortably couched together with the concept ashamed:

A Japanese mother could scold her child saying

Hazukashii (=恥ずかしい). What you are doing is shameful; you should be shy of doing it”.

The moral lesson is linguistically encoded in the scolding, as it includes the path to be followed.

That’s the wrong path and you know it.

Both shy and ashamed seem to require that you feel a negative emotion (in NSM “feel something bad”); hajiru (=恥じる) would be the direct translation for ashamed, but this would be achieved in Japanese by triggering in the mind of the child a self-imposed reluctance in engaging in a certain act.

The hope here is that an adult could learn not to (choose to) do something BAD.

One of the strongest rebukes that somebody in Japan could level at another person who is also an adult would be a one-word sentence:

[You should be] Hazukashii (=恥ずかしい) [=You should be ashamed of yourself].

Unlike English this does not carry so much the implication of “being imposed on by ANOTHER”.

You might hear an old Japanese lady on the train who sees a young guy doing something idiotic like reading a porn magazine and the old lady would say “Hazukashii (=恥ずかしい)”.

He should be shy of doing this, right? That’s the emotion he should feel: ashamed. Not just the negative emotion but also shy as he should stop himself from doing this.

Perhaps he can do it at home, in privacy, but this is hazukashii (=恥ずかしい) right now.

In this example, the Japanese ethical system appears both self-reflective and oriented towards Others; perhaps it later becomes even more self-reflective as this person learns (hopefully) not to read porn magazines on the train without being told off by old ladies.

Let me finish by asking you to stop shy of doing things that will make you feel ashamed.

to be or not to be afraid of being

In language [and life] there are only differences

In language [and life] there are only differences

When we talk about human actions (including speech patterns) in general, it seems quite helpful to discuss using a binary system, whereby you emphasise a difference that is symmetrical (hopefully), which would allow you to illustrate your point much more forcefully and much more persuasively.

For example, if I’m to explain the difference between MUST and CAN’T:

“He must be right. She can’t be right”.

Let’s say I’m listening to two people talking and they’re discussing something, and I happen to be

  • completely in agreement with what he says &
  • in complete disagreement with what she says,
  • in terms of the truth value of what they say.

So I would think:

  • True for him,
  • false for her,
  • pretty sure about both.

If this is the difference and it is pretty symmetrical:

  • almost certain (=100%) that he’s right,
  • almost impossible (=0%) that she is right,

then we have a clear-cut distinction and this seems to show us a point which can be easily grasped.

What about the situations when we don’t have such a clear-cut formal distinction?

When we don’t have a contrast between 1 and 0, between “to be” and “not to be”?

How do we explain prepositions? People want to hear somebody explain how we should use prepositions like TO or FOR or ABOUT. They would like to get a clear, formal rule (see the post on “Hating exceptions”).

Let’s say we take TO and FOR; can you make a clear-cut distinction between them?

Well, you could start with the verbs:

  • we have “to + VERB” usually: I want to eat sushi. I like to watch movies. He tries to be nice. He teaches us how to work, how to learn a language. He paused to think about something else.
  • as an exception, there are a few ING verbs after TO (only when TO is a preposition): I look forward to seeing you.

As a general rule, you could say that we have

  • many examples of  “to VERB” (without ING) &
  • many examples of  “PREPOSITION VERB-ing”, of which the most famous is “FOR VERB-ing”: Sorry for misleading you. Sorry for taking you on such a long-winded trip to explain a basic point. He apologised for being late.

He was sorry to see them go. And we get back to TO.

Why do we say “…sorry to see them go” and not “…sorry for seeing them go”?

Can you say the latter? No, we can only say (in proper English) “…sorry to see them go”.

Why? comes the question.

Isn’t it TO & FOR, and can’t you use either provided that you modify the verb accordingly?

Don’t we have rules that

  1. after TO we have the verb &
  2. after FOR we have the verb plus ING,

and they’re almost equivalent?

This is when you realise that the symmetry stops; formal rules don’t take you very far.

The meanings are easier to contrast:

“Sorry to see you go” shows me a reaction to another (nearly simultaneous) action

whereas

“I’m sorry for misleading you” can only be about a past action

(meaning that “I have already misled you by the time I start feeling sorry”).

The temporal relationship between the feeling (“I am sorry”) and the verb-action (“to see” or “misleading”) gives you the key to

  1. when you use (the preposition) FOR (present feeling – past action) &
  2. when you use (the infinitive particle) TO (present feeling – present action).

In the present you cannot go back and change the past (fixed in VERB-ing), but there is still room when you’re reacting to something that may still change

“Sorry to see you go.

What? You’re not going back any more? Okay, then I will not see you go.”

We can discuss “being afraid” in the same manner using contrast of meaning:

“I’m afraid of misleading you when I talk so much. I’m afraid of making a mistake.”

(Here, the preposition changes from FOR to OF).

Why don’t we say

“I’m afraid to make a mistake”?

Because that doesn’t sound like I have a lot of control. I could say:

“I’m afraid to talk for too long because I’m afraid of making a mistake”.

I can control the “talking” part, so I can use TO.

In this situation we have control as the distinguishing feature:

  1. [+control] on the side of TO VERB
  2. [-control] on the side of OF VERBing.

Now, what is the relationship between the feeling and the action? The feeling is that I can do something in one situation:

  1. “I’m afraid to talk.” I can still do something, I still have room to choose whether I talk or not.
  2. By contrast, “I’m afraid of flying” suggests that you’re already in a position where you cannot change what is happening, since you have no control (i.e., you’re not the pilot at the controls).

“I’m afraid of flying birds” is a somehow different situation, since “flying” functions as an adjective, but the common element is there as I’m afraid of things (=birds) over which I have no control.

I cannot control flying birds, so I’m afraid of them.

Let’s now summarise what is different between “to VERB” and “PREPOSITION VERB-ing”:

  1. Freedom to choose between 2 courses of (verb-)action: I’m interested to hear your opinion.
  2. Lack of freedom as we consider only 1 (verb-)action: I’m interested in buying a new house.
Infinitive freedom, Prepositional constraints

Infinit(iv)e freedom, Prepositional constraints

 “To be or not to be”.

I’m considering it and then I have a feeling towards it; perhaps I’m afraid because I don’t know what to choose.

However, when we’re saying “I’m afraid of breaking”, I imagine “breaking” first and then my feelings towards this situation only. I don’t choose the “breaking”; I may do the “breaking” but it’s not controllable by me.

I’m afraid of committing something over which I have no control, something over which if I had control, I would choose NOT to do it.

If I have a choice between falling from the 10th floor and not, I would probably choose NOT and (I guess) most people would choose not to fall. Accordingly,

  1. we say “I’m afraid of falling” &
  2. we don’t say “I’m afraid to fall”.

Is this the reason we argue so much about free will? Is this the reason we talk of the Fall of Man?

If I were somebody else, I would do something else.

IF sentences

In every English language lesson, we run at some point into the question of how we explain the subjunctive [a.k.a. the Imagined World]:

If I were somebody else, I would do something else.

If I were you, I wouldn’t go to the party.

And immediately the question pops from the students

“Why do we have ‘were’ and why do we have ‘would’? Why is it not ‘am’ and ‘will’? ”

What are the grammar rules for this kind of sentence?

Well, let’s start by thinking about the meaning; before you present the grammatical rules, you have to explain why the British, the North Americans, the Australians etc. go to such lengths to express these meanings, to use these rules.

Why did they systematise it?

As always, when you try to understand something, you have to identify some significant difference.

The IF sentence can be broken into two parts (technically referred to as “clauses” which are sub-units of a sentence):

  1. There is an IF part &
  2. there is a main part;

The IF part always happens before the main part, so (in a sense) the main part is always in the future from the IF part point of view.

Both occur in an Imagined world (as opposed to the Real world).

“If I were” tells you I’m talking about an Imagined world. That is why it’s not “If I am”, because I am not you in the Real world.

The Real world is expressed using something called the Indicative mood. Now we are in the Imagined world expressed by something called the Subjunctive mood. Anyway enough technical lingo.

The difference in meaning is the difference between real and imagined.

I am not you, so we use a different form of the verb, which is “were”, which is not the Past Tense Simple (as it would be in the Real world).

This is the Imagined world, where we don’t care so much about Time as we care about Probability.

The probability is pretty small that I am you; I am not you, it’s close to zero probability, even though I can make an effort to imagine for a couple of seconds that I am you.

(Still pretending to be you) I want to say (in the main part) “I will not go to the party”, but that’s from the Real world, so it gets changed into the less probable “I wouldn’t go to the party”.

“will not” is also possible in the Imagined world (“If it rains, I will not go to the party”), but then it suggests that the probability is a bit higher.

By itself, “I will not go to the party” sounds like a decision not to go to the party in the Real world.

If we use the Present form in the IF part (“If it rains, I will not go to the party”), this sounds much more likely. “If it rains” – this is an imagined condition, “I will not go to the party”.

This one sounds like a 50-50 split:

If it rains, then I won’t go (50%) ; if it doesn’t rain, then I’ll go (50%).

Now we see that the meaning of the IF sentences (Imagined worlds) is that of assigning probabilities to imagined actions.

We had 50%, when we use something that looks like the Present.

We have much less than 50% when it looks like Past.

Can we have 0%? Yes, we can have 0% and that’s for imagined possible situations in the past that did not come about, that did not happen:

“If I had been sick, I wouldn’t have gone to the party”.

“If I had been sick” is what we call the Past Perfect, which sounds like a really far-away past.

It’s a  past which is finished before another past; that’s why we call it Perfect.

“I wouldn’t have gone” also sounds like a Past: a Future Past Perfect.

It didn’t actually happen = 0% probability for this imagined world.

“If I had been sick, I wouldn’t have gone to the party”, but in Reality I went to the party.

Here the Imagined world and the Real world break apart and go on different paths, but I can go back to a moment in the Past, before the party; in the IF sentence we have a situation that did not come about (“I wasn’t sick”), so in reality “I went to the party”, although “If I had been sick, I wouldn’t have gone to the party”.

Now, we have to ask ourselves:

Why do we have this obsession with assigning probabilities to actions that would happen in an Imagined world and contrast these with actions that happen in the Real world?

The real world is clearly shown using the Indicative mood.

It rains.

It rained.

It will rain.

All these sentences show what we think happens in the Real world. With the IF sentence [we show] what can happen in our heads. Why do we concentrate so much on what could happen in our heads (in English)?

One theory that I have (which is just a theory) is that we are trying here to penetrate reality using another tool (a linguistic device);

I make an effort, in my head, whereby I can imagine a world to which I have no access with my bodily senses.

If I were on the moon, then I would be jumping much higher than I can now on Earth.

Here we are talking about a future potential. This “would be jumping” shows me a possible (albeit highly unlikely) course of action premised on the condition of me being on the moon, which is very low probability. I can’t imagine somebody paying for my trip there, anytime soon. Or anybody’s trip, for that matter.

We can even talk about extremely remote probabilities in English. We have this option for creating meaning as removed from experienced Reality as our mind is willing to go:

“If I were on the edge of a black-hole…”

This is a huge leap of imagination. Obviously, it’s an impossibility, right? Hopefully it’s an impossibility, hopefully we don’t have a black-hole spawning next to us. I don’t even know if that’s possible.

The point is that I can even penetrate with my mind as far as light years from where we are now situated, using (the English) language.

Then again, I can also penetrate into different times, projecting myself into the past:

“If I had been here when the dinosaurs were living, I would have been eaten by a dinosaur.”

I can go back to a time millions of years ago when the human species had not yet evolved into being and I can imagine what would have happened (which sounds a bit like Jurassic Park without cars, electric fences, or glasses full of water, for that matter).

In English I can create meaning starting from a very wild assumption, given that my body is bound to the present reality (=this time, this space here on earth in 2014).

I can go into another place (on the edge of a black-hole), or I can go back in time (to the time of dinosaurs), or I can try to imagine a very rose future:

If I get 2 million dollars I will buy a house, I’ll go to aikido school, I’ll give it to the poor in Sri Lanka.

What will you do with this money? Now you can imagine this.

This sounds a bit trivial, when we talk about $2 million and what you (personally) will do with this money, but imagine how useful it is to have this tool.

This grammatical trick which we have in English allows a scientist to set out theories.

The scientific method is premised on the idea that I am launching a hypothesis (a theory about an Imagined world), then I test it and see how it fares in the Real world (though Observation) allowing me to draw a conclusion from this (a theoretical model to make predictions about Future probable events).

If I am to give the law of gravity, it helps to be able to say (succinctly): “If I drop this ball, it will fall to the ground”.

Now I have a rule and it is formulated very elegantly in a very simple sentence. It tells you what the probabilities are very clearly:

  1. “If I drop this ball, it will fall”. That’s 50-50.
  2. “If I dropped this ball (we’re on the moon now), it would fall”. Now I am not so sure. 20%?

I haven’t been to the moon and I haven’t dropped a ball on the moon, so I don’t know if this would happen. However, it is probable that it will behave in the same manner as it does on earth, based on my actual experience in the Real world, even though dropping the ball on the moon is Imagined.

The probability goes down because my knowledge is incomplete and my confidence (=the probability I assign to this) is much lower because I haven’t tried it yet.

However, I could try it (theoretically): I could go to the moon, if I got the $2 million, right?

I arrive on the moon and what do I do on the moon? I drop the ball.

I can also ask:

“If I had dropped the ball (at a time before Earth gravity kicked in), where would it have stopped?”

Then I can imagine this situation and then I can look at this as a possible situation that did not occur in Reality, but that would still afford me the opportunity to formulate a model about a future in which gravity stops working on Earth.

We can speculate that the English language was very well-suited to the Enlightenment centuries during which the scientific revolution takes off; we can speculate that English language speakers (Locke, Hume, Newton) had an advantage over anyone who spoke a language in which the Imagined world could not be put into words as readily.

Of course, these guys were also depending much more on Latin (Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica), so we shouldn’t be too proud of English since this (presumed) advantage comes from further back in the past.

This was a time when people began to systematise and use their language resources to talk about cause and effect, causality and so on. We have similar resources to express the Imagined world in English, in Latin, in German and most other European languages.

How about in other languages? Well, in other languages we can express these meanings, but we can’t play as much, we don’t have as much freedom to play with the words. We have perhaps different areas of exploration that are open to us when we use tools available in other non-European languages, but in English we have this excellent tool to use whenever we talk about an Imagined world and contrast it with the Real world and make predictions about the Real world.

And it’s all happening in our heads.

train of thought

Lava cutting a trail in Hawaii

Lava cutting a trail in Hawaii

Many times the train of thought starts off and it all becomes a blur.

Do you know this expression, “train of thought”? It means that it’s not just one idea, it’s a series of ideas. Sometimes it starts with a word, or three words in this case, “train of thought”. But that “train of thought” is much faster than the “train of words”.

Let’s compare speeds:

  1. “train of thought” (established in English, so it’s whizzing away)
  2. “train of words” (I’ve just made it up, so it’s not even moving)

If you know this expression I guess you’re a native speaker of English, or nearly native, or in your language you have an expression about “trains of thought”. Now if trains didn’t really come into the picture then obviously its meaning is not available, although there are other possibilities.

In Romanian “train of thought” would be translated as “line of thought”, “thread of thought” (firul gandirii).

So what is the “train”? From our experience of trains, it looks like it’s one long thing with many parts. What are the parts? The parts of thought.

An example of “train of thought” in English would be

“I could follow his train of thought: I could follow all of his ideas, the way they connected with each other, and it was a train”

In a certain sense, a train of thought is simply a direction which one’s mind can follow using these parts as a pointer.

Now, an expression such as “train of thought” suggests that the spoken part (which is only three-words long) is just a part of what I’m thinking, the part that gets put into words. If the remaining parts don’t make sense, if the other parts don’t seem to follow one direction consistently, then we’re left just with the “train of words”, which nobody wants to ride in.

When you have a thought, when you’ve had a dialogue with yourself for some time and you come up with an idea you would like to share,

it’s like explaining a concept from another language to a foreigner.

How would you explain to a Japanese person (the English expression) “train of thought”? Obviously it’s going to take a lot of words to draw out the network of meanings (in English) that led to this particular three-word expression. Of course, there are expressions in Japanese for which, in an identical way but in the opposite direction, I would have to use a lot of words to explain them in English.

The “train of thought” that has led to a particular combination of words in Japanese or in English has resulted in a highly compressed meaning, which I might be able to spell out for you, but it will take time.

What if none of us speak the same language?

Most of the time we manage to communicate some meanings, but at certain times we end up thinking “Oh, I couldn’t properly explain myself”. That’s the feeling in many situations:

“I should have said that”

“I could have said that”

“I had a slip of the tongue”

“I made a mistake”…

There’d always be an acknowledgement of some sort of failure against a standard of 100% performance. As if 100% performance is perfectly normal. No, it’s not normal.

You cannot speak out all your thoughts, and it’s a normal feeling, don’t worry about it, don’t lose sleep over this.

Another expression, “lose sleep over something”.

How do you lose sleep? The way you lose your wallet? And why “over this”?

Can you say “Don’t lose sleep on this?” I wouldn’t lose any sleep on this.

ON and OVER, both sound like they’re covering from above. Like you’re sleeping on it: I’m sleeping on the sofa.

Don’t lose any sleep over this issue. Don’t leave your sleep here, over this issue.

Another expression that is very difficult to explain, but the understanding is there the whole time, in your brain, you’re just thinking: Yeah, it just means, ‘don’t worry’, right?

You already have a ready-made, usually more basic paraphrase.

It feels more basic, but is it more basic? It’s not. “Basically.”

One way we could reach a better understanding of each other is if we had a common set of words that would be the most basic in terms of the meanings they express.

A set of words which are not packed with stuff, a set of words which don’t carry a train of baggage.

A “train” is quite difficult to explain; THINK, on the other hand, THINK is something which happens in a part of my body. It could be inside my head, or it could be happening elsewhere in my body. In the context of martial arts and in yoga, we say

Let the centre of your awareness, the thinking part, drop down below your navel. Let yourself relax.

Is it the case that THINK and “be aware” are the same? You’d have to explain what you mean by “being aware” because it’s too complicated; THINK, on the other hand, is something that everybody can understand: Something happens in a part of my body. I can say this in English, I can say this in Japanese, I can say this in Romanian, and it would be equally true. Some people would think it’s true. Of course, this is too general, it is too ambiguous and we would like to know more about this meaning.

Something happens in a part of my body: I could also have a stroke, right? And that’s not “thinking”.

We have THINK, we have SOMETHING, we have HAPPEN and we have BODY.

Can we break down THINK like this (= Something happens in my body)? No, not really, because that tiny preposition (“in”) might not be universally shared.

Moreover, this one sentence does not explain THINK; I would have to keep refining it and then I would still end up having to use THINK. I can say something about THINK such as

Something happens in my body OR

Something happens to my body OR

Something happens with my body OR…

but I will always have to come back to THINK. There is no simpler concept than THINK. Or SOMETHING. How do you have something more basic than SOMETHING?

How do you explain anything without something, right?

Without using the most basic building block, the most basic meaning?

How would we explain “train of thought”?

I say train of thought:

I think about something

this something has many parts

I think about this something like this

I feel something good when all these parts are near

I feel something good when all these parts are like one something.

Understanding. It feels like they fit together. Another expression. Well, it’s a beginning.

The above approach is using something called the Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM). NSM is made up of natural “primes” (a.k.a. “primitives”) which are used to explain meanings starting from the most basic building blocks.

Anna Wierzbicka and Cliff Goddard, these are the two names you want to look up if you’d like to get a better idea about NSM than the muddled version presented here. I think they’re currently teaching at the Australian National University and Griffith University, respectively. If you want to read more about this, I strongly advise looking up Natural Semantic Metalanguage.

What they did is they broke up meanings into primes, following Leibniz and others. It’s a monist perspective based on the assumption that

there have to be some basic meanings that allow communication to happen,

that make communication possible,

that allow us to understand each other.

When I started this blog, I decided to put down what was spoken (as opposed to written), because I thought that the “written train of words” would be even slower than the “spoken train of words” and I would not be able to capture what I’d been thinking.

In the meantime (as of January 2015) I’ve realized that both “trains of words” fail miserably at pointing in the direction (i.e., “train of thought”) I had in my mind when I recorded my thoughts, so now and again you will see edited versions of past posts.

Now, this might prove irritating to you whenever I go into a field where you (feel that you) are more knowledgeable than me. Maybe I’m not getting the accent or the pitch right.If you’re a native English speaker, you might point out some issues with my pronunciation of certain words and that would lead you to think

I’m not going to listen to this guy if he can’t pronounce the words properly.

However, if you’re just concentrating on the “train of thought”, I think I have a better chance of capturing a bit of what I’m thinking about if I’m following it with the faster “train of words” that are spoken, as opposed to “train of words” which are written. And I’m lazy to write, right? Of course, of course.

At this point it sounds like a good idea: Let’s call this an audio blog.

A diary that’s not diary, since I’m not writing about what I’m doing.

I’m writing about what I’m thinking.

A thought journal.

Nowadays thought feels very much like a crime whenever this thought is directed in a dialogue form with a self, a self that’s immutable, a self that’s querying, a self that’s questioning:

“Why am I here? What am I doing?”

As opposed to a self that’s in dialogue with somebody else, a concrete somebody else, like

The me of two hours from now: I’m going to vacuum clean this room, then I have to put away the iron, and probably, if I have a little bit more time, I should make myself another cup of tea, then go shopping, get some bread…

This is I that is in dialogue with an I-in-the-future, the planned future. What about the dialogue with the I-in-the-past? It’s the I-in-the-past that says

I did that, I did that, I don’t need to do this.

The one in the future and the one in the past are having a dialogue. Then of course, we have the dialogues with those we know. With my wife.

What did I tell my wife? What did I discuss with my wife yesterday?

Did we arrange for everything about the paperwork regarding that?

What will I buy for Christmas?

I guess it depends on the time of the year.

These days we there are many dialogues with somebody who throws an idea on social networking sites, which everybody is now (ab)using:

“I have a new baby” or “I got married” or “I’m in a new relationship” or “I ate spaghetti”.

I don’t know, everybody has some idea that they put out there, and now you can even put a picture to go with it, right?

But it’s not as universal, let’s say, as a dialogue with yourself. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t recommend total seclusion, going from the world and shutting yourself in an Ivory Tower.

But.

There is a dialogue with a higher entity, the entity that in some places has been called God, that in some places you could call the Universe, the entity that you could call the Ki, the Earth and the Sky.

A dialogue with you, placed on this planet as a live conscious being.

What’s the meaning of all this?

Why am I doing all that I’m doing, in the grand scheme of things?

And we come to another word, another metaphor, the “grand scheme of things”. This is (also) something big; this something is (also) connected; but many more things go into it; it’s not just one, as you have in a “train of thought” where it feels that it’s just one direction; a “grand scheme” includes more; it seems to be wider, not longer; it’s big on all sides, not big on one side only, in one direction only.

In the grand scheme of things, I am somebody talking to myself, but also talking to a lot of people that might just be considering some of the same questions.

Because, for kaizen to be possible, we need a set of shared meanings.

English composition homework

Lost in contemplation

Lost in contemplation

A Play

A park with no trees. Stairs leading to an underground passage;

  • on the left a door,
  • on the right another one.

On the wall facing the stairs, an inscription:

“Here lies” – the rest is indistinguishable, save for another fragment “to the eternal glory of our God”.

A man comes from the right side. Not necessarily the right man. He is staggering while trying to zip up his pants. He leans on the wall, so that his nose touches the “s” of the “lies”. He suddenly becomes aware of it. He starts away from it with a jerk and a groan as his stomach is not in the condition for violent
movements. He throws up all over the wall.

Confound that apple, it was rotten!

One piece stuck on the “here” the rest went for “the eternal glory of”; the rest covered the floor, ultimately draining under the door on the left.

That’s the right spirit, give it to the opposition!

He looks around aggressively and takes a martial pose.

Them fellows don’t have the guts he has! Oh, he forgot – at any rate, the guts he had. Wipes his mouth and looks around to see if anybody witnessed the scene. Nobody.

Naturally, who would bother watch just another drunk man feeling sick? Absurd! Just as the sound of this knock on wood. Where the hell did that come from? Underneath? But he is already underground. Oh, yes- “here lies…” Well damn that noisy fellow, what was HIS complaint? Stamping of foot. The noise subsides to a moan.

A rabbit comes out of nowhere. And you’re supposed to be my guide, he-he, ho-ho, as if I’m as dumb as to follow a beast. Now, don’t take offence, but you chum, have less than I do, and that’s not a lot, take my word for it. He starts chasing the animal while his lips move without being able to utter a sound. Not much space for a proper chase – up the stairs where the rabbit manages to slip through his legs, down the stairs, where the process is repeated. After some time, he grows tired, so he stops reaching for the rabbit with his hands, confining his action to a stroll – up the stairs, down the stairs…

The rabbit has stood still for some time now, in front of the wall downstairs, with his back turned to the man still crawling, up the stairs, down the stairs… The rabbit stands up and starts spelling out the remaining words:

“He … lies … to our God”