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LATEST DIALOGUES Levels of Silence and Conscious Abstraction

Where Language Meets Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness suggests attention towards elementary sensory experience in the present moment. Quite often we imply that being verbally silent is the ideal setting for practicing mindfulness. However, there is something very important, and not less primary, than observing the body-mind in this practice. As Steven Hawkins’ voice hypnotically reminded us in one of Pink Floyd’s gorgeous tracks:

For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk … (and we learned to listen.)

The first time I heard about mindfulness,twelve years ago, I was a student of theoretical linguistics. This was nothing close to meditation or spiritual discipline. In fact, it was a lecture on general semantics. Today it seems anything but “linguistic” to me, and in fact, relates directly to the art of developing mindfulness.

We speak neurology

Semantics studies the meaning of words and thus is thought to be a part of linguistics. However, it’s a huge and fascinating field, reverberating in many other areas. If you think about a “word” as a separate unit, you will see it can only seem “separate” in the dictionary. Once it is taken out of the dictionary into written or live speech, it becomes something else. Its meaning changes, expands, contracts, becomes nuanced or generalized … sometimes it vanishes completely. Moreover, once it is vocalized, the word becomes inclusive of our present experience—our body, senses, and even the listener. Unlike what it says in the dictionary, even the simplest “Yes” can become vast because of the tons of contextual information which goes with it. This is indeed when less is more.

General semantics studies the total mind-body neurology included in our language.

Alfred Korzybski, the founder of general semantics, said that the main reason why he started it was the so-calledtime-bindingaspect of language, which is a fundamental human capacity to pass on information in time, from generation to generation (1948). Being also a brilliant engineer Korzybski was posing a question: Why is it that structures built according to the mathematical descriptions and sketches of engineers endure for ages? And if they collapse the errors can be easily identified.

Other types of “man-made systems,” which rely on language, including human relations, can fall apart very quickly or become extremely complicated and traumatic within the time span of one conversation.

And the “errors” are often impossible to trace back. It leads to an uncomfortable realization that the language we use to interact and reach out to another is much less efficient than the language of mathematics and geometry.Math passes over the neurophysiological aspect. Indeed lines and figures don’t include the senses, past experiences, intonations and personal evaluations of what they are conveying.

Human language is, vice versa, 100% “neuro -semantic.”

The map is not the territory

Map is only an abstraction, but if it is correct, it has a structure similar to a territory and fulfils its purpose.

For ages, humans have been demonstrating that despite our awesome brain potential, we don’t take advantage of it most of the time. Our language, as a response to what we perceive, is intimately defined by our nervous system. However, we continue ignoring this understanding and often rely on the high -level (almost vocabulary) meaning of the words when talking and listening to each other. The basic postulate of general semantics, which was later exploited by a couple of other adjacent fields, including psychotherapy is: the map is not the territory.

Indeed a map only depicts a limited number of objects and details of routes, and does not necessarily reflect all the relationships between them, the atmosphere of the territory, the nuances that we explore when we are at the new place. The map is also an offshoot of human imagination and personal perspective. The map - maker decides the features to include, the purpose of the map, and the scale of it.

A map is only an abstraction, but if it is correct, it has a structure similar to a territory and fulfills its purpose.

General semantics transfers this analogy to language. Our language behavior can be thought of as a map of our experience. And our verbal expression of what we think and feel should reflect the” true territory” of this actuality as near as possible, because sometimes these maps last a long time.

Taking into account our neurophysiology and the enormous amount of information we receive from our senses before we speak, a pre-verbal level of our experience is already a neurological “snapshot” delivered to us by our brain in the most affordable abstraction. This snapshot represents only a fraction of “what is going on” and is largely defined by our “cognitive repertoire,” the things we already know and have a reference to.

All sensory data that we receive is only available to us after our nervous system recognizes it and finds a word (or a label) for it.

Then the words we choose to express our “contact with the world” are the next level of portraying the present moment. When verbally articulating our feelings and thoughts we are, basically, extracting another map out of the “neuro -map.” Furthermore, abstracting on the level of words by nature involves evaluation (conscious or not). With that said — what we put into words is an abstraction of what our brain registers as an experience, which is also an abstraction of our initial sensory input, which is also not the same as the actual event.

Abstracting is a natural process of our body-mind system. General semantics teaches how to be conscious of several levels of abstracting—with verbal being the final one.

Levels of silence and neuro-delay

Neuro - evaluation of what we see, hear and sense happens in the instant before it triggers any response (including speech). Korzybski was meticulous in studying human neurophysiology and described several levels of this instant neuro -evaluation. There are several consecutive levels of abstraction: first at psycho–chemical nervous level, then at the level of body reaction or feeling, and only then at the verbal level. Preceding the last verbal level are the levels of silence.

Being mindful about how we speak and listen means prolongingthese unspeakable levels of silence.

Alfred Korzybski called it a” beneficial neurological ‘delay,” which is basically a skill to internally “mastermind” our verbal reactions.

Although general semantics’ core concern is language behavior, its main emphasis is on our non-verbal behavior, before we speak. Lots of attention here is being given to the fact that our reactions are not less physiological than psychological.

Not being able to acknowledge the physiology of language often leads to highly chaotic communication.

What Buddhist tradition calls “bare attention,” or simple registering the facts without giving them our opinions, should often be reflected in our language.

Talking about prolongation of non -verbal reaction, Korzybski underlined that being silent on the level of the senses, or the level when there are no words appearing in our heads yet, is the only way that we are able to treat each situation as new.

Its at the preverbal level of our communication that we can hear others and ourselves, make ourselves available and allow what isneeded.

Sensory awareness in ourlanguage

Charlotte Schuchardt, a linguist who was working along with Korzybski, and provided unprecedented accuracy and wealth of insight to this knowledge, wrote: “One of the important principles of general semantics is to observe and be in touch with what goes on, and to realize that we all have to abstract, because we are humans—but lets bring our higher abstractions down to earth and see if they fit this particular situation that we are in. (1999).

Charlotte Schuchardt was working more on the sensory awareness aspect of general semantics and how we include our senses in our verbal speech. “We all have built up habits over the years … but to allow what we feel is needed — this is a big thing. We need to be interested—How can I meet this situation better?—and allow what is needed. Do we need more air? Do we need more keen observation? Do we need more silence?”(1999).

We all have to abstract, because we arehumans.

Indeed we don’t separate thinking from feeling—we evaluate with our whole body.

Once we have something in our head — it is a state of the whole organism and how it functions. Being aware of the words we use and the structures we speak can help us be aware of the “structure” of what and how we are experiencing.

Observing our sensory awareness within the context of speaking will not only give us an understanding of how much sensory data we are cutting off when we “pronounce” even our least significant experiences, it will also refine our observational acuity.


Try looking at something very simple in front of you.

Look at it without words.

How fast do the words come in response to what you are looking at? Notice how these words abstract your experience of looking?

Try it with touching.

Put your fingers on your clothes.

Notice your sensations. Is there any word for it?

What meanings are you willing to convey through words to let somebody know how your fingers feel?

Notice how you are inclined to labelwhat is hardly describable.

Imagine you have a magnifying glass for all your senses. Eyes, touch, sound … how many more details are there in each of your most simple experiences? How and why are you prioritizing one detail over the other?

Notice how many details are not in your maps without this magnifying glass — both sensory and verbal.

Notice how what you describe is NOT what you sense.

Identification and Bypassing

Most of the time we are not conscious of how our verbal maps are being born. general semantics outlines two basic deviationsin our language behavior connected with this: identification and bypassing. The experiences of what we are receiving through our human neurology are unique.

And even though what we receive is already editedby our organism, how we put it into words reducesit even more.

“Identification” is basically a failure to discern the gap between the sensory experience and the verbalization of it. Or, as Korzybski put it, “whatever we may say something is obviously is not the “something”at the silent levels”(1948). Each minute we experience an abstraction of something else.

“Bypassing” is when we are focusing on the message instead of the person—as if words had their own meanings. We forget that the verbalization of one’s experience is only a “map” and it has no definite way of interpretation. Bypassing is also assuming that what one is speaking and what the other is hearing is directly equivalent.

Our verbal maps would serve us better, and not destroy us, if we were conscious of these two “features” of our language behavior, especially when we engage in some emotional conversations.

When Maps are Messed up

Every day we are “drawing maps of our territories” by expressing ourselves through language. Look at how many distortions happen at the level of our maps when we don’t pay enough attention to where our responses come from.

Every day we produce numerous so-called “maps without territories.” These maps represent our process of self-talk and accidental hijacking of our brain by emotions, when the mind starts producing monologues that refer to emotions only and have “no territory” of the actual event.

We have a tremendous tendency to apply old maps to new territories. General semantics views these cases as distortion in time and space, which any normal human demonstrates in varying degrees. When unconsciously using an old map for new territory we diminish our observational sensitivity by finding an old pattern of thinking and the “relevant” body-mind (and hence verbal) reaction in response to the new scenery. Unconscious of reacting to a new event as if it had the same quality as the situation from the past, we create a loop where the whole new experience is defined by an old map.

Making silent levels consciously observed (or provoking neurological delay), we give ourselves space to feel the ambiance of a new experience, recognize it and consequently “ask” for a different resolution within us, or a new map.

Maps Disorientation

We distort other people’s maps by assuming rather than listening. We adopt other people’s maps by copying someone’s language without any insight into the “territory” of their experience, but because we like the language and apply it offhand to our own unknown territories. This is especially true when we speak or listen about experiences that are not physically observable.

We get lost in each othersmaps. We go 180 degrees in different directions while sitting at the same table and talking in front of each other.

An interesting observation was made in some Neuro -Linguistic Programming exercises utilizing the “map -territory” principle—that indeed when two people have very different “maps” (read: understanding, way of thinking) for the same territory, it is very unlikely that they will meet, even physically.

This is yet another way of looking at why paths meet or diverge during lifetimes.


Although many of the ideas Korzybski laid out provoked initial ambivalence at the time and couldn’t be appreciated broadly, gestalt therapy’s principles were later built on it. Today as people become more interested in conscious living, mindfulness is a part of our culture.

And yet the exquisiteness of thought, which permeates all the work of general semantics, continues to bring lots of subtle understandings of our nature in the pursuit of greater mindfulness and intimacy with ourselves.

Many important conversations between us happen without words, but when words are inevitable — let’s prolong the silence before we speak.

Let’s appreciate our human nature of abstracting and learn how to listen to the NEW experiences that are wanting to come through when we are talking to each other.

Even a millisecond can change the world … and some words endure with us forever.


With her thesis work in neurolinguistics Alexandra’s (Sasha’s) main interests lie on the intersection of linguistics and cognitive science, as well as altered states of consciousness. She has been in business consulting and coaching for 10+ years, helping emerging companies and conscious entrepreneurslaunch and grow. In her work she is also studying the most resourceful and creative states of the human body-mind (or state of flow) and how accessing them helps people recognize and realize their talents.

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