045 📻 Soul, mind, and other words lost and found in translation.

🚨 Assume there are spoilers everywhere. 🚨

Gaston Bachelard was quoted in “The Spectral Arctic,” which inspired Episode 43. The way his work was described in “The Spectral Arctic” was as follows. Quote,

Bachelard thought of the moment of reverie as a time when subject and object folded into each other, thereby transforming Descartes’ famous cogito formulation: ‘I dream the world, therefore, the world exists as I dream it’ … The reverie, in this understanding, has ontological consequences, for the ‘dreamer’s being invades what it touches, diffuses into the world … The world no longer poses any opposition to him. In reverie there is no more non-I’…

“The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration” by Shane McCorristine

End quote.

And this quote is so beautiful. This part that is quoted of Mr. Bachelard is so beautiful. So, I thought I must read one of his books. I wanted to experience more about this “no more non-I” phenomenon—how the dreamer is the dream. And the book I chose for that purpose is “The Poetics of Space.” It’s a beautiful book. Absolutely gorgeous book. There will be either a written episode or an audio episode or both for that book in particular.

But this episode isn’t about that book specifically. Rather, it’s about the words soul and mind. And to discuss that I will refer to “The Poetics of Space” as well as “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” and some other things, in the context of psychological, spiritual, and religious writings that attempt to describe that which cannot be described.


Specifically for “The Poetics of Space”—I am somewhat sad that I cannot read this book in its original French. However, the English translation feels beautiful. I don’t know if the translator matched the sentence length and such to the French original. I know nothing about the French language, so I don’t know if it’s possible to do so and how much that would affect the conveying of the original feel of the book. There is certainly much rhythm in the English translation. Without this rhythm, I could not have felt so much poetry from this book. The translation was done by Maria Jolas. Not sure if this is how her name is pronounced, but there you go. Wikipedia says that she was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and later moved to Paris.

And so, because of the beautiful translation and the beautiful ideas in the book, in the first couple of pages already, I was pondering about language and translation. I was thinking about the possibility and impossibility of conveying exactly what the writer of a piece of writing meant, when it is being translated. Then I was thinking about how, even in one language, even when nothing is translated, in the common way the word “translated” is used, even so—it’s not like everything is always conveyed from writer to reader all the time. Every reader is different, so even if a writing is written in English and the reader normally reads in English even so, not everything will be conveyed exactly in the way the writer wanted to. Or rather, probably, there are gonna be aspects that the writer didn’t even think about needing to make decisions on, but that part happens to be what affects the reader the most. Every time I sponge something for this podcast, I wonder about this, especially when it’s a work of fiction. I think it’s likelier that what I absorb is entirely different from what the creators intended as the main focus of absorption, than that I get exactly what they tried to say through their work of fiction.

Anyway, I was already pondering about this matter of translation in the first few pages of the book “The Poetics of Space,” when a passage specifically about translation appeared.

Quote,

The language of contemporary French philosophy—and even more so, psychology—hardly uses the dual meaning of the words soul and mind. As a result, they are both somewhat deaf to certain themes that are very numerous in German philosophy, in which the distinction between mind and soul (der Geist und die Seele) is so clear. But since a philosophy of poetry must be given the entire force of the vocabulary, it should not simplify, not harden anything. For such a philosophy, mind and soul are not synonymous, and by taking them as such, we bar translation of certain invaluable texts, we distort documents brought to light thanks to the archeologists of the image. The word “soul” is an immortal word. In certain poems it cannot be effaced, for it is a word born of our breath.(1) The vocal importance alone of a word should arrest the attention of a phenomenologist of poetry. The word “soul” can, in fact, be poetically spoken with such conviction that it constitutes a commitment for the entire poem. The poetic register that corresponds to the soul must therefore remain open to our phenomenological investigations.

“The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachelard

End quote.

And, after the part “The word “soul” is an immortal word. In certain poems it cannot be effaced, for it is a word born of our breath,” there is a footnote. It mentions the work of “Charles Nodier,” who said, quote,

The different names for the soul, among nearly all peoples, are just so many breath variations, and onomatopoeic expressions of breathing.

“The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachelard (Charles Nodier, Dictionnaire raisonné des onomatopées françaises, Paris 1888, p. 46)

End quote.

How beautiful is this? The word soul. Soul. Soul. Onomatopoeic expressions of breathing. Is this so? Is this so in your language? Seele. It certainly sounds similar to soul, with the “s” letter in it, and “s,” especially in Western languages, seems to be associated with breathing. Like in the word “susurrate.” That’s a word where leaves and wind breathe. Or even something like “sizzle.” That’s a word where meat in the process of being cooked is breathing. Although, I guess, if you’re meat in the process of being cooked, you’re dead. But in a way, you’re still alive through the sizzle.

I feel like… And this is just a feeling. I don’t know enough languages to form a dataset. I have a feeling that in Asian languages, the letter “h” has more to do with breathing, than the letter “s.”

Actually, no. Ignore that feeling. It is wrong. Because, in Korean, the word for breathing is 숨sum. And that definitely feels onomatopoeic. 숨. 숨쉬다. That means “to breathe.”

But then there is also a word with “h” that is similar to spirit or Seele or soul. In Korean, when we say 혼hon, from the Chinese—as in, it’s a Korean pronunciation of a Chinese character—“hon” is the spirit.

But “hon” is not a word that is as frequently used as mind or soul. “Hon” almost has too strong of a religious or spiritual connotation to it. More often, in Korean, the word that would be used would be 마음maum. And that is one tricky word. It is thoughts, feelings, emotions, and personality in one word. So, especially when you’re interested in spiritual or psychological or religious content, and you’re translating from Korean to English, it’s like… the word 마음 is everywhere, and every time you gotta make a decision on how to translate it. In Korean, the fact that the same word is used for all these different things makes perfect sense. But in English, it doesn’t.

In English, the word “mind” is defined in the Oxford Languages as, quote,

1. the element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought.

2. a person’s intellect.

Oxford Languages

End quote.

And even so. Even though definition 1 comes before definition 2, for some reason, it seems that people use the word “mind” more for definition 2, which is “a person’s intellect.” It might be because of the existence of the word “soul” that is as prominent as the word “mind” and also, is prominent in such a way that it seems to oppose the “mind.”

This is quite interesting, given that in English, the word often used for various types of inner work is “mindfulness.” But “mind” here clearly cannot be the intellect alone. In fact, to a certain extent, to be actually mindful one must go anti-intellect. If you don’t feel things in your body and with your heart, it’s not mindfulness. It’s like a machine registering the change in your heartbeat or blood pressure or something. Who is the “I” who is telling the stories around all these values and symbols sprouting from all these events? That is one aspect of mindfulness, and so it cannot be purely about the intellect.

Meanwhile, in Korean, the word that is the equivalent of “mindfulness” is something like “mind study.” But in English, that sounds ridiculous, you know? “Mind study” doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with religion or spirituality or even psychology. It sounds like a bunch of statistical analyses attempting to attach numbers to some computerized version of the human mind—where, this time, the mind in the human mind, again, cannot be purely intellect. There is no such thing as pure intellect for humans. The very idea of that sounds outrageous to me. There is no human intellect that can be conveniently detached from the rest of the human. It’s Episode 43 all over again—that the dream of the dreamer existing separately from the dream is an illusion. So is the dream of the intellect existing separately from whether a person has eaten lunch or not, from whether a person is feeling comfortable at room temperature, and a bunch of other things.

Anyway, all this is why, again, still, in late 2023, there is no translation software that can replace a human translator completely. Way back in Episode 19 I talked about this at length, and it hasn’t much changed. Now, well, things like legal documents or medical documents that are specifically written so that there is no room for secondary or tertiary explanations, machines may very well replace human translators. But machines cannot replace human translators completely, because, even within one language, within a single language, we’re translating each other all the time. We don’t speak the same language. Nobody ever speaks the same language. There are just some things that we agreed to pronounce in the same way, like, to call an apple an apple, but what the apple means? And even more complicatedly, what words like mind, soul, or combination words that encompass both ideas mean? That is utterly in the realm of individual experiences, and I guess… well, one way in which machines could replace human translators would be if we would each have an individualized translation engine. And such an engine would not only be used for people who speak different languages, officially—such as between people who use French and English—but also, between people who speak the same language, officially, but because of the nature of language, still need translations.

For example, if Bob and Barbara both speak English, but Bob and Barbara have dramatically different life experiences, and Bob had Bobbot and Barbara had Barbarabot to translate, Bobbot and Barbarabot could make sure that Bob and Barbara are actually getting their messages across to each other by using decades of analyses on how Bob and Barbara use certain words, when, to whom, why, where, and so on and so forth. And such bots could even take into account the temperature of the day, or the spicy food that Bob ate, which makes his stomach all uncomfortable, which might be why he uses certain words rather than others, so on and so forth.


But all that is conjecture. So, let’s go to “The Tibetan Book of the Dead.” Specifically, there is a part titled “The Introduction to Awareness: Natural Liberation through Naked Perception.”

Many tricky words here. Words like awareness, consciousness, perception, and recognition, are also curiously nuanced words that feel different from language to language. And with nonfiction, it’s… One of the challenges of translating nonfiction as opposed to fiction is that fiction has its complete world within the work. So, in my opinion, in fiction, the most important thing to do is preserving the world. But that world’s worldview need not be applicable to outside of the work. To use a metaphor, what needs to be translated is what is perceived as hot and what is perceived as cold in the fictional world. Whether that hot and cold applies to the world outside of the fictional world, in absolute terms, matters less. So long as both extremes, the hot and cold, are captured in the fictional work’s translation, the readers will be able to enjoy the work.

Meanwhile, in nonfiction, its supposed nonfictionness implies that its ideas should be applicable to some extent to the external world. But they so frequently do not. At best, they are applicable to the country where the nonfiction work is written, while outside of that country, the translator needs a bunch of footnotes to explain why the author didn’t elaborate further on this or that topic.

But back to “The Introduction to Awareness: Natural Liberation through Naked Perception.” This part of “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” is interesting on two main levels. One, because of the impossibility of translating the word “mind” into a foreign language, and two, because of the impossibility of translating the word “mind” as it is experienced into any language that is bound to exist more in the realm of intellect than experience. As in, there is the experience, and then there is someone trying to explain the experience after the fact. And since we don’t yet have a device through which we can replicate another person’s heartbeat, blood pressure, body temperature, and other things, we use this thing called language.

And language is incomplete when it comes to representing what happened. Language, even the most poetic of languages, is never the actual thing. That doesn’t mean that language cannot be more than the experience. It’s only that, in that case, language becomes something other than the experience.

I am saying that, what’s the most approachable example? Love. There are love poems in every part of the world, in every period of the world. Let’s say someone experienced love. And then they wanted to capture that love and so they wrote a poem. In such case, I cannot see how any poem, in any shape or form, no matter how well written, can completely convey the love that has been experienced. However, the poem can be something other than the love that was experienced. The poem can be an entirely different thing and be beautiful in its own way. That’s the value of poetry for me. It’s not to represent what happens in life accurately and precisely. No, poetry has something that is different from what is experienced in life. It has something that can never be in life as it is experienced. It’s only through poetry that such a thing exists. And thereby poetry becomes part of life in a way that purely experiential events of life cannot be.

Anyway, so. “The Introduction to Awareness: Natural Liberation through Naked Perception” explains, at length, at extreme length, the impossibility of conveying what it is trying to convey while continuing to try to convey it.

And… For me, “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” in general—it’s quite humorous. I didn’t expect so much humor in it. I felt quite a lot of lightheartedness in it. I felt this… this attempt to talk about things and at the same time, kinda going, “Aw, I don’t know if you’ll understand this, but I’ll try anyway.”

So. There is a subsection titled, “The Actual Introduction to Awareness.”

I’ll quote parts of it.

Quote,

The term ‘mind’ is commonplace and widely used,

Yet there are those who do not understand [its meaning],

Those who falsely understand it, those who partially understand it,

And those who have not quite understood its genuine reality.

Thus there has risen an inconceivably vast number of assertions [as to the nature of mind],

Posited by [the various] philosophical systems.

“The Tibetan Book of the Dead” (Bardo Thodol) – “The Introduction to Awareness: Natural Liberation through Naked Perception” – “The Actual Introduction to Awareness.”

End quote.

Indeed. And in a way, it’s unavoidable. We don’t even know if we’re talking about the same mind when we’re talking about the mind, so there are “an inconceivably vast number of assertions [as to the nature of the mind].”

And, here, here is a passage that feels humorous to me. You know, this book, “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” it’s like, you know when rappers do rap battles? It’s kinda like that. Listen to this.

Quote,

Even though pious attendants and hermit buddhas claim that they understand [this single nature of mind] as the partial absence of self,

They do not understand it exactly as it is.

Furthermore, being fettered by opinions held in accordance with their respective literatures and philosophical systems,

There are those who do not perceive the inner radiance [directly]:

The pious attendants and hermit buddhas are obscured [in this respect] by their attachment to the subject-object dichotomy.

“The Tibetan Book of the Dead” (Bardo Thodol) – “The Introduction to Awareness: Natural Liberation through Naked Perception” – “The Actual Introduction to Awareness.”

End quote.

And then the book goes on to keep mentioning other people who are doing it the wrong way, and it’s like, ooooh, woooow, it’s very fun. It’s quite fun. It’s like watching a rap battle.

And, note how the book is dissing the subject-object dichotomy. Savage. You gotta have a solid world-building. And by “solid,” I mean that there can be many holes. If the overall shape you’re aiming for is a net, then the holes are fine. There are many stories that are hole-ly in that regard. They are full of holes and that’s their beauty. The holes are only a problem when you’re telling yourself you’re trying to build a wall. And your wall is crumbling apart because it’s so fucking solid. And this book is ripping such world-building apart, savagely, like in some intense rap battle.

Anyway. I will keep reading from this book, because it’s quite soothing. It’s rhythmical because of the repeated phrases. Also please note that always, the link to the full transcript is in the show notes. So, if you want to later read the text version of the quoted parts, you can click on that link.

The subsection titled “Consequences of the Introduction to Awareness,” in its entirety, goes like this. Quote:

When the introduction is powerfully applied in accordance with the [above] method for entering into this [reality]:

One’s own immediate consciousness is this very [reality]!

[Abiding] in this [reality], which is uncontrived and naturally radiant,

How can one say that one does not understand the nature of mind?

[Abiding] in this [reality], wherein there is nothing on which to meditate,

How can one say that, by having entered into meditation, one was not successful?

[Abiding] in this [reality], which is one’s actual awareness itself,

How can one say that one could not find one’s own mind?

[Abiding] in this [reality], the uninterrupted [union] of radiance and awareness,

How can one say that the [true] face of mind has not been seen?

[Abiding] in this [reality], which is itself the cogniser,

How can one say that, though sought, this [cogniser] could not be found?

[Abiding] in this [reality], where there is nothing at all to be done,

How can one say that, whatever one did, one did not succeed?

Given that it is sufficient to leave [this awareness] as it is, uncontrived,

How can one say that one could not continue to abide [in that state]?

Given that it is sufficient to leave it as it is, without doing anything whatsoever,

How can one say that one could not do just that?

Given that, [within this reality], radiance, awareness, and emptiness are inseparable and spontaneously present,

How can one say that, by having practiced, one attained nothing?

Given that [this reality] is naturally originating and spontaneously present, without causes or conditions,

How can one say that, by having made the effort [to find it], one was incapable [of success]?

Given that the arising and liberation of conceptual thoughts occur simultaneously,

How can one say that, by having applied this antidote [to conceptual thoughts], one was not effective?

[Abiding] in this immediate consciousness itself,

How can one say that one does not know this [reality]?

“The Tibetan Book of the Dead” (Bardo Thodol) – “The Introduction to Awareness: Natural Liberation through Naked Perception” – “Consequences of the Introduction to Awareness”

End quote.


Yeah. This section, “Introduction to Awareness” within “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” is my favorite section. I could quote the whole thing, but let me just quote a few short snippets more.

From the subsection “Observations Related to Examining the Nature of Mind,” quote,

There are no phenomena extraneous to those that originate from the mind.

“The Tibetan Book of the Dead” (Bardo Thodol) – “The Introduction to Awareness: Natural Liberation through Naked Perception” – “Observations Related to Examining the Nature of Mind”

End quote.

Yeah. If nothing else, then this. This is what many religions and schools of spirituality talk about. And these days, even psychology. I mean, these days, this idea of everything originating from the mind is so common that it’s not particularly religious or spiritual at all. The degree to which one takes it literally may vary, but, say, the other day, I was listening to the audiobook of “Psycho-Cybernetics” by Maxwell Maltz. And this is a self-help book written by a cosmetic surgeon. And, I didn’t know this, but this is the guy who introduced the concept of “self-image” to our current society. And, think about it. I mean, for me, the word “self-image”… I cannot remember a time when it didn’t exist. But imagine this cosmetic surgeon, literally changing people’s appearance with his scalpel, and contemplating the curious phenomena of some people actually changing their whole lives, and others remaining exactly the same as before. “Self-image.” What a groundbreaking concept, when you think about it. It’s one that has existed for millennia in religion and spirituality, because—read any religious/spiritual text and in some fashion it will touch on the subject of “What is I?” And I say “What” is I instead of “Who” is I, because this human avatar—it’s just a small segment of us. If you have ever felt the flow state during an intense work session, or runner’s high, or if you’ve ever felt becoming one with nature—those are experiences that many humans have, around how they aren’t only the avatar, the body and mind associated with their humanness. And when you do deeper inner work, you can more directly feel the humanness in non-humanness and the greater non-humanness in general.

But, even if we stay in the human realm, the idea of “self-image” is groundbreaking. These days, “Psycho-Cybernetics” and many other books in the self-help and greater psychological realm talk about how the mind influences the outer world, but it didn’t used to be always so. “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” says “There are no phenomena extraneous to those that originate from the mind.” How literally we take this may vary, but really, I think we live in an era in which this idea itself is not “out there” anymore. It’s very much “in here.”

Okay. Let me quote a few more sentences from the subsection titled “Intrinsic Awareness as View, Meditation, Conduct, and Result.” And these will be various sentences picked up from different parts. They are specifically related to Gaston Bachelard’s idea of no separation between the dream and the dreamer.

Quote,

There is no duality between the object viewed and the observer.

…there is no duality between realisation and the lack of realisation.

There is no duality between the object of meditation and the meditator.

There is no duality between the action and the actor.

… there is no duality between purity and impurity.

There is no duality between the object of attainment and the attainer.

“The Tibetan Book of the Dead” (Bardo Thodol) – “The Introduction to Awareness: Natural Liberation through Naked Perception” – “Intrinsic Awareness as View, Meditation, Conduct, and Result”

End quote.

And, this idea continues in the next subsection, “Synonyms for Awareness.”

Quote,

Buddhahood cannot be attained other than through the mind.

Not recognising this, one does indeed search for the mind externally,

Yet, how can one find [one’s own mind] when one looks for it elsewhere?

This is like a fool, for example, who, when finding himself amidst a crowd of people,

Becomes mesmerised by the spectacle [of the crowd] and forgets himself,

Then, no longer recognising who he is, starts searching elsewhere for himself.,

Continuously mistaking others for himself.

Seeing the mind as extraneous to oneself is indeed bewildering,

Yet bewilderment and non-bewilderment are of a single essence.

Since there exists no [intrinsic] dichotomy in the mental continuum of sentient beings,

The uncontrived nature of mind is liberated just by being left in its natural state.

“The Tibetan Book of the Dead” (Bardo Thodol) – “The Introduction to Awareness: Natural Liberation through Naked Perception” – “Synonyms for Awareness”

End quote.

And, one final quote from the subsection titled “The Nature of Appearances.”

Quote,

All things that appear are manifestations of mind.

There are no appearances at all apart from [those that originate in] the mind.

“The Tibetan Book of the Dead” (Bardo Thodol) – “The Introduction to Awareness: Natural Liberation through Naked Perception” – “The Nature of Appearances”

End quote.

Now, no more quotes in this episode. Oh, so many quotes. Fun book.

So. There used to be a time when my pen name wasn’t Ithaka, which is why my website url is ithakaonmymind. It’s not that I had myself always on my mind, it was that Ithaka wasn’t my pen name, it was a symbol and a title to a poem, which was why I picked that url. But now my pen name is Ithaka, and I see all these descriptions about the word “mind.” What does it mean for something to be on one’s mind?

Well, one thing seems to be clear now. Ithaka isn’t out there. Ithaka is in here. However, I don’t think that means that one shouldn’t embark on the journey. Sometimes that seems to be the conclusion that people get. Because everything is in the mind, they do nothing. I don’t think that’s what we’re here for. Everything that is, is there for a reason. I don’t want to deny my body to be enlightened in the mind. That is what is predominantly on my mind these days: the ridiculousness of advocating the dualistic worldview of enlightenment versus non-enlightenment in order to get enlightenment.

Look how many times “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” mentions how there is no duality and no dichotomy. Just in the sections I quoted, there are more than dozen mentions of that. And yet, this dualistic obsession in the name of non-dualistic enlightenment happens not infrequently.

And in that process, what is also not infrequently advocated is the dualistic worldview of body versus mind. As if the mind and body were fighting or something. Separating the mind and body as concepts is very useful. I think it’s useful the way we look at an arm and there is the wrist and the forearm and the elbow. You know? It’s very useful. But that doesn’t mean that we’re gonna cut up our arm to make these parts exist separately. Similarly, the mind and body aren’t fighting. If truly everything comes from the mind, then the body does so too. Thus there is nothing to fight about.

At any rate. The version of “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” that I got is from Penguin Classics. It is a very orange book, super bright orange, with blue metallic flower types of things as decoration on the sides of the front and back covers, stretching over the spine. And the book smells really nice. So, if you’re gonna get your copy of “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” consider getting the orange one from Penguin Classics. This version also contains the introductory commentary by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And that introductory commentary definitely has humor in it. The book can be interpreted as seriously or as lightheartedly as you want it to be. Neither guarantees enlightenment or some such thing. But see, in seeking there is already the answer—because they aren’t separate. So, if it seems like it’s constant seeking and for some reason there is always a lack, then there is something else going on. Something that has nothing to do with enlightenment, probably. Then it’s time to maybe stop ruminating over the great depth of the ancient teachings and simply enjoy the nice smell of a tangible book in this beautiful avatar world that, if it had no purpose whatsoever, we wouldn’t live in. That experience, when we actually experience it without trying to make it part of a greater agenda, is something that cannot and doesn’t need to be translated into words. And so, it won’t get lost or found.


All links

Music

  • Ben Winwood – Tibet
  • Master Minded – Free Your Mind

Image source

https://publicdomainreview.org/essay/illustrations-of-madness-james-tilly-matthews-and-the-air-loom/


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