Words are powerful objects.
As we go about gathering the tools we need to mount a jailbreak from the confines of life as we’ve been living it, this bit of understanding is indispensible. It is no accident that we use the same vocabulary to describe the act of assembling words—to spell—as to magically influence events and the conditions of reality—to cast a spell. We are taught to regard words and thoughts as insubstantial wisps of smoke, but that simply isn’t true. It’s time to take responsibility for what we think and say—and reclaim the full creative potential we each possess.
The power of words lies in their ability to conjure mental imagery: to cause whole worlds—and all the assumptions upon which they rest—to instantly materialize in your mind. Meaning and emotions that would require volumes to communicate in words are contained in a single image.
For instance, for most people in the 70s—and even today—the word “Vietnam” produces a mental picture of a naked Vietnamese girl running in terror and agony after a US napalm attack—an image that embodies all the horror of the time. The word “gulag” evokes ice bound Siberian prisons that swallowed Soviet dissidents by the millions—but also the image of stern-faced men standing above Red Square in Moscow surveying a parade of missiles.
Entire chunks of history—and everything you think you know about what actually happened and why—are contained in a couple of syllables. If your mind were no more than a movie screen in a darkened theater—and words a kind of passive projector—then so what? Not much power in that.
But your mind does far more with imagery than simply reflect it. What you think you see and know inevitably shapes what you can see. That, in turn, collapses all other possibilities and encrusts your world in the belief that it can’t be any other way.
For many millennia, all manner of mystics, and others gifted with the ability to see beyond the confines of apparent material reality, have reported that what goes on in the mind—all that we visualize, think and believe—has incredible, possibly limitless power to shape the world we experience. Imagination is our native language, and the foundation of reality.
In some respects it isn’t terribly hard to see how this works. If the word “redneck” and the mental image it evokes causes you to think you already know what a person from the rural south thinks, believes and values, then you will act accordingly and reinforce the structural biases built in to present day society. This happens every day—in all directions—and goes a long way to explaining the dangerous levels of political and cultural polarization we’re experiencing today.
That simple example barely scratches the surface of the true influence your thoughts and beliefs—and the words you use to convey them—have on the world you experience. Your power to create reality is limitless. In fact, you do it all the time, whether you realize it or not.
It would be tempting to dismiss that claim as a metaphysical fantasy—were it not for the fact that a whole generation of quantum physicists peering into the ultimate nature of reality speak of their findings in very similar terms. The behavior of the subatomic world has led them to a stunning conclusion: Human consciousness can no longer be left out of their equations and their models of why things are as they are.
Nobel prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner summed it up like this: "When the province of physical theory was extended to encompass microscopic phenomena through the creation of quantum mechanics, the concept of consciousness came to the fore again. It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness."
Martin Rees went further: "In the beginning there were only probabilities. The universe could only come into existence if someone observed it. It does not matter that the observers turned up several billion years later. The universe exists because we are aware of it."
You can bet this was not an easy conclusion for rational men and women of science to swallow. Einstein himself was deeply offended by some facets of quantum theory when it first surfaced in the early 20th century. Niels Bohr, an early pioneer of quantum research, said, “Anyone not shocked by quantum mechanics has not yet understood it.”
But in the end no one could ignore a repeated and consistent laboratory finding—that the specific outcome of experiments involving subatomic particles depended upon the intention and expectations of the scientists themselves. Since they also see in the quantum soup an underlying unity to all things, there is no reason to assume this startling fact is limited only to very, very small things, but ultimately includes everyday reality as well.
Physicist Pascual Jordan: “Observations not only disturb what is to be measured, they produce it."
A popular bumper sticker says: “Question Everything.” That is excellent advice, but only if it begins with your own words, thoughts, beliefs and assumptions about “the way things are.” We have the power to choose whether our words and shared images are weaponized, inflicting maximum amounts of fear (and creating a world by that blueprint), or will become our allies in gaining our freedom from a way of living gone wrong.
With this in mind I invite you to examine the words I have chosen to frame the conversation in these essays: Jailbreak. If that evokes imagery of desperate and angry people destroying everything in sight and beating their erstwhile “jailers” to a pulp—smoke, blood, shouting mobs—then now is the time to capture that thought and turn it over, because it is not at all what I see.
Picture instead a group of people who are laughing, smiling, dancing, singing, embracing, crying, effusing pure joy and gratitude, telling each other poems and stories of a new world—an infectious party of epic proportions—all because it has dawned on them—on us!—that the gates to the prison we’ve inhabited since birth not only never were locked, they never existed in the first place.
That will be the scene once we have seen what Annie Dillard wrote: “Freedom is the world’s water and weather, the world’s nourishment freely given, its soil and sap.” Freedom is ours when we say it is, when we believe it is and visualize what it looks like. From there we will act accordingly and the hopelessly tangled knot of problems we face will begin to untie itself.
I’m breaking out of here. If you’re with me, speak up!