Have you ever stopped to think about the power of the words you choose? How you can harm or disarm someone in an instant with a single word? How you can soothe or calm or bring intense pleasure with a well-chosen series of syllables?
The reason I ask is I’ve recently been hurt by a word, and though I know it was said in a moment of thoughtlessness, it still smarts. I got to thinking of an exercise I did years ago with a meditation teacher who claimed that one word could change your life.
He suggested I choose a single word and meditate on its truest meaning. A word such as “goodness” “grace” “honesty” or “decency”.
This was a man who had medically died, spent 7 days in a coma and “awakened” with insight that changed his life and the lives of many others.
As absurd as the idea sounded – that one word would contain all I needed to know to transform my world - I decided to keep an open mind.
I went to sleep that night thinking a word is just a series of letters formed together to create a picture or an idea. But I reasoned that if a doorway to the mysteries of the universe were not opened with this exercise, at least I’d get a brief glimpse into the mysteries of language; and that, in the mind of a lover of words, was worth meditating on.
I awoke thinking of the word decency and decided to carry it throughout the day as I worked as a yoga teacher and spa therapist.
“The state or quality of being decent” was the vague dictionary definition. Meditating on decency would involve not just trying to understand the word intellectually, but also trying to embody it.
Believing myself to be a fairly decent human being, I wrongly assumed this exercise would be brief and transparent.
I went about my work, consciously carrying the word decency at the forefront of my thoughts.
Interactions with colleagues and clients seemed to take on a strangely effortless quality. My fellow therapists seemed to be in better moods, clients seemed more open, and the day sailed by easily, free of conflict.
I took a moment halfway through the day to check in. Were others really behaving just a little more pleasantly, or was it my perception?
It occurred to me that in the process of breathing in decency with every breath and thinking decency with every step, a chemical reaction was taking place in my body. Yes, I could actually feel in my body the chemical reaction of a single word!
I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to bend my little mind around the concept of a word containing chemical components. How is it possible that seven letters placed together can carry a chemical imprint?
Then it hit me: Everything is Energy.
As a therapist who understands fitness, food and nutrition, I began comparing the process of food digestion with the process of digesting a word. It all started making sense: much like food passing through the digestive tract, broken down by stomach acids, assimilated through digestive organs, then distributed throughout the body as energy, a word – as thought form – passes through the brain, gets interpreted by the nervous system, restructured by the hormonal system, then distributed throughout the body as energy.
Only now would the true essence of the word decency begin to reveal itself.
Buried just beneath the surface of the word decency I found two words empathy and compassion. I had consciously been feeling empathetic in my attempt to be decent. And in empathy, I had discovered compassion. In compassion, there is no judgment, so by now it was no surprise to me that the day had gone so smoothly.
By the time I was on the evening train back to the city, I had seen the word decency gradually reveal its hidden meaning, shifting towards empathy and compassion. Profound revelations for one day, I thought.
But decency had more to teach me…
Usually while riding public transit I remove myself from the rush and shuffle of the masses by entering my own little bubble of a book or magazine or some tunes on my iPod. This day though, in keeping with the commitment to decency even after my workday had ended, I smiled at the woman in her sixties sitting next to me and said hello. For an hour and a half we chatted amiably about her daughter, her grandchildren, her knitting project and her husband who had passed away. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation and before I knew it we’d arrived at Union Station.
I got off the train feeling quite pleased with myself for having been a “decent” person that day and for feeling like I’d been let in on a powerful secret. I became lost in my thoughts as the noise of the city took over and I blended into rush hour pedestrian traffic. “What will I have for dinner this evening? Should I go to the gym before heading home? Damn! It’s cold out here! Maybe I’ll sit in the steam room and warm up a little. Some pasta with a spicy tomato sauce might be nice…with some organic greens and a glass of red wine…”
In mid-menu planning on the rush hour treadmill, I glanced out the corner of my eye and barely noticed a man sleeping in the shelter of an aluminum sculpture. I continued down the sidewalk in time with the other hurried pedestrians and was a full block away when my conscience grabbed me by the hood of my coat and stopped me cold.
“It’s one thing to meditate,” my conscience said. “Good for you. But it’s something else entirely to actualize. If you’re going to be a decent human, feeling empathy and compassion for others, the next obvious step is selfless action.”
I felt a jolt in my spine like an electric current being switched on. At that point my mind shut down and the noise of the city faded into the distance. The wind became soft, and papers and dirt that had been flying wildly around me settled in a hush on the pavement. My feet, independent of my mind and the rest of my body, turned and walked slowly towards the man lying on the sidewalk.
I searched my pockets and pulled out my last ten dollars until payday. Seeing that the man was fast asleep under his filthy, thinly lined coat, I carefully placed the folded bill between his rough un-gloved thumb and forefinger and quietly stepped away.
Tears filled my eyes and a new chemical formula flooded my veins. The word selflessness had transformed into an overwhelming feeling of joy.
I walked away with new strength of heart, no longer aware of the chill in the air or the chaos of rush hour, and remained, for the next twenty paces, immersed in the most profound state of joy I had ever experienced.
The sound of his voice riding the wind behind me caused me to trip over my boots and drop my shoulder bag. His words were full of precision and sincerity, turning my intense joyfulness to deep humility.
A doorway to the mysteries of the universe cracked open as he called after me: “I love you, darlin’!”