23 December

Words and Naming

The raw data of our life is made into experience by interpretation – thought. This is already an action –storymaking– which is shaped by mood, habit, and culture.

If you do not write regularly, the idea of re-making your stories may seem artificial or inaccessible. But it’s no less relevant to you.

Many people allow artworks, especially music, to put words to their feelings. We also all speak for ourselves, all the time. And we should do so with great respect for how powerful our words are.

Thoughts are composed of words. So the words we choose make our reality. To recognize and exert your power in the arena of interpretation, become more conscious of the words you choose. You don’t need a bigger or better vocabulary, you just need to see words as choices, choices that define a perspective on an event.

In March, I decided to call this viruscrisis The Distance. That name focused my perspective on the social and personal aspects of this time – aspects which, unlike the science, policy, and news, were mine to shape and develop.

A wonderful young friend of mine rejected the word “self-esteem”. He said “I prefer to say that sometimes I feel strong and sometimes I feel weak.” His reframing was not only depathologizing, it was significantly more accurate. How we feel about ourselves is highly contextual. Observing context can be very useful in developing new strategies to feel stronger more of the time.

My home and studio in Berlin was called Festung Absicht. The act of naming occupied my inner circle of Germans with a full three months of debate and was a conversation piece for every guest. It all started in New Zealand with a chandelier made by artist Ingo Maurer. Instead of crystals, the chandelier was adorned with hand-written notes.

I built a copy –my first Flying Temple– from part of an abandoned kitchen appliance, hanging the papers with thread. My intentions ranged from “a studio as beautiful as the one I had in Venice CA” to “stop burning food”. It worked. Version 2, built for that very beautiful studio, was designed to hold the intentions of our whole community, a 60cm diameter lampshade frame to which the papers were attached with gold binder clips. I told my friends that all they had to do was write their intentions (Absichten) with a beautiful pen and climb up the ladder to hang them. Then our Festung (Fortress) would protect their tender initiatives from criticism and assault while they went out in the world to figure out how to manifest them.

The name caught on immediately, and I could see and feel that it enabled our community to feel that the Festung Absicht was their place for development, not just mine.

Somewhat longer ago, I created a phrase to describe how I wanted my business transactions to feel: Abundant Exchanges, arrangements that cause all parties feel they are getting a wonderful outcome. This shapes everything from product design to contract negotiations.

Another dimension of naming is personification. Many psychologists have identified benefits to externalizing and animating (as animals or persons) difficult parts of ourselves so that we can have conversations with them.

Naming your landscape, your goals, and your dragons provides a reference point and a process when you feel stuck.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, discovered historical precedents for externalizing and personifying the creative process itself. She talks and negotiates with her muse. I joke that my creativity sleeps in the coffee. Through the ritual of making and drinking coffee, creativity enters and manifests through me.

A crucial part of my creative process is naming a new project. The name gives it coherence, purpose,  … {I typed and deleted the word ‘life’ several times}. For me projects do have life. Like a baby, having created them, I have to take care of them. And they grow, becoming complex and partly independent of me. They also have life cycles; some die. And by exploring my hesitant use of the term ‘life’ I learned something about my projects: I am in relationship to them. I have feelings for them, including love and fear. I have conflicts with them. And I have unresolved issues with them. They are friends who challenge and accompany me, who know me intimately.

Naming and animating the objects, projects, and struggles in our life also brings the possibility of theater. We can give them personality, playfulness, humor. We can recognize drama and melodrama. We can explore our feelings through fantasy. All of these are ways to work from sensations of helplessness to recognition of the power we have to re-interpret, re-make, and forge.

Perhaps the New Year is a time to re-name some of your fellow travelers.