One of my favorite terms of endearment is ونِيعُيُ(“Aayuni”), Arabic language for “my eyes.” The full meaning, as Arabic-speaking relatives have explained it to me, is “I love you like I love the light that lets my eyes see.”
The Arabic language has mastered the use of the metaphor, and the language is often thought-provoking and emotional all in one. As language is the primary tool in psychotherapy, it might be a good idea to explore its use in this context. In other words, in therapy, we seek to deepen our expression and knowledge of our thoughts and feelings, and we use language and metaphor to do so. What follows is a meditation on finding the right language to capture our personal experience. How can the Arabic language be a source of inspiration to us in this process?
A Definition of “Heart”
The Arabic language, rich in symbolism, was developed and passed down orally in the Arabic Peninsula, and poems were the first form of Arabic literature (see link).1 The language is constructed from roots with meanings attached to each root, and the thread of roots and metaphors2 throughout the language leave space to breathe and imagine. For example, قلب(“Qalb”), “heart” in English, comes from the root (q-l-b), which in English means the action of turning something over. That is, our hearts can be thought of as constantly turning over emotions, decisions and opinions (see link for elaboration). This definition of “qalb” speaks to how feeling deeply, and reflecting, are intimately connected.
How can we open our heart and mind through encounters with new language? When we put language on a hierarchy (whether on a national arena, within relationship, or within ourselves), how are our sensitivity or our imaginativeness affected? Which language is “official,” and what is devalued, subtly dismissed, or still unknown? For example, if we usually describe an emotion with one kind of label (“excited”), we can wonder about what color, metaphor, sound, idea, or image, might describe it further. Finding new descriptors might also help us tolerate or know more about our most difficult emotions (the ones for which we may lack any description).
Finding language for what we think and feel is part of the work of therapy. When we miss a description for what is in our hearts, what is lost? In therapy, we work on finding a way to speak what is meant. We allow what no longer fits to fall away, poke holes in our worn and over-used descriptors, and seek to cultivate delineation of our emotional experience where there was none. For example, you might have been using “I’m just tired” for the past 20 years to describe a deep feeling of despair and depression. In therapy, you learn to say out loud that you might be feeling some despair, and to look at it honestly and slowly.
“Raise Your Words”
When we really take the time to sit with our words, new and old, and with our feelings, newly expressed yet painfully familiar, some questions come up. Questions about the words we use when we talk to ourselves, as well as questions about the words we hear when we think about our world. How do the words we use color our reality, in our relationships and within ourselves? When language is stagnant or stale, how are we limited? Which comes first — a metaphor or the feeling? How can finding description for difficult experiences and emotions help us integrate them? In therapy, we can experience these questions in live time.
Therapy is potent space where expression of our internal life can be received, discovered, and where new forms of symbolism may emerge over time. As we explore what we think and mean, and finds the words to express, we can more deeply connect with ourselves and others.
“Raise your words,
It is rain that grows flowers,