In the very word hatha, we are constantly reminded of the balance of opposites, a notion I find to be a helpful guide as I teach a course focused on children’s language development to university students. At the beginning of the semester, I try to challenge students to think about development as a necessary yoking of opposites, a process in which gain always entails loss. The gains that accrue as a child develops language are, of course, nothing short of miraculous. But there are also profound losses as the child, and then the adult the child becomes, are ever more deeply steeped in our very verbal world.
As language skill emerges, the child far surpasses what can be conveyed with the cries, grunts, and eventual points of infancy, and can communicate with increasingly far more precision and finesse (potentially, at least!). Through the written and spoken word, the developing human has access to vast treasures. She or he can visit times and places, both from the historical past and imagined future, that are otherwise not available, save through language. One can create new tools, technologies, and depths of understanding our world by tapping in to, and building upon, the language record of the knowledge humankind has accumulated over time. The soul can be touched, and the heart expanded, by a poem, a book, a play.
Students have little difficulty thinking about the gains to the human child as they acquire language. But they look quite puzzled when asked if they have any ideas regarding how developing language might entail loss. So, I ask them if they have ever experienced regret or anxiety. “Of course,” comes the chorus. I probe, “Would you be nearly as capable of having these very unpleasant and rarely useful emotions if you couldn’t talk to yourself, and thus relive the past or build up fears about the future?” “Gee, probably not,” they offer.
I go on to talk about “monkey mind,” a term describing the endless chatter in our minds as we constantly jump from thought to thought, just as a monkey jumps from tree to tree. It is a state of mind that Buddhists consider unruly, restless, and confused. Monkey mind keeps us from ever fully experiencing the moment we are in. In the Buddhist tradition, as well as others, the practice of meditation serves to tame the “monkey,” by gaining control over the constant babble of the mind.
In a way, I suggest to them, the goal is to return to the “infant” state, which literally means “without speech” when one goes back to it’s Latin roots. Infancy is a period of development in which symbolic function, or the ability to represent things in their absence, has not yet emerged, with language as its pinnacle achievement. Hence, it is a period of total immersion in the “here and now,” the present moment.
I hope, by such a discussion, to provide at least a bit of an antidote to our culture that becomes ever more obsessed with children reaching developmental milestones on time, or even better yet, early. It’s as if we have come to view development as a race, and it is all about “winning. “ Ah yes, but what are we losing, and what might we then spend countless decades trying to regain? An experience of the only time we actually have – the present moment, unfiltered through the distorting lens of language.