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Translating the World

We are always translating our experience, on a moment to moment basis: we translate light through our eyes, we translate texture through skin, we translate energy as emotion.

Through our ears we translate music and sirens and screams and political rhetoric and poetry.

You can translate a glance, a gesture, a sunset.

My partner translates the sky: he knows which clouds mean it’s a good time to light a burn pile in the pasture (he's a cowboy), or when there’s good fishing in the river. An astrologer translates planetary movement. A geologist translates a mountain very differently than a photographer. I translate the rhythm of my breath as it rises and falls.

We are always translating the world.

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We are always taking in stimuli, absorbing data, and interpreting it through our individual filters. Each translation depends upon perception.

Translation is an essential part of consciousness: new frontiers in quantum physics are pointing to this interaction between perception and the perceived. What we perceive is affected by our very act of perceiving of it.

And our translations are entirely subjective. You know this first hand if you have ever been in any kind of relationship — you can be right next to someone, experiencing the same set of external circumstances, and yet both be having a totally different thing going on.

Our digital filter creates an added layer of distance, which can mess up meaning and lead to misunderstandings. Ever read a text in a certain tone that the sender didn’t intend? (Yea, me too. Like yesterday.)

I always think about a moment two years ago at AWP, a busy writing conference, where the general tone from the participants (whom willingly attend) is one of tremendous overwhelm and fatigue. I’d bought into that narrative, because it was easy to do so. Yeah, I also felt daunted by the huge crowds and packed schedule. At the conference, in between panels when writers and academics rushed through the Washington, DC convention center, I repeated that sentiment to my friend.

“This conference is crazy,” I echoed. It was the collective mantra.

Without judging me, she replied in a mellow tone, “I love it. All of these people here care about art. They care about writing. It’s so exciting.”

A switch flipped. Oh yeah. This is amazing! Or at least it could be, if I translate the experience that way.

Understanding translation as a mechanism has helped me realize I’m in more control of my filters and lenses. I’ve tried turning this way of seeing to social media, too. Like most of us, I have a love-hate relationship with Instagram. Like most of us, I spend WAY too much time on that damn platform.

My good friend sees posts of yoga practitioners in inversions and arm balances as inspiring, whereas I’ve often translated them as arrogant or egoistic — in the end, she ends up feeling inspired whereas I feel drained and insecure. Who’s right? What’s true?

If anything, this exploration reveals the fragile nature of our perception. At first this revelation of fragility is daunting to me, because it’s so very human to want to know everything for sure, to want to have it all figured out, and — perhaps most importantly — to be right (how many wars have been waged over an unchecked need to be right?).

But sometimes reality gets lost in translation.

Sometimes there aren’t words precise or crystalline enough to express what we feel. So I have to sit and be still. I have to get quiet. I do my best translating when I come back to my breath.

Want to take this theory and make it visceral? Here's a writing prompt to help you:



First, take three to five slow, deep breaths. This will help anchor you in the present moment.

With pen and paper in hand, hone in on a single sensorial experience in the moment. What's the texture of the ground beneath your body? What's the feeling of the air against your skin? What scent looms in the air? Sink into the sensations.

The mind will want to label them as positive or negative (the mind ALWAYS wants to do that, omg it's such a Judge Judy -- or at least mine is). See if you can redirect your mental awareness from the opinion of the sensation to the pure sensation itself.

Is there an itch on your elbow, a dull ache in your lower back? Instead of getting so immediately wrapped up in the feeling about and reaction to the sensation ("OH MY GOD MY ELBOW IS SO ITCHY I MUST SCRATCH IT IMMEDIATELY OR THE KNOWN UNIVERSE WILL IMPLODE") allow your body to more fully feel the sensation without the mental commentary.

In other words, is it possible that an itch on your skin is merely heat or tingling? (Hint: yes, yes it's possible.)

Is it also possible, then, that the sadness or grief or anxiety in your body can be felt another way? Not ignored, not shamed, not diminished at all. Simply experienced using other language. Is it heaviness? Is it tingle? Is it a feeling of being pulled downward, a strange dance with gravity?

Begin journaling with this sensation as your first sentence. Maybe it's the way sunlight is warming your skin. Maybe it's the way that chai tea boils on the kettle and reminds you of fall in your childhood home. Let the sensation of how your body is translating some small piece of your existence in the moment be your launchpad into your memory, or into a metaphor, or into a fictional character. Let the words run down whatever roads appear.

Enjoyed this blog? Sign up for my newsletter at the bottom of this page for more creative inspiration and joyful weirdness, delivered straight to your inbox (no fear, I don't send out newsletters very often, so you won't be bombarded).

If you're looking for honest, funny, and beautifully written accounts of others' lives on the yoga journey, then please check out Going OM: Real-Life Stories on and off the Yoga Mat.

It features words that'll knock your socks off, from renowned writers such as Cheryl Strayed (author of the national bestseller WILD), Dinty W. Moore (author of The Accidental Buddhist), Dani Shapiro (author of Still Writing), and many others.

Going OM one of my greatest works of heart, and I'd be thrilled if you supported this heart-work (plus, it's on a crazy sale on Amazon right now for half the normal list price).

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