Regaining Our Balance

Regaining Our Balance

E. Paul Holmes, Psychologist


Language significantly shapes our psychological life. In fact, in Western culture, by adulthood, it completely dominates our experience. It influences our culture in two distinct ways, both of which operate simultaneously to varying degrees. First, language can function as a trigger. Words, sentences, and phrases can function for humans in the same fashion as a bell for Pavlov’s dog. That is, they take on stimulus functions via their association with our history with events, objects and people. Their content becomes irrelevant. Notice your experience as I write the following phrases. “She’s black.” “He’s gay.” “He’s a republican.” “She’s a democrat.” “He’s an evangelical.” What happened? Possibly we experienced subtle, or not so subtle, changes in heart rate, body temperature, respiration rate, muscle tension, or blood pressure. For present purposes, we will leave alone the various thoughts that were also evoked. Given that the content of the phrases read were the same for all of us, what then can account for the uniqueness of each person’s experience while reading them? Rather than the content again, it was the same for all of us, it was the historically established stimulus functions of these phrases.

A second possible way language influences our experience is its normative function. Some of the thoughts and statements we make are conceptually contentful. Thinking, a product of language, enables us to make sense of our world; we make judgments about how things are. We evaluate and categorize it. We are sense makers. However, the trap we create for ourselves is that, through language, we become alienated from direct experience and increasingly live through the contrived experiences of our mind. In doing so, we develop a sense of knowing and control that is vastly overestimated and unwarranted.

As we become more sophisticated in our use of language, the world expands exponentially beyond the limits of here and now. We can’t account for it all. Not to have a grasp of some thing or experience is unsettling. Only as we “make sense” of it through language in the form of thoughts do we lose our disquieted states. We have made the unfamiliar familiar; we have put it in its place in our conceptual knowledge of our ever expanding world. Everything is in its place and we can get back to the routine of living. We do this with each other constantly. We collect enough information to categorize. We label others conservative, liberal, gay, or black. 

Our experience of persons different from us results more from the historically established stimulus functions of the labels we place on them than from our present interaction with them. We assume we understand them without ever interacting with or being present to them. Most devastatingly, we do this to ourselves. We use labels, categories, and evaluations to make sense of ourselves, assuming therefore that we know ourselves. Paradoxically, as things, people, and experiences get plugged into our narrative by means of labels and universal categories, the particularity of the thing, person, or experience become invisible; they disappear. Been there, done that. We no longer notice the people we walk by, don’t smell the flowers, or see the trees. We are too busy dialoguing with our mind in the form of thoughts. We rarely directly experience our world; we experience it, indirectly, through our thoughts about it. Meaningfulness becomes increasingly elusive the more we are able to nail down our world conceptually.

What if it is the case, that meaningfulness is not something that is understood but is experienced, and experienced in the mystery and wonder of uncertainty? Herein lies the importance of re-contextualizing experience for those of us who “have it all figured out” or who desperately wish we did. To do this is to present the familiar in unfamiliar ways in order to directly contact an aspect of our experience that we have lost due to our need to conceptually order our world. This results in the falling away of the dominant stimulus functions (verbal responses) and makes room for other, less established functions to show up (direct, experiential responses). 

In re-contextualizing something, we come into contact with it as if for the first time. Consistently undermining the functions of verbal behavior in relationship to our experience opens us up to the possibility that “knowing” is never complete, and our experience of others, ourselves, and the world is ever-changing and evolving. It is the realization that you and I never wake up to the same world or self twice.

Haskins’ Skywall and Skycube series is an invitation to this practice of re-experiencing something familiar in an unfamiliar way and, in doing so, re-contacting mystery, wonder, and maybe even awe. By putting something so overtly familiar in an unconventional context, we are introduced to it anew. When we first see the actual sky on the pictorial plane, we have a strong sense of curiosity. “What is that? What am I seeing?” 

The sky has always been floating over our head for as long as we can remember. Presented in an unfamiliar context, a long dormant sense of curiosity and playful bewilderment is reawakened. In reintroducing us to an aspect of our world that has, in effect, long disappeared from your daily life, we resurrect a sense of mystery and wonder long buried under the fragile narratives upon which our lives teeter.

To experience wonder and mystery is to transcend the here and now and the emptiness of a conceptual understanding of our life. Our over-reliance on intellectually grasping often leaves us bereft of our capacity for wonder, and left wanting for an essential element of living well. A sense of wonder can evoke a sense of vulnerability and uncertainty. Being reminded that we’re not in control can be threatening, even scary. As moderns, we think we have a handle on everything because we can explain it. We overcome the vertigo of our uncertainty by clinging to our tightly woven theories of everything. But what we call the struggle with uncertainty is what the ancients called the awe of mystery. Rather than clamor to find answers, they practiced sitting with questions. 

By re-contextualizing the sky, Haskins calls us to question again. This time, however, we are invited to notice the urge to seek an answer and to simply be present and wait. His is an invitation to practice thriving in the presence of the unexpected rather than clamoring for the predictability of the familiar. We have been staggering under the weight of contrived experience, Haskins' work helps us find our balance, to re-establish the both/and. Questions, curiosity, and yes doubt, save us from the stifling confines and stagnation of the smallness of our narrative.


E. Paul Holmes is an adjunct faculty member of the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration (SSA). He previously served 12 years on faculty in the University’s Department of Psychiatry. He has been an instructor in the Professional Development Program at the SSA since 2001. He has authored numerous articles on empirically supported interventions such as ACT, DBT, and mindfulness therapies and is the founder and director of The Emotion Management Program (EMP) outside Chicago. Dr. Holmes received his Psy.D. from the Illinois School of Professional Psychology. 




Brandom, R. (2010). Conceptual Content and Discursive Practice. Grazer Philosophiche Studien. (81),13-35.   

Hayes, S.C., Barnes-Holmes, D. & Roche, B. (Eds) (2001). Relational Frame Theory: A post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition. New York, NY: Plenum Publishers.    

Westphal, Merold, (2001). Overcoming Onto-theology, New York, NY: Fordham University Press.


Back / Next