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Is it real, or is it reified?

November 17, 2010

We talked about the difference between imaginary things and imaginal things a few days ago, and about how important our imaginal capacities are. Basically, the difference between the two is that imaginal things are those that we create intentionally, whereas imaginary things (such as Easter Bunnies and optical illusions) are those that we don’t consciously choose. For me, imaginal things have intentionality behind them; they have a purpose.

Imaginal things are central to our lives, though we aren’t totally aware of them. And I would say that becoming educated or enlightened is nearly always a process of identifying what is imaginary, what is imaginal, and what is real. Though each tradition takes its own path toward enlightenment, science, philosophy, and spirituality treat the identification of reality as a central activity.

This activity is also central to sociology, which is the study of how groups, cultures, and societies form, create rules and cohesion, and (sometimes) disband. I had the great fortune to study sociology and the social sciences, and it was fascinating to use the tools of sociology to unmask the social “realities” we all take for granted.

Sociology teaches us that we create social reality through reification (rée-ifi-kay-shun), or the communal process by which we make things real. For instance, a boundary between residential properties does not exist in the real world. This bit of grass on my side of our shared property line is no different than the bit of grass on your side. There is no actual, physical line of demarcation that exists between our two properties.

Photo of people trespassingWe reify (rée-ify) this boundary together — not only through the information we got from the assessor’s office, but through continual dedication to the maintenance of this socially-created boundary. I don’t nose my car across your side of the imaginary line, and you don’t let your dog walk on my side of the imaginary line. We treat this non-thing as if it is a real thing, and so does the city, the mortgage company, the police department, the fire department, the utility companies, the postal service … everyone joins us in communally reifying this totally imaginary boundary. And so it becomes socially real. It achieves real-world meaning and real-world consequences because we all agree that it does. However, the boundary between our properties is purely imaginal. It only exists because we say it does.

We all understand that each family, group, and culture reifies different things. We all know that there are some social realities that we can’t share in different groups. The concept of reification isn’t alien to us; however, if we can bring reification out from the shadows, we can more clearly understand the amazingly complex social realities we create with each other in every moment.

Here are some everyday things that are actually reified

Language
The linguistic capacity is real and present in human brains, but each language is a reified construct that only has meaning for the people who speak it. Words, phrases, and grammatical rules seem concrete to us, but they’re completely socially created. They have no intrinsic reality, which is a freaky thing to consider as you speak and write. The linguistic capacity itself is real, but English and all other languages are not; they’re reified.

Borders and Boundaries
Except for the boundaries created by water, mountains, forests, or deserts (etc.), there are no real borders between countries, kingdoms, states, cities, municipalities, or towns. We learn geography and we learn how to place each state and country in its proper place on a map, but we’re playing a game of make-believe. Boundaries and borders are created through reification; they’re not real. However, that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. Reification is a powerful process that makes imaginary things real, and if you don’t have your passport or your papers in order, you’ll find that these invisible borders can become brick-like and impenetrable!

Gendered Behavior
Gender and sex differences are real and present in the human body, but each of us exists on a continuum between male and female characteristics. Gendered behavior, on the other hand, is socially constructed from birth onward, to the extent that many people honestly don’t realize that they’ve been socially molded into stereotypical expressions of gender. Interestingly, it is the study of so called gender-deviants (those of us who don’t or can’t fit into pink and blue straitjackets) that has helped social scientists and biologists understand the often oppressive forces that gender socialization exerts upon us. For our GLBTQ friends, our incessant reification of gendered behavior has created intense misery; this unfortunate reification needs to be challenged by all awake people. It needs to get better.

Negative Emotions
Emotions are real and exist in human brains and bodies, but the tendency to categorize them as positive or negative is a social construction. For instance, we say that anger, sadness, and fear are negative emotions; however, if you’re being disrespected, anger will have positive value for you (provided you know how to use it). If you’re grasping at something that is not healthy or workable for you, sadness will have positive value because it will help you let go and move forward with your life. And if you’re in danger from an oncoming hazard, fear will have positive value, because it will help you assess the danger and take life-saving actions. In each of these three examples, the “positive” emotion of happiness would be totally out of place, and would lead to negative outcomes. Emotions are real things, but our simple-minded categorizations of them are reifications. In many cases, these categorizations can make us woefully ignorant about the actual purpose and value of specific emotions.

Reification is one of the central activities of social groups. As you look around yourself, notice how many ideas, behaviors, expectations, and realities are not real at all. It’s mind-expanding!

Reification, enlightenment, and wisdom

Becoming enlightened and educated is (in part) a process of identifying what is real from what is imaginary and what has been reified. However, becoming wise is a process of understanding what to do about the things you have identified as unreal. Wisdom helps you understand that there are many ways to approach things that are unreal.

For instance, property boundaries are not real; they’re only reified. However, ignoring or challenging them will probably get you into legal trouble. Some unreal things need to be tolerated, and paying attention to property boundaries is almost always a good idea.

Or when you’re learning a foreign language, accepting the comparative unreality of your own language can be a real help. If you let go of the idea that English grammatical rules are correct, you can more easily absorb the grammar of the new language. You can lean into the unreality of English, and use your knowledge of reification to open your mind to the new language.

And when a reified concept is unhelpful or damaging, you can challenge it, as many people do with gendered behaviors. However, wisdom will tell you that there are situations where challenging reified concepts can be too dangerous (for instance, in high control groups like religions and the military) — and wisdom may help you find ways around direct confrontation. In situations like this, wisdom will help you reach out to others and form coalitions of support. In many cases, you can’t challenge reifications by yourself; it takes a village.

Reifying your inner world

In situations where you must simply tolerate the ignorant reifications of others, it really helps to have a set of internal skills that give you a sense of privacy and some measure of control over your inner life. In many ways, this is the purpose of prayer and meditation, because both can help you create an inner source of comfort and privacy. The world can be roiling in turmoil around you, yet through your internal skills, you can have a quiet place where you can hold onto truth and endure the craziness.

This too, is a reification … this inner world, this private sanctuary, which can become just as real as the language you speak, and just as substantial as boundaries between countries. The cool thing about understanding reification is that you can use your highly developed ability to reify imaginal things and reify yourself a safe and healthy inner life.

My five empathic skills (Getting Grounded, Defining Your Boundaries, Burning Contracts, Conscious Complaining, and Rejuvenating Yourself) recruit your natural ability to reify imaginal things. In every minute of every day, you reify hundreds of things … you make the world around you real and tangible.

Since you’re already a reification expert, you can choose to reify things intentionally, and in a way that will add to your health and wellness.  When you reify your imaginal ability to ground and calm yourself, to set your boundaries, to let go of ideas or behaviors that don’t work, and to rejuvenate and comfort yourself — you can actually change your behavior, your outlook, your mood, your emotional awareness, and the tenor of your relationships. Really!

5 Comments

Michael Stumpf November 18, 2010 at 2:10 am

Thanks Karla. I read your answer to my question on imaginary & imaginal; this also helps. I hope one day to meet you in person; this community has been a blessing.

Peace Upon You -Mike

Karla November 18, 2010 at 3:44 am

Thanks Mike. I like what you say about this community; we really do have some very cool commenters here. I like to read their ideas and witness their emotional awareness. They rock!

Jednorozec Pokojowiec November 18, 2010 at 11:46 am

I think that you can make a case that nothing we perceive is real. Everything that we perceive is filtered through our senses and heavily influenced by our history, expectations, mood, prejudices, subconscious programs and whatever other labels you can come up with in this unreal language. Everything is a mental construct and my construct is different than that of anyone else.

So the unreal answer to the unreal question is that it’s all reified.

Karla November 18, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Jed, hah! A funny answer.

This is why I esteem science so much, because at its best, it figures out how to remove as many of our brain’s distortions and prejudices so that we can observe reality as separate from our expectations. It’s not perfect, but when it works, wow.

I also love sociology, primatology, and anthropology for the same reason, because they avoid the subjective world of the individual and look cross culturally and across species barriers to ascertain what can be said about humans as a species. On that subject, did you see that Frans de Waal got knighted for his work on empathy in primates? How cool!

Are you positive about emotions? « Karla McLaren December 10, 2010 at 12:24 am

[…] very careful about reifying simplistic valences. Emotions are not binary functions. Emotions are irreplaceable parts of […]

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