On language and mindfulness

Ape_su_dente_di_leoneLabel a plant a medicinal herb or label it a weed and very different images appear in our minds. Label a person as someone in recovery or a person who is mentally ill and again, different images appear that open or shut doors to our understanding. It is not simply the images that are different. All the possibilities of interacting with this plant or person change depending on the words used.

Some words and phrases have solutions (or the possibilities of solutions) inherent in them. Other words and phrases point toward negative outcomes and make it difficult to think about solutions.

Consider the difference between “person who is experiencing homelessness” and “the homeless person”. A person who is experiencing homeless is having a temporary problem. It is something we can all relate to since we all have problems and negative experiences and we get through them. When we use the term “the homeless person”, it becomes a way to define who they are and creates a separation that limits our ability to see positive solutions.

Consider the difference between “garden” and “urban agriculture”. This one is a little more subtle, but for many years the idea of planting anything but flowers and ornamental plants in a front yard garden was just not done. It was not the image we had of front yard gardens. But talking about urban agriculture seems to carry the permission (happily) to create a food garden anywhere on one’s property. Urban agriculture paints a different mental picture. We are certainly seeing this healthy development all over Denver.

Taking the time to pay attention to the subtleties of everything we hear may be beyond our ability. However, as we work toward creating healthy communities and a healthy planet, being mindful of at least some of the words we use can be a good practice. .

A simple mindfulness exercise is to choose a word or phrase to pay attention to throughout the day. Pick a word (or words) that you will hear frequently and take a few moments to write out the ideas, images, and connotations of the word and phrase. (This takes just a few minutes and adds to the depth of the practice.) When you hear the word during the day, take a moment to be aware of all the varied meanings and how the word is being used. How are you experiencing the word? Is it being used honestly? Are there negative or positive connotations? Are there hidden meanings? Would other words be more appropriate to the situation? Can you create a new word or phrase that might be more appropriate to the image needed?
Here are some words to get you started:
Healthy food

Have fun with the exercise. I plan to write more about language in future blogs.


  1. Jake Calabrese
    October 28, 2013

    Great post Joann!

  2. Jeanne Stebnisky
    October 29, 2013

    Joann, you have an excellent way of bringing clarity to ideas with you intuitiveness and use of language. The photo of your beloved dandelion is so telling! Looking forward to future topics…

  3. Debra MacKillop
    October 29, 2013

    I look forward to more from you on the importance of language as a follow-on to this piece, which I very much enjoyed. The word that came to mind for me is “creativity,” and I am going to focus on that for the next few days. This is a great suggestion. I also am going to have my two interns at work read this blog, as I think it will help open their (young) minds to the importance of how we describe people, things, events, for ourselves, and in this case, at our workplace.

  4. Jennifer
    November 3, 2013

    Thank you for this post Joann. Language is so important to social change with regards to mental health and/or substance abuse recovery. I am going to use this mindfulness exercise with my Wellness Recovery Action Plan workshop as I think the participants will benefit from being aware of how language they use influences their wellness and recovery plans.


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