The Language of Arrival

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I could spend an entire year, I thought, just analyzing this film, and it would be time well-spent.

On the screen appeared the glass barrier separating the extraterrestrials from the humans. This clear wall contained a smoky atmosphere which obscured the “heptopods” (the name the humans had given to the extraterrestrials). On the surface of the glass, a circular symbol had been written in the alien language.

For anyone who doesn’t recognize the image, it’s from the movie Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. In the film, the main character, Dr. Louise Banks, stood facing the alien text, studying the circular symbol, and in time, she became fluent in the language.

The language of Arrival is the language of connection and presence. I’m talking about the film, but I also mean the word. Arrival. It’s when we arrive at a destination. We also use that word when we say, “I’ve finally arrived,” as in, “I’ve finally achieved my goal,” whatever that goal may be. Generally people use it in relation to worldly success, but it could also be used in relation to enlightenment. So there is a double meaning in the title of the film, which I find particularly interesting because the film is all about words and language.

Toward the end, Louise Banks makes a statement, which I’ve turned into a question, “If you could see your whole life as a journey, and everything that was to come, would you embrace it and welcome every moment of it?”

If you haven’t seen the film, the reason she says this might not make sense, and I don’t want to give away the plot, so I won’t tell you why, but it points to an idea the film is portraying, which relates to this concept of Arrival. When you’ve arrived, it’s all here, right now. There is no past. There is no future. There’s nothing at a distance. It’s all here right now.

When you’ve arrived, that’s the fruition of the journey. The kids may have been asking, incessantly, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” And now the answer is yes. This is our arrival. We are here now. We don’t need to ask the question anymore. We already know. We already know that this moment, being here now, is our arrival.

This is also a profound spiritual teaching about our inability to acknowledge or embrace reality. Most of us are almost always disconnected from the HERE & NOW. We resist embracing reality. We shut down and disconnect because we don’t want to welcome in things that we fear. And why do we fear them? Perhaps because it would be acknowledging and embracing the reality of pain, grief, and separation, including the ultimate separation – Death.

I’ve noticed this quite a bit playing itself out since the election. I see people entrenching themselves in their factions, shutting down the conversation, and becoming DISCONNECTED.

This is important to explore in a review of the film, Arrival, because there is a profound scene in which there are 12 screens from which people were communicating, working together, and sharing information. Suddenly, out of fear, there is disconnection, and all 12 screens blast out the word in capital red letters on a black background: DISCONNECTED

But we don’t just disconnect from others; we disconnect from ourselves and from life.

Even as I was watching it, before the full message had been revealed, I knew there was something powerful about it. The timing felt incredibly synchronistic just a few days past the election.

Without going into too much of the plot, I will just say that Arrival is interested in how language shapes reality. The film’s premise hinges on the idea, shared by many linguists and philosophers of language, that we do not all experience the same reality. The pieces of it are the same – what we can all objectively observe – but our perceptions of those pieces shift and change based on the words and grammar we use to describe them to ourselves and each other.

For example, an insult in the language of jackals, can be a request in the language of giraffes.

In addition to the exploration of language and how it shapes our brains and our reality, it also explores the nature of time and consciousness. Before Einstein, time and space were seen as two separate things, but after Einstein, we now use the term space-time because the two are inseparable. I believe that in the future, in fact, in my own lifetime, we will begin to understand that it’s actually space-time-consciousness. The three cannot be separated, and this film is one of the first explorations of that truth… at least in a way that makes it fairly obvious.

What it’s saying is that we do not live in linear time. I’ve been saying that for quite a while now. Time is not linear. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I like to use the analogy of a wound-up ball of rubber-band string. Short segments of it appear to be linear, but over all, it just goes round and round and strands touch each other and overlap. But in the end, it’s all here right now. In fact, there is no linear time. The only “time” that actually exists is in the present moment. And time only exists in our consciousness. It doesn’t exist separate from that. It appears to be linear because we see “evidence” of it, but the truth, as any spiritual teacher will tell you, is that there is no past and no future. The only time that actually exists is the present moment. The past and future only exist within our minds, in our consciousness.

This is why the film is so mind-blowing… because it is asking people to see this truth. It is mind-bending, perplexing, and paradoxical. How can we experience time as linear when in fact it’s all happening right now in the present moment?

Well, that takes us back to the premise of the movie: our language shapes our reality. We have a language with a structure and vocabulary that reinforces a “reality” of linear time.

So why, for thousands of years, have spiritual teachers been saying it’s all here in the present moment, and yet we still don’t get it?

In the film, the aliens tell the humans, “There is no time. You will all be one.”

But a mis-translation of the word “tool” into “weapon” leads the humans to think the aliens are saying “There is no time” (because you will all be dead) and “You will all be one” means that the humans will end up killing each other until only one group or nation is left.

In fact it is a deep spiritual message: There is no time (only the present moment) and we are all one.

The fact that this film came out right after the election felt synchronistic because (oh, and by the way, synchronicity is a concept of time overlapping in a way that creates meaning) so many people have fear about the future and what I have been saying is that fear is what creates disconnection which leads to violence. This film makes that point exactly.

We in fact do not know that there is anything to fear in the future, but the belief that there is something to fear leads to disconnection and violence. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as this film explains. Or, by trusting our fellow human beings, it can become the opposite.

As the linguist begins to learn their language, she begins to see the future. What she discovers is that she must make the decision to have a daughter with a terminal illness who will die in adolescence because it is a necessary part of helping her stop the world from falling into an apocalyptic war. She also knows that making that decision will cause her husband to leave her. But she chooses to accept the pain and loss because it must all unfold that way. She steps into her future, knowing that she will experience pain and loss, but does so without fear. And it is ultimately what ends up saving the world.

So basically it expresses a deeply spiritual message about living in the present moment, knowing that we are truly all one, and letting go of fear because fear is what leads to disconnection and violence. That is also what non-violent communication teaches us, and as anyone who has trained in this language process called NVC long enough knows, it does actually rewire your brain and change your reality.