What is Syntax?

syntax1One dictionary defines it as “The arrangement and interrelationship of words in grammatical constructions” which led Alan Watts to once write that given the rules of English grammar we have to say “It is raining” when it is patently obvious that there is no “It” doing anything ~ water is just falling from the sky.

So, in that sense, as an Englishman, I can say that that sentence represents the syntax of my mother tongue. 

But look now at the provocative and insightful way that Carlos Castaneda presents that same phrase in two seemingly completely opposing contexts neither of which I believe can actually be proven to be true or false. A situation which, as an important aside, once led Thomas Merton to say “If there is a correct answer to the question What is the Tao? It is I don’t know.”

And I suspect that his response is true of most things in life which I am more inclined to label as “beliefs” rather than “truths”.

Anyway ….Castaneda begins his book, The Active Side of Infinity (Harper Collins, London, 1998) this way:


A man staring at his equations
said that the universe had a beginning.
There had been an explosion, he said.
A bang of bangs, and the universe was born.
And it is expanding, he said.
e had even calculated the length of its life:
ten billion revolutions of the earth around the sun.
The entire globe cheered;
They found his calculations to be science.
None thought that by proposing that the universe began,
the man had merely mirrored the syntax of his mother tongue;
a syntax which demands beginnings, like birth,
and developments, like maturation,
and ends, like death, as statements of facts.
The universe began,
and it is getting old, the man assured us,
and it will die, like all things die,
like he himself died after confirming mathematically
the syntax of his mother tongue.

And then we turn the page and this is what we find:

The Other Syntax

Did the universe really begin?
Is the theory of the Big Bang true?
These are not questions, though they sound like they are.
Is the syntax that requires beginnings, developments
and ends as statements of fact the only syntax that exists?
That’s the real question.
There are other syntaxes.
There is one, for example, which demands that varieties
of intensity be taken as facts.
In that syntax nothing begins and nothing ends;
thus birth is not a clean, clear-cut event,
but a specific type of intensity,
and so is maturation, and so is death.
A man of that syntax, looking over his equations, finds that
he has calculated enough varieties of intensity
to say with authority
that the universe never began
and will never end,
but that it has gone, and is going now, and will go
through endless fluctuations of intensity.
That man could very well conclude that the universe itself
is the chariot of intensity
and that one can board it
to journey through changes without end.
He will conclude all that, and much more,
perhaps without ever realizing
that he is merely confirming
the syntax of his mother tongue.

I wish I could remember where I found this next syntax, but I can’t.

A Wisdom Keeper’s Syntax

[Your teacher] Encouraged you to still your thoughts and accept the invitation of spirit to release into the arms of quiet…. To be is quite different from our thinking minds. To be is to know. Divine presence is bright, big, warm, deep, intense…. [Unlike the] … human condition that may feel tormented and suffering in its search for understanding; divine connection bliss-filled and wisdom without words. Divinity is our core beingness… [The Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin says the same thing]… divine love is the portal to unconditional love that creates and relates to spiritual beingness. It alone encompasses brilliance, joy, love and humanity. It is conscious, wise … breath, life. It is holding hands with all that we are, and all that we are yet to become, with implicit trust that it will indeed be so…. Divine love is simply you. On the other side is the elusive nature of trust, which has been well programmed into us to perceive an element of risk that is experienced as cognitive separation. Within this illusion and misunderstanding lies the invitation to boldly step into… the exquisite dance of the omnipotent and benevolent nature of spirit, god-force. Unspokens to spokens, invisible to visible, unconscious to conscious … for that is the distillation process. And then there is silence/stillness which is the welcoming familiarity of knowingness. The gift of this transformational process is the deepening into wisdom. Awareness brings a level of consciousness that needs no words…. Brilliance, which engages the conscious mind, sources from between the worlds, from the vast libraries and data banks of knowledge from all realms. It is luminous, magnetic and draws young and old souls alike to the light that feeds them. Brilliance assembles the fragmented pieces, transmuting unexpressed language into delightful, tangible form.  

The Syntax of Joseph Campbell

The divine lives within you. Our Western religions tend to put the divine outside of the earthly world with God in heaven. But the whole sense of the Oriental is that the kingdom of heaven is within you. Who’s in heaven? God is. God is within you. And what is God? God is that personification of that world-creative energy and mystery which is beyond thinking and naming. (As Lao Tsu also taught: The Tao that can be named is not the Tao).

The Syntax of Ken Wilber

You are that One, you have always been that One. There is only that One….Therefore pretend no more. Confess that you are God. Confess that you are Beauty. Confess that you are the very truth that the sages have sought for centuries …

The Syntax of Miguel Ruiz

You don’t have to search for God; God never left you. God is always with you … [because] … you are always with yourself.