13 June 2024

Sonderbodhi (2014)

(This page… much like anything else in life… is subject to revision and has the potential to change if I feel like it needs to)

Let’s be clear from the very beginning: the only thing that hasn’t really changed in the past decade is my bucket list. Interestingly, the three items at the top that have not moved are so trivial that most people would consider them crappy goals: 1) be a dad 2) write a book for myself and my kid(s) 3) makeup a word that means something to me. Lo and behold: Sonderbodhi.

Back in 2014, I was updating my list of cool words (yes, I have a list) because clearly I had nothing better to do. Suddenly two of them seemed to fit together really well, so I did the most primitive thing I could think of and I smashed them together.

WHAM! new word created, and another check off the bucket list.

Stupid? Probably. But I decided just to roll with it and I spent a few months developing its meaning. I’m pretty sure I know what it means now, and although this will be an introductory page about the meaning of the term, let me clarify that it will probably take a lifetime for me to define it in a way that others truly understand it.

Sometimes, when I go on one of my rants, people give me the naive cliche that says “if you can’t say it simply, then you don’t understand it well enough.” Well, I get what they mean, but it’s kinda bullshit. I am literally telling you everything in one word (pun intended), but unless the word means the same thing to both of us, then we’re not gonna be on the same page and we’re gonna sit here arguing about it for centuries. So my counter-argument is the quote “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” Robert McCloskey

Word #1: Sonder

According to the online definition, the made-up word “sonder” means:

Sonder- n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness— with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
(This is a minor edit from the original which was created by “the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” on tumblr)

I have seen multiple people and websites repost it because I feel like we all connect to it at some level (e.g. the deepest of levels?) and it helps us see that we are all connected in some way.
If you think made-up words are stupid, you should really read up on your history of languages. Or you can read what this guy said, which might be quicker.

Anyway, if you’re not the type to get the chills after looking at cool words, then have no fear my friend, I also found a video to satisfy your visual needs

If you really want to get feisty and say “You simply CAN’T use a made-up ‘fake’ word! That’s stupid!” then cool your jets, bro. Interestingly enough, the word “Sonder” does exist, which means I can still pull off my little shindig.
The German language uses ‘sonder’ as a prefix that means “special” or “extra” or even “nonstandard” (Although if you use it as a separate word instead of a prefix it means “without”?…Oh, those silly Germans).

So: Sonderverkauf or Sonderzug mean “special sale” and “special/chartered train” (respectively)
while: Sonder zahl would mean “countless” and sonder gleichen meant “unparalleled”

Now that I have started studying German and gained an appreciation for how precise the language is, it only made sense for me to use this word as the first part of my crazy little concoction of a word. Sonder gives my made up word a ‘legitimate’ meaning in the sense that it throws a common German word into the mix, but it also has the awesome definition that someone else made up, and I love it. In a nutshell, you could say that Sonder respresents my entire Western ideology/philosophy, which is also fitting because of the impact that German thinkers/speakers had on this.

Word #2: Bodhi

The second word I am using is found throughout Eastern beliefs like Buddhism. According to the fine people of Oxford we can understand the word “bodhi” as:

Bodhi -n.-Term which literally means ‘awakening’, but which is commonly translated as ‘enlightenment’. It denotes the awakening to supreme knowledge, as experienced by the Buddha as he sat under the Bodhi Tree at the age of 35. … See also satori; kenshō.

The words satori and kenshō that are mentioned at the end are roughly the lower levels that lead to bodhi. It’s as if satori means “seeing/knowing”, kenshō is “understanding” and then bodhi is an even deeper level of understanding (i.e. an awakening or enlightenment).

I know, that one’s pretty awesome too, right?! The best part is that according to the Oxford dictionaries, this word originated from…

Mid 19th century: representing Sinhalese bōgaha ‘tree of knowledge’ (Buddha’s enlightenment having occurred beneath such a tree), from (from Sanskrit budh ‘understand thoroughly’) +gaha ‘tree’.

This is just perfect. Like, absolutely perfect. And I hope that some day you’ll see it.


I applied the ‘revolutionary’ yet ‘millenuims-old’ method of smashing things [together] in order to ‘fix’ them and voilà, there’s my word. I considered doing something fancy like an anagram or something of that sort, but then I thought this looked pretty sweet because leaving it this way also makes it sound like it’s a version of “-body” like “nobody” , “somebody” , “anybody” or “everybody” and ultimately the meaning of the word will relate to people, so it makes it that much cooler [in my crazy little head].

Here’s why I really love this nifty little word of mine:

If you’re one of those really deep thinkers, I hope you enjoy pondering the possible meanings of those two words being put together. I’m going to skip over the implications/meaning of using the literal German word with the Buddhist term because it’s easy to see how “sonderbodhi” would simply mean something like “special awakening/enlightenment” (which is still pretty cool and ultimately where I’ll end up anyway).

But I think that there’s a deeper intuition (i.e. both thought and emotion) that sonderbodhi might evoke if we look at it properly.
If we use the “made-up” meaning of sonder to define sonderbodhi, this takes things to a whole new level…

Sonder is the realization, feeling, or sensation of noticing that everyone around you is consciously unique and not just a robot or some potential means to one of your ends, while bodhi is an awakening or enlightenment that comes from a deep [though not necessarily wide] understanding of the universe.
Both of them have an implied “space-time” aspect [because they are realizations which take place in timeas well as an emotion or sensation. Combining the two meanings gives me the chills because it seems to express one of those sensations that, at the time you’re feeling it, words can’t really seem to describe no matter how hard you try (think: Nirvana, or the Greek word eudaimonia). The tumblr definition of sonder calls for a certain understanding that each and every person is an individual just like you are, and the awakened state of bodhi comes only after you’ve passed the observation stage (satori) and any lower understanding (kensho). So I picture sonderbodhi as an awareness or as that sensational moment when you see or hear another person and you understand them so well, that you experience a connection deeper than anything else you’re used to experiencing. You realize that both of you are ultimately one and the same, somehow. It doesn’t have to be religious. It doesn’t have to be spiritual. It’s just… human?

More than anything, I love this silly little made-up word because it gives me hope. To me, sonderbodhi defines such a deep and ultimately human consciousness that it shows to us how, despite our differences, we are all the same. To me that is probably the best way to reach love and peace. As soon as there is no ‘you’ and there is no ‘me’, the us is the only thing that matters, except there is not human ‘them’ to define us externally. I feel like this is the thing that underlies a lot, if not all, world religions. It seems like in all of them, there is so much emphasis on brotherhood, or loving thy neighbor, or being one with the universe…. but eventually people focus on the distinction between religions rather than the similarity. Christians, Protestants, Muslims, Jews… today we always focus on how we are different rather than on how we are the same but that’s where my hope for sonderbodhi comes from. I hope that it brings people together instead of apart. Sure, it’s a buddhist term, but words have to come from somewhere and that’s the best one I found so I’m not saying there has to be a religious tie to Buddhism (besides Buddhism is more of a lifestyle than a religion). My only concern is understanding that this is a human experience that is completely separate from any religious or spiritual beliefs. If you are reading this, you are probably human [please message me if you’re not] and this applies to you. Anyone can experience this.

In fact, I honestly believe we’ve all experienced it, but we don’t always acknowledge it or know how to define it. That moment when you have a completely unexpected deep conversation with a stranger or with an acquaintance and suddenly you “get them” because you realize “O my god, you are just like I am!” You have to know what I’m talking about, right?
It happens to me all the time. I remember a couple occasions when I chatted with someone that I didn’t know so well and the conversation turned deep. As we talked, I suddenly had a feeling deep down in my gut that there was really something about this person. I couldn’t describe it so I just went with it. The connection that I felt at that moment was so deep, so powerful and so sudden that I experienced “sonder” AND “bodhi” at the same time. I understood, that even if I didn’t  see that person ever again in my life, we shared a moment and our paths had irrevocably crossed in the most intimate way possible. I was no longer a random passerby in this person’s life, I was part of their history. We experienced a bond that we reserve for our closest friends which creates a special feeling of intimacy. I think that’s the reason we fall in love with strangers while traveling or on study abroad… it’s the reason we know when a mere acquaintance just became a life-long friend…  and it’s the reason we go to our best friends after spending time with a significant other and we tell them “he/she is the one, I just know it.”

At the moment when you experience sonderbodhi, you don’t feel like you are talking to someone else. You feel like you are talking to yourself. Forget the person’s looks, forget their political or religious beliefs, forget everything that made you [two] “different” ten seconds ago. When you experience sonderbodhi you realize that, if for some weird metaphysical reason you and that person had switched lives/dimensions completely, things would be exactly the way they are now, except you would be that person and that person would be you.

Am I talking crazy here? I feel like everyone has had these moments. At least I hope they have because that’s what makes life worth living for me and because I wouldn’t have the incredible relationships that I have with people if it weren’t for those moments.
If you can’t think of any deep conversations you’ve had like this, try people-watching. Don’t just observe them and judge them but instead really put yourself in the other person’s view/mind/life as best as you can. Don’t just put yourself in his or her ‘shoes’. Put yourself in the person’s eyes, ears, thoughts…their whole life as best as you can. I know it’s impossible, but just trying to do this can make a world of difference. Imagine why they are acting the way they are and try to think like they do. Picture the things that would have the same emotional/psychological effect on you. Even the most annoying and hated person can be loved (not just pitied) if we put ourselves in the right context, I truly believe that. If we can somehow find a way to step outside of ourselves, even at the worst of times when someone hurts you like you’ve never been hurt before, then it’s possible to forgive, understand, and ultimately love. But it’s incredibly hard to do this when we’re protecting our ego and most of the time we do this subconsciously.

You know that whole saying  of “words can’t express what you mean to me”? Sonderbodhi is like that, but it can be with a total stranger. It’s my attempt to define the undefinable. It’s a thought and a feeling. It’s a moment outside of time and space. It’s an imagination and an experience.  Sonderbodhi is looking into a crowd of people, choosing anybody out of everybody, and understanding that they can transition from being a nobody to becoming a “special somebody”(sonder-body) in your life if you truly make an effort to understand them and they do the same. Even if you can only control your efforts and not theirs, you can certainly assume responsibility for the interaction and lead the conversation towards this goal. I promise you that.
If sonderbodhi has any ‘verbatim’ definition at all, it’s: the ultimate social understanding that can only lead to loving other people perhaps even more than you love yourself, because understanding something deeply/fully is the key to loving it.
Maybe you can’t truly define sonderbodhi, you can only experience it. But before we try to define it, let me spend a lifetime making sure you understand it.

Note: I also love that this combines German with Buddhism, West and East, etc, etc… but more on this hopefully another time (Hint: Schopenhauer, Schrödinger, Schumacher, Einstein, Gandhi, Freud, Plato, Confucius)

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