Breaking Free of Concepts (written 2015)
Over the years of my practice, in various ways, teachers have instructed me to be with experience or sensation in the body, just as it is. Not labeling or judging. Not creating a narrative. At first this was incredibly difficult to do. I was accustomed to thinking of thinking as discursive, a kind of talking to myself. I am someone who loves language. I was an early talker; my dad used to like to say it took them less than a year to teach me to talk and all the years since to get me to be quiet! I've been a reader from the time I was old enough to understand that those shapes on the page contained “words”. And a writer since elementary school. Sometimes my mind conjures pictures, and some people describe rich visual thinking. I carry tunes around in my head and like to invent rhymes for fun and as memory aids, but I have musical friends who seem to actually think in music, minus the lyrics. I know I have some tactile memories, so I imagine there are even people who think at least some of the time in ways that could be described as more tactile than verbal. But personally, I've had narrative going on for as long as I can remember. My “self talk” is definitely that. Words, words and more words.
In learning to meditate and to focus on the breath, it was natural for me to use labeling when I began. To say to myself “breath in, breath out”, or sometimes just “breath – ing”, breaking the word to mark inhalation and exhalation. It took awhile to keep mind with breath without a word to give it “substance”. And it took longer to feel into the experience inside my body without creating a narrative to describe it; adjectives and metaphors were there as soon as I looked, it seemed.
In his wonderful small book The Sun in My Heart, Thich Nhat Hanh says “Our mind creates categories – space and time, above and below, inside and outside, myself and others, cause and effect, birth and death, one and many – and puts all physical and psychological phenomena into categories like these before examining them and trying to find their true nature. It is like filling many different shapes and sizes of bottles with water in order to find out the shape and size of water. Truth itself transcends these concepts, so if you want to penetrate it you must break all the conceptual categories you use in normal daily life....Meditation reveals not a concept of truth, but a direct view of truth itself.”
How wonderfully he uses language here to describe something beyond language. This is all we have to communicate with each other: language, music, art. But as each of us fine tunes mindfulness, training the mind to live with full awareness, we follow the path of personal insight. In examining our own experience, we don't have to translate into anything else. We understand directly through awareness. The truth we touch here is primary.
Years along this path, I see how the internal narrative habit goes hand in hand with one of the categories my mind creates, the category of “I” or “myself”. Direct experiencing is subsumed by the experiencer created...the concept of myself as a “thing”. The confusing teaching of no-self is only confusing because of our mind's “addiction” to categories. I've poured experience into a container, as Thich Nhat Hanh describes, and then I confuse the container with the experience. I think this “I” is the shape of experience.
I offered here a description of myself as a word-person, but I've been breathing even before I was talking. We all have. We've been feeling the body as body since long before we sorted out an idea of our own fingers and toes. Experience came before any of the concepts we use to pin it down. In meditation and daily mindfulness we return to what is primary. In this disentangling we often taste peace. With patience and persistence, I believe, this way leads to freedom from the suffering we create along with the concepts; this way leads to wisdom.