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Distinguishing Concepts From Physical Sensations

August 24, 2012

“There are a lot of ways to escape from pain.  But there’s only one way to meet pain — with no resistance and without labels.” – The Bad Lama

We are all Mitty.

When you meditate, you will notice that thoughts arise in your mind.  Some of these thoughts are relatively small and pass by quickly, but others are very captivating. These thoughts invite you to accompany them right out of the room.  Suddenly you’re on a safari in Tanzania, or suffering through the breakup of an old romance or smiting your enemies in an upcoming business meeting.  When this happens, bring your attention back into the room, back to here and now and let it rest on your object of meditation.

We call these large and powerful thoughts fantasies. It’s pretty easy to notice when you’re lost in a fantasy, because fantasies don’t correspond to what’s happening here and now. All you need to do is to come back to your senses, and the fantasy fades away. We may not want to leave the fantasy – it might seem much more pleasant and interesting to stay in the fantasy rather than the dull here and now – but we know that it is a fantasy.  Since fantasies don’t correspond to what our senses perceive here and now, we also know that fantasies belong to that part of our mind that is called the conceptual mind. (For more on the conceptual mind, see the post Enter the Monkey.)

There are some thoughts that are harder to notice than fantasies. These are thoughts about your object of meditation. Such thoughts can include, for example, the history of the object; how you might use the object; whether you like the object or not. The thoughts may be as small as a label for the object: “That sensation is pain and it is in my knee.” These thoughts are your projections; although they are about the object, they don’t belong to the object; they belong to you. But since these thoughts are related to the object, we often mix them together with our object of meditation, and think that somehow the thought is coming from the object.

It’s very useful to learn to distinguish the information that is coming from our senses from information that is coming from our conceptual mind. We can practice this in our meditation. Here are some instructions that develop the focused body scan instructions from the post Meditating On Physical Sensation:

…take your meditation posture, and allow your mind to settle. Then place your attention on the crown of your head. Notice any physical sensations that you might feel in that area. Don’t expect some special sensation; just be aware of any sensation that you might feel.  Remember that the goal is not to experience the right sensation, but rather to learn to rest patiently and alertly with whatever sensation arises. If you don’t experience any sensation, wait patiently.  If your attention wanders away from the crown of your head, bring it back.  When you notice a sensation at the crown of your head, move your attention to your forehead.  Again, rest patiently and alertly until you’ve noticed sensations on your forehead.  Continue in this way, moving your attention to the part of your chest over your heart; to your solar plexus; to your genitals; and to the base of your spine.

Follow the instructions above.  Each time a sensation arises, notice the labels that you project onto that sensation.  Notice whether you like the sensation or not, and whether you think it needs to be changed or not. Notice if you think it means something. See if you can let go of any labeling or interpretation and direct your attention to the raw physical sensation.

You may notice that even when you let go of a label or a judgment, it still hangs around.  Don’t worry about this. You don’t need to eradicate all conceptual thought. Just practice differentiating the raw sensations that your sense faculties perceive from the interpretations that your conceptual mind projects.

This transaction brought to you by Conceptual Mind.

Conceptualization is a natural function of mind.  Conceptual mind creates the languages that enable us to communicate with one another; it allows us to analyze an object into its elements and recombine those elements into something new; it allows us to record historical events and to predict future events. Thanks to conceptual mind, if you’d like to buy lemons, you can predict that lemons can be found in a market, remember how to get to the market, and participate in a financial transaction at the market.

But conceptual mind is dangerous when we don’t realize that we’re mixing our interpretation of an object with that object itself. For one thing, conceptual mind uses labels that tend to be fixed and unchanging (permanent) to describe objects that are fluid and changing (impermanent). We can cause ourselves a great deal of pain when we try to make something or someone conform to a label that used to fit, but no longer does. There are many songs written about the pain that results from the inability to release the label “lover” when that label no longer fits.

For another thing, labels almost always describe only one aspect of the object. We can easily confuse the label for the entire object. Then even if that label is accurate (for now), it can stand in the way of experiencing the whole object. Think of the labels that are extremely potent for you — for instance “toxic,” “radical fundamentalist,” or “homosexual.” Do they prevent you from seeing other aspects of that object? Now, just for fun, try taking a label that’s positive and combining it with one that’s negative. Perhaps you’ll end up with a peacemaking radical fundamentalist, a homosexual patriot or a toxic Buddhist.  Are your labels flexible enough to combine in this way?  Do they play well with others?

When we meditate on sensation, we can notice how our labels limit our perceptions.  Here’s an extension of the meditation instructions above: When you notice yourself labeling a sensation, see if you can notice whether the label describes the whole sensation, or only one aspect of the situation. For instance, if you experience a sensation that you label as an “itch,” when you return your attention to the physical sensation, see if you can notice any aspect of that sensation that’s not “itchy”. You might also notice when the label no longer fits the sensation – when the itch subsides and is no longer itchy. In this way you can practice noticing the difference between labels and actual sensations, and you can notice the ways in which labels do not adequately describe sensations.

There’s a popular saying “You don’t have to believe everything you think.”  When you become familiar with concepts, you can see ways in which they are helpful and the ways in which they are limiting.  You can become familiar with they ways in which you confuse labels for the objects that they describe. Then you can use your concepts to help you draw closer to your object rather than allowing concepts to hide your object from you.

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