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The Non-Conceptual Nature of Everything

Published on January 18, 2016, by in Uncategorized.

In many spiritual traditions, there is the belief that in order to be free of the grip of conceptual thinking (and the grasping, identification and suffering it gives rise to), we must either quiet the mind’s activity or discover a part of us that is already conceptually quiet and beyond the reach of thought. In such teachings, one is frequently directed to notice and rest as that which knows or is awake to the movement of the mind but is neither caught in nor defined by such activity. However, as true as it may be that awake-awareness is beyond thought (i.e., non-conceptual), it turns out that all experiences (including thinking itself) are by nature beyond the reach of conceptualization in so far as being ultimately indefinable. And because of this, there is no reason to privilege one aspect of reality (awareness) over another (thought) since both are equal in terms of their being unfathomable, indescribable expressions of life.

Here’s a little experiment—for a moment think some thought, maybe the idea of what you will be doing for dinner later tonight. Once you have that thought in mind, just feel the presence of it—something is undoubtedly there and you know that it is there, right? Something is showing up experientially which we label as thinking. But what exactly does that word tell us about the specifics of what is being experienced? What is a thought, actually? What is thinking made of, experientially? We use this term thought to describe a particular domain of experience. But, while it may be indicative of something we encounter as human beings (otherwise we wouldn’t have evolved such a word in the first place), whatever thinking actually is cannot be neatly collapsed into any conceptual or linguistic category. The word thought may convey some vague, general sense of the actual experiential territory it is endeavoring to describe. But that is all words and concepts can ever do. Language is simply not capable of capturing with any sort of completeness or precision, the intricately rich subtly and nuance that constitutes every instant including the experience we call, thinking.

However helpful they may be as pointers, the words we use to categorize and order the world of experience don’t actually tell us very much about the specific details of anything. To further illustrate this point, let’s examine another phenomenon, color. As you gaze into a clear sky, we have a word—blue—to describe what is being seen. But just as we saw with the word thought, the conceptual label blue, while indicative of something, actually conveys very little about what is actually being experienced when we see something blue. The experience of blueness is really not characterizable owing to its seemingly infinite subtlety and depth. And just as with thought, we can ask the same question of the experience of blue—what is it? What does blue feel like? What is this thing called blue actually made of?

The experiential exploration of these questions reveals that they are not answerable for we can never quite get to the bottom of what anything actually is, experientially. Simply feel the presence of any moment and you will begin to notice this, that despite the immense vocabularies we’ve developed to characterize the myriad forms life can take, each and every experiential moment is utterly beyond any way we might imagine or conceive it to be. It’s quite extraordinary, isn’t it, the ultimate indefinability of everything? Can you sense the freedom of this, the freedom of not knowing what anything actually is?

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