The Coin of Experience

Sometimes, I describe experience like a two-sided coin. On one side, we have the descriptions, interpretations, and narratives we bring to experience. On the other side of the coin, we have the raw, un-interpreted presence of the experience itself.

As an example, let’s say that you’re asked to give a presentation. As you walk to the podium, you find yourself encountering a flood of different experiential qualities. We could call this the “territory” side of the experiential coin. On the other side of the coin we find the myriad ways we try to map that territory—the interpretations, definitions and descriptions we bring to whatever is presenting itself experientially. 

The map side of the coin includes all of the ways we might label or name what’s appearing (“anxiety,” “insecurity,” “self-consciousness”) and also whatever mental narratives we may be layering on top of those basic descriptions (“I don’t like how this feels,” “Why is this happening to me again?” and so on). 

So, those are the two sides of the coin—the specific details that make up whatever is presenting itself experientially but which come with no intrinsic labels, and the maps and interpretive frameworks we bring to whatever appears to be present.

Now, without our even realizing it, our default tendency is to believe that the map is essentially equivalent to the territory, that the way we’re describing things is essentially the same as the experiences themselves. In effect, we believe that we know what things are simply because we’ve come up with ways to describe or indicate them verbally and conceptually. 

But is that actually the case? Do we really know what happiness, sadness, joy, anxiety, or anything actually is? 

Take the set of experiential phenomena we describe as, “anxiety.” When we encounter a particular pattern of experiences and then label that pattern, “anxiety,” what exactly is it that we’re referring to with that word? What is the territory we call anxiety actually comprised of? 

If we investigate the territory side of the coin, simply feeling the presence of whatever is here, several things become apparent. 

First, what’s appearing is by nature, dynamic. Experience is not static but fluid. What appears is constantly moving, constantly changing, even if in subtle, barely perceptible ways. The label side of the experiential coin suggests that the things we encounter in life are actually “things.” [This is undoubtedly why nouns exist as part of our human language system.] But the direct experience side of the coin suggests something quite different and that is that what we think of as static phenomena, which we then give names to, are not static at all but a fluid, ever-changing flow and dynamism. 

This raises a provocative question: How can we possibly describe something that is always changing? How can we give a name to anything if what we’re naming is not the same from moment-to-moment? For example, an experience arises which we then label, anxiety. But in the next instant, that supposed thing we just named is no longer there, at least not in the same way. So what is it now? Is it still anxiety? If we claim that it is, then we must admit that we’re essentially applying the same descriptive label to refer to two different experiences! Given this, it’s fair to say that the conceptual maps and labels we use are, at best, a very rough approximation of what is actually being experienced in any given moment. 

Just as we did with the label, anxiety, we can look at the word “I?” If I say, “I am writing an essay about the nature of experience,” what is the personal pronoun in that sentence actually referring to? When we use the word “I,” is it the body we’re talking about? Maybe. But, if we equate ourselves with the body, what about the fact that the body is never the same from moment-to-moment? If we are these bodies, which one are we, the one appearing right now or the body that’s present a moment, a week, a month or a year from now? 

Maybe we think the word “I” refers to the personality. But whatever we might think of as our personality is only ever known as experience. And like all experiences, personality is actually not a fixed, static thing but a dynamic, fluid process, never precisely the same in any two instants. All of which raises the question, if who and what we are is ultimately an ever-changing fluidity, is it really possible to define ourselves?  We tend to think of the self as a fixed, solid, more or less stable and hence definable thing. But if we look carefully and honestly at the experience side of the coin, what we find being referred to with the label “self” is in fact an ever-changing and ultimately indefinable dynamism.

So, the dynamic, ever-changing nature of experience is one key thing that’s discovered when the non-linguistic, non-conceptual side of the experiential coin is investigated. 

A second related feature of the experiential, non-interpreted side of the coin is that in spite of the apparent power of our descriptive frameworks, what’s present is not actually describable, at least not definitively. When we explore what’s actually here, what becomes more and more apparent is that it’s not actually possible to say what’s here! Whatever we think is present, it is always more than that. And whatever we imagine that “more-ness” to be, well, it’s more than that!

Take any state…. anxiety, fear, joy, sadness, exhilaration… and ask yourself, “What are those words referring to, in experience?” Much as atoms and subatomic particles have been discovered to be the fundamental building blocks of matter, what I’m essentially asking is what are the building blocks or fundamental particles that make up our moment-to-moment experience? If you answer that states such as anxiety or joy are made up of various thoughts and sensations, that’s great. But what are those things you’re calling thoughts and sensations referring to? Rather than trying to answer any of these questions analytically, see what you find when you explore them non-verbally.

While I would never ask you to take my or anyone’s else’s word for it, what I have found is that I can never seem to get to the bottom of what any of my experiences are for when I look, I just continue to find more than what any description or concept might be able to convey—more depth, more detail, more subtlety, more nuance. Far as I can surmise, what’s present here is literally boundless and unending. 

Another key feature of the non-conceptual side of the experiential coin is that it is. No matter what interpretations we might be bringing to what’s present here, what we find on the other side of the coin is the sheer presence or existence of whatever is showing up experientially. This momentary perception may be described in a thousand different ways. But it always simply is. What’s here exists… 

Buddhists refer to this as the such-ness or is-ness of experience. On one side of the coin, we have the myriad ways we might characterize or describe a given experience. But on the other side, we have the simple fact that what’s here is here. To be sure, this sheer presence cannot ultimately be rendered descriptively. As I’ve been saying, what’s present here is beyond description or characterization. And yet it is at the same time, undeniably present. 

And so, we can say that the presence of what is exists, independent of how it is being defined. The suchness or is-ness, inconceivable as it may be, is what’s most basic and fundamental about every experience, regardless of the labels being supplied. 

The sheer presence of experience is always here even if what's present is forever changing. And so if you're looking for some kind of stable well-being, some kind of reliable sense of ease and freedom, rather than looking towards that which is always changing—the content of experience—just let yourself revel in the constancy of experiencing itself, this ceaseless flow of experiencing, always present, always here, even if it never looks the same twice. 

By exploring this non-conceptual, non-interpreted side of the coin, what’s discovered is that the problematic nature of certain experiences is more a function of how we are labeling and defining them rather than being intrinsic to the experiences themselves. 

But don’t take my word for it! If you are so inclined, explore that possibility for yourself and then based on that experiential investigation, decide if what I’m saying here rings true for you.

John Astin