The Phenomenology of Mindfulness [Video]
Enquiry into the phenomenology of mindfulness, theory and practice.
Most of human interactions is based on the exchange of words which describe our feelings, impressions, memories, opinions, or simply serve us to communicate some information. However, the very important part of any communication with others is the actual experience - the sensations that arise in the present moment. Many people forget about it and focus just on the discursive element. What to say, how to say it, when to respond and of course, where our words should be directed to.
The discourse is not only evident while communicating with others but also enables us to make sense of our sensations in a comfort of our own heads. These interpretations of what’s happening to us manifest themselves as thought processes or an internal dialogue that most people engage in.
Although the discourse is very important as it enables us to communicate whatever we intend to communicate, our relationship with the world and other people depends upon the actual experience that occurs in each present moment.
“The Experience” develops through the relation with the object we interact with. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a person but it could be an animal, various material objects we can use, or simply a background we are embedded in. For instance, one can experience the scenery, the sunset, the storm, the garden, and anything else that our sense can pick up.
Our perception acts like grasping hands. When we perceive something, we grasp its visual elements, we grasp for its smell, or its texture. All these sensations accumulate and express themselves in their totality as “The Experience”. However, such perceptive process does not end on just accumulating raw, sensory data. The important part of it is what we will make of it, how will we interpret it and what meaning can we assign to a our experience.
It is a great skill to be able to convert our perception into words in the unbiased manner. Our cognitive filter that sorts and organizes our experiences (perceptual data) can often block our way to meaningfully experience whatever there is to experience. Some people are mostly intellectual and their feelings and sensations might not matter to them as much, because the majority of their perception is filtered through the process of thinking - “This is stupid, this makes sense, this fits here, that fits there, etc.”. Some other people will prefer approaching “The Experience” through their evaluations and feelings - “I like this, I don’t like that, this makes me feel good, that makes me feel bad, etc.”. And what a great tragedy it is to be biased towards one direction - thinkers might miss out on the emotional aspects of their experiences, whereas feelers might get so immersed in their feelings that it might become impossible for them to make any sense from their sensations and emotions.
“The Experience” might seem confusing if we cannot communicate what we experience (even to ourselves), and it’s confusing if we cannot properly experience it because we are stuck in thinking about the experience, skillfully avoiding experiencing it in a present moment.
Both, feeling and thinking might place us further apart from the ability to experience, for when we are feeling - we focus on the evaluation of how something impacts us, and when we are thinking - we desperately try to make sense of what appears in front of us. Making evaluations or judgments is quite different from the raw perceptive process or pure experience, because to evaluate something or judge it is to filter the experience through the cognitive filter. To give you an example, some people love to make commentaries during watching a film. It's quite automatic for them - “Oh, how did he do it, why; oh, look at this and that”. Such commentary could be comparable to our cognitive filter, whereas watching the film to the actual experience of watching a film.
Regardless which path we take, “The Experience” is the central element of our existence, but because we are humans and we have the ability to reason, making sense of what we experience not only enables us to extract the personal meaning from whatever happens to us, but might also influence our further experiences.
Each of us accumulates our own, subjective interpretations of what’s happening to us, around us, in the world. These in turn, contribute to the development of the cognitive filter which then helps us to make sense in a more efficient manner - the more we do it, the quicker the filtering proces will become. However, what role would “The Experience” play if a person repeatedly chose to see things through the lenses of their cognitive filter instead of choosing to develop new interpretations?
The problem with such filter is precisely this: the more one uses their filter, the less connection with “The Experience” there will be. It’s very simple. When you’ve been seeing someone for 5 days in a row, you will be more inclined to believe that you will see them on the 6th day as well. You might of course have doubtful thoughts about it, but the underlying belief or expectation will be there. When you are used to repeatedly get an unpleasant sunburn, it might difficult to convince you that staying in a sunlight can be enjoyable. You get the idea.
When we keep the same interpretation of our life, a mental state or some situation, over time everything will become “obvious” and no matter what your experience might be, you will be inclined to interpret your situation in the same manner and reinforce your beliefs about life.
The internal environment of your mind is in a close relationship with the outside world. It is of course possible to escape into a fantasy world, to dissociate or distract ourselves, but it would be quite a task to try and shut down all senses in order to cease this relationship. And just like in any relationship, regardless if it’s a bond between particles or a bond between two people, when one part performs an action, the other part will express its reaction. When you say “hi” to your friend, they will reply with “hi”. When you get angry, all world around you seem to annoy you. When you are sad, the world seems pointless or meaningless.
Your mind reflects to you your own perception of the world (through the cognitive filter and through your experiences), and the world around you reflects your own mind. Whatever you perceive and whatever your interpretations of this perceptions and experience are, it will contribute to the development of your internal world of values, beliefs, opinions. And whatever your values, beliefs, opinions are, you will see them in the world that you perceive. For example, someone might have had some experiences with people from another country. They got together, spend some time, had some interactions. If it was entirely novel experience, this primal interpretation will leave an imprint on future interpretations of similar events. They might have felt welcome, appreciated and appreciating, understood and understanding. They will then seek for clues in the present experience that can match their existing interpretation. Maybe their previous experiences gave rise to feeling of exclusion or feeling ignored, and now they are feeling like it’s happening again. They will be quite likely to feel excluded or ignored again, or they might unconsciously try to repress these feelings by consciously rejecting these people. Regardless, the connection with the present experience will be lost and such person will be trapped within their cognitive filter.
Because of the peculiarity of our brains, we all possess the tendency to have a rather consistent belief and value system, and see the world and ourselves through the same lenses for quite a long time - unless something significant happens that motivates us to change.
It’s very convenient to strive for consistency, however, the element which is missing in such tendency is the reduced ability to connect with “The Experience”. If we are to repeatedly choose the same judgments and evaluations of our experiences, it is very easy to get stuck in a place where our cognitive evaluations do not equal the actual experience. A brief example of this would be holding the belief and value system which contains following interpretations: I’m not good enough, I’m mostly bored, life is difficult, I cannot meet my goals. Each day, whether consciously or unconsciously, such person will recycle this beliefs which further reinforce their cognitive filter. In turn, because their experiences are carefully selected and filtered, such person might struggle to connect with “The Experience”. They might (consciously or unconsciously) avoid doing certain things because they believe that they are not good enough, they might not be able to connect with any experience at all because they are bored, they might feel generally discouraged and disconnected from living because they see life as being difficult, and they might abandon setting up any goals whatsoever because they believe that they cannot achieve them. In such case, the filter does it job of disconnecting such person from “The Experience” because it prevents them from connecting to whatever happens around them.
Imagine someone who does exactly the opposite - they believe that they can be good enough, that life is interesting and quite easy and that they can meet goals they set for themselves. That would be entirely different story from the above example, however, this still would place a person at the mercy of their cognitive filter rather than the raw perception and the actual experience. Although their filter might be positive and thus motivating them, it would be quite easy to slip into perfectionism or disgust towards anything and anyone that does not fit their belief system.
“The Experience” is neutral - we make it good or bad. There is no skill required to experience living. “The Experience” just is.
When we fully experience whatever happens, our judgments and evaluations will be of a second importance to us, because our primary goal will be to gather sensations or perceptual data. When learning a new skill, we will focus on how does it feel or what sensations are associated with learning something - we will just learn. When focused on “The Experience”, we focus just on experiencing.
It does not mean that we should entirely dismiss our value or belief system and stop judging and evaluating our experiences - there is nothing wrong with categorizing whatever happens to us - as mentioned before, we need an efficient way of converting our experiences into words in order to know what happens to us or what we are doing. In fact, we don't even have to worry about categorizing perceptions at all since our brain will do it automatically for us. The point is, however, is to stay in touch with whatever happens to us and around us, rather than to only focus on our judgments and evaluations. Being within “The Experience” makes us intimate with the world.
Enquiry into the phenomenology of mindfulness, theory and practice.
What does personal growth mean to you? Do you associate it with the concept of individuation or self-actualization? Do you see it as inevitable, meaning that it will occur whether you want it to happen or not? Do you experience a sense of agency or contro