To open up this exploration, it would be appropriate to add in a third category with a word that is omnipresent in western Buddhist discourse but rather problematic: experience. We can place this term on a triangle to show its interdependence with the other two. The idea of this simple diagram is that the three are in relationship with, feed into, and inform each other, and that leaving one or the other out may lead to a dysfunctional relationship with the other two.
Experience is one of those topics that solicit strong views from the philosophically trained, and for good reason, for experience is simultaneously simple and complex. What is experience, really? You may ask yourself this same question and an easy answer that fully satisfies will be hard to come by. For example, where does experience start and end? Is there a clear and abrupt shift from one experience to another? Where does experience go when it is complete? Where does it come from? The boundaries are less solid than we might initially believe them to be and yet we speak of experience as mine, easily identifiable and clear cut. For most folks it is enough to settle on a partial answer to the original question whilst happily skipping the awkward unanswerable, but this tends to reify experience. If experience is so central to Buddhism, then perhaps we shouldn’t take our relationship with it for granted.
One useful step might simply be to leave aside the urge to fix experience into a definitional substantive box and thus avoid turning it into a thing at all. We might see it as an inseparable characteristic of human existence instead: to experience is the nature of being rather than something that happens to a person/s. Then experience is simply the flow of activity which takes place constantly and always between birth and death, being characterised by the three marks of existence; movement, relationship and change. This is easy enough to state, but not so easy to appreciate.
One way in which I think of experience is that it is that which takes place between consciousness, events, and the boundaries that we choose to assign between one indentified experience and another. These boundaries are imagined in great part. They act to break up the open-endedness of the experiential plane into manageable chunks of life. The theory that drives that divisioning and what occurs in the relationships developed with those manageable pieces is of great importance to notions of liberation, freedom, suffering, and the self, and the architecture of what we consider practice to be. The habit of assigning a time and space to sitting practice is an obvious example of this. Defining that container as my practice we set up a set of visible and invisible boundaries informed by theoretical assumptions, compounded through the search for specific forms of replicable experience.
Talking about experience as a continuous and ongoing flow is a curious business but when we stick to using the language of subjects and objects divided across an invisible terrain, we cannot help but reify experience into solid forms. They then codify the world into elaborate symbolic networks of meaning: we are effectively fixing the world. This is the world of language in which we are immersed, the cultural environment we inhabit, and the ideological networks that we move in. We generally experience and relate to all this through active separation in which I am here and the world is out there.
Attempting to speak of such matters in non-binary terms is a practice in and of itself and a challenge that can help loosen up the conceptual and experiential relationship we have with experience and aid our practice in the process. Changing the way we speak about practice, experience and theory can radically invigorate all three. Turning language away from traditional dialects, conceptually frozen discourse, and lazy parroting of buzz words can mature our sense of what we are doing and infuse such language with those three qualities Buddhism keeps banging on about: movement, relationship, and change.
Non-linguistic, non-conceptual: totally controversial!
I consider it obvious that we are each capable of having non-conceptual experience without discursive thought being present. This occurs naturally whenever we are fully absorbed in the experience of an activity; though, obviously, it may only last for very short periods of time, even seconds. It can additionally be argued that such an experience is constantly at play, which is to say that discourse and non-discursive awareness are constantly interacting so that moments of non-discursive quiet are a daily occurrence for all of us. Sometimes, the sort of inner-silence is defined in terms of flow states, or pejoratively considered a zombie mind state, or simplistic and animalistic. Each of these labels provides ripe ground for exploration for a seasoned meditator. Although sportsmen, martial artists and thrill seekers (just to name the more excitable seekers of flow and presence) may regularly inhabit non-discursive experiential flow, such states are usually not put into the service of dissolving self-grasping. The twist with Buddhism is that its practices can teach a person to use moments of flow or such discursive gaps to uncouple self-awareness from the impulsive process of affirming self-existence, and the self-referential impulse of self-solidification. Additionally, the ability to inhabit such spaces requires a reconfiguration of our emotional selves. Successive efforts to pierce through the emotional dampeners we pick up in childhood and adolescence is part of long term practice.
If we are constantly oscillating within our conscious experience of life between conceptualizing and non-conceptual space, then meditation techniques can be placed not in service to stopping the conceptual process all together or eliminating thought, which would be terribly foolish, but of widening the gap between the thinking, conceptualising impulse, and the experience of being grounded within the sensorial field. Practices can additionally be put in service to fostering a qualitatively enhanced relationship between the parts of our being and the parts of the world that we are in relationship to, and the constant flow that is the nature of our existence. This does not need to be packaged in wondrous, transcendent discourse. The great gift that Zen brought the Buddhists was to remind them of how ordinary such a quality of mind, and body, can be.
Some useful provisos
I do not consider the gap described above (as non-discursive thought space or consciousness, non-dual awareness, or add your favourite name for any of the above here______) to be the true state of anything, the ultimate ground of being, or enlightened wonder: it is simply a qualitative facet of our basic humanity that can become more easily accessible with training. Too many spiritual teachers speak of the gap as something ultimate, even superhuman or otherworldly, and this causes no end of trouble. It may be that they are simply reiterating tradition’s take on the whole affair, but either way it comes across to me as bad advertising.
Experience must be translated into words if communication is to follow, and if participation in the social world is to take place. This includes the experience of non-discursive awareness. Many teachers speak of the ineffable and I find this to be a cop out more often than not. This is not to say that words can capture the totality of a thing or the quality of different conscious states, but that language functioning as an attempt to describe them can be more or less effective, more or less functional, and more or less accurate. The majority of discourse surrounding practices that acquaint individuals with the potentials hinted at above is dishonest. Too many teachers speak of the ineffable and then fall back on typical Buddhist or spiritual metaphors. Perhaps they are too lazy intellectually or not imaginative enough to think beyond the limits of current Buddhist/spiritual discourse. Either way, they are far too often engaged in the recycling of spiritual ideology. We have myriad forms of language that attempt to capture the quintessential quality, flavour or characteristics of sublime, deep, rich, meaningful, peak, expansive, dark, light experiences in poetry, novels, the sciences and humanities, and of course, in religious discourse. These are resources that can all be drawn on. The attempt to make the language work is in itself a form of practice that opens up the insular to the wider world. Striving to make better sense of what we are going through, or what is a potential, can be an immensely rewarding creative, critical process and it sure beats repeating the same tired metaphors as if they represented some profound, deep wisdom, frozen forever in a reliable form.
Experience always occurs within the body and in relationship to the material environment we inhabit. If there is no body in the game, then there is simply no game. Even if you are open-minded about the idea of reincarnation, this fact doesn’t change. You get this body, this life, this world and it is bookmarked on both ends by very real physical realities called birth and death. I believe we need to keep reminding ourselves of this. One reason is that modern society in the West constantly invites us to hedge our bets against everything; ageing, death, environmental destruction, the eternity and certainty of democracy, reliable leaders, knowledgeable experts, justice, equality, happiness, peace, or any other poison you care to indulge in. Underneath all this is the fallacy of ultimate transcendence and our species arrogance. It is worth reminding ourselves often that the body is the basis of all practice and that viewing the mind as separate and apart from it is an odd notion.
Back to phenomenology: but of course!
Practice within Buddhism is usefully understood as primarily phenomenological: that is to say with exploring our conscious subjectivity and its interplay with the physical spaces we inhabit. One question that remains is to what degree our phenomenological experience relates to and reflects objective events, states and reality. This is a hugely relevant topic that warrants exploration but at the same time a relational view of reality can cut through obsession with theoretical certainty. We can understand our personal experience to be always participatory at base, that there are degrees of subjectivity and objectivity, and that we can come closer to one or the other through effort and appropriate practices and theories.
I like to think of practice as being able to serve an ongoing reality check and therefore in service to helping us understand our subjectivity more fully and then open it up to the objective reality of our world, both in terms of the physical realities of our existence and the social realities at play. We may only ever have a partial view on reality, but that view can be more or less accurate, more or less felt, more or less inhabited and so on. Practice can be put into the service of reminding us to engage with what is real again and again. Although partly what we understand to be real will be understood by a dominant theory or a set of axioms that we carry around, this all occurs within the physical world and is bound to it and that is where the divide of ideology is crossed: we are all playing in the same park and we can reconnect to the park at any moment, as well as discover further dimensions to it that were invisible previously. We can be realer with the world at hand and those in it as we come to terms with our own personal take on it all. Life is constantly pushing us to wake up a bit more, and be less complacent in our fantasies. If we are fortunate enough, we will have folks remind us of where we are lost in our stories. If we are fortunate enough, we will be guided to use practices to help us look outside bubbles of meaning, behaviour and identities, and give up swapping one for another. And when we do catch ourselves faltering, when we discover yet another layer of stories, we may be fortunate enough to accept our limitations and carry on regardless.