Sunday, December 14, 2014


Do you want to live more joyously and freely? Of course you do. We all do. But how do we go about it?

Well, for starters, don’t ask how. Yes, I know, it was I who posed the ‘how’ question, but I did so deliberately to make the following point---a point I’ve made many times in my posts. When we ask ‘how’ we are asking for a method, a technique, a formula, a concept, but all such things are someone else’s version of truth or reality. 

But there is an even worse problem than asking ‘how.’ You see, in order to live joyously and freely, we need to experience life directly, that is, without conditioning, filtering, fettering, and the mediation of others. Now, in order for there to be no fettering of our experience of life, we must learn to experience life non-conceptually, that is, with the use of non-conceptual cognition.  Non-conceptualization is an important teaching in Buddhism but it can also be found elsewhere. I will try to explain. (Ha! How does one try to explain non-conceptualization except through the use of concepts. A horible dilemma!)

Have you ever eaten, say, a raisin without actually thinking about the eating of the raisin? Have you ever drunk some tea or coffee without actually forming a concept in your mind of the experience of drinking? You probably have, but I bet that you don’t do it very often. Nor do I.

To live non-conceptually is to have a pure, direct, unmediated, unfiltered, unfettered, and unconditioned ‘now’ experience of life. It is what the Zen Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh [pictured right] refers to as ‘a direct and living experience of reality.’ In his book Zen Keys Nhat Hanh writes about non-conceptual experience in these words:

… It is not a concept. It is only when you think about [the experience], when you remember it, or better still, when you make a distinction between it and other former experiences that this experience becomes a concept. To be more precise, the concept of this experience is not this experience itself …

At the moment of the experience you and the taste of tea are one. You are not different from the tea. The tea is you, you are the tea. There is not the drinker of the tea, there is not the tea that is drunk, because there is no distinction between the subject and the object in the real experience. When one starts to distinguish subject and object, the experience disappears.

Please note that last sentence. ‘When one starts to distinguish subject and object, the experience disappears.’ Yes, the experience dies on you. Now, when we first become aware of something, there is an ever-so-brief (just for a couple of nanoseconds at a time) moment of pure awareness just before we begin thinking about the experience or the thing being experienced. Yes, we analyze, compare, contrast, interpret, label, judge, and discriminate---that is conceptualize. However, it is possible to have a pure, direct, non-dual, non-conceptual experience of life.

One of the many things I like about Buddhism is that all its teachings are directed toward helping us to experience life without concepts. Concepts restrict. They bind. They limit. Like beliefs, they become a barrier between us and the word around us.

I must admit that the notion of non-conceptual existence was for me not an easy notion to embrace. My philosophical and legal training as an Australian realist, which makes a rigid distinction between the person (subject) who experiences a thing (object), the thing experienced, and the act of experiencing the thing----three separate things none of which is constituted by its relations to any of the others nor dependent on any of the others---has made it hard for me to live non-conceptually.  I have 'died hard,' so to speak.

Now, don't get me wrong. The realist philosophical stance is indeed true up to a point, that is, in terms of pure, physical form. It is also true on a conceptual level, and Nhat Hanh acknowledges the truth of that proposition. He says: '[T]he distinction between the one who tastes the tea and the tea that is tasted ... are two elements basic to the experience of the tea (a single experience without subject or object) ... .' The Zen master's reference to 'a single experience without subject or object' is also an acknowledgment of the realist's epistemological principle of non-constitutive relations (aka doctrine of external relations) which says that nothing is constituted by or is dependent upon, nor can it be defined or explained by reference to, the relations it has to other things.

Be that as it may, our actual experience of life---please note that word experience---if it is to be fulsome, joyous, and free, must go beyond form. It must penetrate the substance of life. It must go beyond mechanical and mind-made notions of subject and object. You see, if we continue to live from a mindset that is forever making and perpetuating a rigid distinction between subject and object we will never know what it is like to have a pure, direct, non-conceptual experience of ‘the now.’

So, the next time you have tea or coffee, or eat a raisin, or go for a walk, enjoy the pure, direct, unmediated, unobstructed experience of the act. Yes, live non-conceptually for a change. You might even enjoy it.

One more thing. Don't try to live non-conceptually. Never try. If you try to do it, you are still locked into thinking, that is, conceptualization. Just do it---effortlessly.


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