July 3, 2012 full moon

The Language We Use to Talk about Meditative Experiences

by Jason Siff

The words, phrases, and concepts found in the language we use to talk about meditative experiences has tremendous effect on our meditation practice. Believing that the purpose of meditation is to get beyond concepts and words doesn’t necessarily free us from the traps of language, especially when we need to express, or somehow represent, our experiences to ourselves or another person. A wordless experience may still someday make its way into words; and contrary to popular belief on this matter, I see that as a forward development, which I will be discussing in this article.

The most popular notion of the use of language in vipassanā and mindfulness meditation circles is the idea of certain “nouns” being turned into “verbs.” The idea that instead of seeing that there is a “self,” there is “selfing,” is an example of this. If you then call the experience of “self” a process of “selfing,” you will abandon the concept of a fixed and permanent self and begin to see your experience as a dynamic process of taking up and building upon thoughts and emotions that give an appearance of self. This may lead to a new perspective on experience for someone who has been caught up in a rigid idea of herself, but it is still just a substitution of one concept for another, and does not adequately address the problems of using language to talk about experiences; in fact, it can add to them by creating a set of “correct” terms that never get examined once they have been learned and utilized.

The main issue of the use of language in meditation teaching and practice is that of using terms to denote experiences. “Selfing” or “desiring” or “anger-ing” have the same effect as “self,” “desire,” or “anger” when used as a description of an experience; they create a category of experience, a summary of it, a gloss of it. Such languaging of experience does not generally lead to further contemplation of it or investigation into it–it does not create interest in the experience, but instead is used to create distance from it. For teachings of being an observer or witness of one’s experiences, this type of languaging furthers that purpose.

It is very easy then to incorporate terms from a foreign language, such as Pali, whether it is the actual word in that language or the most common English translation. So one can talk about a process of selfing as “atta” and be convinced that one is indeed looking at an experience the Buddha talked about as being the source of suffering. If it were only that simple. For what you are looking at is an interpretation of an experience and not the experience itself. The experience itself is something that requires a fuller, more comprehensive description than a single term or phrase can give it.

The distinction I am making here is one that Dr. Kalupahana makes in his book, The Buddha’s Philosophy of Language, (Kalupahana 1999). He believes that the Buddha taught a “language of becoming” as opposed to a “language of existence.” The main difference between a language of “existence” and one of “becoming” lies in the area of description. A language of existence is for those “who look for absolute clarity and precision in the medium of expression,” while a language of becoming “allows room for revisions at the more specific level of explanation or description without having to run into contradictions at the level of generality.”

Much of the language that students of meditation are given to describe their experiences is clear and precise. There is nothing ambiguous in using terms such as self, desire, or anger when talking about one’s experiences (the same holds true for selfing, desiring, or anger-ing). When applied to an experience, which is then reported to a teacher who responds knowingly to these terms, such words seem to be precise. There may be no more to say about these experiences–they exist in the form they are stated. With this type of languaging of experience, “selfing,” for example, becomes something that one can identify over and over again without fail. It can be noted in one’s meditation sittings; it exists as something that can be isolated out from everything else that is occurring; it can then be something that can be uprooted, eliminated, annihilated, or abandoned.

A language of becoming takes a different route to languaging experience, though I see this process differently than Dr. Kalupahana. In his view, the descriptions of experiences do fit into the larger categories found in a language of existence. That is, there are changing, fluid experiences of selfing at the “specific level of description,” meaning that each experience is unique, but that they can somehow be generalized. So someone could be experiencing hurt and rejection at something another person said and then formulate an angry response to that insult, which can be seen as selfing. The specific description supports the notion that selfing leads to suffering. There is “no contradiction at the level of generality.”

From my own experience as a meditation teacher, I see this type of “language of becoming” leading to the same thing as a “language of existence.” In fact, Dr. Kalupahana does see that a language of becoming is “a corrective to the language of existence, not a replacement.” My position on this matter is that there is a longer route to be taken to arrive at a language of becoming regarding our experiences, one that allows for contradiction at the level of generality, which I call “a descriptive language of meditation experience.”

A descriptive language of meditation experience starts with honestly describing one’s experiences in meditation without using any terminology or interpretation. It is a personal narrative of the experience, one that uses one’s own words, phrases, metaphors, similes, and expressions. The narrative employs the first person pronoun when necessary and avoids terms like “the self” or “the mind” in its discourse. It is how you would talk to a friend about what is going on.

An example:

I started the meditation with a barrage of thoughts about what I would say to H. regarding his comment that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I know better than him! I could feel my resentment for his brash and aggressive way of saying things and felt like arguing with him, which I allowed myself to do during the meditation sitting. I had some good points to make, ones that would put him in his place. But whenever I concluded that I would make one of these points the next time we meet, there was a period of reflection about whether I really wanted to get into an argument with him or rather find some way not to participate in the hostility between us. It was as though there were two sides at odds with each other: the side that wanted to argue with him and the side that wanted to find some way to understand what keeps this urge to argue with him alive. As the sitting progressed, the arguing diminished and my understanding of what was keeping this urge to argue alive was more of my focus.

In this type of experience, which I hope you can relate to, the specific description of this unique experience does not lead to distancing from it or interpreting it. I believe it leads to greater interest into what is occurring and how it operates. There is no self or process of selfing to isolate and get rid of. In fact, the whole notion of selfing leading to suffering doesn’t fit here, as there is a way the person is trying to understand how the urge to argue is kept alive, which could be interpreted as selfing if one were inclined to only look at the superficial characteristics. As long as the experience remains not interpreted, it has the character of being clear only in regard to the overall description, but not as to what categories each of the elements can be placed in. Someone who is practicing noting would probably break down this experience into periods of “thinking” and “planning” and totally miss what was going on.

A descriptive language of meditative experience is thus at odds with a noting practice and with any practice that teaches students to label their experiences. This would include many of the jhāna practices where the students are identifying their experiences using numbers (1 for the first jhāna, 2 for the second, and so on). In this area it is particularly important to distinguish between a language of existence and one of becoming, as the student who believes he keeps experiencing the first jhāna may then believe that such a thing as the first jhāna has an independent existence (it is a separate world, realm, or reality). A descriptive language when applied to samādhi experiences just expresses what the person recalls having occurred in a particular meditative state, as in this example:

I was noticing my in and out breath at my nostrils when I suddenly became more aware how each breath was distinct. There was a moment of breathing out, where the air crossed my upper lip, when an image of a ball of light arose. It was brilliant white toward the center, but yellowish closer to the edges. It was slowly pulsating at first, and after a little while, I was drawn in to the very core of it. As I was pulled into it, the pulsing stopped and the light became still, and I could feel a warmth coming out of it, that flowed through my trunk and limbs. It was a delicious feeling, and my mind felt so calm and peaceful, as if I had emerged from a state of deep relaxation. A kind of lightness, a smooth and easy kind of happiness was perceptible around the edges as I began to recall this experience right after it happened.

From this description a correlation can be made to more orthodox descriptions of jhāna. When that attribution occurs after the experience and from going over the description, one is using a language of becoming (the specific description lines up the general one) as long as one keeps to the notion that there have to be many similar and individually unique experiences that can be seen as the first jhāna. When there is just one definitive experience of the first jhāna, which is always the same for everyone, then one is using a language of existence. One way of looking at this situation is that with a language of existence, jhānas become seen as having an independent self-existence (one arrives at a jhāna, attains a jhāna, merges with a jhāna), while with a descriptive language that leads to a language of becoming, they are seen as arising and persisting according to changing conditions (one finds oneself in a state of mind that resembles the descriptions of a jhāna, and it is just another conditioned mind-state).

My concluding comment for this article is to ask you to experiment with describing your meditation experiences in greater detail. It can’t hurt. Unless we train ourselves to use our language skills to describe our experiences in meditation, so many experiences will go by unawares and unexamined. An ineffable experience is often one that someone feels cannot be put into words because doing so will somehow corrupt it. It is already given a concept when considered to be ineffable (such as “empty”), so why not make the extra effort to know that experience more completely by putting it into words? It doesn’t mean that the experience is now the words you use to describe it; the words just remind you of it and point at it when you speak about it with others.

The critique that not all experiences can be put into words is often used to say, “Why bother trying to describe meditative states?” Of course words can’t exactly portray our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions, but they can get close enough to help us become more aware and discerning regarding them. Just a little bit of effort put into journaling your meditation sittings afterwards will bring greater discernment and more interest into your meditation practice.

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