Last week brought a striking moment I want to share.
"Mindfulness is Pre-Symbolic"
This isn't a new idea, however sometimes it lands exactly as it is meant to for someone and it opens up a new way of being with their practice. Most of one class immediately found it revelatory so I shared it with another class, and of course someone for whom it was no big deal might read it now and have their own epiphany. We never know when something is going to be experienced as transformative for ourselves or for someone else. We simply show up authentically, do our best for and with the material and the people in the room, and the rest is out of our hands. And this is true for all of us, no matter what we do for a living. It's true for parents and teachers and plumbers and software developers. It's true in person, on the phone, and during a Zoom or Teams call.
On Narrating Your Way Through Practice
When you first learn mindfulness, there's a teacher present somehow. Maybe only their voice. There's someone narrating the instructions. As with many things, this is double-edged. We all need guidance at first, and yet, it's fairly easy to simply internalize the voice of the teacher and use it when you're practicing on your own. In addition, it's easy to have a dialogue in your head, essentially responding to the teacher with each phrase of guidance. This can happen in class as well as when on your own.
In other words, one can be in monologue or dialogue a lot of the time, using language and thoughts rather than the experience beneath the thoughts as the focus of practice.
What is language, anyway?
Words are symbols we've agreed upon that represent something. I think this is the first time since my doctorate that it's relevant to refer to one of my favorite ideas in the field of Linguistics. It's called Semiotics. Do yourself a favor and watch this amazing four-minute video, which touches on many aspects of the study of language and human behavior. It's far more encompassing-yet-pithy than anything I could provide. Enjoy!
Mindfulness is Pre-Symbolic, Redux
When you practice mindfulness as a way of being with your moment-to-moment experience, it should be practiced pre-symbolically—without any kind of narration. When you narrate that's closer to a practice called noting, where the purpose is to label your moment-to-moment experience. For example, in my head, right now, I would say, "Birds chirping, A/C sound and coldness, birds chirping, birds chirping, achy ankle." That's noting. If I said something more than once, that's because it was the dominant part of my experience for those moments.
Noting adds a layer of symbolism to your experience, as words are symbols. You're sort of putting something on top of the experience, like sticking a label on it that says what it is (e.g., birds chirping). It's no longer the pure experience. It's experience + symbol, and that symbol is in your mind. It's language. It's a thought.
Being In and With Awareness
The experience of being—the felt sense of being—is always available to you. There's no need to name what you're feeling or hearing. Naming can be useful and beneficial when you're experiencing an Unwanted (as long as you aren't identifying with the experience by saying, for instance, I am angry. It's more helpful to say I am feeling angry). However, once you get the hang of accessing pure awareness, you'll likely find that it comes easily when you stop all of the efforting—when you stop trying so hard. Pure awareness is the moment before you search for a word to describe your experience. It comes first. And sometimes it doesn't need anything to come after it; it doesn't need a symbol. Being needs no label.
May ease find you.