What are we doing in meditation in order to achieve enlightenment?
Simply put we are both objectifying everything while de-objectifying everything. What do I mean by this? Well, I mean two different things by ‘objectify’ here.
Before proceeding with the article, please note that everything being talked about is from a phenomenological stance, i.e. of experiential mind, perception stuff (and not about making claims of how things exist physically beyond direct experience).
To observe something so that it appears as not the subject of experience, not self, but as an object of interest.
Observe yourself even more closely than this monkey
We objectify every part of phenomenological experience by casting the spotlight of attention on it, so that we come to see it as a part of experience that is no more special than any other part of experience, and just as influenced by causes and conditions as everything else.
For example, say you notice you feel stressed. The unmeditative approach is to wallow in your stress and worry about what you think is causing you stress; if someone were to ask “How are you?” at that moment, you would say and identify with the statement “I am stressed.” This takes on the stress as ‘my stress’, the stress and its associated sensations being part of the subject of experience — put another way, the special place in experience in which everything else is perceived through or from.
In meditation however, we put aside the story that is concocted around one’s present state and try to more objectively observe the features of our present experience (whatever may be being felt; stress as an example) as if we were looking at parts of a wristwatch. This is done in a way that isn’t reading the time and extrapolating what it could mean and what must be done and why. No, we simply look at/notice the parts with an unrejecting interest.
This is done not just with sensations and thoughts, but every single aspect of experience: all emotions, drives, the sense of being located somewhere in space, the sense of a centre, any sense of limits or borders to the mind, the notion of a mind itself, awareness/consciousness itself, attention itself, the sense of a knower, the sense of agency, and all models of selfhood etc.
By ‘models of selfhood’, I mean a perceived representation of an individualised entity. E.g. The mental tracking of how your personality is and what your tendencies or interests are; or simply the model representation of where you are located in space and what you can reach or not. These are mental models and can be objectified. If you still perceive a subtle, but ultimate watcher of experience, then that can be objectified too.
We take those parts of ourselves initially perceived to be most intimately us, and observe them with sustained and clear perception so that we come to understand them in a much more raw, bare-bones fashion (meaning without a narrative/conceptual/languaging interpretation). By attenuating the constant languaging faculty of mind we discover certain characteristics in all qualia. All are never fully gratifying, all are impermanent, and all are not ultimately the special resting place of the separate self. We see that all this is just happening on its own, is not the ‘I’, not the ‘doer’, and not the true perspective from which to view or interpret the rest of experience. No point in experience is prized more than any other part and no part of experience has more control over what happens in experience. Over time one’s default perception of self and life changes dramatically as the delusions of separate self and agency, and sense of perceiving from a single centred point in the mind, are all seen through.
This does not mean the narrative/conceptual/higher judgemental interpretations of experience are shut off — but they are understood as latent properties of experience. With this, we can witness thoughts and opinions arise and not necessarily have to believe them. This is because we no longer feel as if these are ‘my thoughts/opinions’; though neither would we perceive them as someone else’s thoughts, and nor are we free to think whatever we want either. It simply means all is understood to be a model representation (of something which can never be fully modelled) and just as a portrait is not the actual person, mental models are incapable of being the actual self, the actual subject.
Sorry, you’re not a model, you just may think you are.
A concern with this first approach
There is a worry that this may be setting one up to view everything from a dispassionate, dissociated perspective, a perspective that dulls the mind. I think that is a legitimate concern and is certainly a trap one can fall into.
But actually objectifying all parts of experience shouldn’t have this outcome. There is a big difference between suppressing or ignoring models of selfhood and emotions, versus noticing and allowing them to arise but experiencing them as still not ultimately the subject of experience. The goal is to have sustained insight into no self even while models of selfhood and emotions are being represented in the mind. We can consider them as useful signals of how to better navigate reality, all the while not taking them personally. Eventually, the insight into the impersonal and agentless nature of all parts of experience is fully enough saturated throughout the mind that these parts of being human can express themselves and be seen as helpful and necessary, while not impeding the feeling of liberation that comes from having objectified them.
On the contrary, a dissociated headspace comes from still retaining a sense of a subject, albeit one that is trying to distance itself from all other markers in consciousness. A dissociated state is when the subject is trying to hide away in a corner of the mind and not face the incoming input from the world. This is not the outcome of a mind that has fully objectified every part of experience. The freedom from suffering we are obtaining allows us to fully engage with life.
Now, leading onto the next way in which everything must be de-objectified for enlightenment.
To realise something as not an object, not a thing, not a noun.
To the beginner’s mind (a non-meditator) the forms perceived by them are viscerally apprehended to be solid, separate entities stationed in time and space. For example, when they press their fist into a wooden table it appears to them as a hard, solid, unmoving, physical object. To the adept meditator, it is immediately clear that all objects of perception are not things in the way that the non-meditator perceives them to be existing.
When the adept meditator presses her fist into a wooden table she perceives the tactile points of pressure as amorphous clusters of sensations that are not just expanding and contracting in terms of shape and intensity of feeling (which they do), but also the sense of the table or thing disappearing altogether, in a phenomenologically microscopic way. The feeling of ‘hardness’ is flowing and evaporating, and not fixed for her.
Through sustained observation, we come to see that all that appears in the mind is not only impermanent but empty in nature. Appearances not only arise and then vanish, but as soon as they arise they are already disappearing; and anything and everything that is scrutinised with clear attention is realised to be lacking inherent existence. No phenomenological data point has a solid core to it. All content taken to be an object is seen as a fabrication. Everything is a process. A verb.
The mind creates model representations of reality through combinations of sense data and thoughts. Not only are ideas non-concrete, vacuous structures, so is everything else you perceive. This includes the sense of space and time, the sense of self, the sense of a mind itself, and all things consciousness. This becomes apparent to the meditator with the right cognitive faculties sharpened through meditative training. Eventually, we can perceive all of phenomenological reality deconstruct (this is the de-objectifying part) and reconstruct (but now with an insight into their ‘non-thinginess’ nature).
This is not an intellectual exercise. We do not reason ourselves into this position. We train specific cognitive faculties of mind (sustained attention, sensate clarity, equanimity, metacognition etc.) in order to get enough clear observational data on the micro-nature of our phenomenological, moment to moment experience. This is done so that eventually the mind updates its understanding of itself, i.e. all of phenomenological reality.
It makes a world of difference to have this insight through direct observation, and not mere conceptual level comprehension. The freedom from gross mental suffering that plagues most minds is not obtained by thinking about this.
A concern with this second approach
One concern is that the emphasis on de-objectifying all of experience may lead people to think the goal is to spend one’s life in a maximally defabricated state — a state of minimal awareness of things. If perceiving the world as made of separate objects causes one so much suffering, then the best thing they could do is to remain as long as possible in states of mind (like deep sleep or unconsciousness) where no ‘things’ are perceived.
Don’t sleep your life away like this cat. The world needs you.
But no, the goal is to have garnered the immediate, lasting understanding of all perceived parts of experienced as not being inherently individual or solid separate entities, even while they are presented in experience. So even when the world is shining brightly to you with colours and sounds, and thoughts and sensations, and all kinds of mental models, and time and space, AND tables, they are perceived as airy and not substantial things.
It is also not a worry that de-objectifying the world prevents one from being able to comprehend and interact with concepts and ‘objects’. Even with a deep, pervading insight into the non-thinginess of all things, one can still be totally functional at the dinner table.
III. Before No-self, SELF. Before Nothing, Everything. We objectify to find the self, to understand what we are. When phenomenological reality is fully objectified only then can we hold the self in a non-contradictory, non-exclusionary way. However, the process of objectification most likely requires first subjectifying (making self) all of experience. While meditating we spend so much time with all parts of experience, so much so that there is a feeling of intimate connection to everything.
While the belief of the personal self is still intact it can extend out, for “If I am here and I am connected to everything, then I must be there too.” Typically, the meditator goes through a process in which their subjective identity shifts (maybe latching on to the sense of awareness, or maybe even blowing up to encompass all perceived things), but by noticing the sense of self move and transform and unstick from old things and stick onto new things, eventually, it is understood what self is.
This is also the case with the de-objectification process. In many instances first we must reify before we can deconstruct. At the beginning of their journey, the meditator doesn’t have a clear sense of many of the aspects of the mind which need to be deconstructed. When I ask non-meditators if they perceive a sense of a centre to their experience they are often unsure. They don’t feel like their mind is centreless, yet when I ask them to find the centre they struggle. For most people, though they wouldn’t deny they have a subjective sense of self, or centre, or perceived boundary to their mind, they can’t locate them and there is an unexamined assumption of their existence. First, they must get clear on where they feel those things to be, and then once found copious amounts of time are required with these objects of meditation. This time spent with them then further entrenches the sense of their actuality — as they become more real and clearer to the meditator. Then after even more time with these mental models, their empty nature is discovered and the meditator can finally let go of them as actual things.