by Michael W. Taft
The name of this blog is “Deconstructing Yourself,” but what does deconstruction have to do with meditation? In short: everything. Deconstructing your experience—in the sense of analyzing or seeing through—is the essence of the meditative endeavor. Specifically, deconstructing your sensory experience, including the experience of being you, an ego. On first blush that can sound a little weird. Why would anyone want to do that? And how can you deconstruct an experience?
It turns out that deconstructing an experience is not that difficult, once we define some terms. Sensory experience is the core of being a human being. Sensory experience is how we know there is a world around us—through sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell—and sensory experience is how we know we exist—through the internal experience of these same senses. You can see a bird (a visual experience) and hear it singing (an auditory experience). Later, you could remember that experience, which would be a kind of internal, mental seeing and hearing. It could make you feel happy, which is a body sensation (like the feeling of a smile).
While there is almost certainly a world that exists outside of sensory experience, there is nothing we can know or say about it directly. We can only encounter it through the medium of our senses. We need eyes to see and ears to hear. As human beings in a human body with a human brain, sensory experience is everything. It’s not only how we know about the external world, it’s how we contact our internal world. For example memories are internal experiences of past sensory events. Self-talk is a present-time experience of mentally-generated sound (i.e. it is a kind of hearing). Interoception, feeling the internal state of our own bodies (hunger, pain, emotional reactions, etc.) is a kind of touch. Emotions, too, are a kind of body sensation.
Let’s say you are watching a movie. There is a car chase, gun shots, helicopters. It’s all very intense. You’re heart is racing and you’re clenching the armrests. You are completely absorbed in the movie, but the experience itself is largely opaque. If you examine it closely, however, you will see that it is composed of some external pictures and sound that are creating mental images, talk, and emotional body sensations. You can get specific with the emotional body sensations, clearly noticing the feeling of a racing heart, of fast breathing, of gripped fingers.
This is an example of deconstructing an experience, and you can do it with any experience you have all day long. When you are thinking, you can notice that the experience of thinking is composed of mental pictures combined with mental talk. (There may also be mental taste and smell, but these are relatively rare.) Rather than being absorbed in the meaning of the content of the pictures and words, you can focus on the words and pictures as a sensory experience. Like watching a flowing river or listening to music.
When you are having an emotion, this is a sensory experience, too. Notice that it is mainly composed of body sensations, combined with some mental pictures and talk. And so on. This is the basic idea of how to deconstruct an experience into its components, and this is what we are doing in vipassana meditation.
Even our deepest spiritual insights are composed of sensory experience (well, almost all). The medieval Christian meditation master Meister Eckhart said that people’s experiences of Jesus or God were nothing more than some mental imagery (like pictures of the crucifixion), some mental talk (prayers or Bible verses for example), and some emotional sensations in the body (like an uplifted sensation in the heart region). They might say that they love Jesus, and have had an experience of Jesus, but literally what they have experienced are some mental pictures, some mental talk, and some emotional sensations in their body. Eckhart went so far as to describe this sort of relationship with God as a kind of idolatry, which is a good point. Is there really any difference between worshiping a picture on an altar or a picture in your head? While this might seem to belittle or take something away from this spiritual experience, it actually gives you a way to have a much deeper spiritual experience, as Eckhart said.
Sensory experience is the substance of our lives; it is what our time on earth is made of. Anything that can give you a handle on sensory experience, a way to work with it, therefore gives you a handle on your life. Deconstructing an experience is a very effective and concrete way to get a handle on yourself, your life, your emotions, and your relationships with others. When you disassemble a clock and look at the pieces, you get insight into how a clock functions. You could even begin to alter its functioning by adjusting the gears. By deconstructing thoughts, you get insight into your experience, and can begin to change the way you live. It is possible to quiet the mind, restructure negative thinking, become much less attached to ideas, be more open to new things, and begin to experience the world as it is outside of mental constructions. By deconstructing emotions, you can free yourself from the evolutionary tyranny of mechanical reactions, balance your inner life, have much smoother interactions with others, greatly increase your feelings of love and happiness, and help others feel that way too. In short, it’s a powerful way to increase your happiness, effectiveness, and love.
And yet deconstructing experience does even more than that, as well see in Part II of this series.
copyright © 2011 Michael W. Taft