Disruptive Noting and Iconic Flow: Navigating Meaning, Narrative, and Action

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When one does noting practice, at least in the beginning and middle stages, one is pinning things down, identifying things, freezing things in place. Doing this leaves a little echo, a little quasi-image, a little excerpt in consciousness. One can re-attend to this echo, this handle, to call up and replay the original experience with higher (though typically not eidetic) fidelity.

Long after I personally stopped doing explicit noting, I’ve noticed that this tendency remains, this tendency to select out, pin down, freeze, little bits and pieces of experience. (This excerptive activity of consciousness is normal and healthy, by the way, and it happens in almost every second of waking consciousness. What a noting practice does and is, is it makes this excerptive activity conscious and deliberate and possibly compulsive.)

On the one hand, I think deliberate noting is extraordinarily useful: deliberate, fast, fine-grained interoceptive and cognitive phenomenology, I think, has allowed me to make smart and healthy choices about internal and external behaviors. On the other hand, I wonder if this habitual noting leads to a sort of compulsive interruption of the flow of experience. I think it can become an experiential avoidance strategy, perhaps, a way to disrupt your mindstream if you subliminally don’t like where it’s going.

I think, again, that this disruptive quality to noting can be a very healthy puzzle piece, in that, if you’re scampering along in your own little personal hellscape, you’re that much more likely to be, like, “Whoops, let’s not do that,” as many times as it takes to stop doing that. And, indeed, you can perhaps replace that inner or outer behavior with something else, over time. (I mean, the hellscape doesn’t necessarily go away, you don’t necessarily realize that the poisonous snake had been, in fact, just a piece of rope this whole time—but at least you’re awake and choiceful now, not still dreaming.) This is blunt and clumsy, but also potential sensitive and heartfelt, and probably very effective, for some people, some of the time.

But, back to the potential negative aspects of this: When you pin something down in awareness, it doesn’t flow, it doesn’t undulate, it becomes a thing. Things are useful, but they’re also kinda sorta fiction. And, additionally, they hurt. You’ve just temporarily frozen and zoomed-in on, say, this painful aspect of experience, when it otherwise would have just flowed along and burnt itself out, sometimes. But, instead, you’re created this potentially self-reinforcing feedback loop between awareness and this painful aspect of experience, this thing you’ve kind of, sort of, brought into being.

Now, I’m sympathetic to the possibility of “suffer less, notice it more.” Additionally, Shinzen Young says that if you pay attention to something long enough, you’ll start to see the fiction of its solidity, and it’ll flux and flow and break up on its own. I’m not so sure about that.

I do acknowledge that, in general, this “freezing” byproduct of noting starts to lessen over time, as the flickering and undulating nature of experience starts to become more obvious and prominent. You start to see all the previously peripheral and “dimmed” activity, of self and world, around the edges of seemingly solid objects. And, objects lose some of their solidity, sort of now floating in more spacious experience. I think this does lead to less suffering. And, furthermore, lots of proponents of noting say to focus on bare sensory experiences or “experiential atoms” like Shinzen’s touch, sight, sound, feeling, image, talk, etc. Perhaps this does break things up faster and nudge people into suffering less, a la Shinzen’s “divide and conquer” [pdf]. (Or perhaps this facilitates experiential avoidance, giving you a way to rationalize avoidance of more complex cognitive objects.)

In any case, I still feel like the “freezing” aspect of noting is still a failure mode that not everyone transcends. Or, even if you do somewhat transcend it, there are still habitual vestiges of it: pinning down and picking at painful stuff in consciousness, locking into that painful stuff, magnifying it with experiential and narrative feedback loops, perhaps to avoid stuff that’s even more scary and painful.

I’m wondering if there’s a happy middle ground, here, a way to move deftly between reflective analysis and undulating flow. A way to not give up powerful, empowering analysis tools, while still allowing yourself to flow, to shrug off, to “self-liberate” (jargon), and to self-heal.

So, how to ease towards doing something like this? First, I mention in my foreground/background meditation instructions that you can pick a foreground object upon which to gently rest your attention, while still being present to undulating flux and change in the background, in your inner peripheral vision. I emphasize that “background,” here, doesn’t connote less salience or less value. In any case, what you’re doing is sort of occupying the pinning, foreground-freezing aspect of attention while still “un-dimming,” and being present to, everything else you’re experiencing.

An important point, here, that I don’t think I’ve mentioned much elsewhere, is that most of what’s in consciousness at any given time are “handles,” potentialities. Bruce Mangan uses the analogy of icons on a computer desktop: attending to those icons, putting these icons in the foreground, is like automatically, seamlessly, unconsciously double-clicking [1]. We don’t realize that the entirety of an experience isn’t already there at the “location” of the icon, because, in the act of adverting to the icon, it’s already unpacking, and something larger and more complete presents itself to awareness. So, there are these icons floating around and coming and going all the time, depending on the path that foreground awareness takes through consciousness. (And, my suspicion is that emotions are a sort of complex integration of that path, along with many other factors, but that’s a separate blog post.)

Anyway, what I’ve been experimenting with is working with those icons, without double-clicking on them, as it were. With relatively fine-grained attentional control, you can hold those icons in consciousness and experientially explore them, their texture, what they actually “look” like, without allowing them to unpack and elaborate.

For example, you might notice that a blooming desire, in a certain sense, is composed of both the lack and a “juicy” pregnant representation of the desired thing, arising together [2]. The latter has some of the qualities of the desired thing and, perhaps, sometimes even some right-there-already internal structure. That is, from a certain perspective, desires arise in a self-fulfilling manner, or a lack arises with its felt satisfaction, or at least sometimes contains some very interesting guidance or relief—if you can pick it all apart and see what’s actually there. You have some of what you think you’re missing, sort of. I’m not recommending that you perfect your awareness of this dual nature of desire. I don’t think it can take the place of fulfilling, sublimating, or refactoring a desire, per se: representations of representations, feedback loops, something something. It does add a certain richness to everything. Anyway, this is just an example. Perhaps more on this later.

To get back to the main thread, I’ve been focusing more, these days, on, hopefully, the skillful navigation between two potentially negative extremes: on the one hand, freezing and picking at experiential scabs, and, at the other extreme, mindlessly allowing pain and suffering to flow through my mindstream in sort of a dreamy, suffery fashion, without me really realizing it’s happening and doing anything to compassionately sculpt future experience.

I think that skillful navigation might look like “flow,” or “being in the zone,” in the foreground, while simultaneously being aware of flux and undulation and icons in the background, without compulsively double-clicking on those icons. That is, you’re moving through the world, going about your business, not getting in your own way, not necessarily freezing and magnifying and slowing down experiences and building stories of causality and certainty around them, in order to prove things to yourself and others. But, you also get to monitor and be friends with yourself, with the choice of gently intervening, perhaps talking to yourself and others about what you think and feel, and not passing through hellscapes unawares.

What got me thinking about all of this is that reality started becoming empty (in the technical sense), and it was sort of disruptive. I wanted my past and future and three-dimensionality, thank you very much. Emptiness is just a spiritual fetish. I want it all: spaciousness and freedom and release-from-categories-and-constructs combined with lush, sensuous, flowing, engaged, dynamic, concrete, tactile, dare-I-say-sometimes-unreflective, sometimes-often-totally-un-vigilant, social, person-filled, human-intimate reality.

Reality is often relentlessly excruciating, but it’s also where all the love, sex, and friends are. So I continue to explore how to skillfully navigate all that…

[1] Mangan, Bruce. “Sensation’s Ghost: The Non-Sensory ‘Fringe’ of Consciousness“ Psyche 7 (2001): 18.

[2] Kavanagh, David J., Jackie Andrade, and Jon May. “Imaginary relish and exquisite torture: the elaborated intrusion theory of desire.” Psychological review 112, no. 2 (2005): 446.

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