Visualizing a conceptual overlay on your nonconceptual subjective experiences can help you stay grounded in experience-focused perception.
As I describe in my article Seven Stages of Spiritual Insight, the fourth stage of insight practice (inverting experience and reality) involves cultivating experience-focused perception. Visualizing our conceptual interpretations of experience can help us stay grounded in experience-focused perception, and can help us recognize our frames of reference (which is helpful in the seventh stage of insight practice). This article describes this visualization practice.
What We Lose in Concept-Focused Perception
Our mind is constantly at work interpreting our nonconceptual experiences based on our worldview and generating conceptual experiences; these conceptual experiences arise in our awareness as knowledge. Normally, in concept-focused perception, we don’t recognize these conceptual experiences as interpretations or even as experiences; for instance, we look at a candle and we simply know that it’s a candle.
The automatic, unconscious, involuntary nature of this interpretive process is very fast and efficient, but a lot gets lost in the process: awareness of the original nonconceptual visual experience corresponding to the candle, awareness of the knowledge arising, and awareness of the interpreted nature of that knowledge. When we’re deeply seated in concept-focused perception, most or all of our attention is on knowledge; almost none is on our experiences. (This is why experiences seem dull—lacking in vividness—in concept-focused perception.)
The Importance of Recognizing Our Conceptual Experiences
In experience-focused perception, it’s still possible to interpret the meaning of your subjective experiences in terms of your worldview. You look at a candle and you know that it’s a candle; that knowledge arises as a conceptual experience. If you recognize the experience (of knowing that it’s a candle) as a conceptual experience (that’s arising based on your interpretation of your nonconceptual experience), you get a bit more grounded in experience-focused perception; otherwise, you’ve taken a step back toward concept-focused perception.
This is analogous to recognizing thoughts in concentration meditation: if you can recognize a thought as a thought (that is, if you can recognize the experience of having the thought), the thought doesn’t impede your concentration. If you don’t recognize the thought as a thought (and your attention instead goes to what the thought refers to), you are likely to get sucked into thinking.
Visualizing Our Conceptual Interpretations
Experience-focused perception requires relating phenomena to experience. To stay grounded in experience-focused perception, I find it helpful to find ways to become more aware of the conceptual experiences that underlie my knowledge of reality. One way I do this is to visualize a conceptual overlay on my nonconceptual subjective experiences.
To try this, look around the room and notice your mind using concepts to understand your nonconceptual subjective experiences. As you notice this, visualize the concepts as tags. For instance, when you look at a candle, imagine the word “candle” floating next to the candle. When you look down a hallway, imagine a grid overlaid on the hallway; the grid makes your perception of space explicit by marking off distance. When you remember something that happened a while ago, imagine it tagged with a rough date and time.
Isn’t it amazing that all of this normally happens automatically and unconsciously? Visualizing the conceptual output of the process of conceptual understanding is one way to make this process more explicit. (This can be viewed as a form of noting.) You are identifying the conceptual subjective experiences that get automatically created based on your nonconceptual subjective experiences.
Of course, you’re not going to be able to visualize all your interpretations—and that’s okay. Even visualizing a small subset of your interpretations can help remind you of the interpreted nature of your perception of reality (thus helping you stay grounded in experience-focused perception).