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Thinking, Intellectualising and Focusing in Meditation

In most meditation styles, thinking or 'intellectualising' is a terrible sin! In my work on Focusing with Josiah Hincks, I came to realise that it is a resource I cannot afford to disdain.

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Focusing, for me, is the combination and relationship of two worlds, which for much of my thinking life I tried to keep well apart - the world of my own bodily sensations, and the world of concepts or discursive thought. Concepts and language are obviously useful - I use them all the time for existing in this world - but I considered them mundane, rather as book-keeping devices to deal with the basics of existence and to get myself through the day.

High (or deep), mystical or transcendental experiences were the sublime, the 'higher', where language and concepts were out of place and insignificant. If I had a 'deep' experience, I would often say that it is beyond words. I may even have talked about it, thereby contradicting myself, but loosely - if anyone tried to tighten my language, and make it precise, asking me to apply a modicum of critical thinking to my deep and amazing experience, then I would just say that it cannot be described, words fail me, it is beyond words, it is ineffable.

But what I experience, I feel in my body. The most non-physical and rarefied thought, that has any experiential content, has a sensation in the body to accompany it. This connection has been clear to me for some time; it is both a source of wonder, and has been the object of the Theravada Buddhist style of meditation that I have been doing for some years.

But most teachers of this type of meditation echo my mantra - 'it is beyond words'. One is instructed to feel, not to think about or analyze; the worst sin for a meditator is to 'intellectualise' - a word often thrown at me whenever I wanted to put my meditation experience into words.

These days, I feel that I cannot afford to diminish any potential - mental or physical - that I possess. This includes my use of language, concepts, and discursive thinking. They are wonderful! They can open up vistas of understanding! But, and it is a big 'but', on their own, ungrounded in any physicality, they titillate at best and drive me insane at worst.

So I feel that I have enormous riches in my everyday feelings, experienced as bodily sensations, which are doorways to real wisdom if given attention; and also I have enormous riches in the language and intellect I use, and the concepts I can form and think with. These are the two 'worlds' with which I began this article. But the real riches are when I combine them - the question is, how?

The main problem seems to me when I try to subsume my feelings and sensations in words and concepts, the assumption being that my logical and discursive concept must enclose and capture the feeling. But it need not be this way. I can allow my words and concepts to meet my feelings and sensations in a neutral manner, a relationship of equals, one world not trying to subsume the other, and see what is generated.

This is what Focusing is to me. I feel something in my body, a 'felt-sense', usually as a result of a mental event, and I bring a word or concept to it, or more usually a succession of words or concepts. If I do this with some openness, and don't try to capture the feeling with the word or concept, then I may get a 'fit'. To me, a 'fit' is when the feeling, or felt-sense, is enriched by the word; and likewise the word or concept is itself enriched by the feeling; each resonates with the other, and there is a movement of understanding, an evolution of wisdom - maybe not huge, maybe very small, but it is something.

I am trying to use this art of Focusing - of generating insight by making conceptual thought and bodily sensation work as a team in equal partnership - in many areas. But my main interest is to use it as a tool in meditation.

A final thought: it seems to me that the whole search for meaning that humans are engaged in, philosophising in order to create a grand scheme to make sense of everything, is a sort of meta-Focusing exercise. The bringing together of large and intricate intellectual structures with body feeling is a relationship and a dance with can generate something worthwhile that neither on their own can achieve.

[Return to list of Focusing articles]    [next article] Last revised Nov 15 2004

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