Matthew Shanahan, M.Sc.

Matthew Shanahan M.Sc.

Living It

Do what you are doing: The value of non-symbolic experience

We are flooded with representations. Take a break. Just be.

Posted Mar 01, 2011

Do you have a favourite thing you do to unwind? Exercise? Knitting? A favourite instrument? We are so swallowed up by symbol-based experience today, that it's time we remembered what we are: timeless awareness in a physical body.

I came home from a long day at grad school yesterday. I had worked well. Set timelines and task objectives, and met them. I had had good meetings with colleagues, dialled the telephone several times, and given the best of my attention for a considerable portion of the day to an LCD screen, hooked up to a logical processing device, that received my input through the tapping of keys. I spoke a lot of English throughout the day, and even more of it in my mental dialogue with myself and internalized role models in my life. Symbols, symbols, symbols - how much time did I spend doing something that didn't signify something else? How often do we take a break from our intensely representational world? And I don't even do the digitized social network thing ... (!)

When I got home, I had the sense that I needed to go down many levels to fairly unprocessed, natural experience. It was too cold to go outside (mothers and grandmothers, don't stop saying it: "Go play outside!" - kids need to be undigitized, a lot.) But I put some music on from our tv music-only channel feed (so I had no name for it, it just sounded good). Then I stripped down to a suitably-reduced level of clothedness (my spouse was out for the evening). And then I ate a bunch of tasty stuff we had as leftovers, somewhat "caveman-style". I frequently kept thinking - "I'll have to blog about this" - my head full of always more English chatter, but I had the sense to realize: "Yes, but how about I live my non-symbolic experience break first? Then I'll funnel it into words, keystrokes, and the like." Turn off brain chatter now.

A hobby that I've meant to take up involves patient, careful manual work. Another one I'm engaged in involves playing a team sport with intense physical effort. Thank God for these options of experiencing the world in my life. It's a great blessing to get sweaty and fall down and take a slapshot and yell at your team. It is also a great blessing to be able to lose myself in close work, stitch-by-stitch, that produces an objective, attractive, physical result in the end, by way of hours of mind-stilling, focus-requiring, patient and self-regulating diligence. You might call precision-based manual (and finger) work the original digital hobby.

I've tried Mindfulness Meditation before, with some success. It's getting at the same thing, although the variants I've encountered are presented in a little too pure a form for me. Thinking of ‘nothing' is quite hard. I do remember one wonderful meditation experience I once had though, when I was able to just be aware of my physical self and surroundings, apart from cultural layering of interpretations, to the point where I ‘forgot' my own name. That is to say, I understood what I was as a being, not as a social identity. It was wonderfully freeing, and when I ended the session, I felt that I returned to my ‘life' with new vigour, because I was choosing to take up my name, position, role, history, and everything else that I was through society as a free man who doesn't ultimately depend on these things in order to exist. But in freedom and love, I laid my name down for a time, laid down all the symbols, even human language, that help me resolve the world, and was able to ‘just be', as they say. In an analogous way, I love taking off my glasses sometimes, too.

Those of us who have small children are close to this unprocessed level of accessing reality. For the rest of us, try unplugging the computer, television, shelving books (representational, too), and go for a walk, learn to dance, or smile kindly at a stranger. The real world is more marvellous than we know it to be - but we have to remember what it takes to be real, too. It takes the courage to just be.

Do what you are doing. Be what you are. Love what you are called to do and to be.

About the Author

Matthew Shanahan, M.Sc.

Matthew Shanahan, M.Sc., is a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the University of Western Ontario.

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