“The words printed here are concepts. You must go through the experiences.” – Saint Augustine
Human beings rely on thinking. It’s responsible for human race’s ability to create the tools that have allowed us to dominate our planet and reshape it to suit our wants and needs. Much of thinking is conceptual. It is a mental manipulation of ideas and thoughts represented by concepts which are represented by words. We are reliant on our concepts to process information. This is and effective but very limited strategy.
We need these concepts because our minds are not capable of working with large amounts of information at the same time, as computers can. In fact, it’s been estimated that we are only able to work with about seven pieces of information at a time. That doesn’t give us much to work with unless we can somehow compress the information. In psychology this compressed information are called chunks. Words and concepts are examples of chunks.
There are many varieties of these chunks from the concrete, like ‘car’ to the abstract variety like ‘justice’. The word ‘chair’ is a concept, a chunk. It represents a wide range of different entities that have a common purpose to allow humans to sit comfortably. They range from solid wood hardback chairs, to patio chairs, to reclining chairs, etc. If we wish to think about chairs we are not capable of holding all the different kinds of chairs in our mind at once, so the concept chair is used instead and only comprises one piece of information. This frees the mind to consider other pieces in information along with the chair in processing information.
The use of these concepts has worked wonderfully for our everyday and scientific purposes. But, unfortunately they are interpreted as real, rather than the useful tools that they are. Concepts have no reality unto themselves. They are simply symbols. In fact they are always inherently incorrect. There are many, many, different objects that we call chairs, but the concept chair doesn’t really accurately describe any of them fully. There are many, many, different forms of actions or outcomes that we call justice, but the concept justice doesn’t really accurately describe any of them fully. So, the concept, although convenient, is never truly accurate or comprehensive.
These concepts can prove obstacles for creative thinking as they so compartmentalize things as to make it difficult to see them as something else, or reconfigure the concept to include or exclude various objects. The concepts themselves tend to separate things and thereby make it more difficult to see a wooden chair in the same category as a wood boat even though they are both objects created out of wood. We were once on a camping trip and ran out of gas. We had lots of camp stove fuel, but were unable for over an hour to realize that it was gasoline and could be used to fuel the vehicle. Once we broke through our conceptual fixatedness we filled the tank with camp stove fuel and drove off.
Concepts also freeze things in time which does not accurately portray the actual nature of the thing. This is most obvious with perishable items, like fruits and vegetables, although actually true for all things, they are impermanent and every changing. So, a lemon is soil and water, it’s a seed, it’s a tree, it’s a bud, it’s an unripe fruit, it falls from the tree, it is a ripe fruit, it begins to rot, it transforms back for simple chemicals, soil and water. The lemon is all of these things at some point or another. But the concept neglects the dynamic ever changing nature of the lemon and its connection to all other soil and water derived things.
If you follow this reasoning deeply you can begin to see that concepts and categories are artificial and, in essence, all things are the same thing. Not only is the lemon soil and water but so is the chair, and so is the car, etc. It is this problem with concepts that causes us to miss the oneness of all things. This is the cornerstone of enlightenment. Enlightenment experiences are highly varied, but they all have the common strain of an experience of the oneness of everything. Under normal conditions we miss this completely due to the operation of our compartmentalizing (dualistic) concepts.
The Buddha realized this and taught about it extensively. The “Diamond Sutra” is entirely concerned with how concepts can deceive and prevent you from attaining enlightenment. He stated that “the living beings to whom you refer are neither living beings nor not living beings. Why? Subhuti, all the different kinds of living beings the Buddha speaks of are not living beings. But they are referred to as living beings.” He is clearly recognizing that the concept ‘living beings’ can be seen in many different ways and just sticking to the actual concept itself is a deception or as he would say, a delusion.
To see the world as a Buddha you must fully understand a thing in all its glorious forms, varieties, and stages before the concept can be used appropriately. To see the world as a Buddha, concepts are the problem, not the solution.
“Thought can organize the world so well that you are no longer able to see it.” ― Anthony de Mello
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies