The Yin and Yang of Explanation and Experience
We all want an explanation for our lives, our behavior, our thoughts, and for how the world works. We search it out, we think about it, we observe our lives and those of one’s close to us. We are told it is possible to figure things out if we just think about it long enough. We are told we can figure out problems in life through reason alone. Everything has a place, a name, and a meaning, so we must work to define all of that in order to feel secure in this existence. Much of this is true, but it must be tempered. I believe that we struggle in our modern day society because we are not tempering this way of approaching the world. It is like a Yin with no Yang. We need more balance, but balance of what?
As much as it is important to explore our lives, examining them for truth, understanding and meaning, it is also important to live them out fully – to experience them. For every examination of one’s life, there must be some raw experience that needs no explanation. I do think we as a society are trying to have more meaningful experiences, which is why I believe Yoga is one example. We are looking for something that brings about a sense of aliveness without the mind putting that experience into a category. It is still helpful to eventually categorize, but there is a time and a place. We have over-emphasized “figuring life out” with an obsession on science and medical problem solving. This way of thinking stems from Descartes who professed, “I think, therefore I am.” That is true but was not the whole picture. He missed his actual phenomenal experience. Think of other organisms that are not always thinking about their existence, but are existing nonetheless. We are also organisms existing and experiencing in our every day lives.
If I continuously categorize and explain my existence in terms of rational thought, I never allow myself to actually experience. It is like a process that eats itself – all you have left is a bunch of words. But we do have experiences, and many of them are in some ways unexplainable, or mysterious, or unconscious. They cannot always be explained by basic rational thought, but must be interpreted on the background of one’s history, personality, and experience. We need both rational thought and experience to be full human beings. There is nothing wrong with categorizing our own experiences but we must be careful that we allow ourselves the freedom and mystery to be surprised at the deepening of these experiences and how our interpretations of them can and do change.
I see the problem of living with one and not the other all the time in work with clients (and in my own life). People get stuck on a problem and obsess about figuring it out, yet never really come to any conclusion or understanding of that experience. They might find some symptom alleviation or temporary relief, but they have not really found what feels like an answer to their question. That is because they are only looking for answers utilizing rational thought. We are not just thoughts running around. We are deeply felt experiences running around as well. There is often a felt sense to our experiences that is not easily explained, especially using deductive reasoning.
I will often ask someone what their reaction was to something which can include thoughts, feelings, and sensations. I will watch them “think about” what they felt or still feel. They are now almost guessing and will even say, “maybe I feel like….”. I will point out that they are guessing and yet they are most definitely having a feeling or felt sense about something. It almost always starts out mysterious. But trying to figure it out by thinking about it is backwards. If we actually sit with the felt sense of our experience long enough, words and images will arise into our conscious mind, giving us the information and understanding we desire. I’m not saying thought isn’t a part of this, or that integrating what one finds using thought is not important, but I am saying that many times we must listen to our physical experience for the answers.
I’m not saying anything weird or crazy here. It’s a matter of pointing out how we already live. There is research and plenty of writing on this out there if you want to read more about it, but to me, it is about listening to your own experience. Observe yourself. Does rational thought always give you what you need? Doesn’t your head hurt after hours of obsessing, worrying, and thinking? You are missing a whole aspect to your existence — your experience. Listen to it, ask it questions, build a relationship with it.
Lastly, this all translates into your everyday life by allowing yourself to be one who experiences. Embracing your experience allows you to just be in the moment, allows you to enjoy time with your children, family, friends, activities, and the mundane aspect of work. Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to think about your life, the mind won’t just quit this and neither do we want it to. But we also need to just enjoy the sunshine and not analyze why, or sometimes we need to just be angry experientially and not think about that anger and where it comes from to make it go away. There is a time for that, but a lot of times the thinking should come later. The understanding and categorizing should come later, after we have allowed ourselves to have the space for the mystery and rawness of the “isness” of our immediate experience. Yin (explanation) and Yang (experience).