Can words really describe an experience?

During my Alexander Technique teacher trainers’ course last week we were asked to think of how we could translate the experience of the Alexander Technique in words; if it is possible to do so accurately; and if it is desirable to do so. How can words be used as a tool to truly describe an experience?

How is choosing your words as a tool in meditation important?

This exercise got us thinking about the power of words, as well as the place of words. When do words fall short? When do they become dangerously full of themselves? As my fellow students were speaking I started to make many parallels to meditation and how hard it is to explain the experience one lives when they are deep in the stillness of the Self.

Words as a mere tool

I see both the Alexander Technique lessons that I receive and the practice of deep meditation first and foremost as a deep experience of the Self. As such, it is impossible to truly explain accurately this experience by using mere words. It is important to give words their “right place” when using them descriptively. They can be a helpful tool that bring people closer to the experience but they must by all means remain just that: a tool.

When words become more than a tool

When a teacher gives much more weight to the words used rather than the experience had, they run the danger of clinging onto their words and teaching in a dogmatic way. Whats more is that if a student is not experiencing exactly what the teacher described, the student can start to believe that their own experience is “wrong” and may decide to give up on their path. When words are used as a tool, though, and not as “the truth” they can allow the student room to have their own experience and brave the path ahead.

When words become empty

On the other hand, words can also go to the other extreme and become empty. If the teacher always uses the habitual ones to guide you in the practice, they are no longer choosing them. They use them out of habit and thus they start to lose their meaning. For instance, the meditation teacher who says “empty your mind” on repeat while their mind is running through their long to do list. When a teacher uses their words out of habit without putting weight behind them, they run the danger of teaching on automatic pilot missing out on true presence.

But what is one to do then? Can one truly explain the deep experience of meditation with words or is it a mistake to even try to do so? A Zen Master put this beautifully:

When I talk, you do not understand me.

When I do not talk, you understand even less.

Zen master

As teachers, we must try to find the right words to explain the path of how to experience the Self. But we must always remember that words are not and will never be enough. Words do have power and thus it is important to not get over attached to the ones we choose, or else we run the danger of excluding multi-faceted experiences. Nonetheless, words with no weight behind them become empty words that have lost their meaning and do not help the student advance. So may we learn to use them simply as a tool, to be playful with them, to choose them with care and to not be afraid to let them go.

About the author

Pinelopi specializes in Hatha Yoga. Her yoga Kreuzberg Berlin classes are open for and welcoming to beginners. She offers Berlin business yogaprivate yoga classes for people struggling with chronic pain, yoga courses, retreats and workshops.  She is currently deepening her knowledge through Leslie  Kaminoff’s Yoga Anatomy course and training to become an Alexander Technique teacher.

Terminology Tuesday: are mindfulness and meditation the same thing?

I often hear people use the terms mindfulness and meditation interchangeably. Are they, though, the same thing?

So let’s look at these two terms.

Mindfulness

photo by Fern

I define mindfulness as the practice of having one’s mind fully present in any activity or inactivity that they are performing. The English term was originally created by the Buddhist scholar T.W. Rhys Davids at the beginning of the 20th century. Later on, this term was used by Jon Kabat-Zinn in his popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. He defines mindfulness as ‘the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.’

Many mindfulness practices increase the ability to attain this state of mind. One example is the practice of mindfulness walks whilst using a modified version of  the 54321 technique.  This is one of my favorite mindfulness practices that I always include in our English Yoga Berlin retreats.

Meditation

Meditation, on the other hand, is the practice of letting the mind quiet down from thoughts and worries. It is experiencing ones’ own presence beyond the mind. It requires sitting (or if necessary laying down) and purposefully creating a space to practice. In the Vedantic tradition, there are two types of yogic meditations: saguna and nirguna.

In the saguna meditation, the meditator focuses on one thing only (be it a mandala, the breath, a candle flame). The meditator keeps the mind anchored on this focal point. Think of the mind as a bird that flies from one thought to the next.  Eventually the bird gets tired and needs to rest on a branch. The one focal point of saguna meditation is the branch for the bird-mind to rest on. In nirguna meditation, the meditator focuses on abstract concepts that are indescribable, such as Existence, Cosmic Love, Consciousness and fuses themselves into the object of meditation.  In both ways of meditating the focus is to sharpen the mind into being able to focus on and experience only one thing,  be it something concrete or something abstract.

So what is the difference?

The main difference between mindfulness and meditation is that mindfulness can be applied to any activity and although the mind is fully present in what it is doing, there is still motion in the action of doing. Whilst in meditation one creates a space  where one sits and practices bringing the mind to an inactivity so that it remains settled only on one thing. Of course, a meditation practice will increase your mindfulness awareness in your everyday activities, and a mindfulness practice, on the other hand, will  also help you settle in quickly into meditation. These two go hand in hand strengthening each other, which I believe, is why people often confuse them.

Pinelopi specializes in Hatha Yoga. Her yoga Kreuzberg Berlin classes are open for and welcoming to beginners. She offers Berlin business yogaprivate yoga classes for people struggling with chronic pain, yoga courses and workshops.  She is currently deepening her knowledge through Leslie  Kaminoff’s Yoga Anatomy course and training to become an Alexander Technique teacher.