On the Relationship Among Objects, Self, Conceptualization and The Path

What follows is largely inspired, if not a restatement of a thread of thought from David Loy’s Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy

What is a table?  It’s that which is used to support things, like food.  To this end a table can be what we think of as a table, a box, a tree stump or even a rock.  What is a vehicle?  It is that which can be used for transportation.  What is a pen?  It is that which can be used for writing.  And so on.

What defines tables, vehicles, pens (and more) are not their attributes, but the purposes to which they are put.  As such, these “objects” are concepts that are defined according to our agendas.

We divide the world according to our agendas (intentions).  This division then becomes internalized; the mental process that takes in perception and classifies (according to our intentions) becomes so habitual, that we end up seeming to PERCEIVE these objects.  Thus, we look out onto the world and see a network of intentions instead of colors, shapes and sounds.

We see the world as a web of intentions — objects that can be used for various intents, means to various ends.  But whose intents?  Whose ends?  How can they be used?  All these questions imply an intender, an agent who has these goals, who can choose among these objects, who can manipulate them.  In short, this act of seeing the world as an intentional web defines and reinforces the “self”.

This is the relationship of conceptualization to the self.

If we agree that how we view the world (and specifically, how we view ourselves) is the source of much of our pain, then we want to know what we can do about this.  We ask because while we may agree with the above, we may find that we haven’t gained much by this intellectual understanding.

It’s easy to over-estimate intellectual understanding, yet a moment’s reflection shows how weak it can be.  Take death.  We all know we will die, yet how many of us are changed by this understanding?  Many of us act as if we will live forever.  Yet if we have a brush with death, we suddenly re-evaluate our lives and are shaken to the core.  Why?  This brush with death revealed nothing we didn’t already “know”.

This is because seeing trumps understanding.

So our task becomes to develop “wisdom” — getting the heart to know what the mind knows.

How do we do this?

First, we meditate.  In meditation, we experience an undoing of our conceptual filter.  We can witness experience before concepts kick in, and thus find that experience itself is equanimous, it’s only the concepts that ruin it.  Likewise, when we see the process of conceptualization in action, the illusion of “objects” being a coherent whole — of existing “out there” is weakened.

Yet meditation is not just something we do on the cushion; we strive to bring the meditative attitude to our daily lives.

Next, we guard our speech.  Words are verbalized concepts, so if we are not careful, our speech can reinforce the conceptualization we are working so hard to unravel.  Silence is golden, but if silence is impractical, a careful choice of words and mindfulness of our intentions while speaking can do wonders.

Finally, we address the intentions behind our acts.  Since we are trying to unravel the intentional agent behind all acts, we should choose to act in a way in which attachment to this agent is minimized.  Acting selflessly, forgiving, avoiding competition, putting others first, letting go of the results of our actions — all mindfully done — can transform our lives.

Further Reading

The Patina of Reality: A great article on how we conceptualize experience, “smoothing” out the reality to overlay our concepts.

Blind Spots: Another great article on how we can completely miss some things.  While the conceptual angle isn’t as heavily pushed, it’s there (IMO);

David Loy: Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy: A great detailed treatment on non-duality, and the basis for this rumination.


  1. Great post! I don’t know much about meditation, but I like your explanation of wisdom…getting your heart to know what your mind knows. This helps to explain why we often associate the word with experience, not just know-how or scholarly knowledge.

  2. Interesting post b.i.a.r.thanks. I think that conceptualisation is an imperfect feature of a limited brain. The worst form of communication is based on words.(aka language),  whether spoken, heard, written or read. 

    Words are a serialised and summarised description of real things or concepts. It is inevitable that these imperfect strings of words barely approximate the thing or the concept. In practice we substitute the words for what they try to express and we end up with imperfect, possibly biased or even faulty conceptualisation. 

    Your proposed remedy is effective: avoid words or use them carefully.  Prioritise the other senses that communicate the things and concepts directly: vision, sound, touch,  smell and any of the other dozen or so senses.

    If we do need words and careful usage isn’t an option, then using more of them is helpful. Most things and concepts get least distorted, i.e. best understood when debated abundantly by many.

  3. I have always rather liked the way Jung described the onset of the processes you describe:

    “His [humankind’s] consciousness therefore orients itself chiefly by observing and investigating the world around him, and it is to the latter’s peculiarities that he must adapt his psychic and technical resources. This task is so exacting, and its fulfilment so profitable, that he forgets himself in the process, losing sight of his instinctual nature and putting his own conception of himself in place of his real being. In this way he slips imperceptibly into a purely conceptual world where the products of his conscious activity progressively take the place of reality.”

    – Carl Gustav Jung [1956] The Undiscovered Self

    The task of the nondualist – whilst s/he still thinks there is some task that can be performed by them – is both to see through this false stratification of awareness, as well as to apprehend the non-local nature of awareness. So, on this point about wisdom, and what it is, one might say that for the nondualist it’s not yet another layer of thought to be retained in memory, or the heart, or the bones; rather is it more a way of being that accords with this understanding (of nonduality).

    Many thanks for this lovely and articulate piece; I greatly appreciated it.

    P.S. Non-duality (‘Advaita’) simply means ‘not two’. It is not strictly the positing of a monism.

    • Excellent passage from Jung!

      What do you mean by “non-local nature of awareness”?

      Also, good point on the P.S. The book cited in the article went into some detail about the “different kinds of non-duality” (ironic phrasing). One of the broad (but not exact) divisions was in simply denying duality (ala Buddhism, but not all Buddhisms) or positing monism (ala Hinduism).

      • Most of us, if we thought about it at all, might conclude that awareness is localised to ourselves, that in some unspecified way it channels to us and is apprehended in and about us. Either that, or awareness somehow reaches out from us to perceive the world, yet remains person-centric. In any experience of nonduality, these notions of localisation are undermined, and awareness has no point of centrality (thought of as a subject) around which it coalesces. It is as if the world and consciousness both exist, yet are identical, and the interplay of subject and object are known clearly as mental constructs alone.

      • Ok, now I understand — thanks! I think Loy discussed this and used this in his deconstruction of subject-object duality. It’s a key thing to keep in mind too because it’s so easy to take the idea of “subject” for granted and as a result, think we’re being mindful without realizing the one thing we’re adding onto perception.

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