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Men Therapy Session

Experience and Its "Ingredients": Shape, Color, Texture, and Direction


“Consciousness is shaped by the senses and their corresponding objects, colored by pleasure and pain, textured by the symbolic expressions of perception, and guided by what has been learned in the past, by what is chosen in the present, and by what is acted out in the future.”

-Andrew Olendzki (Unlimiting Mind, 2010)



     All of mental life can be categorized into a few phenomenological groups. These groups cover all manners of conscious and non-conscious experience. The means by which our experience of life is organized is a function of the mind and operates as a process of ever-becoming movement. The change that is seen in daily life is merely the outer edge of a totality of flux and emergence. Examples of flux seem obvious at certain levels of analysis – such as the level illustrated by Heraclitus' river that always and never changes, for example – but the dynamism inherent in the nodes of identity, shifts of predictability, and chasms of experiential uncertainty found within the mind are not so easily illuminated. On the thresholds bridging such mental phenomena – the slivers of experience that silently transmute every moment from birth to death – sit a possibility of awakening to a freedom of choice. Freedom seems, after all, to be best understood as the capacity to choose how to respond to what happens in experience. The capacity to sit with the dynamic flux of seemingly divisible sections of life provides one with the power of living without automatic self-interference which is the velocity of experience. Experience and its “ingredients” – those few phenomenological groups into which all of lived experience can be categorized – can be noticed, monitored, and understood through the exercise of this freedom.


      Thinking of fewer categories can be helpful to organize experience. This effort to organize types should be clearly demarked from an effort to describe the content of experience. A descriptive analysis of the contents of experience would arguably fill a book of infinite pages. The act of attempting to describe as much of experience as possible is a noble pursuit, but one that we may leave to experimental scientists and philosophers. Considering that the primary subject of inquiry within a therapeutic context is generally the experience of “right now”, the scope of this discourse can be outlined as phenomenological and process-oriented. Detailing the specifics of experience (i.e. describing all the contents of experience) would be laborious to say the least. Not only that, it may not even benefit us all that much to do so. Instead of slamming our heads against the opaque issue of “what” experience is, a wise method may include a look at “how” experience constellates itself the way it does. This type of verbiage (“…experience constellates itself…”) is crucial: the language we use to encounter experience significantly determines the manner in which we relate to it.


      The exploration of the mind essentially points to the efforts to gain (self-) knowledge. There are two basic ways one can attempt to gain knowledge. Inductive Methods are aimed at exploring all possible particulars in order to outline an inferred theory of universals while Deductive Methods include the development of a broader theory of reality about which one attempts to find examples. In other words, either the big picture is constructed only after the details have been collected and analyzed (induction) or the big picture is used as a pre-constructed map to find the shape and contour of the particulars (deduction). In the case of fruitfulmental investigation, it may be found that the inductive sequence of experiencing what there is, noting its qualities, and inducing a set of experiential categories is a method of sound inquiry. From this sequence, one can decide for oneself whether or not a certain experience is considered this type or that type. Handling life in this manner allows one the freedom to choose his/her own stance toward experience itself rather than simply staking out habits of reacting to the content of experience. Although, each individual could be considered the “expert” of his/her world, the categories that I consider to be the basic “ingredients” of experience are presented below (Satipatthana Sutta; Olendzki, 2010):


·       Conscious awareness (which is the function of the mind that allows one to have an experience)

·       The 5 sense organs (eyes, ears, skin, nose, and tongue) and the objects they perceive (sight, sound, touch, odor, and flavor); and a 6th “mental organ” and its “mental objects” (the mind and contents of the mind) – the contact of these organs with their objects within conscious awareness constitutes the “raw data” that shape our experience of reality

·        A feeling tone that color moments of experience with assigned values of “pleasant”, “unpleasant”, or “neutral” (i.e. “pleasurable”, “painful”, or “neither”)

·       An perceptual-interpretive function of the mind that assimilates, analyzes, and accommodates for the incoming experiential data thus constructing a texture of experience

·       Patterns of personality that recursively guide the trajectory of experience – these patterns consist of intentional stance(states), behavior­ (mental, verbal, and physical expressions), and disposition (traits)


Taking these categories up for oneself will provide the opportunity to confirm or deny the validity of such a system for each individual. This is presented here as a tentative and working model of experience. My personal experimentation with it has led to a reasonable degree of validation and satisfaction, but seeing these particular categories as including more, less, or altered levels of organization may allow others to find a more personal degree of comfort. At any rate, taken together, this method of grouping phenomena can be used to categorize any and all contents of any experience.