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Contemplation in action: How we make sense of experience

What happens as we let in, not too much, nor too little, but just the right amount of experience that we can handle? Then, we are able to stay with that experience, examine it, make sense of it.

In traditional Western thinking, the process of "making sense" is usually described as an intellectual process: "Analyzing" a situation is the equivalent of opening up a machine, and deconstructing it into its component parts to get an idea of what it is made of, and how it works.

Contemplative traditions have a different model for how we examine experience: Our understanding is based on grasping the whole of a situation, as a pattern. We make sense of it by comparing it to other patterns we know.

The above statement is very abstract. To make it more concrete, let's go back to the paragraph above it, where "making sense" is compared to deconstructing a machine. This is a metaphor. In other words, it is a way to redirect you to the experience of something you know about (deconstructing a machine) as a way to explain something that is otherwise difficult to grasp (how we analyze experience).

Within this perspective, it all eventually comes down to seeing patterns and comparing them to other patterns. Even an intellectual process eventually ends up there.

This is quite consistent with our current understanding of the brain. Our mind is geared to simplifying information in a way that it is actionable. It organizes raw information into patterns which are meaningful. But "meaningful" is not an abstract concept. "Meaningful" means that this pattern enables us to take action efficiently. For instance: "This is a dangerous situation", or "This is a friendly face".

The more intense the situation, the more our reactivity takes over: fight-or-flight reactions in times of perceived threat, or an irresistible urge to get closer when feeling attracted. It is clear that, at such moments, we are reacting to patterns that are vast oversimplifications of reality by the more primitive parts of our brain.

But, even when the more primitive circuits of the brain are counterbalanced by the broader perspective of our more mindful brain circuitry, it is still pattern recognition that is taking place. It is just more sophisticated pattern recognition, one that is able to sort through many more nuances and has stored more patterns to compare them to.

This suggests that new vistas can open up when we stop limiting our concept of "understanding" to intellectual activities that are the equivalent of deconstructing a machine. It is exciting to let ourselves observe our "making sense" from the perspective that it might have to do with pattern recognition, in crude as well as sophisticated ways.

So, what is the experience of pattern recognition? There’s something that feels right (or not) as we compare the felt experience to how we conceptualize it. It's not abstratct. As we pay attention to it, we can notice it bodily. It's the "Aha!" experience. You feel it.

This is resonance. Like vibrating in sync. Or, when it doesn't feel right, experiencing the dissonance ("it doesn't sound right").

This “feels right” is not a measure of how objectively correct our description of the event is. It is a way to capture the subjective experience we have of this event.

Little by little, as we digest this new experience, all of this starts to "make sense". That is, the new experience gets integrated within the network of our other experiences and the worldview that we derive from them., i.e. it gets integrated within our neural networks.

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