What is trackable is tractable - how clear seeing helps
This is the second of three articles heavily indebted to meditation teacher Shinzen Young, whose work you can find at https://www.shinzen.org/.
What is sensory clarity?
A key part of meditation and mindfulness - both the techniques themselves, and how they're used in the course of our lives - is to develop sensory clarity. When we see clearly, we can act wisely. The opposite of this clear seeing is confusion - being mistaken about what's going on, and acting from this place of misunderstanding. You can probably think of a time when you did something that seemed totally sensible at the time but turned out to be a big mistake, because you were mistaken about what was going on.
For example, I've noticed that when I have too much going on, and my stress levels cross a certain threshold, I tend to lose perspective on whether a problem is a big deal or a trifle. Before I noticed this pattern, I would take my assessment of the severity of the problem completely seriously - this seems like a disaster, so I'd better treat it like one! And then I'd wonder why nobody else could see this world-shattering disaster that I was grappling with. These days, I'm much more likely to notice when I'm in one of these slumps, and I know that my own judgement is probably a bit wonky, so I tend to ask a friend or colleague for their perspective before getting too invested in solving a problem that might actually not be worth the time and effort to resolve.
Sensory clarity can also help to increase our enjoyment of life. As we learn to tune in to our present-moment experience more precisely, our sensory experience comes alive - colours are more vibrant, scents and flavours richer and more interesting. Through meditation we can, in effect, learn to see the world in HD. (Maybe 4K is a better analogy these days!)
The meditative skill of sensory clarity has three major aspects, which we'll now consider in turn. We could give each aspect a few names; I've picked the ones starting with 'd' for all three, because I like alliteration, but I'll also offer an alternative in each case. The names don't really matter provided you get a general sense of the concepts behind them.
Distinguishing (resolution, discrimination)
(Hopefully it goes without saying, but 'discrimination' is intended in the sense of 'recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another', as opposed to 'prejudice'. Nevertheless, 'discrimination' has so much baggage attached to it that I'll stick with 'distinguishing' for now. If you're scientifically inclined, 'resolution' might also work for you. If it makes you think of how many pixels you can fit onto your screen, that's maybe not so helpful, because that's closer to another quality of sensory clarity, 'depth'.)
A key part of sensory clarity is to be able to make distinctions between different aspects of our experience. Often, we will experience a strongly negative situation as a kind of giant hairball of nastiness, where the whole thing is bad, and the badness seems huge and potentially even overwhelming. But if we look more closely, we can start to break it down into its components.
One way of doing this looks at our experience as being made up of these six aspects:
(If that list seems incomplete to you, this might be an interesting subject of contemplation for a meditation practice...)
So part of the art of clear seeing is being able to distinguish these different aspects of our experience. If we do this, that giant hairball of nastiness starts to break down into several strands of nastiness - and some of the power of that unpleasantness falls away. Shinzen Young likes to say that when we see a situation without clarity, it's like the unpleasantness multiplies - so if you have 10 units of unpleasant physical sensation, 10 units of unpleasant emotional sensation, and so on across the six categories, you end up with 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 = 1,000,000 units of unpleasantness. Gah! But if you see a situation with clarity - seeing the physical sensations as physical sensations, the mental talk as mental talk, and the two being separate - then it's more like the unpleasantness adds together, so instead you end up with 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 = 60 units of unpleasantness. A reduction from one million to sixty - not bad!
The key point here is that we become overwhelmed by an experience precisely at the point when we lose our sensory clarity - when we can no longer distinguish the different threads of our experience from one another. At that moment, we shift from 'this part of my experience is bad' to 'everything is bad', and that's too much to handle all at once. By training in sensory clarity, we can maintain this distinguishing ability in more difficult circumstances, and thus it takes more to overwhelm us.
The second component of sensory clarity is how able you are to detect the various comings and goings in your experience.
Suppose you're trying to detect communications from aliens in outer space. So you get a big dish and point it straight up, and then listen to see what you can pick up. The trouble is, the aliens are probably far away, so maybe their signals are really faint. If your receiver is quite noisy, you might miss the signal because it's swamped by noise. On the other hand, maybe the aliens communicate via Galactic Twitter, so their signals are very short-lived. If your receiver is only switched on occasionally, or if it takes you a couple of minutes to notice the signal coming in, you'll probably miss them because they came and went before you realised what was happening.
In a similar way, many of the sensations that make up our experience are either faint, short-lived, or both, and as a result, we don't notice them at the conscious level. However, our bodies are much more switched on than our conscious minds, so we tend to pick up a huge amount of information unconsciously. If you've ever found yourself feeling a bit down after spending a few days around someone who's constantly complaining about everything, you might not be able to pinpoint a specific moment when your mood changed for the worse, but you've clearly been influenced by that drip, drip, drip of negativity nonetheless.
I borrowed another catch-phrase from Shinzen Young for the subtitle of this article: 'What is trackable is tractable.' In other words, when large parts of our experience are totally unconscious, it's very difficult for us to work with that material in a conscious way, because we don't even know it's there. People who meditate for a while often find themselves noticing unhelpful patterns of behaviour coming to light which they'd never consciously recognised before; until that happens, there's no way to change that pattern of behaviour for the better, because you literally have no idea it's happening.
So improving our detection capabilities is another major asset, both for our meditation practice and our lives - as we become more aware of what's going on, we bring light to previously dark corners of our experience.
The final quality of sensory clarity is depth, which is essentially the thoroughness with which the details of an experience are perceived.
A new meditator trying out mindfulness of breathing for the first time may well experience the breath at a largely conceptual level. 'Breathing in now... Breathing out now... Breathing in now... Breathing out now...' As the depth of sensory clarity increases, the meditator will start to notice the physical body sensations making up the breath, which are much richer and more complex than the simple sense of 'breathing in, breathing out'. And as clarity increases still further, the meditator will start to find that those physical sensations are constantly changing, moment to moment, in a beautiful, ungraspable, dance-like flow.
In a sense, depth and detection go hand-in-hand, because as the depth of our clarity increases, we will start to detect more and more in our experience; and as we detect more and more, we have further opportunities to increase the depth of our clarity.
We can look at this like our experience is a deep lake, witnessed on a dark night. At first, maybe we can only see what's right on the surface; nearly the whole lake is hidden from view. Then we switch on a torch, and point it at the water. Now the surface is illuminated, and we can maybe see a little way below the surface as well - so some of what was previously unknown to us now starts to become available, although it's still indistinct. As our torch becomes stronger and brighter, we can see further and further down into the lake, maybe eventually reaching all the way to the bottom.
Practising sensory clarity
Any time you're looking at your immediate sensory experience, with the intention of seeing in detail what's going on, you're practising sensory clarity. If you find it helpful to break things down in terms of the six categories described above, great, but if trying to hold a list in your head while practising gets in the way, it's not necessary. Simply keep coming back to the present moment each time the mind wanders away, and endeavour to be specific about what's going on.
Much like the way that concentration power (see the previous article) can be developed either with a narrow focus or a broad focus, we can also bring sensory clarity to all aspects of our experience, great or small. Many people like to work with the breath, because it's easy to find and doesn't need any external props or setup time, and it's constantly changing so there's endless richness to be explored. Alternatively, if you'd rather go for a broader focus, you could work with the sensations of the whole body, or even the total field of awareness. My Audio page has guided practices for mindfulness of breathing and open awareness to help you get started.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!