If you’ve been hanging around in awakening circles, you might’ve heard the term direct experience or actual experience thrown around.
Direct experience points to what is experienced in this moment.
Not in thought. Not in the future or in the past. Right here, right now.
Direct experience is simply:
- See (images)
- Hear (sounds)
- Feel (sensations)
Then there’s thought, which is often an obstacle when inquiring into the sense of self, separate self or ego.
You can still use thought in everyday life, but for this specific application, it is rarely helpful.
What is Not Direct Experience?
When you think of an apple, that’s not direct experience. You can’t grab it and eat it. You can sort of feel it in a vague way, but it’s not a tangible thing.
When you remember a song you like, that’s not direct experience either.
This distinction between what is experienced now vs. thought is important. Once you truly see it, you realize that you’ve spent most of your life in a conceptual la-la land.
Why is Direct Experience Important?
In terms of awakening, it’s vital, because it allows you to see how the illusion of self is created.
When two or more physical senses come together, the illusion begins forming. This is especially true when seeing, hearing, and feeling start dancing together.
For example, you might imagine what you’re doing tomorrow (see/image), you feel apprehensive (feel/sensation), and you say to yourself that you wish wouldn’t have to do it (hear/internal talk), then you feel sad (feel/sensation).
And all of the above feels (feel/sensation) like it’s happening to someone (feel and see/image), referring to a self.
This often happens in the blink of an eye, which is why it’s so easy to miss, yet it is there for anyone to see.
How to Practice Direct Experience
There’s a whole meditative approach that focuses on this, it’s called mindfulness or Vipassana.
However, to start, begin to notice what is here right now.
Listen to the sounds for a few seconds.
See the colors around you.
Feel the sensations in your body without going into story.
If you have trouble staying with direct experience, you can label see, hear, or feel. If you see a cup, say ‘see’ silently. Then look at the cup for a few seconds.
Then if your attention is drawn to a sound, say ‘hear’, and listen for a few seconds.
That’s the simple approach. Let’s take a few examples.
How do you know what color your pants are right now?
Did you think about what you put on earlier today? If so, that is not direct experience. Instead, look at your pants. See, right now, what color they are.
Now, look at something else in the room. Notice the color and shape. Then close your eyes and see the same object. Do this a few times to get familiar with how they feel and look different.
Listen to something , and then stop the sound. Now remember the sound.
Note the difference.
You could use your phone’s alarm clock for this, or a ringtone, or music, or the sound of your voice humming.
Anything works as long as you can start and stop the sound, and then remember hearing it.
Avoid This Mistake
As you get used to this, it’s easy to slip into a kind of conceptual direct experience, where you’re thinking about the present moment without noticing it.
It often comes with a feeling of impatience or boredom. This is even more likely if you’re looking into the illusion of self. Instead of looking in direct experience, you’re thinking about what you’re seeing.
This is why it’s helpful to get feedback on this, even if you’re just exploring this with a friend.
To avoid this, start labeling as I mentioned above. With time, you will catch yourself getting lost in thought.
Direct experience is seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, and smelling.
It’s really that simple, yet staying in the present is challenging, at least at first. That’s why this requires practice.
Start by sitting alone for a few minutes each day and noticing what you see, hear, and feel. As you gain proficiency, take it with you during your during the day.
At first, you may only be able to do it while you’re washing dishes or walking in nature, but as you practice, you will eventually be able to do it almost anywhere.
Even if you can’t do it in motion, you can stop for a minute, and take a meditation break.
If you have any questions about this, feel free to send me an email.
All the best,
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