When it comes to personal and spiritual growth, it’s much more effective for me to process things I learn about myself non-cognitively. That is to say, process through feelings rather than thoughts. I find that when I slow down and digest new ideas in this way, they’re much more likely to stick and influence my actions.
As much as I’d like to believe my rational brain is running the show, it probably isn’t. As Elliot Aronson said. “Human beings aren’t rational animals; we’re rationalizing animals who want to appear reasonable to ourselves.”
I think it’s possible to learn in a non-rational way. This is what my meditation teachers* call non-cognitive processing. Here’s my understanding of how that works. The thoughts of which I’m conscious are the tip of the iceberg of subconscious thoughts, emotions, physical sensation, and other deep mysterious shit. Behind every thought, there is some kind of a corresponding physical sensation, which can be felt directly. Ignoring the thought to feel the physical sensation is the key to non-cognitive processing.
If I only pay attention to the thought and ignore the physical sensations, I will never have that deeper experiential understanding. I call this ‘being stuck in my head.’ I’m stuck in my head much more than I care to admit – so this is something I’ve been working on for a long time.
If I’m stuck in my head when I eat a taco, I am only focused on the thought ‘Tacos are delicious,’ and miss out on the celebration of flavor happening inside my mouth, as well as the rest of my body’s reaction to all that gustatory glory. I believe this is what Bruce Lee was talking about when he said, “Don’t think! Feeeeeel.”
This applies to more than just tacos and high kicks. I like to apply this most often to learning about myself, or helping others to learn about themselves. Here’s how I’ve been trying to do that: when I have some kind of insight, I pause. Typically, a cacophony of thoughts begin to arise – in other words, I start going into my head. I ignore those thoughts. I take a deep breath. And I sit with whatever sensations are arising. I bask in those sensations – even the painful ones (especially the painful ones).
Clients often ask me, “But how do I feel those sensations?” I respond by asking them, “Do you have a left hand?” They say “Yes.” I ask, “How did you know that?” Before the cognitive mind kicks in and says, Yes, I know I have a left hand, something else happens. My mind somehow puts its awareness onto the hand and feels its existence. The annoying truth is that we all know how to feel – and as soon as we start thinking about it, we’re not doing it.
The bigger the realization, the more time I spend basking in its associated feels. Sometimes I can pull this off, most of the time I can’t. When I do this, I’m much more likely to remember what I’ve learned, and act in accordance with that knowledge. When I don’t do this, I stay the same and don’t grow.
- I’m not rational
- I learn more effectively when I do so non-cognitively
- To learn non-cognitively, don’t think – feel