The Ladder of Abstraction

In order to note effectively, meditators must be taught to distinguish their experience from thoughts about their experience. To this end, it is useful to introduce the ladder of abstraction.

by Kenneth Folk

Lowest on the ladder of abstraction is raw experience. At this level, sensations can be clearly felt, but it would not be possible to assign a name to them. While it is possible to meditate (train in attention) at this level, it is difficult to remain on task as higher order processes have not yet come online.

Moving slightly higher on the ladder, it becomes possible to assign names to experiences. The sensation of itching can be labeled “itching,” and the activity of seeing can be noted as “seeing.” It is at this level that noting meditation becomes possible. Whatever disadvantages may accrue from rising up to this level of abstraction are outweighed by the feedback loop made possible by the labeling. Social meditation becomes possible here; with the advent of labeling comes the ability to communicate one’s experience to another. Language opens a window into the intimate experience of another human being.

Higher still on the ladder of abstraction it becomes possible to combine simple phenomena into compounds. Mind states, for example, are compound phenomena; discomfort, agitation, anxiety, and anger are similar phenomena distinguishable by the constellations of sensations that comprise each state. Fundamentally, mind states are patterns of physical sensations; the name we give to each discreet state is itself an abstraction.

Continuing up the ladder, thoughts can be objectified and labeled. When this is done continuously, simple thoughts don’t spin out into full-blown narratives.

At even higher levels of abstraction, complete narratives become available. Work at this level, while valuable, e.g., psychotherapy, is not meditation, and therefore beyond the scope of this essay. Much of the work of meditation involves learning to work at lower levels of abstraction, countering the natural tendency of modern humans to become lost in narrative while losing touch with the simpler phenomena of body sensations and mind states.