Have you ever met a chair that wasn’t a chair?

You may have heard that in deep states of meditation, the mind becomes quiet and still. What does that actually mean? At first glance, it means that the incessant, internal yammering dies down to an intermittent whisper. The endless inner monologue, the stream of ideas and memories and concerns, slows to a trickle and finally dries up, at least for a short time.

This is certainly a big part of it, but the “peace that surpasses understanding” runs deeper than a derailed train of thought.

When I was in graduate school, in the Embodied Cognition research lab at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, I encountered a concept that became handy for understanding and describing the stillness of meditation: affordance. The Cambridge dictionary defines affordance as:

a use or purpose that a thing can have, that people notice as part of the way they see or experience it

Don’t be fooled by the fancy parlance. The word refers to something you experience nearly every minute of every day. When you encounter any object in your surroundings, you quickly become aware of its possible uses. You immediately grasp the usual ways in which you can interact with it. A cup can be used to store and drink water. A gravel path can be walked upon. A pencil is for writing. If you’re walking through the forest and need a place to sit down, a tree stump looks good.

To employ the somewhat stiff, academic term, the stump “affords” you a place to sit. Sitting is one of its many “affordances.” The pencil affords writing. The path affords walking.

What does this have to do with meditation? Well, I began to notice something fascinating whenever my mind became deeply still. I stopped sensing the affordances of objects around me.

To better describe this, I should elaborate on how we sense affordances at all. If you’ve never lost this sense, it may be hard to imagine being conscious without it. Encountering a foreign object is perhaps the next best thing. Imagine walking into a boutique gift shop and finding a strange object on the shelf. You’ve never seen anything like it. It’s odd shape and unusual coloring is matched by its baffling design and apparent lack of purpose. What on Earth is it? The question following closely on its heels: what do I do with it? In other words, what are its affordances?

If you want a reminder of what this feels like, there’s a forum on Reddit entirely devoted to identifying odd things: r/whatisthisthing. Here’s an example:

Found in a playground. Blue orb with a hole on the bottom and one on the side. Does not move.
byu/MissBasstastic3 inwhatisthisthing

Before you start turning the object around this way and that, you may experience a moment–a brief, precious moment–in which you see the object just as it is. I have a Buddhist text on my bookshelf with the title “As It Is.” It’s a key idea. The idea of experiencing the world “as it is” means, in part, to experience it without imagining how you can interact with it. Our sense of the uses afforded by everything we encounter becomes an added layer of perception. When that sense is gone, the world is… different. This is one of the deep ways in which the mind can inhabit stillness. Not only is the inner monologue on hiatus, but this knee-jerk, inner experience of affordances is momentarily halted.

You can look at a chair, and instead of sensing a place where you can sit, you just see what you are seeing. There’s no other way to put it, because descriptions, definitions, commentary… they all cover over perception like a waking dream.

What’s the point of all this? What good does it do to see a “chair” and not immediately think, “chair?” That’s a difficult question to answer. I can only say that it’s transformative, that it both answers and dissolves the question. The question itself is about affordances, ironically. Of what use is a moment in which I’m free of perceiving everything in terms of its uses?

I can, however, offer a little anecdote in response. Once while meditating under a tree in a field of grass, I gazed at the space in front of me, and a spider crawled into my field of view. The oddest thing happened. I wasn’t afraid… at all. The spider got closer and closer. It eventually crawled over my leg. I certainly registered what was happening, but the mental activity that would ordinarily define the spider as an intolerable “creepy crawly” simply did not happen. In that moment was just the seeing.

If you can look at a chair and not see and sense everything you know about chairs, you can look at a spider, or any other thing for that matter, and see it as if for the first time.

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