Myth #3: Non-conceptual Awareness is the Goal of Mindfulness
Those who claim that awareness is fundamentally non-conceptual, or can be trained to function without conception are lost in their own concepts about practice and are far from understanding reality of their minds. Conception and perception are so intimately merged that we cannot normally separate them, although we can come to distinguish them by insight. Take the example of looking at a tree. Perception sees only color, shape, depth and movement. You recognize these as the idea of a tree. You can distinguish the two levels of experience, but you cannot split them into separate moments of experience.
In ordinary life, the closest we come to non-conceptual awareness is in deep sleep, when we see something in the distance that we do not recognize, or when we encounter some new object completely unknown and mysterious to us. However, even in these two examples, the mind is busily applying the closest approximate memory constructs to try and “figure it out.” Additionally, some yogis with well-developed faculties can experience pure perception in that micro-moment between sensory impingement and mental recognition, and some meditators will sometimes experience longer states of consciousness where conceptual organization disappears from the mind without loss of mental perception.
However, such states have absolutely no priority of importance in the development of either samatha or satipatthana, whose development does not depend on loss of conceptual organization for maturing in either jhana or the cessation of mental formations. In the cultivation of jhana, all nimittas are in fact subtle mental formations (concepts) with the exception of the last formless absorption of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. The last formation that the mind experiences prior to magga-phala can be conceptual, otherwise it would not be possible to use mental notation all the way to nibbana, as attested to by both Mahasi Sayadaw and Taungpulu Sayadaw.
Concepts are not the enemy. The enemy is that confusion of mind that cannot distinguish the nature and presence of conception in the mind, and accepts the version of reality that as seen through the filter of concepts. It is this confusion that hides the true nature of both conception and perception, and not the presence of conceptual organization in the mind, which is inevitable, natural, necessary for normal functioning.