Reality can't be captured in concepts.
After all, it's extremely unlikely that the human brain has evolved to be able to completely capture the nature of the reality that fashioned both the human brain and everything else in existence.
But this doesn't take away the utility of concepts for making sense of the world.
"Tree" is a useful way of describing the general nature of vegetative entities that vary tremendously in size, appearance, and such, yet share common characteristics.
However, trees are part of the natural world. They are obviously real.
Concepts that refer to entities which can't be observed by the human senses, or leave no trace via the effects they cause in the world (the quantum realm is an example of something unseen, yet decidedly real because of observable quantum effects) have less value.
Of course, I just made a value judgement about the value of concepts like "unicorn," "fairy," "devil," "god," "soul," "heaven," and other notions whose only discernible reality lies in the human mind.
Or better put, human imagination.
For many years I enjoyed a fantasy that I shared with billions of other religious believers: that the concepts of the faith I embraced at the time referred to things that were real, even though there was no evidence of them.
Karma. Astral plane. Divine light. Soul travel. Grace. God. Radiant form.
These and so many other concepts were repeated so often in books, talks, and other communications of the religion that I followed (Radha Soami Satsang Beas, or RSSB), members of RSSB come to view the concepts as something as real as gravity or earthquakes.
What helped me deconvert from this religious and mystical fantasy was a realization that I was tired of living so much in the world of abstract concepts. I longed for substance, of being grounded in here-and-now reality rather than floating in there-and-then spiritual stories.
A thoughtful comment by Ron E. on a recent blog post stimulated these reflections about concepts.
He made some good points in the comment about how religious and mystically inclined people chase after concepts that point to nothing substantial. They're merely ideas that stimulate other ideas in the minds of people who enjoy a good religious or mystical story, even if the story is almost certainly fiction.
Here's what Ron had to say.
Gillihan makes the point that “...We are constantly thinking: even if we decide to stop thinking, our minds will keep doing it anyway. It's what they are good at. If they aren't telling us stories in words, they're crafting made-up scenes or pulling up images from our memory banks. Our minds are actually so caught up in thinking that we don't realize we're thinking.”
Maybe then, we can point to thinking as being the main cause of much of our perceived problems. Leaving to one side at the moment that thinking and the abilities we have for planning and generally improving our lives are beneficial, some aspects of thinking definitely have their down sides.
I’m thinking!! how we accept certain words as truths, as being able to explain something that is purely inference. I’m thinking of terms such as spirit, mind, soul, self, ego, spiritual etc. All these terms are concepts, ideas that do not exist in the natural world unlike body, brain, sight, sound, pain, joy and so on – yes, the physical world.
It seems that we invent many words and spend the rest of our lives trying to think (or meditate) our way into experiencing the states that we believe they describe.
When it comes to mental phenomena it is of course convenient to label the cognitive processes, but perhaps we need to remember that they are just terms describing what the body and brain does naturally.
Otherwise, we can easily become slaves in believing that there is something ‘spiritual’ or ‘other worldly’ about them – and off we go chasing the myths we believe they describe.