What is the Present Moment?

| November 13, 2017 | 36 Comments

The present moment, the “now” is often made the focus of our intention and practice, for many very good reasons. In this video we will turn to some of the more philosophical aspects of the present moment, in order to investigate certain problems that arise with it.

At the end we will turn to practical implications of these problems.

This is a bit of a propeller-head episode, so it may be a video you will need to watch more than once!

For a good introduction to the physics of time, I’d suggest physicist Sean Carroll’s book From Eternity to Here.

Tags: ,

Category: Videos

Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma. He posts videos at Doug's Secular Dharma on YouTube. Some of his writing can be found at academia.edu.

Comments (36)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Jason Malfatto says:

    Thanks, Doug.

    I was recently reminded of Wilfred Sellars’ distinction between two images of the world: the manifest and the scientific. I assume you’re already familiar with it, but as a reminder and summary for other readers: the manifest image concerns self-awareness of thoughts, sensations, and intentions, whereas the scientific image concerns physical objects and processes.

    That said, I associate Buddhist speak of “present moment” more with the manifest image, not so much with the scientific image, whereas much of this episode – particularly where you bring physical theories of time to bear on the concept – struck me as a kind of scientific analysis. That approach is certainly valid and in line with a lot of modern thinking, but then (to switch gears from analytic to continental philosophy) it comes as no surprise to me that Stephen Batchelor and other modern Western Buddhists find kinship in phenomenology, as it seems to better preserve the manifest image, which according to Sellars emerged during an earlier, pre-modern epoch in history.

    On a more pragmatic note: what are the effects of focusing on the present moment? What problem(s) does the practice solve? Assuming there are benefits to it, what are its costs and how do they compare? When framed this way (albeit, still within a philosophical & normative context), it seems like science still has a lot to say on the matter, though now the levels of analysis that seem most apt to me are those of the social and biological sciences (e.g. clinical & cognitive psychology and neuroscience).

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Oh sure Jason. As I think I said in the video, the practice of focusing on the present moment is valuable, in particular in getting out of the future and past-oriented proliferation that we spend most of our time in. I was very much interested in a scientific analysis of time in this video, just to pry it back a bit and keep us from then clinging to the present.

      Wilfrid Sellars’s distinction is apt here, though for him phenomenological categories are also problematic: they are often used as privileged epistemically, which Sellars considers part of “the myth of the given”. For Sellars, we aren’t presented with images and sounds. We are presented with things and persons. Phenomenological categories are basically theoretical constructs as well, for him. (FWIW).

      • Jason Malfatto says:

        Doug: I actually just learned about “the myth of the given” over the weekend, so I haven’t fully digested it yet. That said, if I recall correctly Lakoff & Johnson’s critique of Western philosophy (Philosophy in the Flesh), then cognitive scientists these days no longer have much use for a hard distinction between concepts and percepts (i.e. objects of perception), which seems in line with Sellars. Still, I’m not sure that a phenomenologist (like Merleau-Ponty, to whom Lakoff & Johnson give credit) would necessarily disagree.

  2. David S says:

    Hi Doug, I was pleased to hear you speak of “the present moment” as a construct involving the past.

    IMO, this phrase “the present moment” is overly used in western meditation circles. What do you think of the idea that this is a poor translation of ‘sati’, moving away from: “to remember” or “to recollect”? These 2 phrasings actually represent the aspect of memory much more clearly.

    The only usefulness of speaking of “the present moment” I can see may be for teaching beginning students what to focus their minds upon, the incoming perceptual stream more than one’s ruminations. It acts as a starting point even if it is inaccurate. Although, I think if the broader teaching community incorporated an understanding of how doing such a practice affects the processes of consciousness, we could drop the phrase in favor of a more process oriented one.

    It seems to me one of the gainful effects of meditation is to break the rumination of one’s thinking patterns from installing themselves into short term memory and thereafter into one’s habit patterns, thereby causing a temporary release from those patterns, while reinforcing a re-prioritization to take place.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hi David,

      I guess any instruction can be useful or counterproductive given the particular person and event. It’s not that I have anything against using the present moment as a basis of meditation practice, it’s just that one should not therefore end up hypostasizing or clinging to that moment as somehow special. But whether or not it’s special doesn’t diminish its potential usefulness in various forms of meditative practice.

      At any rate, I doubt that “the present moment” is a translation of “sati”, which as you note if anything means “to remember”. The point of focusing on the present moment is that it gets us out of the mental ruminations on past and future (e.g., regrets and worries), as you note.

      • David S says:

        Yes, the changing nature of consciousness doesn’t leave much to grasp onto. I like how you spoke of how one could end up grasping at the present moment.

        I’ve found the repetition of this phrase by many teachers rather silly and misleading. It just makes me think they don’t know what they are talking about. It is unnecessarily loaded down and leads to all sorts of useless notions.

        Oh… right, of course it’s not a translation of sati, mindfulness is. My mistake. Do you know the history of the phrase “the present moment”? Has it been used for a long time or did it come into use more recently?

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          I’m not sure of the history of that phrase in particular in Buddhist practice. It’s an interesting question! I’d be interested to know if someone has written about it.

          Nevertheless I think the essence of the phrase goes back to the early texts, in that there was a focus on “only the sensed” in the phrase of the Bāhiya Sutta: avoid mental proliferation.

          • David S says:

            “…focus on “only the sensed”…”

            Now, this is exactly what I’m talking about! Instructions that speak of the process and are precise. Not so hard is it?

            • Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

              I think the nature of time was something that kept the post-Canonical commentators on the Abhidharma awake at night — as they tried to make systematic philosophy out of notions like impermanence. Both Theravada abd Sarvastivada commentators seem to have come up with the idea that the flow of time can be broken up into instants or moments. This, I think, resulted from the same kind of speculation that led to the paradox of Zeno’s arrow. See, for example the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:

              “The Buddhist schools used the characteristics of conditioned phenomena as a hermeneutic tool with which to reinterpret impermanence in terms of momentariness. The Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāṣika proposed a fully-fledged doctrine of momentariness according to which all physical and mental phenomena are momentary. The Sarvāstivādins use the term “moment” (kṣaṇa) in a highly technical sense as the smallest, definite unit of time that cannot be subdivided, the length of which came to be equated with the duration of mental events as the briefest conceivable entities. . . . This usage presupposes an atomistic conception of time, for time is not reckoned indefinitely divisible. Indeed, the term kṣaṇa is often discussed in juxtaposition to the concepts of material atoms and syllables, which are likewise comprehended as indivisible.” https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/abhidharma/

              I tried to post a take on “the present moment” that may focus on “only the sensed” (thanks to Doug for this term and the Bāhiya Sutta; I was familiar with neither, though it didn’t add a lot the what Doug wrote about the practical consequences of trying to live in the moment. But for some reason, a kept getting a “page not found” error when I tried to post. So I posted it on Doug’s YouTube page.

              • David S says:

                Hi Michael. I’m not sure what you think kept the Abhidharmists awake concerning time.

                Aren’t their conceptions based upon phenomenological experience (i.e. conditioned phenomena)? And therefore wouldn’t their conceptions be constrained by how perception itself comes to be experienced?

                Isn’t cognition a sequence (regardless of whether or not “reality” is actually sequential)? And wouldn’t this compliment/confirm their view of the momentariness of experience?

                I think it is important to retain an understanding of where their reference was situated. It was from their 1st hand experience.

                I consider “atomism” in this context, not so much related to physical sciences as to conceptual formation itself. The paradox of Zeno’s arrow is not paradoxical in experience, only within the terms of its description does it engender conceptual infinities.

                Consider how language creates paradoxes (This sentence is a lie.), and how the use of language has limitations that can differ from experience, and yet can give rise to the unexperienced (Einstein’s time distortions).

                Conceptions are practically unlimited and yet constrained by the form they take. Pluralistic descriptions abound.

                The phenomenological experience of time is simply linear because of how our perceptions come to be formed. The segmenting of the experience could very well be partial to the processes involved in attentional awareness.

                Memory formations, fabrications, conscious of.

                Meditation carried to extremes appears to further expose this sequential nature of experience.

  3. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Regards, David. Nice to hear from you again.

    I was just musing on the fact that the Abhidharmist’s grappled with the ontology of time, which as Doug’s video suggests, is a difficult question that has bothered a lot of philosophers and physicists for a very long time (if time really exists at all). So I wouldn’t be surprised if some Abhidharmists were kept up late wondering about it!

    My own tendency is to try to avoid ontological & metaphysical questions as much as I can, especially when I’m thinking about what I think is the core concern of Buddhism: How to live well. For that purpose, I think it is enough to contemplate what I called over on Doug’s YouTube page the “experienced moment,” and I think we might generally agree on that.

    The Abhidharmists, IMO, were seduced by the dark side — the need to develop a systematic ontology to underpin Gotama’s insights. But having said that, I think you may have done more justice than me to them when you wrote:

    “Aren’t their conceptions based upon phenomenological experience (i.e. conditioned phenomena)? And therefore wouldn’t their conceptions be constrained by how perception itself comes to be experienced?

    Isn’t cognition a sequence (regardless of whether or not “reality” is actually sequential)? And wouldn’t this compliment/confirm their view of the momentariness of experience?”

    So the Abhidharmists may have tried to faithfully preserve Gotama’s focus on experience, and done a reasonable job of characterizing that experience. However, I’d still part company with them to the extent that they seem to have insisted that they were really describing ontological “reality.”

    • David S says:

      Thanks Michael. Good to hear from you too.

      Yes, thoughts about time can wrangle the mind.

      Being a meditation student, I followed the instructions of “mindfulness” only to find that “the present moment” is a continual action of fabricating perceptual impressions (which, as Doug spoke of, takes time), and this process becomes too fleeting and unstable to even remain aware of. I found that if I pulled back I could rest my mind upon the ‘form’ of the present moment, rather than the ‘forming’ of the present moment. Your phrase the “experienced moment” hits it on the head.

      I agree that Buddhism concerns itself with how to live well. Although, IMO doing so is all in service of creating the conditions for further enhancing the mind. The 8-fold path pretty much lays out a description culminating in samadhi, and its “direct knowledge”.

      FWIW, I’ve not read the work of the Abhidharmists, I’ve really only heard impressions about it, but from what I gather their “atomization” of moments are actually experienced by meditators. It is not something that is conceptual or speculative, but firsthand experiences of extreme perceptual fracturing. I can’t verify this from personal experience, but I have no reason to doubt these reports. One sort of experience is of a rapid fire sequence of perceptions arising and passing. With this in mind, the Abhidhamist work seems a straight forward attempt to codify the phenomenology of such experiences.

      “However, I’d still part company with them to the extent that they seem to have insisted that they were really describing ontological “reality.” ”

      Yes, me too! As phenomenologists they are constrained by the tool and method of their investigation, and given this tool’s ability to give form to the world and to form its own, it can become a house of mirrors.

      • Jason Malfatto says:

        I’ve really only heard impressions about it, but from what I gather their “atomization” of moments are actually experienced by meditators. It is not something that is conceptual or speculative, but firsthand experiences of extreme perceptual fracturing. I can’t verify this from personal experience, but I have no reason to doubt these reports.

        FWIW, I do tend to doubt such reports, but that doubt may hinge on semantics.

        As I said above in reply to Doug: “cognitive scientists these days no longer have much use for a hard distinction between concepts and percepts (i.e. objects of perception).” So if we define “concept” to mean a concrete symbol of the world (e.g. tree, cloud, person, building, self, etc.), then not all experiences (on or off the cushion) fit that description. But if we define it more broadly (as I gather cognitive scientists do nowadays), so as to encompass the full spectrum of experiences from concrete to abstract, then any reference to non-conceptual experience seems paradoxical at best.

        That said, it’s quite possible that extended cushion time is not the only ingredient involved in “extreme perceptual fracturing” – there may also be an ingredient of acculturation, where meditators reared in an orthodox Abhidharmist tradition are primed to expect “atomization of moments.” In other words, the abstract concept becomes reified in more concrete terms (or in less hifalutin terms, imagined), which is different than a penetrating insight into ultimate reality.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Within early Buddhist metaphysics there isn’t a real distinction between concept and percept. There are after all six sense bases in Buddhism: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. And the term we usually translate “perception”, saññā, has aspects of both perception and conception.

          FWIW.

          Agreed about the cultural aspects to perception. If in fact our mind works in atomic moments, which is highly unlikely, it would be impossible to know this based on introspection alone I think. We can arguably train ourselves to note smaller and smaller perceptual objects, but I doubt when we come to a smallest such percept we could know we had come to it.

          • David S says:

            Hi Doug.
            “…it would be impossible to know this based on introspection alone…”

            Yes. Much of experience is processed pre consciously and as such would never be available for “direct insight”. But even so, this doesn’t help bring any understanding to what is being spoken of when practitioners speak of “direct insight” experiences.

            • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

              I think a direct Insight experience is at least a kind of experience that is personally transformative in some important sense. One can know intellectually that all things are transitory, but to know this by direct insight is to have an experience (that one describes as “that all things are transitory”) that is personally transformative in a manner bringing one towards awakening,

              • David S says:

                Have you had any such experiences?

                • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

                  Nothing that I would classify as a direct insight experience, no. But I have had smaller experiences of peace and abandonment of craving, and experiences of what I would term “light” jhāna, that is jhāna without complete absorption. Indeed like you I had such an experience without having heard of jhāna at all.

                  • David S says:

                    So, do you consider those experiences to have been shaped by acculturation? And do you consider other’s experiences reported to be direct insight to have been caused by acculturation?

                    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

                      Well insofar as we use words and concepts to describe them they are to an extent shaped by enculturation. It’s a mixture of direct experience and culture; it’s not all one or all the other. If you like, perception is direct experience mediated through culture.

        • David S says:

          Hi jason.
          Yes, it does “hinge upon semantics”.

          Considering how you described concepts and percepts makes your conclusion agreeable to me too. I have been a bit sloppy with my use of the term cognition, because sometimes I intend “cognition” to refer only to language, and yet at other times something more along the lines of perceptual objects. I guess need more practice using them to be precise.

          I disagree with the idea of acculturation in the experiences themselves, only in the aspect of reporting their import. I never heard of jhana and yet found myself in what are most likely 2 different types while meditating on retreats. I think the practices involved in meditation have results that come out of how one is utilizing the processes of mind.

          • Jason Malfatto says:

            David: Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void. I still wonder to what extent my most extraordinary meditation experience was primed by these John Lennon lyrics (who in turn was influenced by The Psychedelic Experience by Leary, Metzner, and Alpert, all of whom were influenced by LSD and some exposure to the The Tibetan Book of the Dead).

            I certainly grant some degree of universality in human experience, which makes possible cross-cultural convergence, but the more we try to interpret and explain our experiences, both to ourselves and to others, the more likely we’re relying on what we already know, thanks to whatever culture we were reared in.

            On top of that, memory is notoriously fallible and liable to confabulation and cognition in general is liable to whatever bias or fallacy describes our tendency to find similarities in data and to ignore their differences (this one seems pretty close).

            • David S says:

              “…I certainly grant some degree of universality in human experience, which makes possible cross-cultural convergence, but the more we try to interpret and explain our experiences, both to ourselves and to others, the more likely we’re relying on what we already know…”

              Yes, of course, interpretation (“reporting their import”) after the fact is culturally based and prone to confirmation bias, but the “universality” behind the processes of consciousness would also produce like effects. This is why MBSR works. Meditation by utilizing intensive attentional and equanimous practices over long periods of time would also produce like effects. This is far different than confabulation.

              I had no knowledge of, and therefore no expectation for, such experiences and yet they came about. It wasn’t even what the teachers were instructing me in. The experiences were unlike anything I knew. I was surprised by the experiences, yet weeks later I while reading I found similar descriptions in Buddhist lists for jhana.

              There are different ways of describing such experiences. Reporting their import would expand on an interpretation of its meaning (cultural). Another way of reporting is to use words to describe the experience, and this is how I approached it. The jhana lists have many descriptions of this sort. I do have some questions regarding the specific order and configuration, but there’s enough overlap in words used to describe aspects of the experiences to see the obvious commonalities.

              There is a clear difference between an experience and its interpretation, but not necessarily its description.

              • Jason Malfatto says:

                There is a clear difference between an experience and its interpretation, but not necessarily its description.

                Hmm, I’m not sure that I can offer a description without first interpreting what I’m describing. What I’m describing may indeed be a universally available experience, given certain conditions, but it’s difficult for me to see how we can get away from interpreting it, say, as a prerequisite for communicating it.

                What’s more, unless one is just popping a pill or a tab in one’s mouth, there’s usually training involved in setting up conditions for a particular mental state, and why would we make such efforts, were it not for cultural reinforcement? Indeed, even MBSR requires such reinforcement, albeit within the normative context of modern clinical therapy.

                I could very well be mistaken about the role of priming and acculturation as it relates to the claim of “extreme perceptual fracturing”, but I don’t think it follows from your jhana analogy that I’m necessarily wrong. Given the usual ingredients of human imagination and suggestion, some phenomena may be more suggestible and culturally contingent than others.

                In any case, I doubt that we can draw any serious conclusions about the nature of time from such mental states alone without begging philosophical questions, and we know how culturally variant those can be simply by comparing the preoccupations of Buddhist with Western thinkers.

                • David S says:

                  It sounds like your experience had meaning for you, and yes, of course, that would be spoken with cultural influences. But experience can also be spoken of by describing the events in the order they occurred (which, as in dreams, is what gives the context for one’s reactions and its meaning) by specifically describing what one was perceiving (emotions, sensations, actions, thoughts, etc…).

                  Saying I saw blue does not have a cultural meaning. But saying that seeing blue is a good omen would be based upon cultural meaning. But even this can be described in a manner which doesn’t promote the cultural aspect: I saw blue, then I had the thought it was a good omen, and I felt joy. This is the main technique behind insight meditation.

                  I agree with what you say about cultural reinforcement in learning meditation. It was continually said by teachers that the goal was to “see things as they are” then they proceeded to explain the Buddhist view of how things are, over and over again. And, the meditation instructions themselves were actually about manipulating the use of one’s mind, which was different than the way it normally operated, so this would not likely be “things as they are” but something else.

                  But, the basic meditation techniques simply utilize the already existing functions of the mind in a specific manner. And because we all share the same functions, doing so can be said to produce resulting affects. I assume this is why many people speak of experiencing the rapid arising and passing of perceptions in advanced meditative states.

                  In such states, the present moment is understood as a linear progression of perceptions. I have no trouble with this, except how it is then assumed that consciousness itself is a linear stream; I’d say attentional perception: yes, consciousness as a whole: no. I agree with you and “…doubt that we can draw any serious conclusions about the nature of time from such mental states alone….” The hardware has inherent limitations of what it can even be aware of by the very processes involved in doing so. (I have similar hesitations with the term “mindfulness” and how that is described.)

                  Aside: reading many of my previous posts I cringe with my mixed up way of attempting to present my thoughts. Many mistakes. Oh, well

                  • Jason Malfatto says:

                    It sounds like your experience had meaning for you, and yes, of course, that would be spoken with cultural influences.

                    Well, it was memorable because it was so unusual (and drug-free) and not exactly pleasant. In retrospect, it was like I’d accidentally turned off a switch in my brain (say, to the part that runs discursive thought), possibly doing permanent damage to myself. I recall a few more trepidatious attempts at meditation before losing interest, only to start up again years later with somewhat more care and preparation.

                    The Beatles song reference is also ex post facto, despite my earlier allusion about its “priming” me. But, really, I don’t have a strong opinion about the causal arrow here – in fact, a bidirectional feedback loop between introspection and culture seems all the more plausible.

                    The more important point (one that we’ve only hinted at so far) is the ethical one, by which we open our minds to other accounts, while also thinking critically about what those accounts mean for us as social (and sometimes rational) animals.

  4. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    I doubt that direct experience can be expressed without interpreting it, or perhaps filtering it through the cognative apparatus — maybe can’t be experienced at all except perhaps “momentarily,” when the filters may be partly down. However, there are degrees of filtering, degrees of interpretation — If I speak (say) of a sense being suspended in the moment, there is less interpreation than if I speak of “looking into the void”, less still than if I speak of “union with God.” Is this important? Yes, I think. I won’t argue the superiority of Buddhist and secular practice here, but I’ll assert the value of knowing that you are interpreting experience to a greater or lesser degree.

    Anyway, I think all meditative experience, if it is to have moral effect (in the broadest sense) has to be understood and interpreted, not taken as raw insight. I think. (I may change my mind if I actually reach the highest jhanas or beome convinved that I’ve acheived Union with Bhrama :))

  5. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    I should have added — I do suspect that the kind of experience reported in meditation (but not confined to it) is as close to an unacculterated experience as we can get, apart from simple senations like pain (though even pain is culturally influenced). But I also believe that the way this kind of experience is understood — as a mental burp or union with God and all between is cultural.

    I’d really like to know what you folks think of the studies summarized below, in light of this discussion. Is the “sense of awe” an example of a mementary experience, perhaps of being suspended in the moment? Is it universal or a cultural interpretation?

    “Thus, an awe-inducing stimulus — whether a stunning landscape, an intense religious experience, or a cloud-skimming skyscraper — gives us a sense of vastness, seeming much larger than us and the things we are used to, whether physically or metaphorically. . . .. By challenging our concept of ourselves and the world around us, awe-inducing stimuli force us to adjust our cognitive schema to accommodate them. No wonder, then, that we often describe these stimuli as “mind-blowing” or “earth-shattering.” . . . Shiota and colleagues (2007) found that students who thought about how they felt when they encountered a “really beautiful” natural scene much more strongly endorsed feeling “small or insignificant” and “connected with the world around me” than those who wrote about a time when they felt another positive emotion. . . . So, awe may focus our attention on the here and now, but research indicates that it also prompts us to think in more self-transcendent ways, shifting our focus from inward concern to an outward sense of universality and connectedness.”

    http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2015/april-15/all-about-awe.html

    • David S says:

      Interesting article.
      “…research also has revealed a unique association between feeling awe and religiosity or spirituality…”

      Like a broken record, I can add a bit from those 2 experiences of jhana.

      Without going into a detailed description, during the first time it had an extreme sense of euphoric movement (rapture) which left me with a sort of religious fervor afterward (odd considering I’m an atheist). But the second time, there was a complete lack of any emotional tone whatsoever, and had no sensations such as spatial features, visuals, self, body…. It was just very odd.

      Given that these both came on their own during intensive meditation practice, there literally were no cues that could be said to induce them (eyes closed, not thinking, focused on the sensation of the breath); only the processes of the mind itself. The second one gave a different perspective on the first. This was that the religiosity of the first experience was just an affect. It literally doesn’t exist outside of the processes of consciousness, and such feelings produce specific tendencies of thought of there being larger forces in which life flows. Just as the article mentions in awe.

      Interesting how the use of the eyes looking upward also helps trigger some level of awe. The embodied mind.

      • David S says:

        And as for time, as the article states, its perception can be altered too. Not sure how such individual changes in time perception itself would relate to Einstein’s special relativity. Any ideas?

        I had a few experiences as a kid in which time sped up. All my movements appeared to be lightening fast for a minute or so. I tried to make slower movements to stop it, but that didn’t work while it was happening.

    • David S says:

      “But I also believe that the way this kind of experience is understood — as a mental burp or union with God and all between is cultural.”

      Yes, cultural knowledge would have a place. Although, some experiences have inherent qualities of religiosity that I think are physiological with associated psychological affects (see my other posting).

      There are different ways in which such an experience could be understood and described. One aspect of insight meditation is about developing a meta understanding of experience, one that breaks down experience into understanding experience according to the 6 sense bases (debatable number).

      Can sensations be known separate from the thoughts that come as a result of the feelings? How do thoughts interact with experience? Can you keep from adding thoughts back into the experience of the sensations? Can you report on, or just experience, a sensation without resorting to its meaning with words such as pressure, pain, coolness, sharpness, etc..? What exactly is the experience of a sensation in its initial impression without words? What larger impressions come from these? Can the visualizations of sensations be separated out from the original sensation? How is the sensation without visualizing it?

      “I’d really like to know what you folks think of the studies summarized below, in light of this discussion. Is the “sense of awe” an example of a momentary experience, perhaps of being suspended in the moment? Is it universal or a cultural interpretation?”

      I think our everyday experience is built upon many, many, many perceptions, both cultural and physiological. The sense of awe described in the article probably has many different components, from clashes between self-identity and otherness/vastness resulting in suspension of personal concerns, to suspension of time perceptions resulting in a sense of expansive spaciousness, to… well, so many possibilities. I don’t know.

      From the descriptions of time perception alterations these seem open to many different descriptions. One could say time was suspended, or time expanded. I would suspect these differences are the result result of different intellectual assumptions, and could in fact be just descriptions of very similar affective experiences. Maybe time/spaciousness appears to expand when it is suspended. And one’s ideation would be inevitably involved. This could be central in some cases, or, in other cases come from non-conceptual processes involved in physiological affective states. What do you think?

      • Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

        This moment of awe topic particularly interests me because it’s a kind of “light jhana” (as Doug put it) that I have experienced fairly frequently — the first tome I remember was like Doug again) before I knew anything about meditation, Buddhism etc. It came walking down a country lane one bright morning watching a crow circle in the blue sky. The only referent I had atthe time was Wordswoth’s Tintern Abbey, which I’d studied in an English lit class the term before: “Once again/Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,/That on a wild secluded scene impress/Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect/The landscape with the quiet of the sky. . . ./To them I may have owed another gift,/Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,/In which the burthen of the mystery,/In which the heavy and the weary weight/Of all this unintelligible world,
        Is lightened . . . .”

        Wordsworth was a Romantic poet, I am a scientifically-minded atheist. What both of us felt, I think has been felt by prehistoric Shamans, Christian, Sufi and Indian mystics, poets and scientists. So some part of it is cross-cultural. But I think you are right, David, that the sense of awe (and other experiences) “probably has many different components,” physiological/ psychological/ cultural. I won’t try to sort them out in detail, or ask for example “what exactly is the experience of a sensation in its initial impression?” I am interested, however, in how much of the awe experience translates directly between cultures– is the loss of self universal, or is it something added by a common element in, say, Christian and Indian civilizations, not shared perhaps in less hierarchical and self-referential cultures? Does the awe response cultivate empathy and compassion in us all? and so on. And back to Jason’s triggers. I don’t know if the initial content of the experience (can I say the awe itself?) is much influenced by the nature of the trigger — but triggers can be identified, taught, and made more reliable — whether it’s meditation technique, sitting in a sweat-lodge, marathon prayer, or even reading Romantic poetry. These may rely on some common physiological elements,but the way they are cultivated and conceptualized seems to be very much a cultural item. I don’t know if this addresses your questions directly, but youey did make me think — perhaps I can do the same for you.

        I will directly suggest, however, that “suspension” and “expansion” of time strike me as the same thing; both are metaphors for the way the apparent passage of time is experienced.

        • David S says:

          “I am interested, however, in how much of the awe experience translates directly between cultures….”

          Yes, me too. It will be interesting to see where those who study such experiences take it and what comes out of neuroscientific studies.

          In the 2 extremes I experienced, the issue of affect is extremely interesting: how 1 experience could be devoid of affect and the other overflowing with affect.

          I was manipulating the use of my body-mind, but in your case, there was no intention to do so, which may mean that the awe of jhana is expressed differently than awe coming from a seemingly spontaneous event where you remain aware of your embodied senses. But even so, they probably share common physiological origins because of their similarities of affect.

          It’s also very interesting how such physiological changes induce reflections with common themes regardless of the specific cultural influence.

          It’s interesting how meaning is inherent in physiological experience. In this, pain and pleasure form the basis for ethical notions of bad and good. The question of how and what processes are involved is overwhelming and incomprehensible to me, although I’d love to know more.

          “…you did make me think — perhaps I can do the same for you.”

          Yes, of course. In this exchange I had my focus on the universal part of experience and left the cultural out, but slowly grew more comfortable about that after reading everyone’s comments.

  6. David S says:

    Does anyone else think that the phrase “the present moment” has become overly used?

    Or in what way has it been useful/instructive?

    • Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

      Oh yes, I agree that living in the moment can become an attachment or fixation itself, though it can also be a useful practice. Some Zen ethusiasts (more than genuine practicions, I say at risk of sounding rather judgmental) seem to think living in the moment could be a kind of escape from samsara all by itself, an almost magical state of detachment and bliss that can be sustained. I can’t see how this can reconciled recognition that actions have causes and effects. How can I be a moral actor if I ignore this?

Leave a Reply