Filed in Vipassana

How Long Is A Moment

Cynthia Thatcher

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IN THE PRACTICE OF VIPASSANA we try to stay in "the present moment." Everyone knows what the "present" means: Now. But what, precisely, is a "moment"? How long does it last? And when does the present moment become the past?

In Vipassana the word "moment" has two definitions. The first could be called the "practice-moment." ("Practice" refers, of course, to meditation practice.) The second is the moment of consciousness itself.

The length of the practice-moment is determined by the object. For instance, when you touch the toe to the floor in the walking exercise, that is one practice-moment; but it's shorter than the act of moving the foot forward. As soon as you complete a step, that moment is over. If you continue thinking about it, you've strayed away from the present. What is the present? Only the object that's arising right now. We could say that the practice-moment is the length of time you focus on an object before letting it go and moving on to the next one. A single practice-moment is about one to three seconds long. It varies depending on the form you're observing.

The moment of consciousness, the second definition, refers to one mind-moment (cittakkhana) arising and disappearing. The rate of this moment is incredibly fast and doesn't vary. A moment of consciousness is the smallest unit by which we can "measure" ultimate reality. A single one of these blips is millions of times shorter than a two-second practice moment. These mind-moments are appearing and vanishing one by one all the time, whether or not we recognize them.

It is possible for the meditator to progress from observing the first kind of moment to seeing the second. As mindfulness gets sharper and faster, the student begins to bridge the gap between the practice-moment and the moment of consciousness. When that happens, the meditator might focus on one walking step, for example, and perceive several moments arising and passing away before the movement of the foot is finished. Like a meteor zipping across the sky, there might be a sense of great speed as mindfulness sees something in a split second. The meditator may find that, as soon as he focuses on anything, it bursts and dissolves immediately. The moments become shorter as mindfulness is able to "cut" things faster.

When mindfulness is quick enough, the student will experience the moment of consciousness itself. He will see one mind-moment arising and vanishing in clear detail. This is to witness the truth of experience, undistorted by delusion. It is a glimpse of ultimate reality. He then understands one of the three characteristics: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, or impersonality. This understanding is an immediate vision, not a thought.

The aim of Vipassana practice is to make one mindful enough to perceive a single moment of consciousness arising and disappearing. One need only experience three or four such moments in a row in order to reach enlightenment. Indeed, even perceiving one moment of ultimate reality is a great boon for the meditator. It's said that such an experience, by which meditator attains the level called "lesser streamwinner" (culla-sotapanna), will continue to give benefit for three successive lifetimes.

Cynthia Thatcher teaches meditation in the Dhamma Friend Program. She is currently writing a book on traditional Vipassana techniques.

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jackelope65's picture

Thank you. Hoping for her rebirth without as much physical pain.

fmart's picture

In memorium Cynthia Thatcher

On the 8th of August Cynthia Thatcher, author of Just Seeing, a popular book on meditation published by the BPS, passed away in the USA at the age of 47. Cynthia, who suffered from a painful nervous system disease for several years, peacefully passed away while her mother was reading to her from a Dhamma book. She was a keen practitioner of insight (vipassana) meditation. Before she got ill, she went to Thailand several times to do meditation retreats with her teacher Ajahn Sobhin Namto. A few months before she passed away she wrote to a friend that she got interested in Buddhist meditation as a college student, when she opened a book on Buddhism that she found in the college library:

"At the word 'nonself' I felt as if I'd been struck by lightning. The feeling came that nonself was something I had always known to be true, in some vague way in the back of my mind, but had never been able to articulate or bring into focus. The idea seemed very familiar, like remembering something I'd forgotten long ago or coming home after many years in a foreign place. From that moment onward I felt that this was it for me. There was no question or hesitation. I took the book home and began practicing meditation from the instructions the next day. I remember sitting on the roof of our communal house at night, trying to meditate, not knowing what I was doing. But I didn't care. I never "worried that I might be doing it wrong. I regarded it as a grand experiment. Here was something practical I could do instead of endless thinking and reasoning. I just wanted to investigate, to find out what was real. Even though I had no idea what 'reality' was, I had strong faith that somehow meditation would lead me to it. ... from the night I found that book in the library so many years ago, there's never been a moment in which I doubted that this is the correct path for me and that these are true teachings." Due to her understanding of the Dhamma, Cynthia was not afraid of death: "If I could have less pain I would not mind living longer. But if things had to remain as they are now, I would absolutely prefer to die. I am looking forward to dying, because I do believe in kamma and I believe that the result of the little bit of merit I may have made in this lifetime will lead to a better rebirth."

May she attain Nibbana!
Buddhist Publication Society, Newsletter, No. 70 (Summer, 2014)

johnmarder's picture

Thank you for letting us know that fmart. She was clearly a very wise and courageous lady.

johnmarder's picture

'A moment of consciousness is millions of times shorter than two seconds', but that is still measurable. It has a beginning and an end. In my understanding, ultimate reality is unborn and undying, without beginning or end, indeed not linear at all. I would be grateful if someone could help resolve that.
I also completely empathise with Katy over her response to this article. Vipassana does seem to be quite elitist.; not very accessible to ordinary people like myself. My experience is much more like Mishs's in this thread. I expect most of us are like that.

mollbee's picture

Ultimate Reality is constant ~ unborn and undying. It's our awareness of it, our ability to consciously perceive Ultimate Reality that is "millions of times shorter than two seconds." That's what she is saying.

melcher's picture

Unhappiness requires the past or the future. Happiness only requires the present. We make choices constantly based on our projections from the past into the future. Anticipation and remembrance are at least once removed from our experience of now, and mostly lead to disappointment or nostalgia. As much as we struggle we are ultimately incapable of escaping the present, the only place where happiness can exist.

dharmon's picture

"Unhappiness requires the past or the future. Happiness only requires the present." So wonderfully, perfectly & simply said. I do believe this is my new email "signature."

Misha's picture

Hi, Katy,
I know what you mean. The point is supposed to be like you realize this is all ephemeral and then eventually you have a realization of that which is not ephemeral, the birthless and deathless, which gives a more lasting peace than anything in this plane. However, what happens when you've realized impermanence really well and you're not having that next breakthrough? I am experiencing something similar. I have experienced the Vipassana moments Cynthia speaks of enough to understand that my consciousness is restarting every split second, moving from one object to the next, really leaving me self-less, just one moment connected to another by memory. But I haven't experienced the part where you get down to such a finite moment that you have that Ultimate Reality experience, of whatever it is that we supposedly really are. Just the no-self part! At first I was pretty freaked out by this. And it is easy to fall into nihilism with this realization, even the Buddha talked about that. But I think the key is a) faith that there is this other reality that we haven't perceived yet, because all of this is previously charted territory we're walking through, and others have been there, even if we haven't. And b) keeping compassion and loving kindness alive for yourself and others. Making living in the present moment the point, since that's all we have. Doing what we can to ease suffering for others and ourselves when possible. For others that may be acts of kindness, feeding them, smiling at them, listening to them, understanding that they are suffering from the burden of having to maintain this illusion of self. For ourselves it is doing our practice, finding that place of stillness and equanimity where peace replaces suffering, and looking with Kind Awareness at ourselves, with compassion for ourselves. And lastly c) enjoy that you don't have to maintain that illusion! This brings a lightness to our lives that we can choose to embrace. You are reborn every split second! You cannot cling to yesterday, because yesterday is gone. You could view that as a loss, but instead you could see that it is a great freedom.
I'm no substitute for Cynthia, but I hope this helps a little bit. With metta, --Mish.

katy.yelland's picture

Hi Cynthia,
I enjoyed your article about mindfulness. I do find it difficult though, as when I read articles like this my brain immediately says "well, that means there isn't any point in anything." I've just been to visit my mum, had a nice dinner and played a board game afterwards, and I was just thinking "what's the point of enjoying this?" as I had your article in mind. I've been in this situation before (a couple of years ago) and ended up very depressed. The only thing that got me out of that depression was concentrating on my family, friends and basically finding enjoyment in life, eating a meal and enjoying it without thinking "what's the point of this?" etc.
Any words of wisdom would be appreciated.

mollbee's picture

A phrase I've heard repeatedly since I became interested in Buddhism is "this precious (human) life." I think moments like the time you spent with your mum are a huge part of what makes this life precious. At least one aspect of the "point" of having a human life is to fully feel and participate in all the moments ~ great or small, sweet or bitter ~ that comprise it.
Mahayana Buddhism says that the purpose, or point, of having a human life is that as humans (as opposed to other animals) we can attain enlightenment and then stick around as Bodhisattvas to help others also attain enlightenment and be free from suffering. A fully-enlightened world would be an amazing place to inhabit, wouldn't it? Imagine our world as it is with all the horrible painful things we inflict upon ourselves, other humans, other species and the planet, and then imagine instead deep peace and wellbeing permeating every layer of life for all beings! Every little ripple we make in that direction matters, including cultivating wellbeing and peaceful-heartedness for oneself.
It is hard to grapple with that feeling of "no point"; I certainly have felt that myself. But it seems that, if there is no pre-destined point to life, then we get to create our own destiny, purpose, point. With mindful meditation, Buddha's teachings, and a sangha or community of like-hearted others to turn to, we have a wonderful guide to help us along our way, appreciate what we have, deal with difficulties that inevitably find us, and live a meaningful life.
May you be happy, may you be well, may you be safe, may you be peaceful and at ease.

mollbee's picture

PS: here's a short piece by Sharon Salzberg you might like:

Midnight's picture

I've asked myself this many times and each time conclude that there isn't any point if, by point one really means purpose. My objective is simply to pay attention. That's all. It's enough.

With metta