Meeting it with a fresh mind
The unique thing about each person’s lived experience is, well, its uniqueness. Because everything is changing all the time, every single thing that happens is new. The entire universe is in a fresh configuration every moment. There may be patterns that repeat, but no two sets of phenomena are exactly the same, ever.
Human consciousness is a natural part of all this. The mind is an apparatus that creates experience, using the senses of the body and the neurons of the brain. With an alchemy we still don’t have the means to understand very well, a moment of awareness arises when one of the six sense bases comes in contact with a particular stimulus, which is shaped into a knowable object. Each moment’s experience is further accompanied with its own inimitable combination of feeling tone, interpretive perception, and emotional response, all of which occur in an instant and then cease. Consciousness is thus a series of episodic events, flashing again and again as phenomena are cognized for an exceptional instant before they vanish, never again to reappear in the same way.
This is the territory of Buddhist spirituality. It is not a matter of getting our minds around the big picture and conceptualizing the cosmos in all its grandeur, either through a traditional narrative or through accessing mystical states of non-ordinary reality. Rather, it is about being there to experience the extraordinary specificity of what is occurring, by meeting every moment’s uniqueness with a fresh mind. Every moment is a unique view of a unique territory, both of which unfold in perpetual motion. Because of the continual flux of it all, holding on to anything that has happened is futile, while being open to what happens next is crucial.
Trying to communicate with another about our own lived experience, we find ways to convey what is happening for us; because others have similar experiences, what we say and do can resonate with them. We seek through our dialogue to evoke in others our own experience, and empathize with what they are expressing in order to experience it for ourselves. Much of the time we are successful, but because of the uniqueness of all experience, all of this secondary discourse—telling someone else what is happening for you—can only ever be a shadow of what is lived directly.
When more than two people interact, and especially when a large number seek to share experience, a third perspective is created, one that is broader but even more detached from direct experience. Language and many other forms of symbolic expression are used to create a conceptual map that encompasses the past, the future, and a world beyond the immediate. Since these maps are developed by gradual usage, there is no single objective way of conceiving the universe and our place within it. Different cultures establish different models of shared experience, and people can employ multiple schemas as they interact with different groups. The religious and scientific traditions are among the most common and widespread examples of these conceptual maps of reality.
While much is gained in scope by shifting from our individual lived experience to the larger, conceptual maps of a culture, a valuable texture is also lost. Because of its derived nature, this third perspective is even further removed from direct experience than secondary discourse—it is an echo of a shadow, if you will. It involves thinking about objects rather than being aware of them, describing something instead of experiencing it, and conceptualizing about things rather than cognizing them directly.
Thus, when we try to share an understanding of our experience, we turn to what in Buddhist psychology is called the aggregate of perception (sanna) rather than the aggregate of consciousness (vinnana). Perception involves a sort of interpretive representation or view, while consciousness is direct knowing or immediate awareness of an object. Also, communication with others requires the exclusive use of only one of the six senses—mental objects or thoughts—while direct experience can encompass sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and bodily sensations. Conceptualization offers access to a wider world beyond immediate experience, but in its pursuit of commonalities it must abandon the compelling uniqueness of the moment.
Sport enthusiasts understand the value of the exceptional. Even though a game may consist of “nothing more” than hitting a ball or getting it into a hole or hoop or net, there are an infinite number of ways this can be done, and almost anything can happen at any time. It is the radical specificity of the moment that is so compelling. The same is true for theater, music, dance, and any other performance art. Even if one knows what to expect and has done it a hundred times, this time is unique and therefore immeasurably valuable.
Meditation teaches us the value of every moment’s unique experience. You have never taken in this particular lungful of air before and will never do so again. This particular step, with its lifting, moving, and placing phases, is absolutely special—when you choose to attend to it carefully with your awareness. We can breathe and walk without the engagement of mindful attention, in which case it is just another artifact of a removed, conceptualized world. The idea of my breathing blends in to all the other ideas that populate my conceptual world, but the uniqueness of the actual experience of my taking this breath renders it—sacred.
It is the radical transience of the world that makes it both tragic and beautiful, like the cherry blossom in Japanese aesthetics. The tragedy is that nothing actually exists; it is all passing away the instant it forms. The beauty is that we have the means to be aware of this, a moment to know the profound poignancy of this tiny corner of reality.
Our modern world tends to look at things from the outside, enhancing the objective and diminishing the subjective. The contemplative arts of early Indian traditions place more emphasis on the subjective perspective, and can help us recover and celebrate the immense value of being right here, right now. You only have one shot at this moment—don’t miss it.
Andrew Olendzki, PhD, is a senior scholar at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre, Massachusetts. He is the author of Unlimiting Mind.
Image: What Sense is Reality by Satomi Shirai