The Extended Now

December 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

The previous post touched upon our human experience as a conceptual experience. This means that the brain doesn’t just replay what the senses record, it takes that raw material and processes it into familiar, steady concepts. No matter what form a hat takes, for example, it is always a hat. Yet if we were to put sandals on our head, so efficient is the system of conceptualizing that we would not be confused. Sandals are sandals. Hats are hats.

Concepts work so well in making sense of the world that we end up believing that they are the world. But a concept is just an idea, it is not reality. Take, for instance, the concept of time.

A common view of time is that it is like a river with now, or the present moment, being a one-dimensional line that crosses from bank to bank, dividing the past from the future as it moves down the river. Einstein, in his Theory of Special Relativity, challenged that idea. He said that you are at the mid-point of this line and that the further the line extends from you, the wider it becomes. As it widens it begins to include the past and the future in what he called the extended present.

Imagine that you are looking at the Andromeda galaxy through a powerful telescope. Textbooks say that Andromeda is 2.54 million light-years away. So you would be forgiven for thinking that you are looking at the galaxy, as it was that long ago. In fact, because Andromeda is 220,000 light years in diameter, you are seeing light that left the far edge of the galaxy thousands of years before the light left the middle, which, in turn, left before the light left from the front. You are seeing the galaxy’s past and future in a now that extends back 2.54 million years. This zone in which things are neither past nor future is the expanded present.

Let’s take a more down to earth example. Imagine you are sitting in meditation. Before you are a single candle flame lighting a blank wall. Individual photons are racing away from the candle at the speed of light but even at that speed it still takes time to reach your eyes. Photons coming directly from the candle’s flame arrive at your eyes a fraction of a nanosecond before those that bounce off the wall. The result is that what you see at any given moment is a collection of light from different periods of time.

The same is true for all experience. The further across space you look, the further back in time you’re seeing. Even if that time is only measured in nanoseconds you never see the world as it is in some present moment that’s ‘out there’. That is just a concept you created. The reality is that the only place the present moment exists is inside of you. Yet because even that statement implies separation it, too, isn’t accurate. In fact, you and the present moment are identical, for if there were any separation your experience would always lay outside of you where you could never know it!

It may be said that the present moment has an absolute and a relative sense. In the absolute sense the present moment has no duration and so it is a temporal void. Yet when we take the content of any given moment into consideration, we find that it is a collection of inter-related things that happen over time relative to each other. This relative relationship is what gives the present moment a sense of duration or extension. It is in this extended now that all experience unfolds; yet it unfolds in emptiness.

 

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Adding to things cannot be better than nothing.

December 19, 2017 § Leave a comment

“We are always looking outside of what is and looking to make something more than it is…” — Roko Sherry Chayat.

The other night as I watched a special featuring Neil Young, in the top left of the TV screen there appeared a circle of light that I didn’t immediately recognize. In the split second it took to realize that I didn’t know what it was, my brain immediately processed it as the brim of one of the artist’s hats hanging on a metal rack. My mind, as Roko Sherry Chayat intimated, looked beyond the immediate perception and found a concept that would make sense of it. The circle of light was a hat.

The human brain does not simply take the stuff of the senses and recreate it as it is ‘out there.’ Sensory data is processed along side a long list of concepts to see which one makes the most sense of the data in the overall context of the moment. Then it reconstructs the data into what we call experience. The above image catches the mind in this process. Presented with two equal interpretations, the mind switches back and forth between the image of a wine glass and the profiles of two human faces.

An advantage to using concepts is that the mind doesn’t need to keep figuring out what its seeing each time the data changes a little. Once the shifting trapezoidal form in your room is identified as a bed, it becomes a fixed rectangular box. Then, from any angle and any distance viewed, it stays a bed. The same is true of all other experience. Even though the basic sensory stuff is constantly changing, we experience objects as relatively fixed in time and space. Seldom do we notice that our environment is constantly changing, or even consider that space and time are also concepts that we use to organize our experience into a comprehensible form.

Filippo Brunelleschi’s (1377 –1446) invention of linear perspective in art is an example of how the mind invents space. Before Brunelleschi, artists tended to paint flat two-dimensional shapes. His invention of linear perspective gave depth to paintings. Streets and building faded into an imaginary vanishing point. People and things meant to appear in the distance of a canvas, were now correctly proportioned to what was at the front.

Today we might think that people always experienced the world with linear perspective, but is that so? Is it possible that before Brunellechi people didn’t see the world with linear perspective? And if that is so, is it possible that concepts specific to one culture enable its people to experience the world in ways others cannot. And possibly to do things in ways others cannot imagine?

I sometimes wonder if ancient cultures weren’t able to move 30-ton blocks of stone without the giant cranes we’d use today, simply because they conceived of the problem differently. And if the Indigenous belief in dimensions of existence that overlap our own, aren’t what’s responsible for their sightings of lake serpents with horse-shaped heads, ape-like men called Sasquatch and Sky people whose lights they’ve seen in the sky both historically and today.

Modern science, of course, would debunk such things by citing their own conceptual scheme of things. But, as we have seen, concepts change. Even today, some scientific minds are willing to consider (without evidence) the possibility of multiple universes that exist along side our own. And anyone who’s familiar with the quantum world knows that a lot of strange things go on there.

Concepts determine experience. We need only turn off the lights to see that this is so. At night my eyes might only register fuzzy grey lines but overtop of this lies a concept that give these lines the form I call ‘the gate at the top of the stairs.’ And the darkness on either side of me has superimposed over it the concept of the hall I’m standing in. Though my physical eyes can see nothing clearly, my mind’s eye see’s every object in the room as a familiar concept.

Life might be a lot easier if only descriptive concepts like the halls and the gate shaped our experience. But as Chayat said, the mind always wants to make something more. And in the course of adding to things, it creates the concept of a self or an “I” that is having all this experience. And from this come other concepts like the other, separation and dualism that in turn produce suffering as we begin to feel alone, incomplete and vulnerable.

Fortunately, as the Buddha said, there is a way to end suffering. It begins with the recognition that the self is just a concept and concepts are only ideas about Reality. They are not Reality, Itself.

We have lived in a conceptual world for so long that we have forgotten our true nature. To rediscover it, we must release our tight grip on concepts so that we may instead hold them but lightly. That is why Buddhism advocates non-thinking. Non-thinking isn’t the same as not thinking, which is a suppression of thought. Non-thinking is sitting in clear awareness, not filtered or colored by concepts that linger in the background, even the concept of self. Then, we live each day without expectation, desire, clinging or fear. All of which are, in the end, nothing but concepts, themselves.

Where Am I?

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