Buddhists advocate stilling the mind, to quieten the monkey brain and becoming aware of reality. Not reality as we imagine it in our brain, but reality as an experience of the senses. Necessarily such experience is in the present moment. Unlike thoughts, which are not only an imagined interpretation of our experience but typically also after the fact, or in anticipation of the next event.
Anyone who has experienced the ‘now’, the stillness of mind and the experience of the senses will vouch for the thrill of such out-of-ordinary state of being.
Zen masters say that this is experience can’t be talked about because such talk has nothing in common with the experience itself. Not unlike trying to describe the taste of food that hasn’t been tasted. Or the fragrance of flowers that we haven’t smelled before.
But at genetic fractals we are intellectuals and we are capable of sensing through understanding. A sort of secondary sense. Not very zen.
What happens in a thought-free moment?
Without wanting to venture into the space of “what is conscious thought?”, let’s simplify and think of our brain as two wet computers, the conscious brain and the subconscious brain. I know that this is grossly wrong since our brain is a continuous decentralized network of neurons with areas of specialization of which one(-ish) is ‘conscious’. But let’s be dualistic about this and label it as conscious and subconscious.
The conscious brain is forever interpreting, classifying, labeling, analyzing and making ‘sense’ of our experience such that we can do some thinking about it. The subconscious brain in the meantime runs our bodies and transmits sensory data through preprocessing centers into something that we could approximately call: experience.
Typically a cloud of sensory data gets processed into something resembling a chair or something else. At that point the conscious brain sticks a label on it and says: chair. It then ignores it completely because it is not relevant to the situation we are in. Unless we’re shopping for a chair in a furniture shop, chairs are of low cognitive importance.
So what happens if we “still the mind”, i.e. put the conscious processing of preprocessed data on pause?
Preprocessed data that has already been turned into more or less meaningful chunks are presented to us without interpretation. The phone in our hand, the chair across the table, the table itself, the stain on the napkin, the shoelace of the other guest, the shadow pattern of the window frame, the hissing coffee machine, the clanging of cups are all presented without qualification or priority as a full multi-sensorial scene, i.e. like a collection of props on a stage.
This is very different from ordinary experience where we only really see that which we are focusing on. In the extreme, when we focus on thoughts, we may not experience anything at all. Like driving a car for 5 kilometers and having no recollection of driving at all.
When the mind is still, we experience our world like we experience a beautiful painting or a photograph, except it is in many more dimensions (more than 20). When looking at a painting, we see composition, color palette, symmetries etc. Rarely will our eyes be drawn to a minor character or an irrelevant detail.
In our everyday experience that is exactly what happens. In a busy crowd our attention is drawn to a single person, or a shop sign or a street sign; it is almost impossible not to focus and instead see it all at once. But in our still mind world, we see whole scenes and a crying baby, or the billboard with a beautiful body are no more important than a discarded coke can in the gutter. All are equally attractive. And when we pay attention, all are stunning realities. All is beautiful.
Now that we are without thought, how about being in the moment?
Moments are strange things. They are a bit like the notion of absolute zero temperature: we know it must exist but it is actually unattainable and possibly non-existent.
It is not about fact but about effect.
Let’s imagine that a moment really exists. In such case, there can be no movement because to observe movement we need to see something change. A before and after. But in a moment there is only one fixed frame. No movement. No sound either because sound needs a vibration of air molecules. No light, because photons will remain frozen in space. Just like absolute zero temperature everything ‘freezes’ and the world as we know it ceases to exist. How could we experience a non-existent world in a fictional moment?
But hold on, surely if there is a past and a future, on its intersection there must be a present and a moment? And aren’t zen masters right when they claim that we can only sense the present moment?
Well, only approximately so. To experience the moment we still need synapses firing and neurons transmitting. We need our brain processing that ‘moment’.
In other words, we can experience a brief lapse of time but not zero time.
When you are in a ‘still mind’ state, you experience the world without conscious analysis and classification but it is not a frozen world. It may be a slow moving world. It may be a snapshot of the world which you experience quietly as a whole but the experience is full of life. The zen feeling of floating an inch above the ground, the ecstatic feeling of enlightenment is not a dead feeling of a frozen moment but a bright moment in flux.
The enlightenment experience is highly sensorial, taking in a flux of present sensations rather than a train of thoughts.
So is Eckhard Tolle completely wrong when he advocates the present moment in the Power of Now? When he says that things only happen in the present and that the past and future are hallucinations?
Factually, yes, he is wrong. There is no power in the moment; the moment is frozen and dead. But it still works. It works because he is telling people to center their thought on the moment. If they do, then those thoughts disappear because thoughts are always about the past or the future. This then makes space for the experience of the senses.
Eckhard Tolle probably knows this and his ‘teaching’ is highly effective. It is not about fact but about effect.
What’s in a quiet moment which is not a moment and i snot quiet because it requires some brain activity? As the zen masters say: you can’t talk about it and hope to convey the road to an enlightening experience. So whoever does, is fooling you. Me included.
But as mathematicians know, you may not be able to have a quiet moment but you can get their in the ‘limit’, i.e. get closer and closer. What’s in a quiet moment? The experience of the journey since the destination is only illusory. It is always the journey.
(This brain fry was offered to you by genetic fractals. You have now deserved a break.)