Originally posted 05-10-07:
One of the first books I ever read on meditation was Be Here Now, in the early 70’s. Since then I’ve seen many references to staying in the present moment, paying attention, mindfulness, etc. but no one seems to talk about how complex the present moment is.
In the morning when I’m eating my breakfast, I try to stay in my mouth–otherwise I can find myself with an empty bowl and no memory of eating. But even in that limited environment, there are many options: the feeling of the food on my tongue, the motions of the tongue, the contact between food and teeth, the tastes. I find that if I concentrate on any one of those, the rest of them fade into the background or out of consciousness altogether. I have to close my eyes or I’m likely to get distracted by all the visual opportunities, and even if I unfocus my gaze, my mouth sensations are less intense with my eyes open. With my eyes closed, my attention can still wander to the sounds in the apartment or the neighborhood, the position and sensations of the body or on the skin.
I think that one of the most important things we can learn from meditation, in fact, is just how complex the present moment is, and just how little of it we can focus intensely on at any one time. From that we can notice how the brain, all on its on, shifts attention from one option to another. There are very complex systems in the brain that are analyzing the content of our experience from moment to moment, examining all the modalities for relevance to a situationally specific set of priorities, and shifting attention to whatever pops to the top of the list.
An interesting example of this shifting is moderated by what I call “the human being recognition module.” The kitchen in Eve’s house faces the street and the sidewalk, where there is a fair amount of pedestrian traffic, and I am amazed and amused at how often people walking by will look up at me while I wash the dishes. If you’re a passenger on the freeway, notice the difference between looking at people in passing cars by turning just your eyes or turning your head–the human being recognition module will be activated much more often by a turned head.
So what do people mean when they say you should stay in the moment? I think they mean, don’t verbalize.