version of: July 18, 2004
Chapter 13: Snapshots
Each moment we are free. There is nothing that binds us. There may be the appearance of a story that has tremendous momentum, but the whole story together with its semblance of momentum is all given in the snapshot of the moment. If we seem totally caught in the story, caught up in it, or even caught by it, all of that is part of the meaning conveyed by the content of the snapshot. The same is true for our sense of identity, our identification with the role we play in the story.
Experiment 2.1.: A Sense of Embedding
Sit quietly for a few minutes, and then go back to the null experiment of chapter 8, exp. 1.2: `do nothing.' While watching what comes up in your mind, in the form of thoughts or feelings, images, memories, and so on, gently shift your attention away from what comes up to the fact that it comes up and then disappears again.
We normally view ourselves to be part of a time continuum, with the present moment preceded by a long personal history and an even much longer history of the universe. Similarly, we lean into a future that stretches out in front of us, from the next moment to our far future plans to an even further future time when we won't be here any more.
Notice how this sense of being embedded in a time continuum is something that comes as part of the snapshot of the current moment. If this snapshot would be all there is, we would still have the same vivid sense of being bound up in time. Experiment with switching from the story contained in the snapshot to the presence of the snapshot, as a snapshot.
It is good to start with short sessions, perhaps one or two minutes, up to five minutes. After a while, you can make them longer. As before, be careful to take notes after each session. If you do this a few times a day, for a total of a week, it will be interesting to look back through your notes, to see how new insights and news facets of the experiments have come up, and how that has shifted your understanding of the present.
In the previous chapter, we introduced a set of experiments that culminated in reversing the subject-object relationship between you and all that is positioned around you in space and time. Instead of you looking back at past events and anticipating future events, you let all of the past look forward at you and all of the future remember you.
As a result of that experiment, the felt status of the present, and of you as the central inhabitant of your present experience, was probably shifted in rather definite ways. The current experiment invites you to continue to explore this type of shift. As before, precision here is important, which is the reason to emphasize the taking of detailed lab notes.
When we let everything around us in space look at us, instead of us looking at the objects, we literally feel less ego-centric. We naturally relax our tight identification with the center of the field of our experience. We can feel our body and mind relax, our eyes grow softer, and we can sense more of a felt intimacy with objects around us that normally seem to be more separate from us.
Similarly, when we let everything in time take a subject role with respect to us as an object pole, we tend to spread our identification more broadly over our experienced past and future, rather than centering narrowly on our present time and space. Paradoxically, this broader view can be relaxed even further by letting the current moment swallow all of past and future.
In the space case, we realized that our experience of a wall across the room is as much part of our experience as our experience of our own body, and our experience of our own thoughts. The felt sense of distance is also part of our experience, but as experience, the experience of the wall is not in some way further away from us than any other experience we can have.
With this realization, we can begin to loosen up the sense of distance and separation between us and the world of objects we find ourselves in. Combining these rational considerations with an experimental investigation based on subject-object reversal, we can explore scientifically what feels like a poetic and artistic form of intimacy with the world around us.
In the time case, we can make a similar move, realizing that any memory we have of the past and any expectation about the future are actually not separate from us in time. Any memory concerning the past is a present memory of the past, and similarly, any expectation we may have is an expectation that we currently have, in the present, about the future.
In this way, by spreading ourselves further out over past and future, we actually find that we can embrace all that in the present, but in a clearly more enriched sense of presence of the present, in which past and future are included. Poets, mystics and philosophers have hinted at the richness this can entail; Spinoza's sub specie aeternitatis (under the aspect of eternity) is just one example.
The theoretical and experimental implications of this `presencing' shift are profound. We can recognize our experienced sense of present and past to have the status of pictures in a mirror, a form of appearance without presence. All the information is still there, yet the weight that comes with substantial solidity is lifted.
As always in science, it is essential to get a firm experimental foothold, before trying to draw specific theoretical conclusions. Therefore, it is very important to put speculation concerning these matters on hold, until you have started to explore what actually happens when you make the switch from living in a thin sliver of time to living in a rich snapshot.
It would be easy to use logic and philosophy to argue in favor or against what has been written so far above. However, such exercises are only likely to prejudice you against facing up to honest experiments. It is better, at this stage, to simply put all thoughts about analysis and interpretation aside, for the time being.
Just allow yourself to enjoy the taste of freedom that comes with seeing your life as an unfolding story that has no deadening momentum in it, that can go any which way in each next moment. Don't worry, for now, whether that freedom is perhaps only a form of fantasy. We'll come back to that question when we turn toward a more theoretical mode. First things first.
In a dream, even in a very short dream fragment, we consider ourselves to be part of a spread-out past-present-future continuum. It would be hard to see ourselves in any other way, since this is how we have learned to interpret our waking experience, which forms the main model for our dreams.
After we wake up from a dream, and look back at our dream experience, we can easily see how the implied past and future in our dream were doubly unreal. Already the world of the dream present, encountered at a given moment within the dream, was not real, but only a dream world created in our consciousness. But the more distant past in the dream was doubly unreal, since it was not even experienced in the dream!
Similarly, the future, beyond the period covered by the dream, was only hinted at within the dream world, a virtual extension of what was already a virtual world. Yet each moment of a normal dream is completely soaked in future and past: walking a few steps is implicitly given as walking from a place you were a while ago to a place where you will be later, even if you walk without any specific plan or purpose.
But the next moment does not have to obey this logic: sooner or later the dreamer wakes up, and sees the double unreality of the dream future. This is particularly clear when in the dream you were just about to experience something very desirable or very abhorrent. It may take you a while to realize that you have woken up, after first wondering why the expected event did not happen, and then realizing that even the experienced events never really happened.
A Working Hypothesis
Taking our dream experience as an example, it is easy to see how our felt sense of the reality of past and future are only that: a felt sense, without any direct proof. Everything that is given by our sensory experience takes place in the present. Past and future are merely inferred.
If we can bring up the discipline to postpone any conclusion as to the truth of the existence of past and future, we can quickly enter a rich world of new forms of experience. You are not asked to accept or deny the existence of past and future. The challenge is precisely to do neither, and to leave the question open, while investigating only the experimental evidence, without drawing unwarranted conclusions either way.
Absence of proof for the existence of something does not imply its non-existence. It only means that its existence is not automatically guaranteed. And this implies that it is wise to explore the consequences of the possibility that there would be no such existence.
As a working hypothesis, imagine that you would somehow have received convincing evidence that the past and present have no reality beyond what is given in the present. How would you react to that news? And as a first step in trying to work out the consequences of this working hypothesis, how would you experience such a situation?
When we experiment with viewing the present as a snapshot, the point is not to treat it as an infinitesimally short moment in time. For one thing, we normally don't resolve events in time that are more closely spaced than about 1/20th of a second. For another, a very short snapshot would freeze any motion, and in practice we can clearly experience the state of motion of objects passing us.
What the exact duration of a snapshot, in our sense, should be is an interesting question. An good upper limit would be three seconds, since there is evidence that this is the maximum time that we can keep events in mind while still feeling them as more or less present.
From a technical point of view, the best definition of a snapshot would probably be some form of weighting function centered at the exact present, with a full-width-half-maximum of a significant fraction of a second, and wings reaching out to a few seconds in either direction of time.
However, such a technical definition would be misleading, and only makes sense from within a picture in which we have already decided that past and present actually exist, in order to define our weighting procedure. It would be like measuring the extrinsic curvature of a cylinder, by measuring it in three dimensions.
If we measure the intrinsic curvature of a cylinder, by rolling out its surface, together with all the pictures that we may have drawn on it, we see that the curvature thus defined is zero. A two-dimensional ant crawling within and along the surface of a cylinder will never be able to measure the extrinsic curvature: for that, the ant has to leave the surface.
A sphere, however, does have intrinsic curvature: intuitively, we cannot roll out its surface without tearing or stretching it; more formally, when we measure the three angles of a triangle, for example, we find a value larger than 180 degrees, while we always find exactly 180 degrees for a triangle drawn on a cylinder.
Similarly, while the extrinsic duration of a snapshot could be said to be of order a second or so, the intrinsic duration of a snapshot in our terms is exactly zero. Our sense of motion, for example, feels like an instantaneous property of a moving object, right here in the present; it is only the extrinsic procedure of taking a picture that would imply the need for a duration in order to show motion.
Because the current experiment is more radical than any of the experiments we have carried out before, in part 1, it is very important to include anything in your lab notes that you can notice as possibly having anything to do with this new experiment.
Try to notice even faint and vague aspects of a change in atmosphere or general feeling tones that appear when you make the switch from sliding through a time continuum to floating in a snapshot. Try not to imagine what to expect when doing the experiment: rather just do the experiment, and jot down what happens, whether or not it makes sense or was or was not expected.
The worst that can happen is that you later conclude that a certain fraction of your notes were, after all, perhaps not relevant or interesting. Even so, don't discard or prune your notes -- a first rule in doing lab experiments is to keep complete records, coffee stains and all in case of paper note books.
If you take notes on a computer, it would be a good discipline to make your files read-only immediately after each lab session, so as to explicitly prevent any cleaning up or pruning you might be tempted to do at the end of an experiment. Later on, perhaps much later, you might find clues and hints that may turn out to be interesting in the light of what you have learned in the mean time.
Of course, all this talk about making notes and later referring to them buys into the conventional picture of dealing with past and future. But this does in no way invalidate our approach. When we switch to a snapshot picture of reality, we still keep all these notions of a past and future intact. The information in them does not change.
The difference is one of status: even if a picture in a mirror carries the same information as the picture of an object in front of the mirror, we assign a very different status to the picture in the mirror. We wouldn't try to grab behind the mirror in order to try to pick up an imputed object behind a reflection. We don't feel attached to a reflection the way we might feel attached to an actual object.
How does your attachment to past and future change, when you seriously perform the experiments described above? Does this change your mood, your sense of choice and freedom? How does your body react, when you make the switch?
Do your shoulders or eyes or breathing feel different? If they feel more relaxed, in what way? And by allowing them to relax further, does that in turn feed back in your ability to do the experiment more fully? Can you go deeper into the experiment by finding and moving some type of mental muscles you didn't know you had?
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