What appears to be a single multifaceted response to a moment of life is, if you look closely, several steps that occur in rapid succession. They happen in a particular order. Every time. The steps come fast like falling dominoes, so the impression is that they occur concurrently. As if all of a piece.
But slow it down – look at it in slow motion – and you will see there are in fact discrete stages. And it matters. Oh, it does matter. Discovering this in your own experience has everything to do with innocence: what it is to encounter any moment of life with freshness, unburdened by the freight of accumulated experience and belief. It’s what it is to be really alive, really here, without experiencing everything through the contorted lenses of the ego.
I am no brain scientist. This is something I’ve discovered directly, by observing what happens in my experience. A scientist could doubtless do a better job of naming these three fleeting stages of awareness, but I’ll describe them the best I can.
First, there is perception. The senses detect something out there (or something in here, if the momentary experience being given attention is inside the body). This first step is on the level of pure sensation. Data collection. Perhaps a felt response in the body. Even if it’s a moderate physical pain in your body, you haven’t yet come to the point of saying Uh-oh, I wonder what’s going on. Language and concept have not kicked in.
These three things – perception, mental fathoming, and ego-processing – while they appear to come simultaneously, in fact are distinct, and occur in that order.
Immediately following that, the mind begins its accustomed processing. Here is where the names for things come into awareness, where previously learned information is stirred to life. You are reminded of categories, of connections between things, of causality and pattern. Here is where you become able to anticipate what might be next, to see ramifications. This processing occurs without evaluation or emotional charge. Nothing, yet, is seen as good or bad. It’s a matter of fact, at this point – at least, as best the mind can determine. It isn’t about you, at this stage.
The third step is where things get interesting. Where the trouble often starts. The ego gets busy, with the support of the mind, making up a story, going into resistance, fear, anger, explanation. Interpreting in terms of you, figuring out whether this moment of life is welcome or a nuisance, why it’s happening, what it might portend for you or another. This is where investment starts up, where emotion gets generated, in response to the ego-mind’s take on what’s happening.
If what the senses detect, at the initial stage, is immediate physical threat, the animal body that you fundamentally are simply responds in the way it must to keep alive, bypassing steps two and three, or perhaps postponing them until (if) the crisis is survived. The name for the threat does not need to come to you in order for you to brace yourself, or to turn and flee. At a life-threatening moment, there is doubtless a feeling in the body, having to do with adrenaline, probably among other physical processes.
What we’re looking at here is the 99.9% of life where there is no one coming at you with a hatchet or a truck, but the inside of you is behaving and feeling as though there were.
If you watch, you will see that these three things – perception, mental fathoming, and ego-processing – while they appear to come simultaneously, in fact are distinct, and occur in that order. Every single time. It has been this way forever.
If some night you come upon a building on fire – say, a building in a town you’re driving through on a trip far from home, a place unknown to you – at the sight of the flames sending sparks into the black sky, the roar of the conflagration (your senses captivated), what may ride into your body with the visual and auditory and olfactory data may be a rush of something like . . . excitement . . . at the unprocessed physical spectacle of it. This happens before your mind has kicked in, reminding you that this fire represents destruction and possible loss of life. (You may have noticed this feeling of excitement even with a building closer to home, but in that case the original felt response was quickly eclipsed by the mind and ego rushing in with responsibility, guilt, concern.)
Right about now, you may be saying Who cares?
* * * * *
I am wanting to account for the peaceful well-being, the radical innocence, of someone whose sense of self has changed from what it once was. What is the experience of ordinary moments like, after the change?
The senses operate (wonderfully, better than before, it seems, since you’re really there for a thing). The mind may or may not engage gears; it may remain quite still in the face of sensory aliveness, with no rush to name a thing, to understand what’s happening. Just an impression of movement and color, maybe; something happening to the skin. An animal sort of encounter, primarily physical. If the mind does want (or need) to engage, in a way to process what’s happening, to understand what the senses are detecting, it does so effortlessly, functioning clearly.
But here’s the point: it isn’t inevitable that the mind will engage. It is possible – for any of us, ever – to linger at the sensory. Before words, before meaning.
And here’s the juicier point: moving on to the third step, the What do I think about this?, is far out on the spectrum. Certainly not inevitable. Seldom gone to, in fact.
This is what accounts for the radical restfulness: that the third step almost never occurs, and when it does, only when you’ve asked it to. (And then, because you have no machinery for resisting, whatever happens there isn’t experienced as a problem.) Even the second step, where mental processing occurs, isn’t inevitable.
The rest is profound. You’re just here, aware. Not wearing yourself out with processing.
But in momentary life as ordinarily experienced, these three steps are not even recognized as discrete developments. Coming to observe what’s actually going on opens a door. To put it mildly.
The idea is not to try to discipline self, as if one “should” stop short of the third step, or maybe even the second. It doesn’t work that way. But just to notice the blur of dominoes – to observe the mad rush to opinion, worry, desire. To see that something happened before the ego got busy. Just watch how it happens. Come to notice the order of things. Along the way, observe how you’ve been under the impression that it all happens at once, as if contained in a single body of momentary experience. It just isn’t so. Find out for yourself.
Watch what happens then. Don’t try to make it happen. Just watch.