What Does It Mean to “Be Aware in the Present”?

Cultivating our meditation muscles

Photo by ミスタ on photoAC

Overcoming the Habitual Cognitive Scheme

We often hear expressions such as “being aware in the present” among people who talk about, write about, and practice meditation. But what kind of mental state does this mean, exactly?

“Trying to be aware in the present” and “being aware in the present” are totally different mental states. The latter rarely occurs because it is only possible when we are freed from the filter of a cognitive scheme constructed through the force of habit.

On the other hand, the former is the state that prevents us from being aware in the present, because “trying” is one of the cognitive filter’s functions and filtering takes some time. When this temporal gap is added, the present slips away from our consciousness.

It is challenging to escape the influence of one’s filter. In order to overcome the situation, we first need to make the filter’s unconscious processes conscious. In other words, we need to examine the very moment when the filter functions so that we can become capable of choosing not to use it.

However, in many cases, and for many reasons, this moment rarely happens. Several possible reasons include:

We become so accustomed to using the cognitive filter to see the world that we are addicted to the filter, and feel insecure if we don’t use it.

Because of how swiftly our habitual response uses the filter, we usually are unable to notice its movement. Below I discuss this issue and attempt to offer some insights.

Photo by Firza Pratama on Unsplash

Time Gap Between Perception and Being Aware

While it depends on different definitions of psychological terms, it takes a fair amount of (physical) time to move between the process of having a “perception” of the sense data through the sense organs and the process of “being aware” of them. For example, in a well-known experiment by the physiologist Benjamin Libet, it was suggested that it takes several hundred milliseconds. (Many articles, however, have pointed out the methodological issues in Libet’s experiment).

What is at work between these two processes is the cognitive scheme filter, so that it is already too late if we try to observe the filter after the recognition is completed. Our “attempt” to observe mental contents doesn’t work because such an operation adds another timely process to the existing recognition and thus we inevitably miss the moment of “now.”

What can we do to be aware in the “present” without taking too much time? Libet’s experiment faced many criticisms, but the experiment may also have missed other ways for us to be aware of something without using normal cognitive procedure.

Embodying Meditation Muscle

One of the possible methods to realize “being aware in the present” is to use the habit function. By repeatedly practicing mindfulness meditation and embodying the mental act of being aware, we can reduce the time needed for a cognitive process to become aware of something.

The philosopher Thomas Kasulis, in the context of Zen meditative practice, uses the example of batting in baseball to indicate this point. He says:

The immediacy cannot be taught, but the proficiency must be practiced. After a sufficiently long period of training, the proper technique of the swing becomes second nature and the player no longer thinks about what the is doing while doing it. He begins to hit the ball better than ever. (Zen Action Zen Person, p. 59)

Kasulis emphasizes the importance of embodiment in baseball techniques in the way that repetitive training makes the skill “second nature.” In this way, the baseball player can hit the ball free of the filtering process so that s/he can have an immediate response to the ball.

However, some may object that playing baseball and practicing meditation are totally different acts. Kasulis recognizes this and says:

The primary difference between Zen training and sports training is scope. While baseball is limited to the experience of hitting, throwing, and catching a ball, Zen Buddhism attempts to train the monk for any experience. To achieve this unlimited scope, the Zen Master must train the disciple to penetrate the process of consciousness itself, rather than the specifics of any single manifestation. (Zen Action Zen Person, p. 60)

What kind of discipline training do we need to penetrate the process of consciousness (and subconsciousness/unconsciousness)?

In the last article “Is Meditation a Habituating Process?,” I discussed that the only way to make meditative awareness fully functional is to discipline the body to bring a “distraction-free” mind by embodying the eightfold path.

The eightfold path is a prescribed form prepared by ancient wisdom. By conducting repeated bodily practices in the first category of the eightfold path — correct action, correct speech, and correct livelihood — we can embody the correct mental attitude so that we can proceed to the second category, correct concentration and correct mindfulness.

In summary, we have to start with physical practice to avoid falling into a psychological trap of self-deception. As described, any mental effort to try to observe presentness will never be successful. Therefore, we first need to mold our body by imitating the “model” of the ancient masters who have already passed along the path. By doing so, without making a mental effort, we can reshape our mind according to forms reflecting the mentalities of the ancient sages. For more detail about the function of the eightfold path as a tool to habituate a meditative mind, please refer to my article.

Likewise, as we need to train to acquire baseball skills in order to hit the ball, we have to embody the correct forms and cultivate our meditation muscles. Then we can keep a sharp mind to grasp the movement of the cognitive filters as it functions during recognition. When we embody such meditation skills, we can use a fresh awareness that is prepared to observe the mental faculties.

Photo by セカンドエディション on photoAC

Anticipating the Future to Penetrate Present

In addition to the above discussion, I would like to add further explanation to make the argument about “being aware in the present” in a more precise way.

We concluded that we can approach the presentness by cultivating meditation muscle and reducing the time gap between “perception” and “being aware.” However, I suggest that in order to grasp “presence,” we also need to anticipate “future.” In a sense, our expression of “being aware in the present” is too late as well. We need to “be already aware” instead.

In other words, we need to prepare to be aware of the cognitive filter in advance. In order to look past the function of the cognitive scheme, we need to do something before the process of recognition is complete.

It is the same process in hitting the ball in baseball — in order to make a good hit, we need to grasp the trajectory of the ball in advance — it is too late to start moving the mind and body when the ball comes close to the plate. In the same way, we need to anticipate the trajectory of the cognitive scheme to capture the moment that it begins to function. We need to do “pre”-caution all the time.

Therefore, our awareness must be present all the time. It sounds extremely difficult, but it is actually the most natural thing for us to do as it is our mind’s original nature.

Despite the fact, practically speaking, that our awareness is not always there because our mind is distracted by various mental faculties such as greed, anger, and ignorance (the “Three Poisons” in Buddhist teaching), we can constantly maintain “being aware in the present” only if we are liberated from those distractions that prevent the manifestation of awareness. Then we will realize the fact that awareness is indeed always “present.” Only (temporally) present awareness is (ontologically) present in this world.

Conclusion

As Kasulis argued, the scope of awareness in the example of batting in baseball may be different from the scope in meditation. However, because they both share the aim to expand awareness to a certain extent, some top sports players often talk about meditative experiences or even mention religious connotations.

Ultimately, after a long journey and intense aspiration, athletes, artists and meditators may arrive in the end at the same destination. Yet, I would suggest that meditation is a shortcut to achieve the Buddhist soteriological goal of total awakening, as it is designed to focus on cultivating awareness from the beginning to the end.

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Eiji Suhara PhD

Eiji Suhara PhD

College Teacher, Philosopher, Religious Studies Scholar, Martial Artists, and Drummer. “Practicing” various types of meditation for long years.

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