Category Archives: Cognition

When this moment pales by comparison

Recently we went on an outing to a narrow peninsula that juts out into the Pacific, cupping Drakes Bay, called Chimney Rock. A beautiful place any time by any standards, but there is a certain time in the Spring when this narrow stretch of land with its steep cliffs on either side is thick with fields of wildflowers, seals birth their young on the beach below, and migrating whales pass by on their way north.

How could we not go every year to such a spectacular place? Well it is a long drive, but the real reason we don’t is that one visit many years ago was so special, so magical that for at least a few years after that I didn’t want to go again, lest I dilute that perfect memory of that previous experience.

Have you ever had the fear of losing an experience by trying to repeat it? My students did. One said she feels like she can never go back to Venice, because it was so exquisite. I totally understand this. We don’t want to mess with that perfect memory, diminish it by imposing new memories on the same place.

But are we then just collectors of memories? What does this say about who we believe ourselves to be?

Remember when we explored the Five Aggregates. One of the Aggregates was cognition, how our thinking brain perceives the world and the knowledge base we accumulate. We enjoy adding a new lovely memory, like a jewel to add to the crown of remembered experience we hold to be an important part of who we are. What a Deluxe Dukkha* Delivery System that is!

Even if we are able to retain memories our whole life, if we enshrine them, they lure us into the past, away from this moment. We pull them out and admire them when we don’t want to face what is. But life is not enriched by living elsewhere in our minds, in other times or places. We cause suffering for ourselves and for those around us, who may feel they are not enough to hold our attention, or whose concerns cannot be met because we are in a state of avoidance. (This is not to diminish the richness of sharing stories with loved ones who ask to hear them. But if the need is strong to live in the past, then it becomes clear this is an escape from something in the present.)

Beyond the fear of polluting a perfect memory, there are other reasons a repeated experience pales by comparison with the first time. Any brand new experience tends to get our full attention, doesn’t it? We are more likely to be present with whatever is going on, to notice the light, the texture and other sensory details of that moment.

The next time we go to the same place or eat the same meal, it’s just harder to pay the same level of attention. What was new before is no longer new, just a part of our ongoing experience of being in the world. Not memorable. Give us a daily dose, like a commute, and most of us will stop noticing large portions of our experience altogether. We might remember something noticeably different from usual, but the rest is just wallpaper to our day. To create that sense of aliveness, we feel we must keep traveling to different places we’ve never been, try new restaurants, new dishes, new forms of entertainment, new adventures, new outfits, or new decor.

The body of precious memory we carry — That magical carpet of wildflowers! That gondola ride! — acts as a powerful obscuring filter through which we see (or don’t see!) the current moment. We cannot recreate the first time we encountered something new. It is gone. But we hold it tight and get caught up in comparing mind.

Between not paying attention to what is and looking through the filter of what was, how is it possible to engage in this second experience with the same rapt attention?

The other day when we got out to Chimney Rock, there was a perfectly horizontal stripe of light mist in Drake’s Bay that made it appear to be a modernist landscape. As we headed down the path toward the point we encountered a female tule elk that kept running around and squatting. Given her bulky middle section she might have been giving birth.

We saw a little mole peeking out of his hole — exciting in the wild, less so in the garden. And then the wildflowers started revealing themselves, plenty of variety, lots of beauty. Okay, maybe it’s not a solid carpet of flowers like that one magical time, but this would not be a bust.

Then we saw our first whale. Phew! Comparing mind was beginning to relax. But then it became a comparing numbers game. How many whales would we see? That one magical time we saw a pod of whales, mothers and babies, and we followed them all around the point. It had been such a still day we could even hear their calls.

This time while out at the point having a picnic, we met two retired women from the East Bay who said they come every year to Chimney Rock. We enjoyed watching the whales with them, five all together, and there was a peregrine falcon sitting nearby on the cliff’s edge for an exhilarating few seconds before he flew off. Okay! This was it’s very own quite spectacular day.

But what if this trip was a bust? If nothing had met our expectations? One time
we went on a hike up in the mountains around Carson Pass in the Sierra. The trail from Woods Lake up to Lake Winnemucca in an El Nino year had a wildflower display that was unbelievably gorgeous. Two years later we returned in hopes of replicating our first experience, but all we got was a muddy trail and an occasional flower here and there. We turned back and found another trail we hadn’t tried before.

How much of this disappointment is the environment and how much is our minds? Being relieved that the environment supplied sufficient beauty and diversity is not the same as coming to ‘beginner’s mind’ where whatever the experience, we are at home in our breath, present in the moment, alive.

When we meditate we might compare this meditation to one we did before. Perhaps we had experienced a state of bliss. Had we only known we would turn around and use this exquisite experience as an instrument of torture in every subsequent meditation, it would not have been so blissful!

So what can we do?

First we can notice our comparing mind and smile at its capacity to get itself caught up in a tangle, like a little kitten in a ball of yarn. “Oh sweetheart, look at you, caught up in the tangle again,” and then we can bring our attention back to the present.

When we are present there isn’t much room for comparing mind. And when it crops up we recognize it for what it is — the desire to replicate joy. That’s not such a bad motivation, but as we see it in action we see that it causes us, and sometimes those around us, to suffer. Oh it’s not a terrible suffering, but it tends to suck the joy right out of our experience, and often out of the experience of those around us. It becomes a habit of mind, a chronic state that does a disservice to the moment we are in, the only moment that exists, the only moment we have to savor.

What makes a magical moment anyway?  if we are truly present, fully anchored in awareness of physical sensation, of the sights, sounds, aromas, tastes and texture of this moment, we discover our full capacity to be alive, and that is joyful, whatever is going on.


Spend a few minutes right now, wherever you are, just noticing what’s going on in this moment. 
For example, as I write this: The last light is on the trees waving in the breeze (pleasant), which is also rustling some paper by the open window (mildly unpleasant). There are bird sounds (pleasant twittering and mildly unpleasant squawks) and a distant hum of commute traffic. The air, so hot all day, is cooling. My stomach is feeling the urge to get some dinner cooking. I notice both the desire to finish this writing and the urge to get up. (At odds, but not totally unpleasant while just observing it.) 
I could go on, but tell me, what is this precious moment like for you?

*Dukkha is the Sanskrit word for suffering.

‘Am I what I know and how I know it?’

We continue to explore the Buddha’s Five Aggregates in the Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness. We have looked at material form and feeling tones. Now we will look at cognition.

Cognition is the way we organize the information we take in as we experience the world. The brain develops a highly complex system of assessing, comparing, categorizing and ordering experience into patterns that make them instantly retrievable, so we can make informed decisions at any given moment.

My youngest granddaughters are at the stage of life where everyone around them is telling them the name, color, shape, size and use of any particular object. They are busy building their information organizing system. I am fortunate to be part of the team of caregivers who help them develop their systems. It does sometimes strikes me as funny that on babysitting day, I point to an object and say ‘chair’ and maybe add other information like ‘green’; while on dharma teaching day, in the same room, I might point to the same object and ask my students to consider that, on an atomic level, that same object is not so solid, not so ‘chair’ and not so ‘green’ as it appears.

We tend to skip thinking on an atomic level and accept the solid-seeming nature of the world around us because it makes it easy to get around. Our brains do a great job of connecting the dots, organizing the information into useful patterns. But we can take one step more and develop the awareness that it is just a convenient shorthand that we are agreeing to use. With this awareness we can still fully function within the system, but we can hold it more lightly.

When we get attached to our solid understanding of the world and ourselves, we suffer. Because things fall apart. If we trusted them to be solid, then we are shocked and betrayed when they prove themselves to be impermanent. Next time something you were used to changes or disappears, notice your thoughts, emotions and sensations. Is suddenly everything thrown out of whack? Does it threaten your sense of rightness? This is being tossed about on a sea of causes and conditions that are not in our control. How do we learn to surf in these conditions instead of drown in them?

How attached are you to the way you process information?If we are highly knowledgeable or capable of processing certain kinds of information, we might feel a sense of pride and believe it to be who we are. Conversely, if we feel we aren’t competent in a particular way, it can be a source of discomfort or even shame.

Since we were children we have probably been given compliments and applause for displaying these skill sets or made to feel inadequate in some way when we struggle with learning, figuring things out, etc. We have internalized all of it and made it into identifying aspects of our ‘self’, whom we hold ourselves to be. We can’t change our childhood, but we can see through the conclusions we accepted as true. Think of labels you apply to yourself in regard to intelligence.

One student emailed me the day after class about an insight that came up for her. Being good at math has always been a part of how she sees herself. When that skill set is not as reliable as it once was, she gets upset with herself. Her ‘aha!’ moment came when she realized that she isn’t as physically agile as she once was either, but since she isn’t so vested in that ability, since it isn’t a strong part of who she believes herself to be, she’s much more accepting of that change. In this insight she saw for herself how suffering arises from believing herself to be ‘a person who is good at math’.

This is how insight meditation is meant to work: We get some new information — from something we read or hear, or maybe from pausing as we walk in nature — that stirs something up inside, and then in our own way, at our own pace, we come to an insight. This process is not a struggling intellectual exercise, but simply a spacious awareness that allows us to see more clearly thoughts as they arise.

Take a moment now to notice some facility you have that readily comes to mind when you think of who you are. If that facility were no longer so facile, would you still be you? If not, you are holding on tight to something insubstantial and thereby potentially causing yourself to suffer unnecessarily. This is a noticing, so you are not going to instantly let go of this sense of identity just because you saw it. But the seeing it is creating spaciousness so that the belief can exist, but its impact is lessened. With continued compassionate noticing, it will loosen its grip more and more.

What we learn from our own noticing is the valuable lesson that stays with us. If you have such an aha! I suggest you write it down in the words as they came to you. Keep that ‘note to self’ with you and refer to it again and again when you need it. This becomes your personal journey that is giving you the answers you need right now.