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[Chalice] Experience the Moment [Chalice]

Presented January 31, 2010, by Mike Flanagan

Listen to a recording of "Experience the Moment"
36:41 minutes - 14.7 MB - Experience the Moment .mp3 file.

Opening Words:

Hannah Arendt: The Life of the Mind (pp. 105-106):

"The metaphor, bridging the abyss between inward and invisible mental activities and the world of appearances, was certainly the greatest gift language could bestow on thinking and hence on philosophy, but the metaphor itself is poetic rather than philosophical in origin. It is therefore hardly surprising that poets and writers attuned to poetry rather than to philosophy should have been aware of its essential function. Thus we read in a little-known essay by Earnest Fenollosa, published by Ezra Pound and so far as I know never mentioned in the literature on the metaphor: "Metaphor is . . . the very substance of poetry"; without it, "There would have been no bridge whereby to cross from the minor truth of the seen to the major truth of the unseen.""

(The essay, "The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry," edited by Ezra Pound in Instigations (1967).)


Alan Watts, from the last book he wrote, Tao: The Watercourse Way (p.96):

". . . Buddhists and Taoists alike speak of the sage as one who has no desires . . . is it even possible not to desire? Trying to get rid of desire is, surely, desiring not to desire. Any project to suppress desire would . . . imply that "I" am some separate potency which can either subdue desire or be subdued by it. Wu-wei is to roll with experiences and feelings as they come and go, . . . This is called "flowing with the moment," though it can happen only when it is clear that there is nothing else to do, since there is no experience which is not now. . . ."


There is a passage from James Joyce's Ulysses (Episode 3 - Proteus) that I want to read to you. I hope it will serve as an illustration of some of the ideas I want to present to you here, today. Any reading from Ulysses needs some preparation and explanation. Joyce is just that rich. Stephen Dedalus is an autobiographical character based upon Joyce's own experiences. Stephen at age twenty-two, is a self-conscious young man whose identity is still in formation. That's the first important parallel to the subject of this talk. I'm going to ignore the poetry of Joyce's speech, and his amazing vocabulary. And I'm going to ignore the larger context of Ulysses: Joyce's chronicle of Dublin on the day of June 16, 1904.

What I want us to notice in this short passage, is that Stephen is conducting a thought experiment, he is walking along a beach, late in the morning, by himself. In this scene, Joyce presents us with a stream of consciousness. We will hear Stephen talking to himself, see that Stephen and "himself" are in a dialogue with each other. Stephen is by "himself." Actually there is a third voice in this passage. It is the voice of a narrator who inserts a couple of lines to illustrate and describe the scene. Joyce begins the episode with these words: "INELUCTABLE MODALITY OF THE VISIBLE: AT LEAST THAT IF NO MORE." And as the opening paragraph comes to an end:

"Shut your eyes and see.

Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells. You are walking through it howsomever. I am, a stride at a time. A very short space of time through very short times of space. Five, six: the nacheinander (one after the other, in succession, in a series). Exactly: and that is the ineluctable modality of the audible. Open your eyes. No. Jesus! If I fell over a cliff that beetles o'er his base, fell through the nebeneinander (next to each other, side by side) ineluctably. I am getting on nicely in the dark. My ash sword hangs at my side. Tap with it: they do. My two feet in his boots are at the end of his legs, nebeneinander. Sounds solid: made by the mallet of Los Demiurgos. Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand? Crush, crack, crick, crick. Wild sea money. Dominie Deasy kens them a'.

Won't you come to Sandymount, Madeline the mare?

Rhythm begins, you see. I hear. A catalectic tetrameter of iambs marching. No, agallop: deline the mare.

Open your eyes now. I will. One moment. Has all vanished since? If I open and am for ever in the black adiaphane (opacity, opaque, opaqueness - not transparent or apparent). Basta! I will see if I can see.

See now. There all the time without you: and ever shall be, world without end."

A thought experiment. Stephen played peek-a-boo with the world of appearance. Close your eyes and the world disappears. Open them again, will the world still be there, or will all be blackness? It was a very small moment in Stephen's life. And we've barely scratched the surface of its richness. It was a moment overflowing with meaning for the "Stephen" who experienced it. Joyce's re-telling of that moment adds its richness to the literature of the English language, and to the lives of each of his readers.

Today, I want to share with you a moment that I experienced once when I was a self-conscious young man whose identity was still in formation. My moment, much like Stephen's was a thought experiment. My surroundings were quite different from Stephen's. I wasn't walking along the beach at Sandymount Strand. And I didn't close my eyes. I was simply sitting on the grass, in Golden Gate Park; staring, meditating upon the scenery in front of me. Nothing more than a stand of trees. It was a comfortable day. Cool and overcast, as San Francisco often is, but not chilly. Visually, we could note that it wasn't a bright, sunshiney day; the light wasn't harsh, it was diffused and muted.

The specifics of the physical surroundings have little to do with the moment that I experienced. But it is easier describing anything physical than it is trying to describe a moment in thought. What sort of language can I use to describe what goes on inside my mind? It is more difficult for me than for James Joyce. I don't possess his wonderful and amazing facility with languages.

The first concept we need to address this morning is this thing called time. A specific kind of time is our subject today. Time, as it is experienced by human beings. I'm not going to talk about history here. We are going to be talking about the kind of time that we human beings experience.

There are many memories that are fun to recall. I have fond memories from the mid-1960s when I began spending my Sunday mornings in this very space. I remember the first time I saw Leann. I remember when Laura was born. Other memories are not so happy. I can recall vividly, the impact that the deaths of JFK, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy had on me.

Memory is tied to the past. I have no memory of tomorrow, yet. Tomorrow, I hope that I will awaken, like I did today. I expect that many of the daily routines that I've practiced in my past will play out again during my tomorrow. Next week; that's more iffy. We try to visualize - to plan - in our imaginations - some of what we want to do next week. We know that our plans are contingent upon many factors over which we have no control. What we can control, we control using a mental faculty that is often called, will. Today, we want to take note that this mental faculty called will is tied to the future in a manner similar to the way memory is tied to the past.

Today, we are going to spend a lot of time talking about that tiny little space in the middle. The "moment" between the past and the future. I've chosen to call it a "moment." Others have called it, "Now," "The Present." You can call it anything you want. There are big moments, and then there are little moments. Remember that we're not dealing here with the historical moment. Today, we are dealing with human perceptions; our human perception of time; the way time seems to us. We're dealing with that tiny space between the past that has gone and the future that does not yet exist.


What were you thinking just then? During that moment when there were no words floating through this air for all of us to share? That was one particular kind of human moment. Can you re-call it? Does it seem trivial to you?

Can you remember a day that went by so fast that you simply didn't know where the time went? Most days? How about a moment when everything seemed to be happening in slow motion? Have you ever experienced one of those moments when it seemed that time stood still? The kind of moment I want us to concentrate on this morning, is a very tiny thing. And then we want to look at the phenomenon of the stream of these tiny moments that can make time seem as if it is happening in slow motion. Think about a time when your life was in danger. I can recall times when I was avoiding an accident. Times when I thought that a crash was in my immediate future. It seemed that there was an endless string of decisions that had to be made. All of those decisions had to be made correctly and acted upon correctly, or else I was going to crash. It is the most extreme case, and it is driven by fear. Can you recall a moment like that without having to recall the fear in it? Can you just pay attention to how it seemed to you that time was passing. How it seemed that each tiny moment was separate and distinct.

Let's try to find another example. Let's see if we can move away from our dependence upon fear. There are sports figures who make those minute decisions one after another during the course of their game. For sports stars there is first, a level of elevated concentration; and then there is the quality of the series of perceptions, decisions and responses that separate the stars from the merely good. This past fall, I attended a high-school reunion. Visiting with a former high school basketball star, he told how he had started his career as a coach, and turned out to be not very good at it. He made the distinction between his being quick to understand what he could do in a game as a player, and his inability to communicate that understanding to others as a coach. He became a school administrator, instead.

Maybe a better example would be a Jazz Musician, improvising. Though each piece of music has structure, is based upon some familiar tune and upon a given pattern of chords; the individual musician is attempting to place an instant of sound or an instant of silence, very precisely, into the mood of the room. Ideally, I would hope that there would be no fear here; and no competitive desire, either. Ideally, I would hope that each player was simply tuned to be a conduit between the reality of this moment, and a necessity for the next moment to be "right."

But we've missed our mark, again. I'm looking for an activity, which is done without a "Will," without a desire, without a plan, without a pre-conception about the future. Without anything else to do. Perhaps there isn't a good example for what I want to tell you about.

The one characteristic that my examples have in common is the tiny-ness of the slice of time that these moments occupy. Inherent in each of these examples is a desire to influence the future; an exercise of the will. Think back to Stephen Dedalus, walking along the beach, closing his eyes, listening to his footsteps crushing the sand-dollars as he walked, and think of him observing how his mind was interacting with his perceptions. He didn't have anything else to do.

I think it may be impossible to imagine not thinking; to imagine not remembering, to imagine not desiring, to imagine not imagining. It may be impossible to imagine purposelessness. But please try to conjure in your imagination, this man, much younger, sitting on the grass, staring at the trees, expecting nothing from the next minute, or the next hour. Content to stay right where he is, not knowing nor wanting to know when he might take a notion to move. Sitting, staring, meditating, motionless, lost in thought. Think of it as a narcissistic exercise if you must, but understand that this young man was totally absorbed both in his own thoughts and in examining the content of his thought. Like James Joyce's Stephen, I was of two minds. I was there in the moment. And there was a "myself" beside me who was examining my thoughts as they flowed through my consciousness.

As I try to re-imagine this scene, I think about how I must have appeared to a passerby; I think of a squirrel who has just noticed a movement or a danger. He stops, seemingly aware of being watched. He freezes in place and compares his moments one with the next, looking for signs of movement and threat. The squirrel's twitchy tail stops twitching. He is motionless. When I think back to that day, I probably looked a little bit squirrely.

So, I'm sitting on the grass. It is a comfortable day. The sound of city traffic is not far away, but it is not distracting. Myself is observing how my visual perception - Joyce's "Ineluctable modality of the visible" - enters into my consciousness. There is a sort of elasticity in my visual perception. As I stretch towards the woods in front of my eyes, I somehow leave behind both the "myself" that is looking over my shoulder, and the "me" that is seeing the woods. It feels as if I "Enter Into" the scene and leave all of my thoughtfulness behind. In this moment, it is almost as if both I and myself cease to exist. All thought, all memory, and all desire are gone and the woods before me pops into a super-reality. The scene is vibrant and vivid. It is as if a fog has been lifted, a cataract has been removed.

The "myself" looking over my shoulder seems involuntarily to raise a question, "What just happened?" Curiosity draws me to look once again at the scene I saw, but now the veil has been restored, the vivaciousness of the scene is no longer there. I sit there playing with the content of my stream of consciousness, I stretch, for a second time, into that surreal view of the moment, and I find it is a different moment than the one that I saw before. I can tell, because the memory of that first moment isn't the same as this newer memory I have of this newer moment.

I stretch again through that veil of consciousness, and enter into the scene of yet another moment. Again I compare it to other moments in my memory, it too changes and becomes yet another memory of this, the newest moment. And my thoughts turn into confusion. My clarity leaves me and I am no longer able to continue. The whole experiment becomes but a memory. An imperfect re-collection of a stream of moments.

There were three "me's" in that thought experiment: First, there was a me, very much like the me you see before you, here and now. There was also a sort of super-me, who was looking over my shoulder, making comments, observing my actions and observing my consciousness. And then there was a third "me." And this is the one that is a rarity. I think of it as a very primitive, animal "me." The me that perceives my surroundings. A "me" that isn't primary until thinking, and memories, and imagination, and desire can all be brought to a halt.

William Blake, in his The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Plate number 14) described this phenomenon by saying: "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern."

It is time to quote Hannah Arendt again. I read her book, The Life of the Mind, last summer, and she handed me both the logical framework to make sense of this long-ago experience, and some of the vocabulary I've used to express it.

Memory is the mother of the Muses, and remembrance, the most frequent and also the most basic thinking experience, has to do with things that are absent, that have disappeared from my senses. Yet the absent that is summoned up and made present to my mind - a person, an event, a monument - cannot appear in the way it appeared to my senses, as though remembrance were a kind of witchcraft. In order to appear to my mind only, it must first be de-sensed, and the capacity to transform sense-objects into images is called "imagination." Without this faculty, which makes present what is absent in a de-sensed form, no thought processes and no trains of thought would be possible at all. . . While thinking I am not where I actually am; I am surrounded not by sense-objects but by images that are invisible to everybody else. It is as though I had withdrawn into some never-never land, the land of invisibles, of which I would know nothing had I not this faculty of remembering and imagining. Thinking annihilates temporal as well as spatial distances. I can anticipate the future, think of it as though it were already present, and I can remember the past as though it had not disappeared.

I found it significant that inside of this wandering mind of mine, I discovered the profound distinction between that vivid and surreal perception of a moment on the one hand, and the memory of that perception on the other! I think of my experience as a discovery, as a natural scientist might. It is a phenomenon I observed "in the wild." It is a very "down-deep" reflection of a self's consciousness. A kind of self-consciousness that I'm not able to imagine being experienced by just any squirrel. I wonder if it is a style of self-consciousness that is peculiarly human.

I was so pleased to read Hannah Arendt's intellectually rigorous telling of what happens in the stream of consciousness - when she says it, it all seems obvious. As I read Hannah Arendt's book I found words that made my experience more coherent, more easily understandable; in a certain sense, more real - than I had been able to conjure in all these years, since.

As I continue to process my memory of that long-ago experience, I am drawn to wonder if the presence of the "myself" that is beside me and looking over my shoulder, might be what others call their conscience. Perhaps there are others who think of it as the presence of God, a personal God? I'm speculating. When I try to make sense of what goes on inside my head, I'm not at all sure that others will understand the terms I use to describe my experience. It is an extremely complicated subject to survey.

There probably have been others who have had something to say about these things. James Joyce is a tough read, and I don't understand everything of his that I read; but James Joyce probably got it mostly right. I read quite a bit of Freud, many years ago. Quite frankly, I didn't "Get it." When he spoke of the Id, the Ego and the Super-Ego, it didn't connect with me. I think it was because it seemed he was talking about what he observed in others that I found him distant and remote. It probably just went over my head.

I found resonance and congruence in the work of Hannah Arendt. I can confirm, from my own experience, that the workings of this human's mind have been accurately represented by Hannah Arendt in her book, The Life of the Mind. I needed to see myself reflected in the mirror of her words before I could even attempt communicating that rare experience from so many years ago. Her words, her metaphors found a space to resonate in my memory of that experience of the moment.

Closing Words:

"I want to work in revelations, not just spin silly tales [for money]. I want to fish as deep down as possible into my own subconscious in the belief that once that far down, everyone will understand because they are the same that far down."

-- Jack Kerouac

©2010 Mike Flanagan

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Flanagan, Michael 2010. Experience the Moment, /talks/20100131.shtml (accessed July 9, 2020).

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