Sunday
Jul122009

The Thin Ice of Presence: Meaningful Meaninglessness of Now

Meaning is an association of what is now with what once was...

Take a look at any object in your immediate environment: say, you are looking at a "so-called" (I'll explain the "so-called" parenthetical in a few moments) cup. Say, I picked it up from your desk and asked: "What is this?" You'd say: "A cup." And I'd say: "No, what is this?" After a moment of bemusement, you might offer: "A mug?" And I - with the best of the poker faces - would stay firm: "No, what is this?" After a pause and/or after a little friendly prodding from me, you might suggest: "A container for liquids?" To welcome the emerging looseness of your associations, I'd kick the door of your mind with a more clue-like question: "Yes... What else could this object be?" With this prompt, you'd likely fire off a series of ideas: "A paper-weight, a weapon if you throw it, a small hand-held shovel..."

So here we are: what used to be a cup now has acquired some additional meanings, by virtue of re-association...

Where am I going with this? Okay: let me reiterate the thesis: meaning is an association. When, as kids, we first encounter a new object, we ask: "Mom/Dad, what is this?" "It's a fork," Mom/Dad programs our mind... "And this (fill in the blank)?" Mom/Dad: "This is (fill in the blank)."

Meaning is a process of filling in the blanks of the mind... with words... that trigger other words... that trigger more words...

As we grow and acquire language, we, in essence, acquire a baggage of associations that weighs us down as we try to skate the thin ice of presence.

Vladimir Nabokov, in Transparent Things, writes:

"When we concentrate on a material object <...> the very act of attention may lead to our involuntary sinking into the history of that object. Novices must learn to skim over matter if they want to stay at the exact level of the moment."

Nabokov, the great Russian-English novelist, whose own style is so ingeniously laden with association-rich detail, here, both de-constructs his own style and defines Zen:

"A thin veneer of immediate reality is spread over natural and artificial matter, and whoever wishes to remain in the now, with the now, on the now, should please not break its tension film."

Nabokov's advice is straight from Buddhism: to stay in the moment, we must somehow avoid weighing down "what is" with our pre-conceived notions of "what it means."

As we encounter reality, we continuously make meaning, i.e. we associate "what is" with "what it means." In so doing, we continuously confuse the Present for the Past. "Oh," we think with quickly fading interest, "this is a fork" as we look at a "so-called" (I'll explain the "so-called" parenthetical in a few moments) fork.

Nabokov proclaims: "Transparent things, through which the past shines!"

Yes: the Present is Transparent.

If seen as such, not through the lens of past associations, it has the proverbial clarity of enlightenment. But how elusive this way of seeing, or rather not seeing! How thin this ice of Presence!

Meaning is an artifact of the Past, not the actual fact of the Present. Things that we have not yet encountered have no meaning to us. And when we encounter something new, we are understandably startled. The more we live, the more reality we manage to label with words of meaning, the heavier is the baggage of our associations. And as we progress in time, we lose the spontaneity of the response: we've seen it all, nothing's new, everything has been already categorized...

So, instead of seeing reality as it is, we see a "so-called" reality - a reality that we so called, a reality of our own associations, a reflection of our subjective life experience, documented in the narrative of choice. Language constructs perception: first, the word, then, the perceived reality.

If we call this This "this," so it becomes "so-called."

Case in point: the ones of us who have avoided the correctional side (jails, prisons)of society look at a so-called fork and see a utensil, rather a weapon because for us this object has come to mean exactly that. An inmate or a prison guard looks at the very same fork, and sees an opportunity or a threat, respectively, i.e. a very different reality...

But in reality, we are all imprisoned in our "so-called" realities of habitual interpretation.

Buddhism, particularly in its unorthodox forms (Zen, Dzogchen), offers a way out of this prison: non-discursive thought.

Mindfulness - as a practice - can be understood as interpretive silence: witness but don't label, witness but don't describe, witness what is as it is without the lens of the past associations.

As such, mindfulness is a form of meaninglessness. And that is its existential meaning!

Seeing the reality as is, not through the distorting prism of past associations, allows us the invigorating encounter with the novelty of Now: after all, this moment that you almost dismissed as something that you've already seen, is entirely unprecedented. This Now is, in fact, the only news!

To Nabokov, skimming the Present without sinking into the Past is a miracle that befits only the most experienced: "Otherwise the inexperienced miracle-worker will find himself no longer walking on water but descending upright among staring fish" (if I may add) under the weight of past associations.

 

Pavel Somov, Ph.D., author of EATING THE MOMENT: 141 Mindful Practices to Overcome Overeting One Meal at a Time (New Harbinger, 2008)

Copyright, 2008

Sunday
Jul122009

Once is Nonce: Time Perception, Pain and Mindfulness

Callender and Edney, in their book "Introducing Time," write: "In addition to the physical time measured by various clocks, there is also psychological time" (2004, p. 8).

The problem is: there is no "physical time" since time is not a physical stimulus . Physically speaking, there is nothing to measure. Clocks don't measure - they just tick.

A thermometer measures temperature. A tire gauge measures pressure. But what does a clock measure?! Clock is the only "device" that measures nothing. Nothing, except for self-imposed pressure...

All time is psychological. All time is information processing. Let me explain...

In my doctoral dissertation "Time Perception as a Measure of Pain Intensity and Pain Type" (Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation, 14 (3), 2000, pp. 111-122), I presented the findings of my research into the interplay between pain intensity and pain type and time perception in terms of the perceived duration of an elapsed period of time.

"Elapsed period of time" - what's that?! Simple: you are in agony, in a waiting room, eager for pain relief. You stop a nurse: "When will I get to see the doctor?" Nurse: "Sir, it's been only a few minutes, have patience..." You (to self or outloud) estimate an elapsed period of time: "Only a few minutes?! It feels like it's been forever!" And it really has been - psychologically speaking!

In short, I was curious to see if pain intensity and pain type/pain quality would change the retrospective estimate of a waiting period .

You might think: okay, I see how pain intensity figures into this, but what about pain type? What does that have to do with anything?

Neuropathic and somatic pain - I reasoned - differ in terms of their "temporal" profile - i.e. in terms of how they are experienced across a period of time. Patients with neuropathic pain often depict their pain as burst-like. Meanwhile, patients experiencing somatic pain are more likely to describe their pain as "dull." In other words, neuropathic pain, in comparison to somatic pain, is dis-continuous and variable, while somatic pain is more constant in its quality, less variable.

Put simply, neuropathic pain changes a lot while somatic pain tends to stay the same over a given period of time (thus the distinction between "burst-like" vs. "dull").

The theoretical basis for my dissertation was grounded in the cognitive information processing theory. Guyau, a 19th century theorist, was one of the first people to relate the experience of time to the processing of cognitive information (R. E. Ornstein, On the Experience of Time, Penguin, 1969).

Guyau realized that time was not a physical stimulus, and that time perception was a mental construction. He speculated that the subjective perception of the speed of time passage depended on the extent of differences between events, their number and intensity, and the attention allocated to processing such events.

Given this understanding of time perception, I hypothesized that nocioceptive (pain) stimuli, which are more varied, complex, and more demanding of attention, would lead to an increase in information processing and, consequently, to an alteration of time perception.

In other words, if one were to assume that a rapidly throbbing pain sensation, due to its varied, rhythmical, dynamic, and intermittent nature, involved more information processing than a constant, "dull" pain, then one could expect that there would be differences in terms of time perception.

There weren't...

While my dissertation supported the relationship between time perception and pain intensity (greater degree of pain makes time "drag" more so than milder degree of pain), my findings did not provide any significant support for the relationship between pain type and time perception.

Bummer! I really liked that hypothesis of pain type and time perception... But not a problem for the purposes of this "blogging out loud."

My findings empirically confirmed the intuitive : while in pain, individuals tend to perceive a given time interval as being longer than it is. This phenomenon of overestimation of time fits with Leder's theory on the centrifugal or inward-focusing effects of pain experience (D. Leder, Toward Phenomenology of Pain, Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, 19 (2-3), 1984, pp. 255-266). Such inward-focusing on the force (intensity) of pain leads to a greater attentional focus on the self and the "here-and-now," resulting in a subjective experience of time slowing down. This experience of "time slowing down" was supported by two thirds of the 81 participants (with cancer pain or cancer treatment related pain) in my study: they experienced time as "dragging" or "standing still" while in severe pain.

Now, let's pause for a second: time slowing down, if not standing still... Doesn't that sound like that proverbial "here-and-now" presence of "being in the Now?"

It sure does! You can see the similarity of pain experience and mindfulness in Leder's 1984 verbiage as to the possible differences in time perception as a function of pain type. Leder, like I, speculated that a pain sufferer's time perception might vary as a function of qualitatively and phenomenologically different pain sensations. He juxtaposed " the durational now of cramps, filled with retentions and protentions of internal periodicities" with "the homogeneous present of the dull ache" (p. 257).

The "durational now" of pain... Not a particularly romantic corollary of mindfulness - but it certainly reminds us of the fact that we all have already "tasted" the potentially painful Presence of Being.

Pain is mindfulness.

And... in some ways... mindfulness is pain .

A pain of witnessing the passing-on of our lives - time or no time... A pain of being present to the ever-fleeting, evanescence of our existential evaporation...

Or, borrowing from the Czech author, Milan Kundera, mindfulness is the pain of experiencing the " unbearable lightness of being ."

Here it is - this moment. And now it's not...

"Einmal ist keinmal" - Once is nonce *. "What happened once might have never happened at all" (M. Kundera).

This is the angst of mindfulness...

Time - this perception of passage - both heals and pains...

And so we escape this pain of existence into the anesthesia of our mindless rat's race , - in proportion to the intensity of our pain, and (I stand by my "type" hypothesis!) in accordance to the type of our pain. More often, when the angst is "burst-like" and less often when angst is just "dull."

Like today...

*Nonce -
Pronunciation: \╦łnän(t)s\
Function: noun

1 : the one, particular, or present occasion, purpose, or use
2 : the time being

 

Pavel Somov, Ph.D., author of "Eating the Moment:141 Mindful Practices to Overcome Overeating One Meal at a Time"(New Harbinger, 2008)

Sunday
Jul122009

DJs of Timelessness

Timelessness isn’t when time stops. Timelessness is when you stop paying attention to time.

Trance music is a good choice to facilitate a sense of timelessness.

Trance typically doesn’t have lyrics: it doesn’t pump semantic information into your mind. When you follow lyrics, you are participating in a memory, rather than participating in the present. Memory is a distraction from what is.

Trance is structurally progressive: it carries you forward with ever changing increments of melody and avoids the repetitive, looping quality of non-trance music. Trance tracks are continuously remixed which preempts any expectation sets. The tracks are long and seamlessly stitched together.

The electronic sound scheme (unlike the highly recognizable guitar and/or drum sounds of other genres), in my experience, doesn’t tend to trigger imagery. It is visually neutral which allows you to just focus on the sound rather than see a guitar solo in your head.  As a result of these variables, you are perfectly positioned to just listen, to just be with the rhythm, at the tip of the arrow of time, in the now.

Trance DJs (such as Paul Van Dyke, Armin Van Buuren, Paul Oakenfold, Tiesto) are, in essence, DJs of Timelessness, synching you up with your own present.

Tune in [to trance] to drop out [of time].  Take a vacation from time awareness.

Timelessness isn’t when time stops. Timelessness is when you stop paying attention to time.

Trance music is a good choice to facilitate a sense of timelessness.

Trance typically doesn’t have lyrics: it doesn’t pump semantic information into your mind. When you follow lyrics, you are participating in a memory, rather than participating in the present. Memory is a distraction from what is.

Trance is structurally progressive: it carries you forward with ever changing increments of melody and avoids the repetitive, looping quality of non-trance music. Trance tracks are continuously remixed which preempts any expectation sets. The tracks are long and seamlessly stitched together.

The electronic sound scheme (unlike the highly recognizable guitar and/or drum sounds of other genres), in my experience, doesn’t tend to trigger imagery. It is visually neutral which allows you to just focus on the sound rather than see a guitar solo in your head.  As a result of these variables, you are perfectly positioned to just listen, to just be with the rhythm, at the tip of the arrow of time, in the now.

Trance DJs (such as Paul Van Dyke, Armin Van Buuren, Paul Oakenfold, Tiesto) are, in essence, DJs of Timelessness, synching you up with your own present.

Tune in [to trance] to drop out [of time].  Take a vacation from time awareness.