When looking in the mirror and reflecting on the sometimes-troubling events life has presented me – suicide, divorce, estrangement for instance – I’ve often asked myself this question.
Unlike in the past when I was in and out of therapy, I now ask not with an air of incredulity or despair, more out of genuine curiosity about the very nature of experience.
And, coupled with studying matters philosophical, psychological, and spiritual for some years, I’ve uncovered an answer. One that works for me, and I hope you find helpful too. That’s my intention in putting finger to keyboard.
Before sharing it though let me just clarify where my focus is not and is.
It’s not on altering the fact that events have occurred in my life – as in rewriting my personal history – or denying their existence – as in deliberately forgetting or ignoring them.
I’m focusing on why I experienced them the way I did. What intrigues me is why do I experience life as I do given the same and similar events could be experienced in an infinite number of ways.
So, here’s my pithy answer to the question that is the title of this article:
We only ever experience the contents of consciousness in each moment.
Let’s unpack this a bit.
What do I mean by “we”?
I don’t mean any one of the thousands of categories we humans place ourselves in: from male to female, from of-colour to white, from east to west, north to south, blue to white collar, and so on.
I’m zooming out to the impersonal, to all human beings on this planet.
What do I mean by “only ever experience the contents of consciousness”?
Let’s begin with consciousness and work back through this phrase.
While the what-is-consciousness question is often referred to as “the hard problem” in many scientific circles, we can simplify it to what’s in our awareness, as opposed to what’s subconscious or outside awareness.
For instance, assuming you’re reading this on a computer, should I ask if you’re aware of the screen through which these sentences appear, you’ll probably answer “yes.” If I then ask were you aware of the screen before I asked, you’d probably say “no” because at that moment the idea of a screen was not in consciousness.
The contents of consciousness extend beyond ideas and concepts. They include thoughts, beliefs, memories, and intuitions. Feelings and sensations. And what your senses pick up as well – light, heat, taste, smell, sound.
For the only-ever-experience bit, I find Bill Bryson’s perspective really helpful here. He wrote…
Take a moment from time to time to remember that you are alive. I know this sounds a trifle obvious, but it is amazing how little time we take to remark upon this singular and gratifying fact.
By the most astounding stroke of luck, an infinitesimal portion of all the matter in the universe came together to create you.
And for the tiniest moment in the great span of eternity, you have the incomparable privilege to exist.
For endless eons, there was no you. Before you know it, you will cease to be again. And in between, you have this wonderful opportunity to see and feel and think and do.
Whatever else you do with your life, nothing will remotely compare with the incredible accomplishment of having managed to get yourself born.
You really are special.
Mysterious as it is, I, like you and every other human, experience what’s going on around us via “this wonderful opportunity to see and feel and think and do.” Our experience, however challenging or fantastical it may seem at times, flows from this.
What do I mean by “each moment”?
The past is over. We only recall its joyfulness or sadness via memories and associated feelings when these form part of the content of consciousness.
Similarly the future. It is yet to occur. Whether it appears rosy or gloomy is once again dependent on which thoughts, feelings, sensations, etc we’re giving attention to and experiencing.
Whenever we’re attending to the past or the future we’re doing so now, only in this moment.
The what-are-you-experiencing-as-you-read-this-article test.
I realise this subject matter isn’t easy for some to grasp from a page. Sometimes it helps to experiment a bit.
If that’s true for you, notice your experience of reading these words. The extent to which you’re concentrating, captivated, confused, distracted, or disinterested by them is directly related to the contents of consciousness.
Whether my words are helpful or not is dependent on this. My intention is they be so, but I’m not in control of how they’re received. Only you are…well…to a point.
Speaking of control, meet NUTS
I don’t know about you, but I experience the contents of consciousness in my head as nuts – as in crazy – at times. All kinds of erroneous and confusing thoughts pop into my head and leave me discombobulated!
That aside though, I’m using NUTS as an acronym here. It describes what I’ve observed about how consciousness and its contents operates.
N is for not in control
When I look closely I cannot know what the next thought that comes into my head will be, nor what might grab my attention. The contents of consciousness just appear.
This often sounds odd to people. If so, see if this experiment helps:
Bring a film to mind – any film at all. Repeat. Repeat again. Choose which of your three is best.
Now, focus closely on how you became aware of the three films.
Was there a thinker inside you that scanned IMDb’s database and chose 1, then 2, then 3?
Was there a thinker that limited the search to just those films you’d seen and then chose?
What about when deciding the best of the three, was there a feeler inside you that made the choice based on the lead actor or actress, a particular scene, the soundtrack, the plot, cinematography, who you saw the movie with, etc.?
All three films and your top one just appeared in consciousness first, before the S for sensemaking (see below) immediately kicked in a millisecond later with reasons why.
U is for unstoppable
I can’t turn consciousness and its contents off and stay alive! It’s a constant stream.
Damming its flow is impossible too. And simply turning the negative bits into positives I’ve found to be unsustainable and a form of denial.
Being with the contents of consciousness – good and bad – has been a far better option for me. It helps me see that…
…T is for transient
Thoughts, feelings, sensations, etc come and go.
The contents of consciousness are transient by nature. When I watch them appear – usually in the space behind my eyes and the bridge of my nose – I also notice their disappearance too.
Unless, that is, I ruminate, dwell or otherwise take certain content seriously. That’s when it hangs around. For years in my case, which, later in life, helped explain my battle with depression that no longer ravages through me.
Which brings me to…
S is for sensemaking
Before I understood what the content of consciousness meant, and that it is not in my control, unstoppable and transient, my sensemaking was very different to now.
I assumed I was my thoughts; they stuck to me like Velcro and defined me. They constituted the weak hand life had dealt me, and I just had to put up with it.
Similarly, I believed the stronger I felt – angry say – the more it was telling me something truthful. This blinded me to the transient thoughts behind that anger. So, understandably, it hung around and, in my case, morphed into depression. It took up so much mental bandwidth there was little room for new content to appear.
Looking back I missed how the content of consciousness simply appears a nanosecond before sensemaking kicks in and we create meaning out of it. I still can miss this moment of transition, and when I do have little option other than to live in whatever experience follows.
But, when I do remember this is how experience-creation unfolds, what it’s like to be me in my inner world feels very different. I see that I, like you and everyone else, are the pre-condition necessary for the contents of consciousness to arise, and from which new, begin-again sensemaking can spring.