What Sense is Reality by Satomi Shirai
What Sense is Reality by Satomi Shirai

The unique thing about each person’s lived experience is, well, its uniqueness. Because everything is changing all the time, every single thing that happens is new. The entire universe is in a fresh configuration every moment. There may be patterns that repeat, but no two sets of phenomena are exactly the same, ever.

Human consciousness is a natural part of all this. The mind is an apparatus that creates experience, using the senses of the body and the neurons of the brain. With an alchemy we still don’t have the means to understand very well, a moment of awareness arises when one of the six sense bases comes in contact with a particular stimulus, which is shaped into a knowable object. Each moment’s experience is further accompanied with its own inimitable combination of feeling tone, interpretive perception, and emotional response, all of which occur in an instant and then cease. Consciousness is thus a series of episodic events, flashing again and again as phenomena are cognized for an exceptional instant before they vanish, never again to reappear in the same way.

This is the territory of Buddhist spirituality. It is not a matter of getting our minds around the big picture and conceptualizing the cosmos in all its grandeur, either through a traditional narrative or through accessing mystical states of non-ordinary reality. Rather, it is about being there to experience the extraordinary specificity of what is occurring, by meeting every moment’s uniqueness with a fresh mind. Every moment is a unique view of a unique territory, both of which unfold in perpetual motion. Because of the continual flux of it all, holding on to anything that has happened is futile, while being open to what happens next is crucial.

Trying to communicate with another about our own lived experience, we find ways to convey what is happening for us; because others have similar experiences, what we say and do can resonate with them. We seek through our dialogue to evoke in others our own experience, and empathize with what they are expressing in order to experience it for ourselves. Much of the time we are successful, but because of the uniqueness of all experience, all of this secondary discourse—telling someone else what is happening for you—can only ever be a shadow of what is lived directly.

When more than two people interact, and especially when a large number seek to share experience, a third perspective is created, one that is broader but even more detached from direct experience. Language and many other forms of symbolic expression are used to create a conceptual map that encompasses the past, the future, and a world beyond the immediate. Since these maps are developed by gradual usage, there is no single objective way of conceiving the universe and our place within it. Different cultures establish different models of shared experience, and people can employ multiple schemas as they interact with different groups. The religious and scientific traditions are among the most common and widespread examples of these conceptual maps of reality.

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