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Why every experience you have is 99% wrong

I sat outside on a lovely early summer morning. The sun played hide-and-seek with the clouds, which in turn were playing chase with the breezes. The garden had turned a rich green from the recent rains, and the strawberry flowers whispered of treats to come in a couple of weeks.  I set my meditation timer for 24 minutes, and set an intention to be aware of the arising and passing of sensations.

As the sun came out, I felt my skin warm.  As the breeze played tag, I felt my skin cool. Birds of many types sang from unseen places, although sometimes they passed before my eyes. A male and female cardinal eyed me suspiciously as they considered the bird feeder nearby. Their suspicion proved well-founded once they realized there was nothing in it. The sound of cars arose and passed. I tasted my coffee and savored the bitterness tempered by the teaspoon of sugar I had added. I noticed the heat of the coffee through the cup and also saw the feeling of dislike arise as the heat felt like a threat.  I quickly put the cup down, but later picked it up again just trying to feel the arising of heat without judging it as aversive. I watched my thoughts sometimes follow my experiences, and sometimes lead them.

Perhaps this sounds like a "good" meditation session. What surprised me was the thing I called "my experience."  I was aware of each of these aspects of life's flow around and within me.  How disappointing.  I was aware of each of them.  One.  At.  A.  Time.

This thing we call our "experience" is only a tiny slice of what we are actually experiencing.  When noticing the breeze upon my skin, I wasn't also noticing the birds or the color of the grass.  In fact, I wasn't even noticing the breeze upon my skin -- I only noticed it on certain parts of my skin where I focused my attention.  I was actually feeling it on my whole body, but only attended to how it cooled my legs or chest. Once it passed, I noticed the sound of some bird, but just that one -- not all the other sounds, such as the wind in the trees, the myriad birds farther away, the sound of my heart beating, or the strawberries flowering. Tasting my coffee clouded all awareness of sights, sounds, feelings. Yet, all of these experiences were occurring at once.  Why do we believe experience is singular?

Attention is like a spotlight -- it can focus on only one thing at a time. Worse still, it's a very narrow beam of light.  It can pick up only about 1% of what is happening at any given moment. To put it another way, that means that our understanding of what is occurring at any moment is 99% wrong! And still we persist in the belief that we are always right and know what's going on.

How would it be if we could truly experience the emptiness and multiplicity of experience, without the constant narrowing, labeling, and solidifying?


Photo credit: The author. A version of this was previously posted on the American Buddhist blog.

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