Experience and Existence

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 18 Comments

The present moment as we experience it is “thick” said William James. It is bursting with layers of sensation, perception, conceptualization, interpretation, feeling, intention – you name it. Everything we experience, we experience as part of the immediately available present moment. The present is all there is, and absolutely everything that we experience as real is experienced as part of it.

Right now I am sitting in an airplane writing this post. I am experiencing the start of my trip to Toronto. That experience consists of a certain set of anticipations about the days to come. It contains ideas about, and memories of the friends and places I will see. I am also experiencing the inside of the airplane. I experience the rows of seats. My perception of rows of seats is built up from my experience of the color and shapes of the seats that I see, and the feeling of the seat I am sitting on, and my knowledge of planes and seats in general. Then there are the people around me. I experience them as other beings such as myself and also as types. I see what I assume is a businessman that I recognize because of the work he is doing and his clothing. I can only recognize this because of my knowledge of society and my own work experience both of which manifest in the present in my ability to recognize a businessman when I see one.

I could of course go on and on and on. Phenomenology is the school of philosophy that takes as its aim the investigation of our immediate experience of reality. I could certainly spend hours describing my experience of this single bursting moment. Falling deeper and deeper into the layers of reality that culminate in the glorious fullness of this immediately experienced present.

I see a pattern in front of me. It consists of red shapes on a white field. They are not just shapes; they are letters. They are not just visual objects; they are objects full of meaning. One pattern I recognize to say ‘exit’ the other ‘sortie’. I recognize that both point to the way out and that one is English, the other French. The fact that the words appear in both English and French point to the reality that I am on an international flight and that leads to my understanding of what a language is and what a nation is. Yes we could go on and on. The experience of this present moment is the gateway to everything else. Ahh…the wondrous thickness of it all! One experience rests on another  and points to others. If we pay attention to our experience of this moment we can follow it one thing after the next just about anywhere.

Look for the thickness of the moment available to your immediate experience right now. Can you feel the thickness of it? Do you see how everything exists in it? Nothing at all exists outside of this immediately experienced present. Our ideas of places unseen exist only as ideas experienced right here in the present. People and places that are not with us exist as memories that are with us now.

As we come closer to recognizing that there is no reality that exists outside of the experience of this present moment we may find a part of ourselves that balks at the notion. Of course people who are not here exist. And they cannot be reduced to mere ideas in my present. After all, somewhere they are having a present moment experience themselves and I may exist as an idea to them there. Of course I would not deny the reality of other beings. Still I think this present moment perspective on reality is important.

A few posts ago I wrote about how modernism isolated us from reality in some ways. That isolation appears to us as a sense or an idea that reality exists outside of us. It is like a stage that we are acting on. This is how we experience reality – as if it exists out there independent of us. We all know that on a stage if we are turned toward stage left, stage right still exists.

So we assume that reality is out there, sitting quietly, even when I am not experiencing it. It exists independent of me or anyone else. If all of the conscious being in the universe were to disappear the universe itself would continue on without us.

The fact of an independently existing universe is so obvious to us that it seems nonsensical to even write about it. Of course reality exists independent of our experience of it. But does it? Is our experience of reality separate from reality or is it part of reality? What would it mean to remove all of the experience from the universe? If you removed all self-aware beings what would that do? Would you have to remove all animals? How about plants? Do plants have experience? What about molecules and atoms, do they have experience? If you really want to go all the way down this rabbit hole you have to start looking deeply into what experience actually is and then ask if anything at all could exist without it. Can existence and experience be separated?

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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Blake Anderson
Blake Anderson
9 years ago

Great post Jeff, as usual! ” The thickness of the present moment” is a very rich metaphor. I like the concept you bring forward of William James notion of interconnection co-arising, or I believe that is what you were getting at, but perhaps not fully? You often point out the fact that there is no independent observer and no ‘outside world’. I find it hard to get my mind around, but reading your blogs really help inform this new perspective. I am wondering about the evolutionary impulse. Andrew Cohen says that it rises as an impulse towards what comes next.… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
9 years ago

I maintain that for phenomenon and experiences to register in any meaningful way, there must be emotional content or the experience will simply be sensation will not be memorable and will pass in a short while. Beauty, aesthetic value counts a lot, and spiritual experiences as well, that goes without saying. The stronger the emotional content, the more real any event will be.

Jerry Stocking
9 years ago

We are all in the present moment together. It is what holds us together. Our interpretations of it, and our past experiences and future projections have reality begin to look different to different people. (I know you said the opposite of this. It’s a non-dual universe and they’re both true!) The present moment has no meaning of its own, only what we project onto it.

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
9 years ago

Afterthought:

Terror and hatred should not be discounted as well in instilling memories.

Kurt Roeloffs
Kurt Roeloffs
9 years ago

Jeff, loved the decision to use a relative term like thickness to describe experience. It is one of the best ways to draw one’s consciousness recursively toward the experience of consciousness and thereby add another layer of the same relative reference (i.e. more thickness!) to reality. And when we do so we demonstrate the inherent necessity of consciousness to reality.

Dr Jeff Eisen
9 years ago

Dear Jeff

As you might expect, my point Of view differs from both You and William James. Reality is the first Realm of existence, and perception, or if you You like, experience,,is the second realm. Both Realms are equally present, but perception is derivative and dependent on the underlying reality.

The “form” of reality is, and will always remain a mystery. Why? Because in itself it is de-void of Sensations or qualities, And therefore cannot be experienced directly, only Experienced in their transform or relative forms as percepts. Reality must exist because otherwise they would be nothing to perceive/experience.

Kurt Roeloffs
Kurt Roeloffs
9 years ago

Jeff, I’m smiling as I think (and thicken!) about your thickening of William James’ thinking! LOL!

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
9 years ago

After-afterthought: And I certainly must add pleasure as being perhaps the biggest factor for inspiring memories; the stronger the pleasures experienced, the stronger and longer the memories! No quarrel about that, right?

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
9 years ago

Dr. Jeff, re your “Reality is the first Realm of existence”

Of course you must say “perceived Reality”, wouldn’t you?

Sumadi
Sumadi
9 years ago

Can existence and experience be separated?
To answer this question I believe we have to have a definition of experience to start with. To keep it simple lets say like Jeff started to do all living creatures
have experience. They respond or change when they are touched by outsite stimuli. However I would not know any thing in this whole universe that does not do that sooner or later.

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
8 years ago

I’ve submitted the idea previoiusly that there needs to be some emotive content to experiences in order to have them register as memory incorporated in our existences, our being. Rote and repeated mechanical experiences can also become engrained in memory and result in automatic pilot responses with little emotive content.

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
8 years ago

Fury should also be added to the list of memory-inspiring emotions.

Expanding on the comments I’ve already made:

Those experiences that are hum-drum and not memorable seem to have an unreality for me whereas those that are memorable stand out with a kind of reality that often (ususally) persist for a lifetime. Some of them are pleasurable while for some, the unpleasant ones may lead to traumas. Though they may lie buried in the subconscious, they can unconciously influence behavior. I understand neuroses to be behavior inordinately and inappropriately influenced by the past, living a past reality, so to speak.

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osolev
osolev
3 years ago

Experience is the way and means of our contact with reality. The experience of consciousness makes us aware of our own reality. When you are not experiencing your consciousness, then you are not in contact with your very own reality i.e. existence. To exist is therefore to experience our consciousness. When you do not experience your consciousness, then you don’t exist insofar are you are concerned, and others see you to be existing but as like a vegetable, i.e. you are in your unconsciousness but still alive, you are merely vegetating. So, I ask everyone, or request everyone to think… Read more »

Arnold
Arnold
1 year ago

“Can existence and experience be separated?”…not without observation…Observation?

…Is all observation only self observation?…via existence and experience of oneself…