Chapter 2 What was I conscious of a moment ago ?

My first question “Am I conscious now?” was hard enough. The answer seemed easy at first – “yes, yes, of course I’m conscious now.” But gradually that certainty began to shimmer and dissolve as I realised that whenever I asked the question I seemed to be waking up – but from what? Was I unconscious a moment before I asked? Surely not. I must have been conscious of something mustn’t I?

Thus was the question born “What was I conscious of a moment ago?”

Try it for yourself. First ask “Am I conscious now?”, then just glance back and see if you know what you were conscious of a moment ago.

Once you’ve had a few tries – or lots of tries – you can listen to me talking briefly about the question, or read excerpts from Chapter 2 of the book Ten Zen Questions.


Please tell us how you got on.

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31 Responses to “Chapter 2 What was I conscious of a moment ago ?”

  1. banoffi Says:

    Susan, thanks so much for sharing all this. That was another fascinating post, and I love the “HELP!”. =)

    I think I had a similar experience while meditating a few weeks ago, tho I wasn’t thinking of this, or any other question. It seemed that *everything* was coming into being and then disappearing completely, several times a second. This left nothing to hold on to – no self, no thought, no sensation, nothing at all. It was profoundly scary, and I woke up in a cold sweat several times afterwards. It hasn’t happened since, and if it ever became a regular occurrence I’d probably give up meditating. I’d rather be happy than right any day!

    For what it’s worth, my experience yesterday while sitting with the question was quite different. There were periods where time just didn’t seem to matter very much. What was I conscious of a moment ago? It was just *this*. Not the same content but the same moment. Thoughts float by, moving but not marking time. I manage not to grab on to them for a while… but then one is too shiny, and I’ve lost it. Rinse and repeat.

    Is this just an illusion? It’s a very pleasant one if so. And is the “disconnected now” any more real?

  2. niue Says:


    I greatly enjoyed reading your previous books on memes and consciousness. With this one however, I can so far not identify any scientific approach. It is probably a risk releasing a book in chapters, and I appreciate that you are putting yourself in a vulnerable position by doing so. Also: the “open source” strategy is laudable, engaging with your audience and being prepared to be challenged.

    So here is my challenge: It is all very well to ask questions and to share feelings. As I understand it, the intellectual effort would however be to come up with some answers that can be tested. Maybe that’s in the part of the book that you haven’t released, yet. So far it all looks a bit wishi-washi. I have practised meditation without following any particular system for some decades, although with long intervals. I definitely find it valuable, but not mystical, or outside the reach of scientific method. So for me there is only one inquiry needed: the intellectual. Can personal experience help penetrate the scientific mystery of consciousness? Perhaps, but a scientific framework would in my view be required to do this. This is what I am missing here.
    Reading your chapters so far is a bit like going to one of these – nowadays out of vogue – self-help groups. I for one lost interest in soul stripping after I accepted that there is no soul. I cannot see how this can lead to somewhere useful. But please (no pun intended) enlighten me!

  3. tenzenbookblog Says:

    Banoffi – your experience sounds very much like mine (described later in the book); everything coming into being and disappearing again, only I wouldn’t like to put any time frame on it because it seems to me that time itself appears and disappears along with everything else. But is it really that scary? I rather invite these scary experiences and they seem to become less frightening with practice. So I hope you don’t give up.

    Niue is concerned that there’s so little science in this book. Well there is some in the introduction, and part of my aim is to see whether looking directly into the mind can help at all in working out just what it is we need to explain when trying to explain consciousness (the hard problem etc).
    The book begins with a list of things people usually assume about consciousness (the stream, contents, neural correlates etc) and the meditational inquiry is directed at seeing whether these assumptions hold up in actual experience. If they don’t then many scientists are trying to explain the wrong things – so no wonder we have a “hard problem” and an “explanatory gap”.
    But I admit this book is a complete departure from anything I’ve done before. You could say it’s a totally self-indulgent exercise in introspection, and that everything I see is just the idiosyncratic fluff of one person’s particular brain and life history. This is really the central question here. Do other people find the same things? Is the fact that some of my discoveries appear to relate to those described in Zen an indication that there are commonalities here, or is it just that I’ve been trained in Zen so I would find that.
    This is also one of the reasons for this blog; that others can join in this debate.
    So … I don’t claim much science here, and if you prefer my scientific writings then I’d give this book a miss!

  4. niue Says:

    Thanks, Susan, that is a good explanation of what the book is trying to achieve. I really doubt that apart from the self indulgence (and I really grant you that) anything substantial can come out of it. Many scientific concepts and findings can not be experienced, e.g. zero gravity is something most of us will never be able to experience. Does that mean that scientists are asking the wrong questions concerning gravity? On the other hand: if people, who are meditating, experience zero gravity (some actually report this): do we need to rewrite the science books? There are gaps in all kinds of scientific knowledge. To me, this is a positive – ample reason to continue the joyful journey. Yes, when narrowing it down to a certain window in time, science was sometimes simply on the wrong track; from a distance, however, this threads were leading somewhere, eventually.
    Not only in consciousness research: a lot of scientific findings are counter to the experience and intuition shared by most.
    I am sure other people will find the same things – they always do.
    Can we conclude from this that scientist are trying to explain the wrong things? Not in my book. But this is your book, and all I can do is wish you all the best with it – and wait for your next book!

  5. queerninja Says:

    Man, this really is an even HARDER question than the first one hehehe…I need to stop this for a bit because my brain is about to pop 🙂 Lots of things and nothing…? gggrrrr…How can that be???

    I’ll see you all in a couple of days. Call it optimism that there MUST be an answer, maybe I just need a little warm up!!!

  6. banoffi Says:

    Susan, “I rather invite these scary experiences”: you’re weird. =) And yes, it really was that scary. But I’m keeping at it. After all, the universe didn’t, in fact, implode.

  7. tenzenbookblog Says:

    No, indeed it didn’t. I don’t mean to belittle how scary it is, but I sometimes take my own fear as a hint that there’s something going on that I want to pursue. All the best!

  8. banoffi Says:

    Thanks! I guess investigating the source of the fear (in my case I think it’s loss of control) might be an interesting and fruitful exercise, but that’s a whole different can of worms off at a tangent.

  9. ealg Says:

    I sometimes find that if I have been doing a mechanical task, I have no memory of having done it – it doesn’t feel that I was conscious of what I was doing a moment ago. However, this doesn’t seem to matter, as the task was performed correctly.
    So in that sense, I would wonder if the experience of feeling conscious is actually for anything.
    It is tempting for me to think of consciousness here as like awareness or attention, although I don’t know if that is justified. If something had interrupted me while I was carrying out the task, I would probably still have been aware or attentive in the sense of being able to respond to the interruption.

  10. tenzenbookblog Says:

    Ealg makes an interesting observation on doing mechanical tasks – this is like the well known “unconscious driving phenomenon” when you can drive (usually on a familiar route) for miles, and arrive only to realise that you have no recollection of having done so – even though you must have avoided other cars, turned corners, stopped at lights and so on. I agree this suggests that consciousness (at least in the sense of being able to remember experience) is, as he says “not actually for anything”. Indeed I’ve often argued that consciousness does not do anything at all.
    But what if you are interrupted in the middle of the task – then presumably you would have remembered having done it. So were you really conscious at the time or not?
    This is like Dennett’s distinction between Orwellian and Stalinesque revisions, from which he concludes that this is “a difference that makes no difference”.
    And it precisely illustrates where I got to with question 2. If what happens after the fact (i.e. you are interrupted or not interrupted) leads you to a different answer to the question “Was I conscious or not?” then there can be no real answer – for if you don’t know who does?
    And what does that do to our ordinary concept of consciousness????

    Dennett discusses all this in Consciousness Explained
    I summarise the arguments in Consciousness: An Introduction

  11. banoffi Says:

    Susan, I’m not quite clear what you mean by “consciousness does not do anything at all”? You’re not talking about epiphenomenalism are you?

    I can understand how “Cartesian consciousness” can’t do anything since it is an illusion! But if “consciousness” means the construction of higher-order thought and a personal narrative, is this not doing a great deal? Such that a zombie without “consciousness” would be fooling no one?

    I loved Conversations on Consciousness, by the way!

  12. tenzenbookblog Says:

    No I’m not talking about epiphenomenalism, at least in its most common formulation (although there are several variants of it). It is normally taken to mean that consciousness is a by-product or side-effect of brain processes. This is a kind of hidden dualism because it makes consciousness into something that is produced by a brain but has no effects on it. I think this is nonsense.
    I don’t think consciousness is a thing at all (or even a process), and so it cannot be produced by the brain, or be a by-product of it. Rather I think that consciousness is an after-the-fact attribution we make to some (but not most) of our experiences. It cannot do anything in the sense that it is not a separate thing or process to do so. Higher order thoughts and narratives etc certainly have effects, but they are not, in some mysterious way, conscious
    I hope that makes sense! People often think I’m an epiphenomalist but I’m not.

  13. ealg Says:

    I think I can see that if what happens after the fact makes a difference to the answer, then there can be no right or wrong answer. As to what it does to our ordinary concept of consciousness, I am not sure that people collectively have one. I wonder whether the term consciousness itself encourages the idea that it is a special force that does things.

  14. sgthomas601 Says:

    When I looked at this question before reading Sue’s exploration of it took it in a different direction, I tried looking at what was moving in my immediate environment.

    For example, I’m sitting outside a coffee shop looking at a car traveling along the street. As I continue to look at its movement, what is normal and entirely taken for granted becomes very mysterious. How do I know it’s moving? At this instant, right now, the car is exactly where it is. A moment ago it was in a slightly different position on the street, and the moment before that, in yet another position.

    Our sense of movement and things changing seems to require a continuous interplay between the immediate perception of what is present now and a memory of where it was a moment before. If I had no memory whatever of what happened even a moment ago and the present instant was all I ever knew, I’d have no sense of movement, no indication of change at all.

    I don’t know whether this is explored in the book, but a good Zen question that comes out of this might be: ‘How long is this present moment?’ (or, shorter: ‘How long is now?’). When does perception become memory (or anticipation)?

    Melbourne, Australia

  15. jacques79 Says:

    Interesting stuff.. But I don’t think this is a real science and I doubt wheteher this is a zen either. There’s too much of subjectivity around and “playing with words” from the one hand and there is to much of logical analysis and reasoning from the other. In Zen one can struggle with coans only to cut any logical analysis away at some point – actually it’s impossible to go with them any further. In fact it’s not possible to get concrete answers that you can write down on a piece of paper, if this is real Zen. Or may be I just miss the point?

  16. banoffi Says:

    Stan, there’s an interesting segment in Oliver Sack’s Awakenings (p. 111-113 in my edition) describing timeless, motionless perceptual states in people with Parkinson’s, which supports your idea that perception of time is necessary for perception of movement. Although I’d be surprised if memory at the level we’re discussing is involved in motion perception. The phenomenon of change blindness rather conflicts with that. (and many other demos on the web).

    How long is now? How Soon Is Now?!


  17. tenzenbookblog Says:

    No it’s not science, although I hope it might provide testable hypotheses that could be useful to science. No it’s not Zen, in the sense that no words can be. But words can point.
    Also you may have noticed the litle pictures. I put them in as a way (I hoped) to indicate that most of the time was silent. The words I have written down were occasional words in long periods of not-words. A picture seemed the best way to say that, without saying so.

  18. commentsfromnobody Says:

    Hello Susan. I’ve only grasped the gist of your work, but it seems we might be interested in similar areas though I am more involved in practical application than you appear yet to have become. If you’re interested see the blog with the same name as my wordpress userid.

    With regard to answering you question, I would suggest that you research the phrase “dianetic self-auditing”. It’s a Scientology term (wash your hands before and after) and you may find its concept helpful in your work (nevermind that e-meter garbage) if applied in the very short term.

    I would also suggest that you spend a lot of time smoking marijuana since it seems the drug that most effectively screws around with short-term memory. It may not be practical for you to do so, because by “a lot of time” what I mean is continuous months, and also because of legal issues.

    Best luck in your search.

  19. jacques79 Says:

    Ok, I got your point, may be this can work. I’m gonna follow the results anyway. What I think is that we could use Zen methods to push modern physics ahead and solve some of its “hard problems” (like infinities in quantum equations or quest for fundamental particle 😉 Imagine a physist declaiming “what’s Higgs bozon, what’s Higgs bozon?” 🙂
    Oostende, Belgium

  20. banoffi Says:

    Does a muon have Buddha nature?

  21. branemedia Says:

    Thank you so much for writing the new book. As a Physicist and amateur materialist, my reading of your line about there being “two things that can destroy our self-meme-complex: science & Zen” led directly to my investigation of Zen. I devoured books on Zen & Buddhism (simlutaneously with Dennett’s books) and finally found myself at home with a combination of Rinzai & Korean (Kwan Um School) practices. I have only recently begun practicing and documenting my experiences at and I hope to “compare notes” a lot with your blog and your experiences. Thank you again!

  22. tenzenbookblog Says:

    muon, not muon.

    Come on the rest of you. Aren’t you going to respond to Banoffi’s challenge?

  23. mrealg Says:

    Sorry I didnt understand the challenge

  24. banoffi Says:


  25. holdingnobough Says:

    Ok, I’ve not kept up with reading this and with so much to read I’ve only skimmed through. Any way, I can’t resist the muon (is that a particle?) challenge.

    banoffi I love that Woof!

    My comment – well, does it have compassion?
    I used to be attached to emptiness in a way but I think I see it more with form now.

    For me the idea of being spacious enough to remember that we just don’t know (what ever we are considering) and that we should try to accept, to cut the cat in one, points to emptiness. Of course I may be way off with what the koans point to.

  26. banoffi Says:

    Speaking of Buddha nature, it sounds suspiciously like essentialism to me (like some sort of enlightened elan vital). If all aspects of being are empty, contingent and intertwined, how can there be any irreducible, eternal essence?

    (But, as someone who gets 99% of his zen ideas from blogs, I’ve probably got the wrong end of the stick..)


  27. jacques79 Says:

    Does a muon have Buddha nature?

    It’s said that Buddha Nature is an emptiness itself. If you want to find out more about substansialism why not read “Nagarjuna’s Seventy Stanzas” – one of the greatest masterpieces of human thought. But before that I’d suggest you to consider whether you want to practize zen or zen philosophy – that may be not easy to reconcile. But perhaps not impossible -ask Susan:)

  28. banoffi Says:

    jacques79, thanks for the pointers. My interest in zen is more practical than philosophical, but I’m a dilettante in either aspect. I hope my naivety doesn’t annoy people who -do- know what they’re talking about!

  29. jacques79 Says:

    Banoffi – if someone knows what he’s talking about, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. You’ve got to try it for yourself. I’m just speaking about my own experience, that’s all.
    My teacher told me once: “How do you want to find the truth? With that heavy head?” And that’s my story.

  30. seanholland Says:

    Does a cow have buddha nature?

  31. lestheprof Says:

    Can I return to the original theme, since the thread has been dormant?
    Consciousness is like a stream: every time you try to look at it, it is a different stream. You cannot recall what you were conscious of because you can only be conscious now. Consciousness is in the instant. ( and what’s an instant? Here’s a conundrum, because the physicist’s view – t neatly dividing the past from the future) and the perceptual view don’t coincide, because the perceptual now has a duration, slippery though it is.)

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