I don’t have mental insights particularly often, but every now and then one will sneak up on me and leave a lingering taste after its light has faded. There’s an intersection on my way home from work where traffic typically backs up during rush hour. One day last week, I approached the intersection at around 4:00, fully expecting to have to slow down and stop. My expectation was met. I waited for my turn to cross the intersection, sitting in the same car, on the same road, in front of the same houses that I’d sat in front of at around the same time the day before… yet something was different. Somehow, I didn’t feel the same as I had the day before. I didn’t necessarily feel better or worse; just different. I ran back over the day in my head, wondering what was different about today that caused me to feel different than I’d felt the day before.
Then it dawned on me: everything about that day was different than the one before. They weren’t the same day and it wasn’t a case of a familiar experience repeating itself. It never is. This belief that I do the same thing over and over is just a function of consciousness wherein everything is labeled and categorized in order to make experience more digestible to the rational mind. On a very basic, molecular level, the car, the road, the houses, and the “me” were not the same car, road, houses, and me that they’d been the day before. This is a simple and irrefutable scientific fact, yet my mind prefers to reject this fact in favor of the notion that my experience basically consists of a bunch of static, unchanging objects with some occasional fluid activity happening around them. It’s interesting, then, that consciousness not only serves the function of dividing experience into “this” and “that,” it also bundles experience into “this” and “this again.”
Life might seem simpler when it’s all nicely folded and tucked into a pre-existing conceptual framework, but it can, I’ve noticed, get a bit boring. Buying into the delusion that I’ve already experienced an event allows me the option of checking out and not paying attention, and boredom is nothing if not a lack of attention. It’s like reading a book while watching a movie you’ve already seen, glancing up from the pages only when your favorite scenes come on screen. Simply put, my takeaway from my flash of insight while sitting in traffic on Commonwealth Ave. is that you can’t actually watch the same movie twice. Not if you’re really paying attention. And truly paying attention, being on the head of the pin where every moment arises and passes away simultaneously, awakens us to the realization that each moment is fresh, each moment is unique, and each moment will never come again.