Ten Zen Questions

Exploring the Mind from Within

What was I conscious of a moment ago?

Looking backwards into consciousness

If I become conscious only when I ask whether I am (if the fridge light comes on only when I open the door) then what about just before I asked? Was I conscious then? And if, of what?

I seem to remember what was happening a moment ago, but was I conscious of it at the time? Can I look back and find out what I was conscious of a moment before I asked the critical question?
This reminds me of a familiar enough experience. It goes like this. I am reading, or writing, or doing something else, when suddenly I notice that the clock is chiming. I have only just noticed it, yet it seems as though I have been hearing it all along because I can easily count backwards and know that it has sounded three times already. I go on counting. It strikes six.
Was I conscious of the first strike? Apparently not; otherwise I wouldn't have had that very odd sensation of suddenly becoming aware of the fourth strike and of recalling the previous three. But if I wasn't conscious of it at the time, how come I can remember the sound so clearly in my mind's ear?
What is going on?
I sit still, in my meditation hut, and calm the mind. My plan is simple. I am going to wait until all is calm (maybe half an hour, maybe an hour) and then ask "What was I conscious of a moment ago?".
I ask.
I am conscious of the wooden floor of my hut; I've been looking at it for a while. What else? I listen out. Of course - there is the sound of our cat purring by my side. I have been listening to her for a while now, or so it seems. I can remember that purring going back in time. I have been listening, haven't I? Well, maybe. Yet when I suddenly thought of the purring it was as though it came into my consciousness right then, just as the clock's chime had done. So - was I conscious of it a moment ago or not? Surely there must be an answer, mustn't there?
I try again, still sitting here, my eyes resting on the floor; the damp garden spread out in front of me. I look back in time with an open mind, still here now but asking the question. What was I conscious of a moment ago?
What about my own body? I can feel my seat on the wooden stool. I can feel my hands held together in my lap. And there's that slight ache in my left knee. That ache has been going on for a long time. I know it has. I can look back into the continuous dull, slight pain and feel that it has. And there's more. With exasperated shock I recognise there's a siren sounding - out there in the road. It's loud and obvious. Why didn't I realise it instantly? That noise has been going on for about three or four loud swoops - nah nah, nah nah. I was conscious of it then wasn't I? Was I?
No. Or at least, I am not sure. It took me several tries at the question to hit upon that sound and when I did it was loud and obvious. But what if I hadn't been searching? Would I have been conscious of the noise at the time and then forgotten it? Or would I never have become conscious of it at all? Would that vivid sound have disappeared without trace? It did seem vivid. It did feel as though I had been consciously listening to those three or four howls. Had I?
Was I conscious of the sound a moment ago, or not?
Surely there has to be an answer doesn't there? This is my consciousness after all.
Is there?

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Susan Blackmore is a British psychologist, writer and broadcaster, and author of The Meme Machine and Conversations on Consciousness.

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