Striking the match

One morning I sat down at my desk and prepared to light my writing candle. I struck the match and I noticed that there was a moment when I had heard the match strike and catch, I could smell the sulfur dioxide, and I could hear the air combust. But there was the slightest moment before the flame appeared.

A match, I understood, was a match. It had no choice in whether or not to light once combustion had initiated, once the chemical reaction incited electrons to change states and produce their magical incandescence.

But I suddenly realized that we humans also have such a moment. Unlike a match, however, it is an opportunity of freedom. What do I mean by this?

From the first moment of life we humans develop marvelous repertoires of responses to stimuli, such that we avoid repeating errors that lead to woe and deprivation and replicate successes that lead to satiety and satisfaction. It is a process that depends on a highly sophisticated, highly evolved biology that underwrites pattern matching and enables all of us to become Bayesian statisticians, subconsciously evaluating prior experiences and using those to predict future outcomes. As a successful evolutionary process, it must not consume too much energy, nor cannot risk perfection at the cost of speed: a perfect answer that arrives three seconds too late could be fatal. This more-or-less accurate” cognitive pattern-matching process replicates the reflexes that are available to us in the physical world, but applies itself to the conceptual world, which today constitutes, it seems, 99 percent of our conscious attention.

As useful as this learning process is, however, it inevitably leads to false positives. In a moment of snap judgement, it leads us to assign individual objects to conceptual groups, as if every individual could be reduced completely to a small set of shared characteristics. And not just objects, of course, but subjects, too — other beings. There’s much more to say about this process, but for now we can simply call this way of relating grooved existence.” Heidegger called this average everydayness,” a pragmatic relation to all the things that we encounter in the world. The Buddhists might call this an example of conditioning.

For most of our average, everyday moments in this world, we are like the match. Once the combustion begins, the flame is inevitable. We move almost seamlessly from perception through to judgment and to reaction. If we cannot observe — to catch in the act” so to speak — the singular moment between the strike of the match and its flame we are bound to respond to any stimulus habitually and reactively. The processes of habituation and reactivity are powerful, as any lifelong training would be, and their omnipresence in our lives is akin to water for fish. We no really longer notice it.

But the wisdom traditions teach us that we can come to raise our vigilance in order to seize this moment between perception and judgment. Meditation, as one example, offers us a way to push the pause button mid-process. We may practice” meditation in order to catch ourselves in the act of this automatic thinking, not just when we sit, but in our daily lives. And if we can do this, we can then experience freedom — we can expand the process of discernment and judgment before we assign individuals to groups, gathering additional information. And we can decide — remembering the Latin root of the word, which suggests cutting off — to suspend what would otherwise be an involuntary reaction. In this moment, we can be different from the match.

Last updated on June 24, 2024

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