In Being Peace, Thich Nhat Hanh asks:
Can we be a river and experience the hopes and fears of a river?
I come near to the river and dwell. In Conversation on a Country Path, Heidegger describes thinking as a ‘letting-oneself-into-nearness’.
I watch the water flow along its path, I listen to the gentle bubbling sound. In this act of attention, there is differentiation: between the river and its surroundings, and between the river and me. But there is also an attraction, a sense of wholeness.
In The Principles of Psychology, William James states:
…each of us literally chooses, by his ways of attending to things, what sort of a universe he shall appear to himself to inhabit.
We may gain our identities in a similar way, as described by James:
A man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognise him.
Does the river have hopes and fears, a sense of self?
From where do we derive our sense of self?
… a succession of perishing thoughts, endowed with the functions of appropriation and rejection …
Thoughts flow past, but sometimes we bring our attention to the flow itself. This may be regarded as stepping out of the flow of time and becoming aware of time itself.
We cannot directly experience the past or future, only the present. But even the present is elusive, as James describes:
Let any one try, I will not say to arrest, but to notice or attend to, the present moment of time. One of the most baffling experiences occurs. Where is it, this present? It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.
He suggests that the present moment is an abstraction, and that we experience the present not as a moment, but as an extended period of time which he calls the ‘specious present’:
These lingerings of old objects, these incomings of new, are the germs of memory and expectation, the retrospective and the prospective sense of time.
The brain-processes that create this feeling of succession are those that give our sense of time, and ultimately our sense of a continuing self:
Resemblance among like parts of a continuum of feelings (especially bodily feelings)… constitutes the real and verifiable personal identity which we feel…