Living in the Moment: What is Time? (4/5)
Remember that precious experience you had that changed your life forever? Maybe you’ve had more than one. I’ve had a few: the birth of my daughter – seeing her for the first time; falling in love – my wedding day; and that lucid dream I had where I was flying toward the sunrise – and it felt as real as real could be.
And many of us have had and/or will have an experience similar to this: A moment when you suddenly escape the tangles of your busy mind and sink into a state of silent awareness – a moment when you feel so intensely present that the simplest activities spark divine revelations – when you realize with absolute certainty that this very moment contains . . . , no is the secret of existence!”
What an amazing and precious experience. I love that one!
The experience I just described of dropping out of the mind and into this moment is an essential part of the awakening process.
But be careful, because sometimes when we see a particular truth it’s as though we see it reflected in a well-polished mirror. Even though things may appear perfectly clear to us, we may still have it exactly backwards.
Time (and specifically the present moment), the subject of this post, is I think liable to be seen and understood in just such a manner, as if it were reflected in a mirror.
Therefore, let us proceed carefully.
Most of us picture time as consisting of three components: the past, the present, and the future.
We imagine that the ‘present moment’ (what Eckhart Tolle is fond of calling the “NOW”) is 1) a specific point in time and 2) a point that is moving from the past and into the future.
There it is in our timeline diagram above, the ‘now moment’ represented as a point.
With regard to this ‘now moment,’ Zen teachers (the New Age type) often say things like, “your true nature can only be discovered in the present moment – therefore return to the present moment again and again and you will eventually discover who you really are.” (You know that sort of thing.)
Such a promise, that returning to the present moment will allow you to unravel the mystery of who you really are, can easily distract us from an even more pressing question: What does it mean to return to the present moment?
Since most of us picture the present moment as that elusive point sandwiched in between the past and the future, then presumably most of us believe that living and remaining in the present moment is rather difficult because it is so elusive. And difficult also because it means that we have to stop focusing on and thinking about the past and the future which most of us find nearly impossible to do for very long.
Is this what it means to ‘live in the present moment’ – to stop thinking about the past and the future?
In fact, that is pretty much the opposite of what ‘living in the present moment’ means, as I see it.
The above timeline diagram does not represent our experience of the past, the future, and the ‘now moment’, but rather it represents our somewhat confused attempt to fit the ‘now-moment-experience’ into an objective framework. Stop it!
The ‘now-moment-experience’ is not objective. It is subjective.
Subjective things cannot be placed on objective timelines.
It is absolutely impossible.
And that is where we go wrong – we confuse objective time with subjective time.
Objective time (a timeline) is just an idea – like an idea in a book, a book that is on some shelf, in some bookcase, in some library, somewhere.
Subjective time is in you. It is this moment – it is every moment. It is experience itself!
The subjective ‘now moment’ is the sound and feel of raking the leaves on a cool crisp autumn afternoon. But it is also the memory of such an experience. (Because even the act of remembering such an experience necessarily takes place in the present moment.) Again, it is every moment.
Subjective time, the ‘now moment,’ is not a point. It is nothing like a point. Mathematically a point has no length, no duration. It is impossible to live in a point, and trying to will make it feel like you are boxing yourself in, cutting up reality into smaller and smaller moments, reducing experience ultimately to nothing whatsoever. This is hell. Thankfully living in a ‘point-like-now-moment’ is just not the point of ‘living in the moment.’ The point is to be consciously aware of your experiences and to notice that your thoughts, even your thoughts about the past and the future, are happening right now.
Living in the now should not be restricting. Ultimately one should feel perfectly free to imagine the past and the future, knowing and feeling that those visualized experiences are happening right now, which is to say that they are subjectively happening. We don’t really need the word now, do we?
Subjectively, the present moment is just your experience. Using the word ‘now’ is redundant. It is always now! (Subjectively, that is.) The now is not just a small or focussed moment in time. The now is not small or short. Nor is it large or long for that matter. The ‘now’ is simply whatever is being experienced.
Let’s look at the picture below. Think of the picture below as that ‘pin-point-now-moment’ from the timeline diagram above, but expanded. (Yes, I am that good of an artist!)
Our friend in the diagram is showing us how to live in the (subjective) ‘now.’ Notice that thoughts of the past and future are included in the ‘now.’ Something else to be noted is that the ‘now moment’ does not move from the past and into the future. Subjective moments don’t move – that is, they don’t turn into new moments. There is only one subjective ‘now moment,’ and it is always already being experienced.
I think it is a confused mind that sees the ‘now moment’ as an elusive point that is constantly turning into new ‘now moments’ as it travels from the past and into the future. Such an understanding leads us to treat the ‘now moment’ as something that needs to be located, aligned with, and/or grasped. I think a better way of understanding the ‘now moment’ is to see it as your total field of experience – a field of experience that is in a continuous state of flux, for that is the nature of experience, it is always changing. But this changing flux is not going anywhere; it is not travelling from the past and into the future, at least not subjectively as your experience. Things are just changing, that is all.
(And you are the unchanging and unmoving witness at the centre of this changing flux, but you are also one with this flux of experiences, and yet still you are neither of these extremes. You are simply mysterious!)
This flux of experience is time. Without experience, (which is to say without something that changes) there would be no subjective time.
It is a mistake to attempt to reduce our experiences down to some hypothetical ‘pin-point-now-moment.’ (Attempting to cut out all thinking is a fine and perhaps necessary meditation practice on the path to enlightenment, but living in such a limiting manner should certainly not be our ultimate aim.) A better approach is to eventually let the ‘now moment’ expand, so to speak, to encompass every possible kind of experience, including those experiences we call thoughts of the past and thoughts of the future. (Or rather to notice that this already is the case – that any type of experience may potentially arise in and as the ‘now moment.’)
Okay, so we are always living in the present moment, but then why does it sometimes seem like we are not living in the present moment? (For example, when we are imagining ourselves at work Monday morning when it is in fact still Sunday night.)
In other words, how can we freely think about the past and the future and yet still feel like we are fully grounded in ‘this moment,’ – still feel like those thoughts about the past and the future are happening right now?
Sounds like a question for next time.
See you in the objective future.