To see a World in a Grain of Sand. And a Heaven in a Wild Flower. Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand. And Eternityin an hour~William Blake
Irecently came across a reference to the “here and now” theme in a poignant short story by Jorge Luis Borges, whose works are always tinged with the golden sadness of his poetic musings. In the story, he mentions that although centuries have passed those who lived in them only experienced them as a timeless unfolding of the present moment.
The idea of the invaluable quality of the now can also be found in classical books like The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, Be Here Now by Ram Dass, and by Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.
I believe that Whitman was referencing the exhilarating joy of experiencing the present moment when he wrote:
“Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere — on water and land.”
Still, compared to other themes found in literature, the idea of appreciating immediate experience has not occurred frequently.
This, I suspect, is not because many deep thinkers throughout history have not appreciated that the only real time that exists is experiential time, with all other times, like past, future, and psychological time, being merely conceptual time.
Instead, most cultures in recorded history have a disdainful attitude toward the immediacy of time and prefer to think in terms of the passage of time.
Consciousness in Time
Most people would rather forget about the now as quickly as possible. It’s a way to become unconscious — because they want to blot out of their minds the ever-looming threat of their own mortality. By becoming unconscious, it is easy to avoid existential terror.
Psychologist Steve Taylor at Leeds Beckett University has an elegant tripartite structure to explain how we relate to time: absorption, abstraction, and awareness.
The following explanation of his concepts are my own extrapolation based on his model of consciousness in time:
When we are immersed in something, it provides a tremendous source of relief from self-reflection.
Rather than torment ourselves by thinking about the vicissitudes and vagaries of our life, we can get involved in something that requires all our attention.
Since it is necessary to do things, it’s easy to rise above the level of monkey- mind chatter by focusing on work, exercise, socialization, lucubration, media, devices, games, and hundreds of other ways to forget the now entirely, to become unconscious about it, to push it to the back of our minds.
As many of the things we do can be justified as adding personal and social value, this is an almost perfect way of completely ignoring the immediacy of the moment. We are socially encouraged to think and experience something that completely engages our attention. In fact, the more of it we can do, the more social approval we can get. Society likes doers and remains suspicious of dreamers, especially those who question the meaning and purpose of life itself.
So, all things considered, it has never been easier in the history of humanity to live in a complete daze, to become utterly non-reflective and zombie-like while giving the appearance of being pleasantly preoccupied or highly productive.
Sometimes we are unable to escape the now through absorption. We may be stuck in a line or be forced to wait for someone or something to happen. We may be stuck in a situation where we can’t access any reading material or devices, a situation where we may be standing, sitting, or walking and be forced to experience the moment.
When this happens, we have a plan B. We can always rummage through our past, recollecting all the things we did that made life worse for us or all the things that were done to us that harmed us in some way. Unfortunately, even if we do entertain happy memories, they often fill us with sadness because they have passed into oblivion.
So when we are forced to pay attention to the present moment, we like to abstract time. We might think of a past time when went wrong or that was perfect but has now gone forever. Or we might think of a future time when things might get worse or indulge in positive fantasies when things should get better.
When we are aware of the world within or without in a highly conscious way, without judging or condemning it, then we have a chance to experience our life as it is unfolding in real time.
Usually, only spiritual traditions suggest that we practice awareness, although there is no reason why a secular approach will not also be beneficial.
When we are friendly toward the present moment, when we accept where we are in space and when we accept what we think and feel, then life speaks to us directly. When consciousness settles on the here and now, instead of hiding in absorption and abstraction, you return to a state of naked truth.
Observing yourself and the world as it expresses itself all around you broadens your awareness. You begin to see that life is only happening now and that now is the only real thing that is ever happening. Everything else is a fantasy, a mental escape, a way to go unconscious and not feel fully alive.
It is not easy to take the path of awareness. Most humans are oblivious to the fact that this state of consciousness even exists because they have been so successful in escaping it all their lives. The few who do take this path find themselves in a state of constant amazement. They find that they are far more complex and sensitive than they ever realized, and they find that experiencing life can be wonderful when they have no regret or anxiety (because they have dissolved their addiction to only thinking in the frame of conceptual time).
When monkey-mind chatter slows or even stops, perceptual awareness replaces conceptual preoccupation. Those who experience awareness notice that everything appears more alive, more intricate, and more sensory pleasing. They see shapes, colors, sizes, and textures with a sense of delight, and they experience familiar scenes in a refreshing way.
Something else happens, too, when you become increasingly aware. Your intelligence and empathy flowers spontaneously. You become observant, discerning, and intuitive. Some people have even been known to step into a unitive state of consciousness where they see that everything sympathetically vibrates with the movements of their own consciousness.
In reality, there is only now. In reality, you are only here. Everything else is just what you think, imagine, or speculate is happening.
If you notice your own absent-mindedness, then you will stop seeking refuge in absorption or abstraction. While these states are probably almost impossible to avoid entirely, they don’t have to pre-empt your entire spectrum of consciousness.
If you become friendly with the present moment, something strange happens to you: life responds by becoming friendly to you. Life begins supporting you, guiding you, giving you serendipity and synchronicity to show you the best way to organize your experiences. If you do this for a sufficiently long time, even your sense of alienation and separation will begin to dissolve.
If you befriend the now, you will become more conscious, more alive, and more attuned to the rhythms of everything unfolding within and around you. You will stop living in a mental fog where everything is murky, fragmentary, and possibly dangerous. And you may even come to realize that you are not as different from everyone and everything as you had always been led to believe.