Somebody wrote to me a few months ago about placing his attention on the Now. He thought this was very difficult but he had worked out a method for doing it, and he was optimistic that in the near future he would finally succeed in grasping the elusive Now.
His method was based on his idea that the Now is a tiny slice of time sandwiched between past and future. In his view, past and future are huge — infinite, really — and the Now is the infinitely small moment between them.
He had given this a great deal of thought, and he was proud of the progress he had made in his hunt for the Now.
If you’ve studied calculus, you’ll recognize that he was approaching this as if it’s a calculus problem.
This is so wrong it’s almost funny. This man was trying to experience now with his mind. This is impossible. That’s why he was having so much trouble. The mind can’t experience now. Even if the mind resorts to calculus, it can’t experience now.
The reason the past and future seemed so big to him was because the past and future are the only times the mind can see. The reason the present seemed so small is that it’s invisible to the mind.
The truth is that now is infinite. Past and future don’t exist. Only now exists. Now is outside time. Now is eternity.
The way to experience now is to be conscious. Now and consciousness and presence are three names for the same thing. They are beyond the mind.
You get this experience when you stop looking at thoughts. When you look at thoughts, you’re looking away from now. How exactly do you stop looking at thoughts? I’ve made suggestions here and here. Once you notice the experience of being conscious, of being now, of being present — these are three ways of saying the same thing — you know what now is and you can simply be aware of it.
Although the mind can’t experience now, it can develop an understanding of now that’s more helpful for enlightenment than an understanding based on calculus. I would describe that understanding like this:
Stuff is always happening. Everything that happens, happens now.
You may protest, “Huh? My birthday happened last week. Last week isn’t now.”
To which I reply: “It was now when your birthday happened. It is always now when things happen. Things can only happen now.”
At the moment you were born, it was now. At the moment you die, it will be now.
It is always now.
This is so obvious, a small child can see it.
So where do past and future come in? Things are always changing and our minds remember bygone states. “Past” is a concept we invent, a sort of metaphor, to describe the fact that we remember those bygone states. Similarly, our minds predict states to come. “Future” is a concept to describe those predictions.
The mind tends to believe the following fallacy: It knows that now is a sort of “place” where things exist, so it thinks the past and future are places where things existed and will exist. But they aren’t. There’s only one place, now. Past and future don’t exist. Everything exists now.
We get confused by the fact that things keep changing. That doesn’t mean there is a past and future. All changed states existed now, exist now, or will exist now.
Past and future are ideas we invent to help us think about changes. Those ideas make us think that things move from the future to the past, but in reality future and past aren’t places that things can move in and out of. The only “place” is now. Now is the “place” where everything happens.
Past and future don’t exist. When the “past” changes existed, they were now because things only exist now. When the “future” changes arrive, they will exist now because things only exist now.
Now is existence. Now is reality.
It is always now. It was now in the past and it will be now in the future. It can only be now. It can never not be now. Now is the only time that exists. Now is another name for existence.
Why is it hard for some people to experience something that is always the case and can’t ever not be the case?
Because they’re trying to experience it with a tool — the mind — that can’t experience it.
Just like our ears can’t see colors, just like our eyes can’t hear sounds, our minds can’t experience now.
Years after I wrote this article, I ran across the following quotation from Alan Watts which says pretty much the same thing. He uses the phrase “infinitesimal hairline” to describe what I called “the infinitely small moment” which, due to an illusion, appears to lie between past and future. (In calculus an infinitely small quantity is called an “infinitesimal.”)
We are living in a culture entirely hypnotized by the illusion of time, in which the so-called present moment is felt as nothing but an infinitesimal hairline between an all-powerfully causative past and an absorbingly important future. We have no present. Our consciousness is almost completely preoccupied with memory and expectation. We do not realize that there never was, is, or will be any other experience than present experience.
When I publish a quotation here, I like to state where it comes from — which book, poem, letter, etc. — so people can look it up and read it in its original context. This is called a citation.
Educated people used to take for granted that when they write a quotation, they should provide a citation.
This is more than a courtesy to the author and reader. Without a citation, quotations can be fabricated or misrepresented or misleading — and very often are. Citations are part of the machinery by which a society thinks clearly.
But literacy is declining in our society and almost nobody provides citations nowadays. This quotation is an example. It’s all over the Internet — I just found it on more than one hundred websites — but not a single one says where the quote comes from. I had to search for hours to track it down. It comes originally from the Alan Watts Journal, 1970, but was reprinted in an anthology called What is Meditation? edited by John White and published in 1974 by Viking.
I just reprinted the entire article from White’s book on Realization.org so I can provide a citation for it.
Photo by Michelle Valberg