The mind must shift from a knowing position to one of questioning, which allows the possibility of seeing something new.
The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.
If one takes this challenge seriously, investigating it will require a careful and considered look at the entire concept of time as well as who or what it is that wants to live in the now. Most of us accept there are three parts to time: the past; the present; and the future. It might be helpful to imagine time as a triptych, which is a grouping of three paintings that are linked by some type of common theme or image. However, if we take a fresh look at time, it might be revealed that grouping time this way, as a connected assembly of three equal elements, is not at all an accurate way to typify time. If so, the result may be that what we call “the moment” is not what we have assumed it to be. Not understanding exactly what the now moment is and how it functions can lead to misunderstanding the relationships of the various parts of time that will seriously affect attempts to live in the moment. So, in taking up this challenge, the very first thing we must do is to put aside what we think we know and look at time afresh. The mind must shift from a knowing position to one of questioning, which allows the possibility of seeing something new. New perception requires sustaining a sort of curiosity vacuum. The mind must have an empty space free of conclusion in order to investigate without looking through the filter of conclusions and fixed positions.
Coming back to the triptych, we see the three aspects of time lined up and seemingly connected by subject. Let’s first consider the picture on the left that represents the past. If we zoom in on it we can see it is made up of various types of memories. There is a large amount of memory making up our personal history, but in addition, there is material relating to physical skills, professional, technical or scientific information. Anything and everything stored in memory forms the past. When the scientific information is counted in as information about the past and stored as memory, the past now extends back a total of about 13.8 billion years. Just a few hundred years ago the “depth” of the past was only considered to be about 6000 years as formulated by Bishop Usher’s calculations from the Bible that placed the date of creation at 4004 BC. I think we as individuals enjoy extending a sense of our personal past by relating to and including family ancestry as well the history of the groups we identify with and may belong to.
Can you and I, as individuals, live in this world without being identified with anything? After all, I identify myself with my country, with my religion, with my family, with my name, because without identification I am nothing. Without a position, without power, without prestige of one kind or another, I feel lost; and so I identify myself with my name, with my family, with my religion, I join some organization or become a monk we all know the various types of identification that the mind clings to. But can we live in this world without any identification at all?
2nd Public Talk in Hamburg, 1956
Science aside, our personal memories are by far the most important for most of us. These memories give us a sense of personal history that is composed of a complex jumble of impressions about our self that have been put down in layers as we have gone through good and bad experiences and as we have matured, received education and formed group affiliations. It contains much subconscious material as well as layers of values, attitudes, and standards that have been internalized from various group associations starting in childhood with parental figures and household rules and standards. Also, when I refer to memories I am not just referring to words, picture-like images and intellectual concepts. Especially included are emotional reactions stored in memory. Emotions as memories are extremely powerful when evoked and can easily distort or block the brain’s input. This conglomeration of different types of memory is highly internally interactive and not necessarily logically consistent. The dynamics of this jumble create interactions and reactions amongst the different memory elements. Thus, memory can be marked by ambivalence, confusion and various collisions of different value systems that have entered memory at different times in our history.
Our personal memories form a large and convoluted system for evaluating and judging both ourselves and involvements with people, events and objects of the outer world. The inevitable conclusion is that for humans, the past as memory is not only internally convoluted but is also spilling into the present. Putting this back into our analogy of time, it means a big possible problem with our triptych painting. It is as if the paint used for our personal memories is never dry and is leaking over into the present to make an overlay that distorts the present to suit the ego’s need for continuity. Because of this distortion, we can become ineffective at dealing with current issues and problems at the various levels of existence because ego’s needs take precedence.
The conclusion must be that the past literally is a construction of memory as far as psychological time is concerned.
There is only one time by the watch, there is no other time. There is actually no tomorrow, except that thought has created tomorrow. Of course there is a tomorrow, again, chronologically, but is there any other time? We have made time – not chronological time but psychological time – as a means of resolving our problems: “I will resolve my problem tomorrow”, “I will do this” and “I will do that”. So thought has invented time which is unreal, and that is one of our difficulties.
Why does the mind create this time, this time of the future, tomorrow, the next moment? When you say, “I will do” or “I will try”- all those indicate that you are dealing with an artificial time, but not with chronological time. So the mind invents time first as a postponement – please listen to this – as a means of postponing action.
5th Public Talk in New Delhi, 1964
Certainly, there has been a past separate from memory. We can surmise that things have happened, and that happening has stacked up just as archeology indicates. But personal memory, not benefitting from the rigors of the scientific method, is far more inaccurate, and this means personal memory is probably very removed from real past events. One way or another, what we call the past is only a construct of images held in memory and, as such, is imaginary.
It is a lot easier to see that the future is also imaginary. I think the difference between scientific and personal projections of the future is that science tends to see the future as something based on probability, while projections into the future for our personal memories are usually based on a psychological desire for a better, more fulfilled or more satisfying sense of self, and the hope that this goal can be achieved in the future. This presupposes we can control who and what we are and that we should modify ourselves to fit internalized values and standards of who and what we should be. Therefore, concerning our personal memories, what emerges as our imaginary past produces our imaginary future, and this is how we sense psychological time. The past and the future are tightly bound as a unitary system that is not all that interested in the present.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. We all fill a great deal of the present with anticipation of what we hope or dread will happen in the future. The focus is on the future and, as such, we are frequently paying more attention to our past/future imaginings during the now moment than to the moment itself. Clear perception of what is happening in the moment is further complicated by ego needs for a continuity of the self view with all of its attached preferences and beliefs. The field of psychology has lists of “defense mechanisms” used by the mind to distort, filter or block incoming sensory information such that it will not be a threat to the existing order of the sense of self. This is the wet paint bleeding from the past onto the present so that new material is covered over to fit with the old. The incoming information from the present then takes a double hit from our needs for continuity with the past as well as preempting attention paid to the now in the now so we can focus on our anticipations concerning the future.
Seeing the past and the future as an assembly and movement of images originating from memory demands, I think, a new look at the present. For this reevaluation, I invite you to carry out a personal experiment derived from an experience that totally changed my view of what the present is and it’s importance in our lives. Since childhood I have particularly enjoyed watching clouds, weather and stars. Some time ago I was outside admiring a particularly bright and luminescent group of big cumulus clouds majestically sailing through an intense desert sky. They were wonderfully beautiful and entrancing billows of white with curling edges. There was no need for explanation or description in the moment of this watching. But, unexpectedly, my mind began thinking of time, which has long puzzled me. I realized in watching the clouds that I was also looking at something about the mystery of time. The scene unfolding above me involved motion that appeared to have no connection to either the past or the future. Regardless of how closely I scrutinized the scene above there was no past or future in the moment of observation. You could not look at the scene and find a part that was the past or the future. Everything was just “here and now” as an interaction of movements creating change; endless change from endless movement. Movement, interaction, and change as one simultaneous process. In short, this was creation, and not just concerning clouds, it concerned everything including my own brain-body assembly that was observing.
Curiously, there was no “bandwidth” present, no depth of field for time as there is in the past and future, no measure of time whether it be fractions of a second or eons of years. The moment was seen as a moving instantaneous suddenness containing all of what is real in the entirety of creation. Everything that is except imagination. Hold on there, you might say, we can imagine things during the now moment. True, imagination does happen “in” the now but it is not “of” the now and never will be. Our brain/body system exists in the now and the brain’s neuron firings are also now events. However, the images produced by the neuron configurations that are created from the brain’s memories are “of” the past as representations put down prior to now. Everything in the actual moving “nowness” is new. It does not issue from the past; it is a fresh creation.
Is it possible, not theoretically, not hypothetically or in a theological sense is it possible to be free of time? Is it possible for a mind which has been conditioned for centuries upon centuries to free itself? It cannot be done by thought, because thought is the result of time and thought cannot free consciousness which is limited. There must be a different action altogether, which is not born out of will, the will being again yesterday, today and tomorrow – I was, I am, I will be…
Freedom implies an end to time, not abstractly but actually. Freedom means to live completely today, because we have understood the whole structure, the nature, the meaning of the past. The past is the conscious as well as the unconscious. We have understood the whole of that. Because of that understanding there is the active present, which is living. Can this actually happen in our daily life?
5th Public Talk in Paris, 1966
Another way to look at this is to consider our body. Mine is considered old but if you look at it from the now moment it is brand new. What!? Yes, my body, like yours is constantly under reconfiguration with slightly different versions of it appearing in a steady stream of change just like the clouds overhead, just like everything except retained memories. Have you ever seen an “old” cloud? This new/old version of my body is basically one that is less efficient, less flexible and weaker than the “old” one of my youth. All of my body’s transformations have taken place in the now, the place where everything is undergoing constant change. Nothing has ever happened in the past or the future. The one is over and done with and the other never happens as a perfect match to the mental projection. Both the past and the future are memorial. The present contains all there is and all there ever will be and nothing about it is fixed; it is constantly changing.
So, I invite you to repeat this experiment. Please don’t accept what I have just described as some nice thing that happened, some kind of romantic mind-wandering. If you are interested just go out and find a nice tranquil location that offers refuge from the hectic jabbering daily life and just partake of tranquility, and within that atmosphere simply look. Watch what is moving out there, go with it, watch a changing reality unfold without effort or plan. Try to find the past. Try to find the future. It will be there but only in your mind as images built from recalled memories, and if you go into that imaginary place it will remove you from the present; it will disconnect you from all that is real including the actuality of who and what you really are. The “you”, that idea of yourself, your ego, will never be able to live in the moment because it is “of” the past as memory and “of” the future as a projection of imagination driven by desire within psychological time.
Science supports the view that the present is not part of the past/future psychological time assembly. Newtonian physics proposed direct cause/effect connections between what was, what is and what will be. The future was seen as predictable when all the variables could be accounted for. But things have changed. Modern chaos theory says measurements can never be perfect and tiny discrepancies too numerous to account for can have profound and large effects that befuddle long-range attempts at predicting complex systems. In addition, quantum theory, which originally prompted Einstein’s ire, has proven that the fundamental elements of the universe can never be firmly located or identified. They arise in the moment from interactions and they exist not as something totally predictable but rather as something happening within a field of probability.
Said differently, what we “know” can never be solid, unchanging and unquestionable if knowledge hopes to keep up with the ever-changing now. Events and things cannot be nailed down. The permanence and control we crave and seek psychologically is not possible because existence does not just have change, it is change and that change is beyond self/ego’s control. Basically, unpredictable creation is the present.
Each one of us is in need of a total mutation; there must be a complete transformation deep down, at the very root of our consciousness, otherwise we are mere automatons living in a shoddy, superficial world with all its conflicts, sorrows, miseries, and responding only to the most superficial demands and urges. To bring about this fundamental inward revolution, one must inquire into action; one must find out if there is an action which is not dictated by circumstances, by ambition, by social demands, by reformatory ideals, by nationalistic or other pressures. To find out if there is such an action, it seems to me that one must go very deeply into oneself – so deeply that the mind is no longer operating according to ideas, conclusions, memories, and is therefore capable of living in that total present which in itself modifies the very nature of action.
9th Public in Saanen, 1963
The challenge of living in the moment then involves first understanding the relationship between time and consciousness. In closely examining time it appears that the common and traditional representation involving past, present and future as a three-piece painting is not at all accurate. The present stands by itself and is the unfolding of all creation in an eternally changing now. Outside the now, the past and future are bound together by the mental/memory/imagination workings of the mind. For our sense of self, this means that a relationship between the present and memory does not exist. The present always slips away from memory regardless of how hard we try to grasp it. A picture of a cloud is not the same cloud as soon as the shutter snaps.
However, consciousness is more than just memory. Memory can flood and occupy consciousness, but seeing the need for an open awareness can open consciousness to be receptive to new input in the presence of the now moment. This openness provides for the possibility of the brain to experience learning which is not tethered to memory. When tethered, learning always is an extension of previous images and ideas. The brain cannot make this untethered learning happen but it can be receptive to a possible departure from the status quo. In other words, consciousness can undergo a severing from the past via contact with the present. This is an exposure to the same forces creating change throughout the universe.
I hope this does not seem awfully difficult, theoretical or complicated. It isn’t, but it is elusive and uncommon; it requires persistence and patience. In fact, I hope the simple experiment outlined above might have provided an opportunity for readers to experience a sense of revolution via observations of motion in nature to gain an intimate understanding of the present as the creative source of all. The mind then can transcend the limitations and restrictions of its own former idea of time, and one’s position in relation to the present.
By Robert Steele