The present is but a thin moment sandwiched between the past and the future. The present moment is so thin that it passes into the past in the time it takes to recognize it. However, the present moment is the reality in which we dwell, for we cannot act in the past or the future. Why does this moment receive the least of our attention?
As each moment passes, it becomes a memory if we give it any heed. If we chronicle the memories, they become history. The sum of human history is our knowledge base. We learn much from the past, and it would be foolish to expect each generation to rediscover fire or reinvent the wheel. The past is much more vast than this slender moment we call the present, so there is much more to pay attention to. Do we want to spend our lives in a library, though?
The future is boundless to the best of anyone’s knowledge. It is vast, but it also is unknown. People tend to fear the unknown, though. For this reason, they spend a great deal of time speculating on the future and planning for expected outcomes. Plans may be developed to avoid or protect against a potential disaster, to take advantage of an economic trend to make a fortune, or simply to build a structure or organization. Whatever plans we make, we are generally speculating on the future to provide for our well-being. Of course, we draw on our vast knowledge from the past to make our best guesses and plans for a vast future. Do we truly wish to spend our lives in a library attempting to prophesize the future?
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley – Robert Burns, 1785
“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” is a technical misquote of Robert Burns, but the meaning remains intact. We can see the truth of this statement even in the recent economic collapse that we continue trying to recover from. Some people lost everything while some people continued to prosper, but most people are somewhere in between; they manage to hold on with great concern for how long they can continue. The critical issue, that nobody seems to talk about, is that everyone was doing what they were taught to do.
People spend many of their early years in school, at least in the western industrialized nations. They are taught to learn all that they can, in order to get good jobs, so they can provide for their future. Preeminent in the plans for the future is the plan for retirement. The concept is simple: work hard now so you can enjoy life later – in the future. The problem with this doesn’t pivot solely on an economic collapse, that nobody saw coming, which destroyed some plans and put others at risk. The stress that has come to be associated with this lifestyle has been identified as a source of health problems. Plans to live “the good life” at retirement may be thwarted by health issues, as well as economic ones.
Some Buddhists promote a style of meditation called mindfulness. This style of meditation does not require a person to clear their mind. Instead, a practitioner tries to focus their awareness (attention) on the present moment, usually through some device like focusing on breathing. This is not as easy as it may sound. A sense of failure commonly comes when people realize how easily their minds wander to the past or the future. However, a purpose of mindfulness meditation is to alleviate stress caused by dwelling on the past or the future. Learning how much our minds focus on the past and future is enlightening, not failure. Focusing our attention on the present moment offers more advantages than just reducing stress, though.
When we become mindful of the present, we also become aware of our humanity. We are not the multitasking machines that so many people seem to aspire to. We become aware of the natural world around us and that we are part of that world, not separate from it.
Breathe deep and feel the pleasure of the breath usually taken for granted. Let some clear water slake your thirst for a change; such a simply element is so essential to life. Feel the warmth of the Sun in the growing season, and the cool caress of the breeze. Feel the solid earth beneath your feet as you walk. How would we live without these things?
Savor your food when you eat. Chew it slowly and pay attention to its flavor. What do you enjoy about the food you eat? Eating is a simple pleasure that many cooks try to enhance, but busy people with their minds on their next (future) task often rush through meals. Chewing food completely also aids digestion. Consider the source of the flora and fauna that you eat, too. Is there anything you eat that is not provided by the world we live in?
We live at the end of an age when humankind believe themselves to be a separate and dominant entity in this world, and that this world is theirs to exploit. When we pull our heads out of the sands of the past, or dreams of the future, we cannot help but see the reality of the present: we are not only part of this world, but dependent upon it for the fundamental elements that sustain our lives. It then may occur to some that there is much to learn in the present moment. Awaken your senses (and sensibilities) and observe; connect with reality!
We should not abandon the knowledge and lessons of history, nor should we stop dreaming of a brighter future. We need to balance these with the realities of the present, though. We must remember the adage that the victors write the histories, and new discoveries continue to edit the histories we learn in our youth; we may never know the total realities of the past. Dreams provide a goal to work towards, but they are not real until they become manifest in the present moment; dreams are sometimes revealed to be nothing more than disappointing expectations. A better balance must be found.
This began with an allusion to a sandwich; one with much bread and little meat. Such a sandwich lacks appeal to most people, and it is not very satisfying in the context of our current reality. Less bread and more meat translates to less focus on the past and future, and more focus on the present. In turn, this entire discourse might cause one to wonder if our conception of Time is flawed.
We associate the past with memory/history, but we cannot be certain of the accuracy of memory/history. Obviously, the past and memory/history are two separate subjects. At best, memory/history is only a reflection of the past. We can be fairly certain that a moment passes into the past, if Time truly exists as a continuum.
We associate the future with a vast unknown that we try to fill with logical projection/speculation, dreams, and expectations. It is far more elusive than the past. There is absolutely no evidence of a future except for the memory/history relationship with the present that suggests a linear Time continuum. Could the concept of linear Time be nothing more than a figment of our imagination?
A clear association can be drawn between the past and memory, the present and reality, and the future and speculation. Perhaps all that really exists is memory, reality, and speculation. Of course, this can be nothing more than a conceptual game whose only pragmatic value is to illustrate the greater priority the present moment should have.
When we focus our attention on the present moment, perhaps we will not only learn to appreciate the simple things we have taken for granted, but we might learn the pleasure of a simple life. When we learn to savor the taste of the food we eat, perhaps we will learn to savor moments of human companionship and give people our undivided attention. If people get our undivided attention, they should not feel they must struggle to be heard and understanding might grow. When we focus on the present reality, our respect for each other and the world that sustains us can only grow. Is it time to get real and live again?