The Most Important Thing I Ever Learned

Clothesline of photos

If you read Raptitude you’ll see me talk a lot about moments.  By the end of this post you’ll understand why I use that word so much.  I grew up thinking the word moment referred to specific instants in time, usually where some significant event occurred.  There were historic moments, life-changing moments, poignant moments, tense moments, touching moments, Kodak moments. They were events to be remembered, reminisced about, or photographed.

Whatever they were, they held you captive.  Everything else seemed to drop away, and you just watched.  They seemed to be isolated from the normal, linear course of time.

As for the rest of life, it just seemed to be the normal, steady current of ‘stuff.’  Some fun, some pain, some hope, some confusion, some excitement, some tedium.  Same same but different.

When I was twenty, desperately leafing through some forgotten self-help book, I came across a peculiar line.  It didn’t astound me at the time, but it still stuck in my head.  It kept appearing in my thoughts.  I think I detected a hint of its significance, but it was years before I fully appreciated how powerful it is.  Now I believe it is the most important thing I ever learned:

Life unfolds only in moments.

Nobody has ever experienced anything that wasn’t a moment in action.  And all those moments have had one thing in common, they were all now once.

So if you think about it, you may picture life as a whole stack of moments, like a stack of photographs that show what happens in your life instant by instant.  The present moment sits at the top, and past moments extend down from there.  New moments drop from above, as the seconds tick by.  That stack of moments is your life.  Right?

Well, not really.  There is no stack.  If there were, you could just lift a photo out of the middle and it would be as clear and vivid as the one on top.  You could sift through your past at will, and see every detail just as if it were happening again.  You could pick a moment from way down in the stack, maybe your fifth birthday, and recall every detail.

I remember parts of my fifth birthday, I think.  My mom actually made us cupcakes instead of a cake that year, one for each kid.  My guests’ cupcakes each had one candle, except mine had five because I was the birthday boy.  Of that I’m certain, but I sure couldn’t tell you what I was wearing, or list all the kids who were there.  I’ve got one or two details rattling around in my memory, but the moment itself is gone.

Of course I have memories, but they are poor facsimiles of the moment they are supposed to represent.  Those memories are not a part of that moment.  They’re a part of this one, right now, where I’m sitting in front of my computer on the evening of April 1, 2009.  They are not a part of October 8th, 1985.  Even memories can only happen now.

I cannot access my fifth birthday in any way; I’m stuck here.  Now.

There’s really only one picture, but it keeps changing.  We can remember when it looked different, but we can’t see its past incarnations with anywhere near the clarity we can with the present one.

So my fifth birthday is as dead as Ben Franklin. This sounds kind of sad, but it’s actually fantastic news.

If the scope of life never extends beyond one moment, that means you never have to deal with more than one moment. You can bring all your attention and resources to bear on making the smartest move right now; there needn’t be any other considerations.  This means that there are not a million things to do, or a million people to please.  All you ever have to do is observe the moment that is happening, and pick an action that makes sense to you.

palmpolaroidIt often doesn’t seem like it, but life is always presented in these convenient, manageable slices.  The scope of your power as a person cannot extend beyond this single moving snapshot, so there is no reason to attempt to influence anything beyond it.  Observe the moment, pick what strikes you as a smart move, do it and watch what happens.  That’s the only responsibility you ever need to live up to.  It encompasses everything you can possibly do in life, so don’t kill yourself trying to reach further than that.

You do not have to figure out your future, or come to terms with your past, because there is no future or past.  Any experiences that seem to be from the past or future are not experiences at all, they are just thoughts.  Those thoughts are all just features of the present moment.

Try this:

Hold your hands up, palms facing each other, one beside each ear.  Feel the heat radiating from your head, and get a sense of how small the space is between your hands.  It’s not much bigger than a basketball.

Every single thing you’ve ever experienced, every sour memory, every embarrassment, every triumph, every great fear and every great hope, is confined within the space between your hands.  All conceptions or visions of your past and future are right there floating above your neck, and they cannot be found anywhere else.  They have no weight of their own, no permanence.  They can take no form other than that of a fleeting thought.

Rather than experiences, thoughts are more akin to a sudden noise: they arise with a frightful clatter, and are just as suddenly gone, leaving no trace.  Unfortunately, the human mind has some inefficiencies.  The mind doesn’t automatically make a distinction between experiences and thoughts about experiences, regardless of whether those experiences are remembered, anticipated, or imagined.

If they are mistaken for the actual experiences they represent, the person thinking them can react as such, with the same physical and emotional distress they might have if they were actually experiencing them. These physical responses can trigger other thoughts, and the subsequent torrent of ‘noise’ can take on the appearance of a whole lifetime of regrets and worries. They are still insubstantial thoughts, but the physical and emotional reactions they trigger are concrete and real. Simply recognizing thoughts as the phantom ruses they are can halt this process before it happens.

Neither the future nor the past can ever be dealt with, and they don’t need to be. You only need to deal with your present-moment thoughts about them.  When you are not having thoughts about those two realms of time, they bear zero relevance to your life.  You can safely let them go and feel free to deal with the living moment at hand.

This truth, once I fully understood it, released a huge weight from around my neck.  Life wasn’t crushing and heavy, it was as light as air.  Thin as a photograph.  I was finally able to look into each moment as if it were nothing more than an infinitely detailed and poignant living picture.  I could finally take the moments one at a time, because I understood that there never was more than one.  I could appreciate and observe each one, and know that my whole life lies within it, not just a tiny fraction.  There are no ghastly fears out there, stalking me from somewhere else, waiting to pounce.  If they existed, they’d be right here, in the picture for me to look at with the rest of the scenery.  Moments do hold me captive, and everything else does drop away. But they aren’t few and far between, they’re broadcast live, 24-7.

Moments can be observed with clarity, and can be navigated deftly, but our whole lives are just too vast to be managed at all, no matter how strong or organized we become.  The crushing weight of one’s entire past is always too much to bear, as is the frightful spectre of another forty or fifty years rife with dilemmas and tragedies.  It’s far too complex; there are too many contingencies and unknowns.  Surely something in there will overwhelm or destroy us.

A human being just can’t deal with that, and often it feels like the best we can do is distract ourselves from it.  But we don’t need to.

We just have to recognize that there is no ‘out there’ at all.  Life is in right front of you, all of it, always.  And there isn’t any more to it.

Photos by Adriano Agulló and copyriot

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{ 57 Comments }

Vickie Fowler March 18, 2014 at 5:08 pm

You write straight to my heart. I’m sure you’ve heard, “We spend the rest of our lives getting over our childhood!” Oddly enough, I had an amazing childhood ~ but, I’m not sure I was prepared for the deep thoughts of adulthood, the disappointments to the heart stuff. You had me wanting to cup my hands over my ears by the time I got to the basketball sized head piece. Powerful. Life is full of lessons; and they are all swirling around inside that little head. Thanks for the reminder that it’s just stuff. Too much to burden ourselves with, for sure. That’s a fantastic attitude!

http://www.hushhushheart.com/5-surprises-a-woman-learns-from-a-breakup/

jean March 19, 2014 at 6:54 am

Be here. now. this was a lovely reminder! Thanks David for writing so elegantly.

Juan Carlos April 15, 2014 at 10:11 pm

Great to see and read content that is of great value. I established a movement with my students in 2002, while teaching in Colombia. It is called the Mind Power Revolution. It continues to grow slowly now that I am back in Toronto. It has many similar notions but the greatest is the evolution of our Mind to process this human experience, in the moment.
Thanks for your efforts to enlighten the masses.

Sahana May 22, 2014 at 1:17 pm

This may come as a shock, but what amount of time is defined as a moment.

David Cain May 26, 2014 at 12:53 pm

Good question. I use it casually to mean the indivisible amount of time that is happening Now. In “A Tale for the Time Being” a Zen nun says there are 65 moments in the snap of a finger, which I guess is a way of saying everything is in a perpetual state of change, and this stays true no matter how much you zoom in. Each moment is supposed to be an opportunity to change your path.

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