Last week I asked the readers a simple question: Where are you right now in your life, at this exact moment? I tried not to lead people to answer in any particular way, just to share the moment they’re in and how they felt about it.
I was blown away by the response. So many colorful little corners of time and space. Right now there are 140-some and counting, not including a few dozen sent in email form.
A lot of people said that it hadn’t really occurred to them to ask that very basic question (where the hell am I right now, exactly) and that it was quite a catharsis to take a minute or two to do just that.
Let’s get something straight
It’s hard to really observe the moment without its apparent context pushing in on it, that context being the rest of our lives, before and after. So the present moment’s apparent value is conditional on what it seems to mean for the rest of our moments.
We often can’t help but view the present moment in terms of what it means for other moments in the “chain” and for the character that needs them all to go a certain way. We forget that the only real fact to be had is the present moment, no matter what we think it is halfway-to, leading away from, or supposed to be.
So most of the time, we’re not really perceiving the physical details of the moment, we’re perceiving a sprawling mental map of what we think of our lives, of which the present is a small part. It feels like life is made of millions of moments like this, linked by cause and effect, extending each way from here and now. This leads to two huge problems: 1) a preoccupation with these imagined non-present moments, and 2) an astronomical devaluation of the present moment.
Of course, there are no non-present moments. Let’s get that straight before we go on: life is the present only. The past is thoughts in the present. The future is thoughts in the present. You can argue all you want that the past “existed”, but the notion of something having existed is also just a thought in the present.
The present is composed of experiences only. You can experience sights, smells, sounds, sights, feelings and thoughts. There is nothing else. This is life: the experience of the present moment, whether we’re occupied with the thought aspect of it, or the sensory aspect of it, or some of both. In most people, by adulthood the thought component takes over the other parts of experience. Contrary to how we normally experience life, our lives are not what we think.
Thoughts are completely useless except in how they suggest we act in the present moment. We know intellectually that the present moment is our only way of experiencing life, yet we let thoughts about what we experience become our primary experience, most of the time. Bad habit. Tragic really. But it’s normal.
About three years ago I had a bizarre experience during a family dinner which I now realize left me different forever. I won’t quite call it a Pandora’s Box effect, because it wasn’t evil that came out of the box (the opposite, really), and the box flops shut all the time when I get worked up or preoccupied. But let’s just say I could not go back to the same way of looking at ordinary moments even if I wanted to.
I published an article describing that experience and the insight it left me with, back when this blog had an audience that could fit on my couch. But as with so many of my articles I feel like I ended up taking a potent idea that could change a person’s life, and reducing it to a kind of neato thing that you might think about and forget by the weekend.
Maybe that’s what I’m about to do again, but I think I can bring a bit more clarity to it than I did before. Long-time readers might find some of this familiar.
The beginning of time, at the dinner table
I was sitting down to dinner with my mother and grandma, watching my hand as it speared chunks of potato and romaine salad with my fork, when I had a strange sensation. I was struck by the uncanny feeling that I had not really been there before that moment.
It was as if I had just been dumped there, into that moment, into those clothes, into that seat, into that unique but by all accounts unmemorable moment in some 28-year-old man’s life. After I had a second to think, I noticed that the moment came complete with a rich assortment of memories, relationships, knowledge and privileges. It felt like the universe had just rebooted, and that dinner scene was where I found myself when the picture returned to the screen.
I discovered I was in a warm dining room styled in beige and ebony, with two fascinating people and a very colorful plateful of food in front of me. The women, whom I seemed to recognize as my mother and her mother, were in the middle of a dialogue about applesauce.
It felt like I’d been in a cave my whole life. I had very strong senses of visitation and privilege, as if I was actually a long-dead soul who’d been given a precious chance to taste the richness of life again, but perhaps only for a few moments. For whatever reason, I was momentarily allowed to witness, with all five senses, the stunning array of colors on my plate, the indescribable tastes in my mouth, and the warm voices and vivid stories of the two ladies sitting with me. I was still a bit bewildered, but I knew intuitively that to squander that moment would be a crime.
Where I was before that moment, I don’t know. But it wasn’t in that room. It made me think about how short a human life is compared to the vast stretches of time that come before and after it. Each of us is supposedly only granted a relatively tiny window of about 0 to 100 years, through which we’re endowed with the precious gift of experience. As for the two oceans of time that bookend a life, nobody really knows what they are like, but it seems fairly certain that they do not contain the same richness of experience that we have at our fingertips in every single moment we are alive.
I have since noticed that I can usually cultivate that feeling at will. Unless I’m completely hijacked by some train of thought (which is fairly often), I can look at any moment as if I’ve just been dropped here, wherever I happen to be at that moment. The most immediate effect is that my focus shifts from what I’m thinking to what I’m experiencing. Fear becomes a more distant feeling and a playfulness emerges. It’s so bizarre — who put me in this complex and beautiful place?
That experience was an instance of ego disidentification, which is a dull way of saying I hadn’t lost my personality or my thoughts about that personality, but that they no longer seemed to be mine. I felt a familiarity with them, maybe an affection for them, but no investment in them. They were just there, like any other feature of the moment, such as objects on the table or the temperature of the air. Nothing there was me. I could look down at the table, see my hands and control them, but they still felt no more like me than the tablecloth. This is an incredibly liberating sensation.
To get a sense of what the hell I’m talking about here (if you don’t already) you might check out Die on Purpose, or reread it if you already have. It’s short.
Something incredible happens when you look at your present moment as if you’ve just dropped into it from somewhere else. The moment is so rich, if you’re not already taken by your dull, dismissive thoughts about it. And that ‘somewhere else’ — whether you think of it as death, nothingness, outer space, or some warm, black void – certainly does not offer anything close to the vast palette of sensations and possibilities of a real, living moment. And if you’re reading this, that’s what you have in front of you.
And you can’t really know that this isn’t the case. Whether you arrived at this moment as the culmination of a familiar backstory, or whether you were just plunked here, is irrelevant. Experiencing that sensation doesn’t require any make-believing, because if you had really just arrived into this moment from some black void somewhere, complete with backstory, you’d never know, because all you have with which to figure it out is the present, and all that is given in it. That’s the way it’s always been anyway.
This is not a drill
This is not some cheeky exercise in agnosticism where you reason that you can’t technically know for sure that your backstory isn’t imagined, just like you can’t know that there aren’t unicorns lurking everywhere you are not looking. We know you can’t experience the “past” except as memories, which only happen in the present. Your backstory is imagined. It’s a present-moment figment of your mind. It is thought.
Some might at this point want to whip out Occam’s Razor: the notion that the simplest explanation with the fewest assumptions is probably correct. But I would argue that the simpler explanation is not that some meandering backstory has driven you and parked you here, but rather that no matter what, life begins right here, and that only that which is given here and now can be presumed to be true.
And since life begins precisely here, you ought to take your cues from the present moment, as objectively as you can look at it. This means consciously downgrading the importance of the story you tell yourself about who you are, what you deserve and what you can expect, and instead cultivating an earnest curiosity about what is actually happening now.
Having said all that, I won’t argue the point any further, because it’s not a matter of believing that the moments leading up to this one are imagined. Convincing yourself of that will do no good, because that’s just more thinking about thinking. Putting this principle to use is matter of truly experiencing the reality that the present moment is all there is. The past feels real, but it is only a mental feature of the present moment.
An exceedingly peculiar fact
So stop. Look away from the screen again and absorb the details of your surroundings for a minute. The spectacle and feel of the moment. Then read on.
Can you see this moment as the very beginning? You’ve just been dropped into this scene, with this body at your disposal, with this mood and this apparent backstory as the coloring. You have an impression in your mind of how you got here, but that’s all it is, an impression. It’s a collection of mental images and preconceptions that fill out the storyline of the character you’ve suddenly found yourself to be in charge of.
Look at your hands. Pick something up and turn it over in your hands, and notice the experience of handling something. Way more interesting than nonexistence, if you’re there for it.
Who knows where you were, but you know now that you’ve been dropped here, you are capable of looking and feeling and deciding — and most importantly — you know that you don’t know how long you’ll be visiting here. This is not to be taken for granted. To be able to experience at all is a privilege. It can be taken away at any time.
Everything there is, everything we know, hinges on this one bizarre, transient condition — existence — which just happens to be your current reality. We regard the miracle of existence as a goldfish regards water, which means we don’t regard it at all. But if you think about it, it’s an exceedingly peculiar fact — that we exist.
Whenever you feel stuck in a backstory, in a corner turning in on itself… BOOM, some unknowable cosmic lottery has spit you out right here and now, in this chair, in this situation, in this form. Figure it out from here with whatever is given in the moment. The backstory is just mental dressing, not important, because you are alive and you can do things.
Thoughts about the backstory will arise. Like all thoughts, they are just passing features of the present, in the same category as warm air, broccoli, upholstered dining chairs and birds chirping. Let them, just don’t mistake thoughts about your reality for your reality itself. They are never the same thing, no matter where you believe you came from.
Use them as guides and tools, those thoughts, but don’t use them as a dependable assessment of the present. They are just thoughts, which are fleeting features of the present. They’re the notes in the margin. Sometimes helpful, often way off base, and eternally pulling you out of the actual prose and into some analysis about it.
Your experience is entirely here. The present contains the past and future, not the inside-out way we’re used to thinking about it.
As Douglas Harding reminds us, “Isn’t it the very last thing we feel grateful for — having happened? You needn’t have happened. But you did happen.”
Photo by qmnonic