What is the present?

 

I saw a couple of videos about what the present is. Is it what happens right this millisecond? Or these few seconds? Or even minutes?

When I look at my experience of time, I find an overlay of thoughts (images and words about what happens in time) on top of another overlay of thoughts (an image of a timeline), on top of what’s happening in the other sense fields.

For past and future, it’s a series of images and words on top of the timeline either stretching back in time or forward in time, with sensations lending it a sense of substance, solidity, and reality.

For the present, it’s images and words on top of the “present” part of the timeline (the middle), and if the present is what’s happening in my immediate surroundings, then these are on top of what’s happening in sight, sound, taste, smell, and sensations. And, again, sensations lend these thoughts about the present as sense of solidity, reality, and truth.

So it doesn’t really matter how “long” the present is. It’s created in thought, as is past and future. In a sense, it’s imagined. And at the same time, our ability to imagine the past, future, and present is vital for us functioning in the world. We need it to orient, learn from the past, imagine different futures, and relate to what’s happening here and now.

And it does help to recognize that this is what’s happening, as it’s happening. It helps us hold it all more lightly.

The Living Inquiries is what I have found most helpful for exploring this in detail. And when I have found it, in depth, one or more times, it’s easier to notice it as it happens, in daily life.

When people say “be present” or “stay in the present”, what do they mean? It may mean to stay with what’s happening here and now, and that’s often helpful. But really, it means to notice that my mind creates an idea of a timeline, and then places other thoughts on top of it to populate my past, future, and present. I notice how my mind creates its idea of time and what happens in time, and that it’s all happening in immediacy.

Even if I am absorbed into thoughts about past, future, or present, one little noticing is all that’s needed for me to see that it’s all happening in immediacy, here now. My attention can be absorbed into thoughts about past, future, and present, and I can notice that’s what’s happening. And that helps me hold it all with a lighter touch.

One thing I like about this approach is that it’s pragmatic. It’s relatively easy to notice, especially through some guided inquiry. And it fits the understanding of modern psychology (although it’s still in its infancy) and even common sense.

At the same time, my impression is that many people tend to see past, future, and (their ideas of the) present as real, solid, and true. There is a past, future, and present, as it seems to us, and it’s populated with, more or less, what we think it’s populated with. That’s an understandable assumption, and it’s one that can only survive as long as we don’t take a closer look.

I also find the idea of time travel interesting. As a story device or a thought experiment, it can be very entertaining and even illuminating. If we take it as anything more than that, it means we assume there is an actual, real and solid past and future as a “thing”, that it’s somehow stored somewhere, and that we can conceivably visit it. That’s an example of taking our mental timeline of past, future, and present, investing it with a sense of solidity (through associating it with sensations), and taking that sense of a solid and real timeline as actually true and real “out there” somewhere, as a place we can visit. Again, this impression can only survive for as long as we don’t take a closer look.

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