Are thoughts in the past or future?

Thoughts are always here and now, like anything else. Nothing of who and what I am can not be here and now.

The content of thoughts can certainly be about the past or future and inevitably is. (Really, all thoughts seem to be about the past. Thoughts about the present are about what just passed. Thoughts about the future are usually thoughts about the past projected into an imagined future.)

When attention is caught up in thoughts, it can seem as if I am in the past or future. I may be lost in ideas about the past or future. I may find myself caught up in and apparently inside of that fantasy.

And when I notice that these are thoughts, attention is not lost in them anymore. They are recognized as thoughts that are here and now, just likely everything of who and what I am is here and now.

Image by me and Midjourney. A woman has several mental images, and notices they are mental images.

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Does all time happen now? Yes, to us it does

I remember having this experience in my teens, following the oneness shift. It was as if I could see, for my inner eye, all of time happening now, and I imagined that’s how time is to God. This was one of the early side effects of the shift, and it changed as I found more clarity about what was going on.

Since then, I occasionally talk with people who share a similar experience, often relatively early in the awakening process.

Is this topic important? Why do people experience it this way? And how can we explore it for ourselves?


At a philosophical level, it’s about as important as other abstract philosophical topics. For most of us, it’s not very important in our daily life.

If it’s an experience – or a sense or intuition, then it’s often important for the ones having it.

And as a topic to explore in our own direct noticing, it can lead us to notice our nature. It can lead us home, to the home we already are whether we notice it or not. And for us, nothing may be more important than that.


Where does the “all time is happening now” experience come from?

It comes from noticing reality. Not necessarily some absolute reality out there but the reality of our own experience.

To us, any content of experience happens within our sense fields. Any experience happens within one or more sense field – sight, sound, smell, taste, sensation, mental representations, and so on.

And that includes our experience of time. Any ideas of past, present, and future, and any ideas of what’s in each of these, happen within our mental field. It all happens here and now.

Any sense of all time happening now also happens within our sense fields. It happens as a combination of certain mental representations (of a timeline and past, future, and present) and certain sensations in the body. Our mind associates the two so the sensations seem to lend a sense of solidity and reality to the mental representations, and the mental representations give a sense of meaning to the sensations.

That means that to us, all time happens now. It’s inevitable. It’s always been that way.

So if we experience that all time happens now, it’s because it does – to us. It was always that way. It cannot be any other way. It’s just that we don’t always notice.

And that doesn’t mean that this is how reality itself is. It’s just our inevitable experience because of how our mind works.


It’s important to differentiate the two.

To me, all time happens now. I cannot find the past or future, or even the idea of the present, outside of my mental representations. And they all happen here and now.

And that doesn’t say anything about reality itself. It doesn’t tell me how existence in itself is. What we call “time” is a mental overlay on (our mental overlays of) existence.

It says something about my own experience.


More importantly, it says something about my own nature.

It’s a pointer to what I more fundamentally am, in my own first-person experience.

If I notice a sense of all time happening now, it’s an invitation for me to take a closer look. How does my mind create this experience?

This can be an invitation to explore our sense fields. To explore what’s happening in each, and how the mental field combines with physical sensations to create a sense of solidity and reality out of imaginations and sensations. (These imaginations are essential for us to orient and function in the world so there is nothing wrong with them, it’s just good to notice what’s happening.)

And this may lead me to find what I more fundamentally am. I may find that I more fundamentally am capacity for anything appearing in the sense fields. I am what the world, to me, happens within and as.


How can we investigate this for ourselves?

There are many approaches out there and what works depends on the person and situation. Here are a few I have found helpful.

Traditional Buddhist sense field explorations. For instance, pay attention to one sense field at a time and what happens there. Notice what happens in the mental field. Notice how the mental field interprets what happens in the other sense fields, how it interprets what’s not here in any other sense field, and perhaps even how certain sensations lend a sense of solidity and reality to some mental representations (give them a charge) and how certain mental representations give a sense of meaning to certain sensations.

The Kiloby Inquiries is a modern take on this traditional Buddhist inquiry. This inquiry usually requires a facilitator, at least unless we are trained and have some experience with it for ourselves.

The Work of Byron Katie can be helpful, especially if we explore this specifically.

Apart from sense field explorations, the most direct ways to explore this may be the Big Mind process and the Headless experiments. Here, we get a direct taste of any ideas of past, future, and present as happening here now, and happening within and as what we are.

Basic Meditation can do the same, although it tends to be a slightly slower process. Notice and allow what’s here. Notice that it’s already noticed and allowed. Notice how any content of experience comes and goes, including any ideas of past, future, and present. So what am I more fundamentally?


So yes, all of time does happen simultaneously. To us, it does. It’s inevitable since time can only be found in our mental representations, and these happen here and now. I cannot find time outside of my present experience.

That doesn’t tell me how reality itself is.

And it’s an invitation for me to take a closer look, which may lead me to find my own nature.

Although much is important in life, we may find there is no greater treasure than that.

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Perception of time when we notice our nature

This is another article in a mini-series on how we tend to perceive when we notice our nature. I have written about our perception of distance and movement so far, and here is one on time. (Since I have written about our perception of time in several other articles so I will only touch on it briefly here.)


In one sense, I perceive time as anyone else. I know how to use our ideas of seconds, minutes, hours, days, and so on. And my sense of time stretches and compresses depending on what I am doing and whatever states are moving through me, as it seems to do for most people.


At the same time, I am aware that my sense of time happens within and as what I am.

Any ideas of past, future, and present – and what I imagine in each one – happen within my sense fields.

They happen within and as what I am. They happen within and as what a thought may call consciousness.

It’s all happening in the now that’s all I know and have ever known.


I am aware of my mental representations of time – of a timeline with a future, kind-of-present, and past, and that my mental field places certain events on this timeline and in one or more of these three times.

I have examined these through more thorough inquiry several times, which helps me recognize them in daily life. And it helps me recognize them as mental representations happening now.

These mental representations are essential for helping this human self function in the world.


Another aspect of all this is timelessness.

Since time happens within and as what I am, I find my nature is timeless.

My nature is no-time allowing time and different experiences of time, including the three times and the stretchiness of time.


When we are in a process of exploring our nature, it’s not uncommon to have experiences that highlight certain features of what we are.

One of these for me happened fifteen or more years ago. I was training a more stable attention (focus on sensations of the breath in the nose) while music was playing in the background. Suddenly, there was a shift where any sense of continuity of time fell away. There was no continuity in the music, only the shifting sounds here now.

This helped me see how my mind, and especially the mental field, creates not only a sense of past, future, and present, but also of continuity of time. Without it, there is only an always shifting now with no continuity. Without it, we couldn’t function as human beings in the world.


In daily life, all of these are here and attention may highlight some aspects of this more than others.

I operate with time in a conventional sense, and with my cultural influences. (I like to be on time since I am from Norway, and I like to stick to schedules that involve others for the same reason.)

I notice my mental field creating and operating with representations of time – a timeline, three times, events on this timeline and in the three times, and so on.

I notice my timeless nature, either in the background or more intentionally.

And I am aware that without my mental field, there would be no sense of continuity in time.

Note: I have written similar articles on distance, movement, doership, the physical, and this human self.

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Hope for the past

Do you have hope for the future?
someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
Yes, and even for the past, he replied,
that it will turn out to have been all right
for what it was, something we can accept

– from Thanks, Robert Frost by David Ray, 2006

How we see the past always changes.

The way we understand our collective history changes. We see it in the context of how we understand the present. We see it in the context of what happened since. We have different values. We include new perspectives. We may have new information.

And so also with our personal history. We forget and remember different things. We see it in the context of how we understand our present, and we see it in the context of what happened since. We may have a different understanding of why we did what we did. We may understand our parents and childhood differently. And so on.

The way we relate to what’s here now is how we relate to our past. After all, the only place we can find our past is in our current mental representations of our past.

Without any intentional healing practice, how we relate to live and our past may go three ways. We may fuel painful stories and go into issues and hangups. We may find more peace with our life and our past. Or it stays more or less the same.

And with an intentional healing practice, we are much more likely to find peace with our life and our past. As we find healing for our relationship with ourselves, others, and life in general, we find healing for our relationship with our past. We see it with more understanding. We tell ourselves more kind and honest stories about our past.

What about hope? Do we need to rely on hope? Not if we have an intentional healing practice. Then we can find what we hope for here and now.

And how does finding our nature change this? It helps us recognize that the past, to us, only happens here and now in our mental representations of it. We can notice that they are part of the creativity of the mind, and our nature is their nature. They are a flavor of the divine, and we can rest in this noticing. We can – as before – heal our relationship with these mental representations. And we can examine them and find what’s more honestly true for us, which tends to be far more kind than our initial painful stories.

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You only live once.

That’s true in several ways.


As far as we know, we only have this one life.

Even if there is something like reincarnation, we only live this life once.

Even if we live over days, years, and decades, we only live this moment once.

These are all ways it’s true within stories.


And there is a more immediate and direct way it’s true.

All my experiences – all my ideas about the past, future, and present – happen here and now. It all happens within my sense fields. It all happens within and as what I am.

I only live once because, to me, it all happens within and as what I am.

To me, my past and future and present, and all the moments of my life whether there is just this one human life or rebirth happen within and as what I am.


So in all these ways, within stories and more immediately, I only live once.

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Stewart Brand: This present moment used to be the unimaginable future

We cannot accurately imagine the future for two reasons.

One is that our imagination is made up of mental images and words. These are different in nature from what they refer to. And they are, by necessity, very simplistic while what they refer to is immensely rich and complex. They are as different from what they refer to as a map is different from the terrain.

Our individual and collective lives, and the world and this universe, is so rich and complex we cannot predict the future with any certainty. And much of what happens is something we didn’t and couldn’t have imagined.

This present literally used to be our unimaginable future.

Nowhere to go?

On the path of self-exploration, one of the basic insights is that there is nowhere to go.

What does it mean?

It’s something we each have to explore for ourselves.

The essence may be that to us, the world happens within and as what we are, so there is nowhere to go.

And this has a few different aspects.


In my own first-person experience, the three times – past, future, and present – happen here and now.

My images and stories of past and future, and any images and stories I have about specific past and futures, happen here and now.

I cannot find it anywhere else.

In terms of time, there is nowhere else to go.


I find the same with space.

Whatever happens in my experience – of this human self or the wider world or anything else – happens within my sense fields. It’s all happening within and as what I am.

There is nowhere to go, because to me, whatever I am experiencing happens within and as what I am.


I cannot escape the experience I have here and now.

It’s already allwed and already here.

Whatever I do is too late. I cannot escape it. There is nowhere to go.


Similarly, I cannot escape whatever is unresolved in me.

It’s here. Whether it’s dormant or activated, it colors my perception, choices, and life.

And life will activate it and bring it to the surface.

If it is unresolved, it’s here, colors my life, and will be activated.

There is nowhere to go.


I can recognize this, in an immediate and visceral way, through different forms of inquiry.

And it has a few practical consequences.

If there is nowhere to go, what does that mean?

For me, it mainly means to befriend what’s here. If there is nowhere to go, it doesn’t make sense to continue to actively fight with what’s here. It makes more sense, in the long run, to befriend it.

These days, I tend to do this by exploring contractions in me. A life situation may trigger a contraction. I notice where I feel it in the body and ground my attention in the sensations. I thank it for protecting me and stay with that thankfulness until I notice a good shift. I check for what universals it may need or want, and what lack it’s coming from, and notice my system giving it to this part of me and rest with it. I notice its nature, and rest in that noticing. I invite it to notice its own nature, and allow it to rest in that noticing.

This supports awakening (it helps the contraction to awaken to its nature). It supports healing. (Contractions are unhealed and unresolved parts of us.) And it supports living from awakening. (The more healed, the easier it is to live from noticing our nature in more situations.)

All of this fits with ordinary approaches to our experiences and life. If something needs to be taken care of, I take care of it. And if a contraction comes up in me, I can befriend it and help it recognize its own nature.

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The past is like a dream

Do you remember how it was before? It’s almost like a dream, isn’t it?

I heard someone say this in reference to the time before the pandemic.

Why does the past seem like a dream? Because, just like a dream, we can only find it as mental images and stories. And, just like a dream, it happens within and as consciousness.

The future is also like a dream, for the same reason. We can only find it in mental images and stories, and it happens within and as consciousness.

And really, the present is very similar. Our mental images and stories about the present, including about what’s physically present with us, are the mental images and stories we find in a dream. And it all, including what’s appearing within all the sense fields, happens within and as consciousness.

If we don’t notice what we are, we tend to take all of this as more solid than it is. The past seems real to us, even if we can only find it as mental images and stories happening within and as consciousness. The future can seem relatively real to us, especially if we attach fears and hopes to it, even if that too only consists of mental images and words happening within and as consciousness. And the present seems real, even if our mental images and stories about it are just that, and what’s happening in all of the sense fields – sight, sound, taste, smell, sensations, thoughts – happen within and as consciousness.

And that’s why, when we notice what we are, it can feel like the world is a dream. It’s because it is, to us. It always was and is and cannot be anything else, we just didn’t notice. This can be disorienting and perhaps disconcerting at first, but we get used to it as anything else. We are just noticing what’s always here and what we already are more familiar with than just about anything else.

Byron Katie: Now isn’t


Now isn’t. (Have you noticed?)

– Byron Katie

I don’t know how Katie sees this, but here is what comes up for me.

When I try to find “now”, I cannot find it outside my idea of now. I can find what appears in my senses – sights, sounds, smell, taste, sensations and so on – but I cannot find “now”.

Now is an idea with associations. It’s a mental representation, not what it points to.

Also, what we in our thoughts call “now” has already passed. Our thoughts are always one step behind.

In either case, “now” doesn’t exist as we imagine it.

Awakening is here now, not in a story about another time or somewhere else

Where do I find awakening?

In a story about it being somewhere else – in the past, future, or over there?

Or here and now?


Where do I find the past or future in my own experience?

When I look, I see that I cannot find the past and future outside of my stories. The only place I can find the past and future is in my own ideas, in my own mental images and words.

And that goes for stories about awakening as well. Any story about awakening in the past or future or any permanent awakening are stories and I cannot find it outside of my stories and imagination.

That’s not to say that they can’t be useful.


Memories of past awakening are reminders that it’s possible and pointers for noticing here and now.

Stories about future awakening is a reminder to find it here and now.

And any stories about “permanent” awakening is a reminder to find it here and now, and also look at what in me wish to believe there is such a thing. Where does it come from? Is it a way for me to imagine I can find safety? Security? Something stable and desirable that will always be here? Does it point to fear about change and fear about certain experiences? And that I am not comfortable with that fear?

Perhaps it’s easier to find peace with this fear? To inquire into these stressful beliefs?


We can also have stories about awakening over there.

Awakening is in that person over there.

That too is a story about awakening, and about awakening being some other place.

And this too is a reminder to find it here and now.


An understandable response to this is:

It’s not that easy. I don’t know what it is or how to find it.

And yet, it can be quite simple.

What’s in the way is usually two things:

(1) Our ideas about it being unachievable for us. We may have bought into ideas telling us it requires preparation, preliminary practice, lifetimes of practice, that it’s only for special people, that it’s something terribly esoteric and mysterious, that it’s something already unfamiliar to us, and so on.

(2) And we may not have the tools and guidance.

The first is only an obstacle if we believe those thoughts to the extent that we give up looking for and using pointers that can help us find it here and now.

The second is only an obstacle until we actually find it, and these days – with the internet – it’s easier than ever to find these pointers. The two I am most familiar with are the Headless experiments and the Big Mind process. If we engage in them sincerely and with the guidance of someone familiar with the terrain and how to guide others, both tend to be effective in showing us what we are in a relatively short time. And by a short time, I mean minutes.


Finding what we are is not necessarily so difficult. We need an open enough mind to try it, we need the right pointers and guidance, and we need some sincerity in the exploration.

In many cases, it’s more a matter of trusting it.

Again, this comes down to the ideas we may have about awakening from culture and some teachers and spiritual traditions.

If we think awakening inherently comes with bells & whistles and amazing experiences, then we’ll probably be disappointed if we notice what we are without all of these unnecessary side effects. It may seem too simple.

If we think awakening is something special, mysterious, and unfamiliar, then noticing what we are may seem too familiar and ordinary.

In reality, it doesn’t need to come with bells & whistles. It can be simple and apparently unremarkable. It’s not a problem. (And it helps us avoid the sidetrack of the mind becoming fascinated with the bells & whistles and pursuing them.)

And it’s not something that was somewhere else. It was always here, and we were always familiar with it. We just didn’t notice.

How can we come to trust that what we notice is the real thing? And the transformative power in it?

The initial trust may be a trust in the source – in the pointers, where they come from, the guide, and perhaps the community of people having used it and found what they are.

If we continue to explore it, the trust may come from noticing that what we find ourselves to be – even if it seems unremarkable and already familiar – fits the essence of the description of awakening from many different spiritual traditions and teachers. (At least if we remove the stories about bells & whistles, special powers, and so on.)

Most importantly, the trust may come from noticing what we are, explore living from it, and notice the effects.


In summary….

Awakening means noticing what I am in immediacy.

I cannot find awakening in my stories about awakening in the past or future or over there, but I can use those stories as a reminder to find what I am here and now.

If I have any stories about “permanent” awakening, then that’s a reminder to find what I am here and now, and also to find what in me wants that story about permanent awakening to be true.

It’s not necessarily difficult to notice what I am. The main obstacles are often (a) assuming it’s difficult and involved, and (b) not knowing the pointers and having a guide.

When I notice what I am, it can seem too ordinary, simple, and familiar. That comes from misconceptions about awakening. I can learn to trust it, and the transformative power of that noticing, through continued noticing and exploring how it is to live from it.

Gospel of Thomas, verse 18

(1) The disciples said to Jesus: “Tell us how our end will be.”
(2) Jesus said: “Have you already discovered the beginning that you are now asking about the end? For where the beginning is, there the end will be too.
(3) Blessed is he who will stand at the beginning. And he will know the end, and he will not taste death.”

– Gospel of Thomas, verse 18

(1) The disciples may not be comfortable with uncertainty and want to know.

(2+3) When we find ourselves as capacity for the world as it appears to us, we find that all beginnings and ends happen within and as what we are. To us, all beginnings and ends happen here and now, within and as what we are.

Experience of time

We can experience time in different ways.

As a human self in the world, we are within time.

As capacity for the world, time is within us, as is space.

If we take ourselves as primarily a human self, then the within-time perspective is what we are most familiar with, although we may shift out of it for a while in flow states and so on. In these flow states, it’s as if the part of our mind keeping track of time is temporarily set aside.

When we notice ourselves as capacity for the world, we find time – the idea of time – happening within and as us, and we function with and within time as well.

The experience of time is created by our mind. Our mind imagines a past and future, and mixes imagination with sense perceptions for the present. We imagine a timeline and events and situations put on this timeline. I cannot find time outside of these images and imaginations. Time is created in the present.

For us, whether we notice or not, all time happens here and now, since it’s all found in images and imagination. (I wonder if this is why some imagine that, for God, all time happens now. It’s a projection of our own immediate experience, whether or not we happen to notice.)

I notice that what happened in the recent past seems like it just happened and also as if it happened thousands of years ago. I experience timelessness, and time happening within and as it. And it all seems a bit like a dream because, to me, it is. It’s all happening within mental images and within and as consciousness, just as dreams do.

The idea of time travel says more about our mind than reality

I have written about this too, several times, but thought I would briefly revisit it.

The idea of time travel says more about our mind than it does about reality.

In our mind, we can easily visit the past and future. Present, past, and future all co-exist. So it’s an apparently small leap to assume we can do the same in reality.

While in reality, we only have what’s here and now and our ideas about the past and future are all created here and now. For time travel to be possible, the past and future would have to be stored somewhere, and that’s very likely not how it is.

So the idea of time travel says something about how our mind works. It reminds us that we can easily visit some version of the past, present, and future in our mind, that we cannot find the past and future anywhere else, and that we sometimes mistake what’s going on in our mind for reality outside of the mind.

It also reminds us that all we have is what’s here and now. As far as we know, the past and future are not magically stored anywhere outside of our mind.

Of course, the idea of time travel in fiction is something else. It can create fascinating and fun stories, and those too can be used to explore and say something about us here and now.

Adyashanti: The present moment is actually creating the experience of the past

The present moment is actually creating the experience of the past.

– Adyashanti

The present moment is creating the experience of the past, and the future, and even the present. It’s all created here now. It’s a huge relief to notice this and invite it to transform me.

Waiting for something / Waiting for my life to start

As most people, I sometimes find myself waiting for something to happen in the future. Right now, I notice I am mentally waiting for the vaccine so my life can open up a bit.

There is nothing inherently wrong here. But if this waiting or expectation is taking away from what’s here now, it’s worth looking at it.

Noticing what’s here

What happens if I notice it’s all happening mentally? That this is an image about the future that I invest expectations into?

What happens if I notice that these images of the future are images? That I cannot find the future or what these images refer to outside of these images?

What happens if I notice that I cannot know what will happen? That I cannot know the extent my future now will resemble these images?

What happens if I notice that these images happen here now? That what’s here – in all my sense fields – is all I have? That all my memories and my images about the future happen here and now?

Exploring what’s fascinating about these images

Why do I invest energy into some of these images about the future? Why do I invest energy into this particular image of my post-vaccine life?

What I notice here and now is a discomfort in me that was here when I woke up. It’s a slight anxiety and physical discomfort. These images of my post-vaccine life give me a small distraction from this discomfort, and it brings me in touch with a bit of extra joy and excitement.

Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with this. But it is good to notice what’s happening and that I am moving away from the discomfort.

How would it be to say YES to what’s here? The slight anxiety and discomfort? How is it to be here with what’s happening, as it is, as a friend or parent?

If I explore this further, I may find underlying assumptions, identities, and painful beliefs. For instance, that I am not good enough, I am unloved, I am unlovable, or something similar.

Some additional questions that can be helpful in exploring these dynamics: What do I hope will happen if what I am looking forward to happens? What do I fear will happen if it doesn’t happen? What’s my earliest memory of having similar images about the future? If this sensation could speak, what would it tell me?

Waiting for my life to start

If we wait for something to happen in the future and invest it with a lot of energy, hope, and attention, we can get a sense of waiting for our life to start.

“My life will start when I get the vaccine. My life will start sometime in the future, when things are different.”

If this happens, it’s especially useful to examine what’s going on.

Is it true that this, here now, isn’t my life? Is it true that my life will start in the future? Does my future life even exist? Can I find it outside of my images?

The downsides of investing too much into these images about the future

There are some downsides to investing too much energy into these images about the future, and relying on these images to feel better about myself and my life.

An obvious one is that it may not happen as I envisioned it. If I invest too much into them, I set myself up for disappointment.

If I invest too much into a particular set of images, I may get fixated on one possible future and overlook all the other options and possibilities. I can limit myself too much and miss out on other paths that may be as good or better, or at least the best possible considering the situation.

Also, I miss out on what’s here. I miss out on the juiciness, richness, and fullness of what’s here. I distract myself through these images and, in a sense, leave myself. I become a distracted friend or parent to myself.

The upside of these images about the future

We depend on our images of the past, future, and present to function in the world.

When I have these images of my post-vaccine life, I am trying out different possibilities in my mind. I make a plan to get vaccinated as soon as possible, and I can also explore some plans for my life after. This is very useful.

I mentally try out possibilities and find the ones that resonate the most with me and work towards them.

A pragmatic approach

At the same time, there is no need to invest these images with too much energy or constant attention. I explore possible futures. Make some plans. And can notice that these are images happening here and now, and that all I have is what’s here now.

This helps me come home to the fullness of what’s here now, even if not all of it is what my personality likes. And somehow, that’s more fulfilling. It’s more real.

I can have the best of both worlds. I can have these images about the past, future, and present, and use them to explore how I want to live my life. And I can notice they are happening here now along with what’s happening in all my other sense fields. I can come back to reality. I come back home.

There is nothing particularly “spiritual” about this. It’s a pragmatic approach.

Byron Katie: All your there and then is really here, now

All your there-and-then is really here, now

– Byron Katie

To me, my there-and-then is here and now. It all happens within my own mind.

It all happens from a mental overlay labeling, interpreting, and creating stories, including the story of there and here, and then and now. (That’s not to say here and there, and then and now, doesn’t exist. It’s just that to me, as I perceive it, it happens through this mental filter ordering and making sense of it.)

And all of it – all sensory experiences, all mental images and words, anything anywhere or anytime, all experiences – happen within and as what I am.

Helpful and not so helpful ways of living in the present

Living in the present can refer to a few different things.

It can mean noticing that all we have is what’s here now and that the idea of a past and future is imagined, as is the idea of a present, and anything we imagine in the past, future, and even present is imagined. It’s all happening within our thought field, within and as mental images and words. It’s all – all our experiences including of the three times and what happens within them – happens within and as what we are.

A less helpful way is to take the idea of living in the present to mean ignoring past and future, or at least making an effort to ignore it. The idea of past, future, present, and what happens in those three times, is essential for us to function and navigate in the world. (It just helps to notice that that’s what they are – ideas.) There is no need to try to ignore these or anything else.

Another less helpful way, which tends to come from an emotional issue and believing certain thoughts, is to take what’s happening here and now – and especially feelings and thoughts – and projecting them into the future, as if they mean something about the future or that it will always be this way, and also projecting them onto the past and present and ourselves as if they mean or can say something real about the past, present, or ourselves.

The first is the cure for the second and third.

Byron Katie: Since the past is unreal and the future is unreal, all your thoughts are about nothing

Since the past is unreal and the future is unreal, all your thoughts are about nothing.

– Byron Katie

For us, the past is imagined. The future is imagined. And what we call the present is our ideas about something already gone.

Since all our thoughts are about the past and future, they are about nothing.

Data: I want to live, however briefly, knowing that my life is finite

I want to live, however briefly, knowing that my life is finite. Mortality gives meaning to human life, Captain. Peace, love, friendship – these are precious because we know they cannot endure.

– Data to Picard in the final episode of season 1 of Star Trek:Picard

I always enjoy these glimmers of real wisdom in mainstream culture.

In a conventional sense, it’s helpful to take in that our life is finite. It can help us face – and bring presence into – any fears we have around it and find more peace with it. It can help us appreciate our life more. It can help us find genuine appreciation for what’s here and now, even if some of it may not be exactly as we wish. It can help us reprioritize and find what’s really important to us. And it can help us reorient and allow more time for what’s important to us.

A simple exercise here is to visualize our death as vividly as we can. Take it in. Ask ourselves how I would have liked to live differently. And then see how our live can be different now in this new context.

We can also explore our finite life in immediacy. Any ideas of past, future, and present are ideas. What’s here and now is all we have. And it’s always fresh and new. Not only is no moment alike any other moment. There is just this ONE moment. This always changing timeless presence.

My life is finite in that it’s just this timeless presence. And that timeless presence is infinitely rich. It includes everything I have ever experienced and everything I will ever experience. It also includes any images and thoughts I have about past, future, and present – and any images and thoughts about anything.

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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.

Unknown: I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened

I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.

unknown origin, (mis)attributed to Mark Twain

It’s a good quote even if Mark Twain probably never said it.

For most of us, most of the terrible things we live through never actually happen. They happen in our minds, and we may relive it in our minds, but it never actually happened.

Whether we tell ourselves it happened in the past, that it will happen in the future, or it does happen in the present, it never actually happened.

Some terrible things may have happened in the past. We then relive it in our mind, perhaps with added painful stories and interpretations, and it doesn’t happen anywhere else than our mind.

Some terrible things may appear to be in future, and that future isn’t here yet. Again, we live it in our minds and it’s not actually happening.

It may or may not come to pass, more or less as we imagined it.

If it doesn’t, then it clearly didn’t actually happen.

If it does happen, as it is happening, our imaginations about it are still imaginations. Our stories are stories. It’s all mind-made. It doesn’t actually happen as we imagine it. (I realize this one may require more investigation but it’s worth it.)

As with any of these explorations, understanding it intellectually or intuiting it is a good start. And for it to become a lived experience, we need more investigation. In this case, inquiry such as The Work or the Living Inquiries can be very helpful. Especially if we investigate the stories that seem the most true, and keep going with yet another story that seems true. Until, perhaps, they don’t anymore.

Byron Katie: Life without a future

Life without a future is magical.

– Byron Katie

It doesn’t mean having no images or thoughts about the future, or believing there is no future.

It means seeing clearly, through curiosity and investigation, that any images I have about the future are just that, images.

They are images and words, with perhaps sensations associated with them. If unexamined, the sensations will lend a sense of reality and solidity to the images and words. They will seem real, as if they reflect a real future. If examined, I see images as images and words as words, and feel sensations as sensations. It’s clear they are all happening here and now. I cannot find a future outside of these, happening here, and being images, words and sensations.

Notice it’s new

Time does go by (or, more accurately, it feels as if time is going by) more quickly the older we get. In the first few years of our lives, anything we sense or do is brand new, and many of our experiences are unique, so they remain firmly in our memories. But as the years go by, we encounter fewer and fewer new experiences—both because we have already accomplished a lot and because we become slaves to our daily routines. For example, try to remember what happened to you every day last week. Chances are that nothing extraordinary happened, so you will be hard-pressed to recall the specific things you did on Monday, Tuesday, etc.

What can we do about this? Maybe we need some new app that will encourage us to try out new experiences, point out things we’ve never done, recommend dishes we’ve never tasted and suggest places we’ve never been. Such an app could make our lives more varied, prod us to try new things, slow down the passage of time and increase our happiness. Until such an app arrives, try to do at least one new thing every week.

– Dan Ariely in Why Time Feels Like it Passes Quicker as You Get Older

Another option is to notice that this experience is, in reality, new and never experienced before and will never be experienced again.

When we take our images and thoughts as true, there is a sense that things are the same. Our images and thoughts makes it look as if this experience is similar or even the same (!) as a previous or future experience. As we examine how our experience is created, and see words as words and images as images, this experience is revealed as what it is, new and fresh. And it’s not even “new and fresh”, it’s just what it is here and now.

How do I explore this? I can question thoughts such as “I have experienced this before” using The Work. I can look for the past, future and present, and any sense of boredom or that this is the same as a previous experience using the Unfindable Inquiry in the Living Inquiries. I can also look for any threats related to this using the Anxiety Inquiry.

Byron Katie: Time ends

Time ends when you no longer need to produce it.
– Byron Katie

Where do I find time? How does time appear to me?

When I look, I find an image of time, and on this image I place images of what has happened in the past, what may happen in the future, and even images of what’s happening in the present. Past, future, present – they are all images, all thoughts, their boundaries defined by images. I also see an image of time as a timeline, and images of events placed on this timeline. And it’s all happening within this timeless present, within and as awakeness. I cannot find time outside of these images.

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Living in the moment

For a healthy person, it’s impossible to live in the moment. It’s a nice thing to say in terms of seizing the day and enjoying life, but our inner lives and experiences are much richer than that.”
– from Why Living in the Moment Is Impossible: Decision-Making Memories Stored in Mysterious Brain Area Known to Be Involved With Vision.

This reflects an interesting and slightly amusing misconception. It seems that the researcher assumes that living in the moment refers to having no memories of the past or scenarios of the future, which is clearly not the case.

Living in the moment can simply mean noticing it’s all happening here now, in immediacy, including any memories of the past or scenarios of the future. It doesn’t mean excluding anything, just noticing. (At least in my experience.)

If I took living in the moment to mean avoiding memories or the past or scenarios about the future, it would be stressful, futile, and not very functional or practical.

If I take it as bringing attention out of thoughts – perhaps when I notice churning thoughts about the past or future – and to sensations, then it makes a little more sense. It’s a practical way of shifting out of churning thoughts, and noticing it’s all happening here and now. It can be a relief, and offer perspective.

And if I take it as an invitation to notice it’s all already happening in immediacy – including memories of the past, scenarios of the future, and images of the present – then it makes even more sense.

So if living in the moment means consistently avoiding or being free of memories and scenarios, it’s clearly impossible – and meaningless as a pursuit. If it means noticing it’s all happening in immediacy, it’s quite possible, and it can even be interesting, a relief, and bring a sense of coming home. And if it refers to what’s already happening, then it’s unavoidable. It’s all happening in immediacy, including any images we have of time, of the three times, and what happened, happens and may happen in time.

Being present

It’s popular in certain circles to talk about being present. What does it mean?

I don’t really know, but imagine two things:

One is in the meaning of intentionally being aware of what’s here and now. The simplest way of practicing this  may be through training a stable attention, for instance bringing attention to physical sensations, whether it’s the sensations at the nostrils of the in- and out-breath, the sensations within any other imagined boundary on or in the body, the sensations of movement or weight, and so on. This also makes it easier to intentionally bring attention to what’s here in everyday life – sensations, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and images and thoughts. I assume this is what’s sometimes referred to as mindfulness.

As any other practice, this is also inquiry. What happens when attention is brought to sensations? (It goes out of thoughts, which may be experienced as liberating.) Can I notice when attention is absorbed on the “inside” of thoughts, and bring it back to sensations? What thoughts did attention go to? (What do I find when I take these to inquiry?) Do I have thoughts about wandering attention? (It’s not good, I am not doing a good job.) What do I find when I take these to inquiry?

Another is to notice that whatever is here in the field of awareness, or whatever attention goes to, is already here and now. Sensations, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, thoughts are all here and now.

I sometimes ask myself a simple question: Is it true this – including images of past, future and present – is not already here and now? 

To explore this further, I sometimes explore the sense fields to see how the mental field creates images of time (as a continuum) and future, present and past (discrete times), and places other images (memories, scenarios) on these images. Sometimes, it’s taken as real, solid and really “out there” in the past, future or present. Other times, it’s all recognized as happening within the mental field in immediacy. Any sense of time then “collapses” into what’s here in immediacy. Whatever is here – my field of experience – is all happening within and as awareness, including images of time, and images overlaid on the other sense fields such as images of space, images of a me and I, images of an inner and outer world, and so on.

This helps me see – and feel – that time (as a continuum) and the three times (past, future, present) cannot be found outside of my images. Images placed on these images of time (memories, scenarios) lose a sense of really being “out there” in time, in past, future or present. And it’s all – images of time, of space, of a me and I – more easily noticed as happening within and as awareness.

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I saw this when it first came out and thought it was very good.

What sticks with me now – and perhaps the main reminder from this movie – is that we have memories and tend to take them as true, or at least mostly or close to true. While in reality, they are just memories. They are images appearing here now, triggering emotions, and with stories about them saying they reflect the past, and that’s it. I cannot know for certain they actually reflect the past. And the past itself, the idea of a past is an image, as is any ideas of what happened in that past.

There is a big difference in knowing this abstractly, as an interesting thought, and knowing it through and through – with body and mind – about specific instances and memories. I can inquiry into one memory at a time, and gradually there is a shift in how I relate to stories about the past. I see – through specific, concrete and genuine examples – how my images of the past are just that, images, alive here now.

It’s from the past

I did an inquiry on the thought it’s from the past yesterday.

This refers to the (apparent) childhood wounds that have bubbled up recently,
along with feelings and thoughts such as I am alone, nobody likes me, I am unlovable.

– 0 –

It’s from the past.

Is it true?


Can you know for certain it’s true?


What happens, how do you react, when you believe that thought?

I see it (the childhood wound) as in the past.

I cannot do anything about it – that it happened.

I blame my parents, life.

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Thoughts create my world

How do my thoughts create my world?

I find that my images and thoughts label and interpret my sense fields.

So any image or thought of what’s happening is from my own thoughts. Nothing else.

And these in turn create feelings and emotions.

Which in turn influence how I am in the world.

The world may then accommodate my labels and interpretations (self-fulfilling prophecy), and that is just another interpretation.

Alan Watts: Boat and wake

Adyashanti talks about this analogy in Ideal Spiritual Orientation.

Is the present created by the past, or is the past created in the present? Or are both true, each in their own way?

The boat and wake analogy invites us to explore this. A boat creates it’s wake, so is it similarly true that the present creates the past?

If so, in what way is it true? What do I find when I explore this through simple, real and specific examples?

And is it true in just a moderate way, or in a more profound sense?

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Why I am 13.7 billion years old

My birthday is coming up (again!) later this month, and I get curious about my age again.

I first notice that here and now, in immediacy, there is timelessness. Whatever happens in the sense fields happen within timelessness, and that includes any thoughts about past, future and present. Those are all labels. Interpretations. Ways to organize and make sense of what’s happening in the sense fields.

Among those stories of time, I find the most basic one is the story of time itself. A story saying there is a time line with past, future and present. This one helps place events where they seem to belong, and this helps me – as a human being in the world – to function and operate. It is not a flawless system (I edit and even make up memories of the past, and sometimes actually believe my own stories about time and what happened, happens, and will happen), but it generally works pretty well. It’s functional.

One of these stories of time says I was born so and so many years ago. It’s the story that’s reflected in my passport and birth certificate, and what most people in my culture use for themselves and when they think about how old I am.

Another of these stories is the deep time story. This universe was “born” about 13.7 billion years ago, and that’s how old I am. Again, in our culture, this doesn’t quite make sense. I am a human being, not the universe. But it actually makes a great deal of sense from another perspective. Everything I am, as this human being, is quite literally 13.7 billion years old. It is the product of the 13.7 billion year old evolution of this universe.

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Play with stories, and then find it here and now

When stories about past, future and present are recognized as imaginations, it gives a sense of freedom and fluidity.

For instance, I am free to go into stories about the three times, and also find what these stories are about here now.

I am free to go into stories about the past, future or present, and also recognize the stories and what they evoke as happening here now.

I can ask myself, what is the seed of these stories? What are the feelings evoked by these stories? What are the needs and desires behind these stories?

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Gathering up past, future, and present

Before falling asleep in the evening, and after waking up in the morning, I like to take some time to explore the sense fields. And as I often write about here, one of the things I explore is the three times. How does the past, future, and present appear in the sense fields?

I may begin with bringing attention to each sense field – sensations, sight, sound, smell, taste, and thoughts/images – one at a time, and notice what is there.

Then, I close my eyes if they are not already closed, and notice how I have an image of my body laying there in the bed, in a room, in a building, at the outskirts of a small town, next to a forest, in a country, on the Earth. All of that happens in my own world of images. It is the movie I play for myself about the world. I recognize it all as images.

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Although eating honey is a very good thing to do


“Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.
~A.A. Milne

Even a simple Pooh quote is a question and invitation for investigation.

When anticipating eating honey, it is easy to see that the joy of sweet anticipation is all in the mind. If we like honey, that is.

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