What is the “present moment?” I assume most people have experienced something they would call a “present moment.” I know when I am there, or at least close, but planning on it is…well, a contradiction. We’ve all had experiences that were so intense, so embodied, so clear and blissful that they are imprinted forever and remain the standard for presence. We’re completely undistracted by the past or the future, free of mental activity, grasping at scenarios that have nothing to do with the what’s happening right now. Even if it’s only for a few brief moments, we are out of our minds. The prevailing standard of mental activity has dissolved.
To occupy the present means time stands still. That’s what it feels like. Vastly spacious, everything is happening sooo slowly. Experience and feeling is so rich we can be overwhelmed. We are compelled by the moment until, eventually, we begin to ask ourselves how this can be happening…. and then, why can’t this be happening all the time? By now the present moment experience is already corrupted. Thoughts such as these, the maddening but seemingly inevitable reassertion of the witness (the ego), are the reason the present moment is so elusive, so vivid and yet so transient. That witness is pondering how to control the future.
We want to go back to the present. I know I do. Maybe we look for maps that will take us back…or forward…or inward, teachers and methods that will guide us deeply into fully embodied presence. We practice and believe and observe and record. Siri, directions to the present moment, please. Siri, take me out of my mind. Siri says, what? I didn’t get that.
This is not a frivolous thing because it’s not an experience of tuning out. It’s tuning in. Way down and way in. We know it’s important and we understand why it’s important. And yet, evolutionary biologists have been hell-bent to interpret social behavior, our interactive life, in terms of its utility and survival value. This is the scientific approach to understanding behavior, ecology, genetics, sexuality, the natural world. Everything is interpreted as a survival imperative, as if science can reduce all behavior to fit into the reductionist box that’s only about utility and efficiency.
Behaviors that don’t fit into that box, inefficient activities that don’t readily produce measurable results such as play, compassion, empathy, artistic expression, time out for tenderness, the pure simple enjoyment of this delicious life–or being so utterly present in the moment as to regard all action as superfluous– somehow these activities are left off the survival bus as if they don’t deserve a seat… because they might even be irrelevant, because they aren’t about the next meal or defense or the next reproductive act.
But as Eisenstein** and others note, our focus on efficiency and producing what can be measured has cost us immeasurably in things that cannot be measured: the erotic and creative ground of relationship, sacred community, our immersion in the planetary matrix of the non-human world. In achieving productive efficiency, maximizing utility and the productive use of our limited time, we have been giving up our relation to the timeless, giving up our access to the present moment.
There is another view, promoted recently by Martin Seligman, who has published a work called, “Homo Prospectus,” renaming our species to reflect our pre-occupation with the future. For him, our capacity to visualize the future is a distinguishing feature of humanity. For him, it is the reason we thrive. For me, and, I suspect, for many others involved in sketching out the New Story of Humanity, it is also the reason we are approaching a real possibility of extinction.
It has been said for a long time now that the Old Story of Humanity is one of separation. When we speak of separation, we talk about separation from each other and from the natural world. Overcoming that story doesn’t simply mean re-establishing relationship, but overcoming the very mental operations that so naturally and habitually divide us from our own experience. We are separated from ourselves, dispersed, as Thich Nhat Hanh might call it, from our own center, an organizing principle of existence. Or, in Seligman’s terms, we are lost in the future, our perpetual obsession with improving life.
Being fully in the present means there is no such reflection. There’s no time for it. There’s no purpose for it. In the animal world, the behavior of beings that don’t have the reflective capacities of humans exhibit behaviors essential to survival. There is nothing frivolous or extraneous or obsessive there. Likewise, just because humans have a reflective capacity doesn’t mean behaviors that don’t fit in the efficiency and utility box are irrelevant. What is more likely is that such behaviors, empathy, compassion, artistic expression, spontaneous creativity are just as essential to our own survival precisely because the most attractive expressions of these behaviors occur without reflection–as if they are completely natural. And, by the way, such behaviors occur spontaneously…in the moment. They improve life now.
It is the very un-reflective, natural, totally present commitment of the animal world that exhibits the complete enjoyment of life, integral to whatever utility these behaviors might otherwise be imbued with by human science, and upon which survival depends. Such behaviors are viewed as being driven by instinct, completely unconscious motivations buried in the genetic material and passed from one generation to the next.
For humans, we not only spend a great deal of time contemplating the future, Seligman notes that we depend on our fellow humans to do the same, insuring that we have so many comforts and essentials of life close at hand. Prospective thinking is what has created the multitude of choices among those comforts and essentials. Yet is is also prospective thinking that has created the myth of perpetual growth. It is the reason for environmental destruction.
The transformational journey we are in is to overcome the inertia of the myth of perpetual Industrial Growth and to recover the capacity to be in the present moment, to indulge in un-reflective spontaneous enjoyment, to dive into the erotic earth in the center of our souls and get messy with the pleasures there because these are the glue of relationship, of community, of connection with and commitment to the welfare of the whole. This is the medium in which we are immersed with the entire non-human world.
Further teasing out the meaning of the present moment requires making a somewhat technical point. Maybe it’s even irrelevant. But when we look more closely at what we mean by “present,” we quickly realize that there is no such thing as the present moment, as if time stands still for us to experience our connection to all things. No, it does not. Any designation of time as a discrete unit is artificial.
The present moment is not separate from any other moment. It is all moments. It’s not a thing. It’s everything. If there us no such thing as a unit of time and thus no such thing as the present moment, then we must liberate ourselves from the (default?) tyranny of eternally imagining the future and recombining memories to support that new vision. Even if we are doing that (which is most of the time), we needn’t be prisoners of the process. Every moment is the present moment and there is no moment in which we are not connected to all things. There is no such thing as the present….or, for that matter, the future.
The way that our survival depends on knowing this is by realizing that the present moment, which does not exist, is the erotic ground of everything, the natural mind, the source of everything, yet is always perfectly still–even while we are busy constructing future scenarios. Knowing this, we can begin to discern and distinguish phenomena, events, thoughts, relationships, every dynamic of our known matrix that is disconnected from this view. That is the basis of creating a different world.
** NB: a podcast conversation with Charles Eisenstein, December, 2015.