Now is Strange

Image courtesy of Paul at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Paul at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Now is strange. We only experience things in the present. Our access to past and future is through reconstruction and prediction. So much of our lives is spent in our heads, living in thinly disguised fictions of time gone and time to come. This seems obvious, and at the same time it seems so surprising.

And yet in another sense, when we are young, all we will ever experience is in the future, and as we get older, all we have ever experienced is in the past.

The adage is that tomorrow never comes. Like a Necker cube though this seems both true and false at the same time; or rather as we consider it our perspective shifts and we see it from one angle and then another. Tomorrow never comes because we always only live within today. But on the other hand tomorrow is always coming, that is the solution to our problems and the problem for all our solutions.

Time is strange. We worry about the upcoming trip, the exam, the surgery, but then it is already behind us. It is all already behind us. We are already back from the trip, we have taken the exam; we are already old, we are already infirm, we are already dead. Everything we will ever experience will be now. Everything we will ever experience is now. Acting as if it will happen at some other time or to someone else is delusion.

But then, believing it will happen to ourselves is delusion too, in the sense of happening to some unchanging thing that persists in its entirety throughout. For we are always changing, first gaining and then losing bits.

And yet in the moment there is only this, no losing and no gaining.

The present moment is strange. It is our eternal locus of effort, that point at which we strive, or at which we lay aside striving, to be aware of arising and passing. And yet the present moment is, if it is anything, an instant in time: an extensionless point on the knife-edge between future and past.

If that edge is the present moment, it is not the place in which we live. For the place in which we live is a place of change and motion, and there is no motion without extension in time and space, the passage from here to there, the change from this to that.

The world given us through our senses is dead and gone by the time it rises to awareness. Information propagates through our eyes and ears to our brain and we become aware of the now, but that now is already past. The subtlety of its passage is due to the relative slowness of the apparent change that surrounds us: all is past, yet all seems the same.

When we look to the stars we look into the past: the light that we see left the star’s surface long ago, perhaps long before we were even born, or long before the Earth was formed. But this is simply a matter of degree: when we look to the world at our fingertips we also look into the past. It is a past of instants rather than aeons, but past is past. Be it a second or a billion years, it is always and forever out of reach to us now.

The future is only predicted in our head, but in order to act successfully we must undertake a countless number of predictions, the information from our senses being already out of date. We take the expired data and form little theories that guide our body’s dance into the next moment. That we have only very rarely stubbed our toes against reality shows how good we are (or have been!) at this, and not only us but so much of the living world around us. Marvel at how slight the bird’s present moment must be to wing between branches as it whirls to its nest.

We live within the fiction of what E.R. Clay termed the “specious present”: an instant that seems to have duration, an extensionless place of change and motion, a fleeting experience of there and not-there, an evanescent spark of now that is forever slipping through awareness into the past.

It sometimes seems as though what is now is all that is real: as though the universe is a kind of three-dimensional instant of simultaneity centered around us, with past and future no more than odd mental fictions. But time is strange: it cannot be so. For what is past and what is future are only relative, since simultaneity itself is relative. This is what Einstein showed. You and I may coincide in a simultaneous glance, and yet what is future to you is past to me, and vice versa. It is all a matter of relative motion.

The upshot of Einstein’s (amply confirmed) thought experiment is rather the reverse of what we sometimes seem to think. It is rather that the now is the illusion. Really all is spacetime, and past and future are as real as left, right, up, and down.

So the specious present is doubly illusory. It is an illusion in revealing an instant in time as extended in change. It is also an illusion in revealing apparent flow from future into past where there is none, where in fact the laws of physics present no flow and no notion of now.

To what does our awareness turn when we lay it on the present moment?

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  1. SWeiss on June 7, 2016 at 12:18 pm

    PREFACE:
    “The present moment is the source of a chain of interdependence. This absolute point includes all changing phenomena, all impermanent existence, the entire cosmos”. ~Taisen Deshimaru Sōtō Roshi

    The concept of the “now” seems is irrelevant, from the standpoint that each forthcoming moment will always contain our past experiences and genetic ancestral genetics. Most people confuse the present moment with what “they” are experiencing presently, but this really has nothing to do with the all-inclusive present moment.
    This produces that and that equates to this. The “now” is not different from other changing impermanent phenomena as it is simply a moment of existence in a changing, interdependent, impermanent world of form drifting through space. One cannot single out and find a single moment that is separate from all other moments, as each moment effects each other. In addition, all moments are effected by the cosmos; by the sun, moon, stars, tides, etc. resulting in constant change and impermanence. It is kind of like frying vegetables in a pan over a hot stove. Every moment can be found in every other moment. There is not a permanent moment in time in which one can call the “now’, as each action impacts the other. At what precious moment are the vegetables finished cooking? Their cooking is the result of all past interdependent moments having been met. When conditions are proper, phenomena manifest; when phenomena with-draws, so does this manifestation. A cloud becomes rain, the rain feeds streams and the life inside them, the fisherman catches the fish and feeds the world, and on and on in a world of relentless changing impermanence, all with a single conclusion…

  2. Gregory Clement on June 11, 2016 at 12:42 am

    Thanks for your essay on time Doug, which I enjoyed greatly. It is one of those strange topics that seem very familiar to us but that make us dizzy when we try to talk about them.

    It must be true that there is no absolute meaning in the idea of the present or of the word ‘now’, just as there is no absolute meaning in the word ‘here’. Their meaning is relative to the occasion on which they are used. This does not mean that the words are meaningless or the ideas illusory.

    This is where I would differ from your fourth paragraph…

    “Time is strange. We worry about the upcoming trip, the exam, the surgery, but then it is already behind us. It is all already behind us. We are already back from the trip, we have taken the exam; we are already old, we are already infirm, we are already dead. Everything we will ever experience will be now. Everything we will ever experience is now. Acting as if it will happen at some other time or to someone else is delusion.”

    To say that the future has already happened is to misuse this (useful) relative language. It would be like saying ‘I’m in Paris’. This is simply untrue and it is not made true by the fact that it would be true if I were in Paris.

    ‘I’ve already taken the exam.’ No I haven’t, but it will be true at some time in the future.

    Later you say,

    ” It is rather that the now is the illusion. Really all is spacetime, and past and future are as real as left, right, up, and down.”

    I think comparing past and future with left and right is very good. They are terms that we can use to relate events in space-time to our statements about them. These statements are relative truths in the literal sense of a much maligned phrase. I disagree with the idea that this makes ‘now’ an illusion any more than the view from my window is an illusion because someone else’s window shows them a different view.

    Turning to a Buddhist angle on all this, I’ve often been puzzled by the instruction to be mindful of the present moment. What else can we be mindful of? Remembering the past and planning for the future are events that are happening in the present just as much as smelling a rose.

    Perhaps the point is to be aware of our experiences as they happen whether they be memories or smells. Alternatively the advice could be not to spend too much time remembering and planning and to focus more on the flowers. (Not easy for someone who has lost his sense of smell.)

    • Doug Smith on June 13, 2016 at 5:31 am

      Thanks very much for your comment, Gregory. Indeed, the word “now” like words such as “here”, “there”, “me”, “you”, etc. are so-called “indexicals“, the meaning of which changes in context. I certainly did not mean to give the impression that such words were meaningless. But the concept of “now” in particular has certain strange and apparently paradoxical aspects. It also has certain aspects that are — or must be — illusory, at least in a sense. This does not mean that there is nothing there, only that, well, time is strange! Sometimes we can feel this strangeness even in the moment.

  3. Nnarayan on July 12, 2016 at 3:48 pm

    Let us suppose that the purpose of mindfulness is to concentrate the mind’s ability to and attend one most intense event be it any of the five sense inputs or thinking. And also awareness is the job of conciousness (C)to observe this attending event.with this practice C could see / sense the now without lag of time as if it is riding with the info being sent by the Juno about Jupitor,without delay of twenty seven minutes to the earth.Then the Now is only experienced byC not the senses.so u r C not you.Then Time and space disappear indeed.

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