“Nothing ever happened in the past; it happened in the Now. Nothing ever happened in the future; it happened in the Now.” — Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
What are you thinking about right now? The massive report that you have to hand in to your boss by the end of the month? All the dish-washing and cleaning that you have to do once you get home? That amazing vacation that you took last week? The time that your co-worker insulted you last month? Or maybe that painful breakup that you still haven’t gotten over?
What about everything that is happening right this very moment? The sensation of sitting down on your chair, or the sight of your computer screen, or the sound of your breath? How much of that are you consciously tuned into?
There is, in fact, nothing in your life that you have ever experienced outside of the now. Even the act of regretting a past mistake or anticipating a future event occurred in the present moment. Indeed, the now is the gateway into my entire perception of reality.
But each present moment is no sooner here than it is gone; as soon as I snap my fingers, it has already streamed into the past. Yet I am still in the now after the passing of each moment, so the present moment is simultaneously propagating itself into the future. The present moment, as such, is eternal. Everything that I ever experienced in the past and everything that will ever occur to me in the future will happen while I am in the now. The now occupies that infinitesimally thin sliver of time between the vast reaches of the past and the future, while also containing the past and future by serving as the medium in which they occur. It is, in other words, both a moment in time and time itself. And therefore, it is one of those glorious paradoxes that the mind cannot comprehend. One must embrace the present moment without attempting to rationally make sense of its baffling nature.
Accepting the now, which necessarily occurs in the absence of mind, is a state that many have described as a profound spiritual rebirth. One such person is Eckhart Tolle, a world-renowned spiritual guru who once suffered from acute depression before he had an earth-shattering revelation about the present moment. As he writes in his book, The Power of Now, he eventually felt so tormented that, one night, he found himself thinking, “I cannot live with myself any longer.” Then suddenly, he writes, “I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. ‘Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with.’ ‘Maybe,’ I thought, ‘only one of them is real.’” This epiphany had such a powerful effect on Tolle that he was thrust out of his tormented mind and into the miraculous beauty of the present moment. The next day, he “walked around the city in utter amazement at the miracle of life on earth, as if I had just been born into this world.”
The “I” that Tolle rediscovered that night is what we might call the “perceiving me,” the subject that purely witnesses the world without imposing any mental construct on it. Since, to reiterate, all subjective experience of reality is localized in the present moment, the “I” diminishes its conscious awareness, and thereby compromises itself, once it shifts its attention away from the now. Therefore, the real “I” does not perceive time. Moreover, the infinitesimal brevity of the present moment does not permit us to simultaneously observe reality and reflect on it. As soon as I think about what I experience, the experience has already passed into the past. Thus, any sort of reflection, which cannot be achieved with the unthinking “I,” necessitates an awareness of the passage of time. But prior to my thought that I performed a certain action or chose to be in a particular state, I must first be aware of the ever-present recognition that “I am” – that there is an I which was doing the acting or choosing. As paradoxical as it may sound, I am before I was! And before I am the person writing this column, before I am the employee at my boss’ office, before I am an American, and in fact before I am even me, I simply am that I am.
The real “I” does not identify with anything or anyone else, since to link its identity to something outside of it would mean that “I am” not that “I am.” It is only through the “reflecting me” – that is to say, the mind – that I can give a name to myself, attach a label to my existence, and call myself a member of a certain category, race, political party, or whatever. Once I have been psychologically conditioned to identify strongly enough with a particular classification, I no longer recognize it as “other” to me, but rather the same as me. The “other” has now become, instead, all the other categories in the world that are distinct from my own. As such, I have not only branded myself to be of this type, but I have also labeled myself as nothing else but this. When these other groups threaten my own, my mind is naturally trained to respond with hostility because they are attacking my very personhood, the object to which I have tied the essence of my being. Nearly all war, conflict, tribalism, political polarization, and religious hatred is attributable to the false understanding of “me” as something defined by what is outside me, which stems from loss of awareness of the eternal “I am.”
The loss of the “other” that lies at the foundation of our self-conception triggers a lasting sense of anger, grief, and existential disorientation. Anyone who has ever devoted his entire life to fulfilling a core ambition, only to be thwarted at the very last moment by a tragic accident, will likely suffer through an extended period of pain. Even more trivial misfortunes, such as the breakup of a high school romance, may lead someone to unnoticingly bear the weight of resentment for many years since they endanger the identity of the reflecting me. The reflecting me becomes so overbearingly toxic in its awareness of time that it fixates incessantly on these past moments. It dominates and obscures our experience of the now until we have almost completely lost touch with the perceiving me.
Consequently, the reflecting me adopts an acrimonious outlook on the outside world, which it perceives to be responsible for its suffering. But the world does not in fact resist me; I resist myself. I am the beholder of my own experience, and I am also the one who ascribes value to the events of my life. A particular occurrence is only a tragedy or a blessing due to the label that the mind’s interpretive filter has attached to it; otherwise, it is totally neutral. Realizing that I am the one generating my negativity, not my circumstances, is the first step in awakening from the unconscious slumber that the reflecting me has lulled me into.
I am confronted, then, with making a conscious choice: do I continue to harbor my bitter disdain for the world, or do I instead accept that those around me will often act in ways that are antithetical to my own desires? Do I want to lead a life enslaved by the uncontrollable tribulations of my external reality, or do I want to have a life of profound inner tranquility, one in which I am the master of my own temperament and perspective? Ending the ceaseless cycle of suffering does not require radical change in the world, but instead an intensely personal decision to unfetter myself from the yoke of the reflecting me and its time-bound sense of identity. I am freeing myself from myself and thereby freeing myself from everything.
Resurrecting the perceiving me out of its suppression by the reflecting me is a radical act of moving out of the past and into the eternal present. Once I have liberated myself from my mind’s attachment to past suffering, my awareness of the world here and in the now is all that remains. As such, reality is no more to me than what I perceive it to be in the present moment. I avert my glance and the world around me shifts. I close my eyes, and the world that I had just seen is no longer there. I fall, and the world falls with me. The world around me is that which I shape by directing my own perceptions. I am empowered to create my own reality, but only when the fixed past no longer restrains and dictates what I perceive – only, that is, in the blissful miracle of the present moment.
If we cannot fully inhabit the present moment without shutting off our minds, then does that mean that we must become mindless creatures in order to achieve the spiritual enlightenment of the now? Of course, it is impractical – and perhaps ethically impermissible – to recommend that we live without our minds (and without a sense of time either). Often, mental reflection amplifies the sense of joy that we derive from a particular occasion; much art, for example, would seem utterly trivial to us were it not for the interpretation and analysis that we subsequently performed on it. The problem arises when the time-bound mind dominates and clouds our appreciation of the present moment. If your persistent preoccupation with a future deadline or a traumatic event in the past is stressing you right now, then your awareness of time is serving as a channel for toxic negativity in your life. Even if you are positively looking forward to something that hasn’t happened yet, you may find that the act of anticipating is more invigorating than the actual event itself, once it starts happening in the present.
The key, then, is to employ the mind as a tool rather than identifying with it, and to allocate time each day when you can clear the mind and bask in appreciation of the present moment. Instead of constantly dwelling in your mental monologues, think only when you are prompted to do so – by, say, a work assignment or some other task in the practical realm of your life. This dissociation from the mind is not achieved easily, though it is not difficult to intellectually grasp the importance of it. Many monks devote their entire lives to the pursuit of the transcendental now but fail – or even die – in the process. It takes consistent meditation, which is fundamentally the act of emptying the mind, to attain the profound mental clarity that is associated with the now. Five hours of meditation per day for three months has been found to stimulate improvements in concentration, and even regimens that are less intense can significantly reduce stress-related health problems, but only if they are practiced regularly.
Recommending meditation, thus, is the most practical advice that one can offer about accessing the present moment. Your practice of it, however, doesn’t have to conform to standard images that may come to mind, like that of someone sitting down with his eyes closed and legs folded. In fact, every moment can be turned into a meditative occasion. For example, the next time you walk, you can take your mind out of the clouds and focus your attention on every step you take. Perhaps you will no longer consider each step as a means to fulfill some future end (i.e. the destination), but instead something that just happens; that is, it occurs with no motive other than to be as it is in the present moment.
And since your life is just a collection of many steps – and of other actions, too – your life too can just happen if you make the choice to view your raison d’etre as the consummation of the present moment. When you decide each moment to be an end in of itself, you have already achieved your higher purpose by simply being as you are now. In each moment, you are exactly where you need to be. Your destination is wherever you are.