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  • Writer's pictureallenbroadman

Right Now

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

Just what is this Now and How Long Does it Last?

Say whatever else you like about it, the present is unavoidable. - Martin Amis

The “Now” comes up a lot in Buddhist teachings and in those of other spiritual practices, including secular ones like the movement towards mindfulness that is so increasingly popular. So, what exactly is the “Now”? How long is the Now? A minute? Five seconds? One second? A millionth of a second?

Looking at this question through our human physiology is one way to get started. We have biological parts that enable a perception of reality (whatever that is!) such as eyes and ears, nervous system, and brain. But these parts impose strict limits on what we can perceive through our senses. Sight is limited to a tiny range of all the possible forms of light; hearing is limited to a tiny range of all possible sounds, and it’s the same for every sense. Cats see more than humans, dogs hear and smell more, bats - we can't even imagine what's going on with them! We humans can take in only the tiniest slice of the total reality which could be perceived. The vast range of most phenomena are totally inaccessible to us. And that's true even when only considering the types of phenomena we know of because we have physical senses for perceiving them. What of phenomena that we don’t have biological senses for perceiving? How would we even know they exist?

So that’s our actual situation – we can perceive only a tiny piece of a vast ocean of phenomenon, and we must make do with that slice. Given that brain, nervous system, eyes, ears, nose, etc. create a limit on what is perceivable, what does that imply for our perception of time, of this present moment? What is our perception limit in time? Science is often weighing in on this, and a 2014 study out of MIT found that test subjects could identify images that were flashed on a display to them for as little as 13 milliseconds, about a hundredth of a second, much faster than the blink of an eye. That’s a pretty quick Now! But there is another way to understand the Now - although the Now feels so fleeting, it can also be understood as eternal and timeless.

In Buddhism, the Now is often considered beginningless and endless. How can that be understood? To start with, the past does not exist, so let’s get on board with that! There is no past moment you can travel to or get to in any way at all. It’s gone, and it was gone as soon as it happened, fleetingly. What we label or conceptualize as “the past” is just memories or physical recordings (writings, images, audio, fossils, etc.) that all exist Now and only Now. They are encodings in current phenomenon that we can examine, and which enable us to see into the story about how the ever-changing Now actually changes. There are patterns to such changes, ways that change occurs through cause and effect, and human beings are very clever about decoding those patterns.

In our cleverness, we have invented a “past.” We examine how things are right Now and we watch how the Now changes, and discover explanations for why it changes the way it does. Using these explanations, we then ask: What changes would result in things being exactly as they are right now and we mentally project such changes “backwards” in what we imagine is “time.” In this way, we invent “before.” Before is a concept for making sense of the nature of change. It allows us to talk about change, to describe the patterns of change, to collect rules about how change occurs for different things in different places. But there is no “before” – it’s an idea. Everything you know or think about “before” - whether it’s a second ago or a thousand years ago - you know it and think it Now. And only Now.

No Past, and no Future Either

So the past does not exist, even though we remember Now what the Now felt like "before" it changed into what it feels like now. We are always right now experiencing the lingering consequences and effects of the events and changes unfolding in the Now. If someone pinches you hard, it hurts and it keeps on hurting. Even though the pinch is gone, its effects continue for us, they linger and remain. Some effects remain for seconds, or weeks, or thousands or millions of years, but they are experienced Now, and only Now. We don't need to invent a separately existing "past" to explain cause and effect - we are constantly living the effects of causes, and we are constantly causing other effects. And we do it all right Now.

We invent "time" to give us concepts for understanding change and a language for describing and talking about change with others. But "time" is derivative, time depends on change and time exists only in the realm of concepts and thoughts. But change does not depend on time - change just is, change is reality. In Buddhism, there is a Sanskrit term "anitya" which is usually translated into English as impermanence, and it is taught as one of the three signs or fundamental characteristics of reality.

But wait! The future also doesn’t exist! You cannot get to any future moment, the same way you cannot get to any past moment. What we call “the future” is only our imaginations of how the Now might change. But we imagine it Now. Later is also just an idea like before. We are calculating or projecting about what the effects of the current moment might be on the ever-changing Now. We think of the changes as happening in some immediate next moment, or in some moment after the next moment, or a far "future"moment. But they are all just guesses, and even if such changes actually do occur, they will only and ever be experienced Now - in this present moment.

Some guesses are better than others (we call the good, informed guesses “predictions”) but we never know what the next moment will be like, literally never. We are fooled into believing we know because so often our guesses turn out correct, like our guess that the hot coffee sitting out on the counter will get cold in ten minutes, or that we will look the same in the mirror tomorrow as we do today. But it’s just a numbers game, a game of statistics. The face in the mirror won’t look the same if we have a car accident and it gets all bruised up. And our coffee won’t be sitting cold on the counter in ten minutes if someone comes and accidentally knocks it off the counter, or if they reheat it in the microwave. The thing to realize is that all these imaginations and guesses take place Now, in the present moment. The Now is constantly changing, but it is not changing into a future that has a separate existence, it is just the Now changing and continuing as the only Now there is.

If you're a student and have an important exam tomorrow, you don't need to invent a separately existing "tomorrow" in order to understand or explain the situation. There is a plan, which exists Now, and actions, which also exist Now, all working together to make changes right now that may help bring the exam into existence. Your teacher has posted the date, time, and location for the exam online, but they took that action in the Now. Your fellow students go online and check the date and time, and they do that in the Now. If you prepare for the exam by studying, you can only prepare right Now. "Preparing" is acting right Now so that changes will hopefully move in a particular direction, so that changes unfold in some desired way. But it's just a plan, and the changes might not happen the way you hoped for or predicted - you might study all night and the exam gets cancelled! Tomorrow's exam has no real existence of its own, it is just a potential, and that potential may or may not be realized depending on the flow of circumstances. So - no past, and no future either. They “exist” only as mental constructs. That’s our actual situation.

Do you treat this moment as if it were an obstacle to be overcome? Do you feel you have a future moment to get to that is more important? Almost everyone lives like this most of the time. Since the future never arrives, except as the present moment, it is a dysfunctional way to live. Life is Now and never not Now. - Eckhart Tolle

Since the past doesn’t exist except in memories that take place Now or in consequences that exist Now, there is no other Now that came before right Now. So the Now has no beginning. But since the future also doesn’t exist except in our imaginations and predictions that take place Now, there is no other Now that comes after right Now either. So the Now has no end. Beginningless. Endless. Eternal. Just Now.

All of this is just ideas and models, ways of using language and concepts to describe a reality that is beyond language and concepts. So why describe it at all? If descriptions and discussion can stimulate and motivate us to action, then they have some real value. The important question is what should we do about all of this? If the Now is all there is, and if the past and future don’t really exist, what does that mean for us? How does such an understanding inform our decisions about how to live? Living is important! What is the practical consequence of such an understanding of the Now?

Attention on the Here

It’s quite simple, actually. Focus all your attention on right now, right here. Right Now is the only moment anyone can ever perceive or think, feel, speak, or act. Our whole life unfolds only and always right Now. And so, Zen Buddhist and other teachings encourage us to pay very careful attention to right Now. It makes sense, because right Now is where all the action is! And the Here goes together with the Now. Here and Now are joined at the hip! Just as you cannot act anytime other than Now, you cannot act anywhere other than Here. Even when you send a text message that crosses to the other side of the planet in seconds, you acted Here, on the phone that is right here in your hands. The consequences spread out in space, but your actions take place right Here. When you play Baseball, you play it Here. When you hug your child, you hug them Here. When you eat your dinner, you eat it Here. Here. Now. Always and only.

Now for the meditation plug! If it makes sense to pay the utmost and careful attention to our direct experience, right here, right now, how do we do that? By practicing careful attention, that's how! Also known as "meditation." We practice attention to get better at attention. The world is distracting us all the time, pulling us into all sorts of thoughts – memories, fantasies, resentments, desires, the whole gamut of mental-emotional life. Our phones are pinging and ringing constantly, TVs and screens are blaring everywhere we go, and so much of all that distraction is about the “past” and the “future” which don’t even exist! How can we taste this sandwich we’re eating amidst all of that? How can we look into another person’s eyes and really see them if we’re thinking about tomorrow’s work or next weeks’ vacation, or half-watching the soccer game? We can’t. That’s the simple truth. If we want to connect deeply and fully with whatever we’re doing, we need to bring our full attention to bear on it. The more attention we bring, the deeper the experience – that is, the more clearly we will see, hear, taste, smell, and feel it all.

Reality is timeless, ever in the now. Reality is what makes the present so vital, so different from the past and future, which are merely mental. The real is always with you; you need not wait to be what you are. - Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

Multitasking is one of the great dangers of the modern times, a Big Lie. Yes it's true that we can appear to do 5 things at the same time, but what we really do is switch our attention very quickly between the 5 things. And although at the end of it all the 5 tasks have been completed, the cost was that our attention was so split and divided, that we barely experienced the doing of each of the tasks. That might be okay for writing bills, but if one of the tasks is talking to your child about their day at school, or listening to beautiful music, or tasting a meal, then the price is very high - the price is a life that passes by in a way that we're not really there for it.

And that’s where meditation practice comes in. Meditation is literally practice – it’s practicing attention. Meditation is the far opposite extreme from multitasking, and it is also its antidote. Like with many other practices, we create some special conditions to help the practice be more effective. We sit still. We don’t talk. We turn off all the phones and screens. We just breathe and we don't do anything else. This is not the guided meditation of someone walking you through your happy place or reminding you to be grateful – that just fills the mind with even more ideas and thoughts. We’re talking about the simplest, most basic meditation – focusing on the breath, in stillness and silence. This is the meditation that has been around for tens of thousands of years, it's not a fad. The breath is always there as an anchor for our attention; we don’t need a book or an app or an altar or a special place or anything else. Just the breath. The breath is always Now and it’s always Here, and so it’s a wonderful object for our concentration, grounding us in the present moment and always available. Try it! The Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh was once asked what he would do if he found himself on an airplane hurtling to crash into the ground - his answer was that he would just focus on his breath. You don't have to wait until you're in a crashing plane though - try focusing on the breath just five minutes a day for a few weeks and see if something changes. The proof is in the doing!


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