Why We Need to Be in the Moment,
as Well as Outside It
This essay contrasts the opposition to thinking on the part of mystics with the need for reflection and evaluation. The inner life of reflection and interpretation is necessary for us to live meaningful lives. Meaning is something we need to create, and we do so by pondering the future and the past. In contrast, Tolle's view is that the past and future are of little, if any, worth. I suggest that the mystical paths deny the inner life. Krishnamurti believed it possible to experience reality directly, with no reference to the past. This is not so. Being in the moment is usually defined as not thinking of the future or the past. The attempt to be in the moment actually devalues part of our present experience, ie the exercise of memory and imagination. There is a rival definition of being in the moment, according to which we need to observe the contents of our awareness. Yet this second definition fails when applied to the experience of flow, so it's invalid.
It is suggested that the optimal way to function is to be in the moment, as well as to escape it, as appropriate. We need to find a balance between the two, to avoid the dangers of too much escape as well as the drawbacks of being stuck in the moment. Escaping the moment is quintessentially human, as animals cannot do it. Human beings are intimately concerned with the future and the past, and this is unavoidable. Accordingly, the best strategy is to balance the moment with the demands of time, which requires creativity. The paradox is that the present moment is all that is real, yet we also need to escape it.
There is no objective meaning of life, waiting out there to be discovered like a lost city in the jungle. Instead, it is the task of each of us to construct meaning for ourselves, to learn how to live life meaningfully. As the saying goes, "Give a man a why and he will put up with almost any how." Meaning is the key to our lives, for it decides where we place our energies and what our priorities are. Meaning belongs to the level of inner life. It should be noted, however, that meaning can also be found or generated unconsciously. For example, a person might lead a meaningful life, based on service to others, without reflecting on this. Normally, however, we discover or create meaning by reflecting on the past and moulding our ideas of how we want our future to be.
Perhaps it's labouring the obvious, but to find our personal meaning in life we need to do so on an emotional level. To construct it on a purely intellectual level is not going to work. Creating meaning for ourselves requires emotional intelligence, rather than intelligence in the ordinary sense. It also requires insight into our motivations and needs, ie introspection.
The present moment has a neutral quality. It lacks the colour we associate with favourite memories of the past or fond expectations of the future. Reflection adds colour and interest as we look back on our experiences. It often seems to me that the past has colour as I remember it, but that the present lacks it. By colour I mean a sense of atmosphere, of mood, of heightened existence. By contrast, the present is bare and unadorned by the emotional colouring that memory gives to the past. Memory compresses many different days (such as a whole summer) into a single recollection, and hence gives it a thickness or depth that a single moment cannot have. Savouring a memory can be more pleasant and more meaningful than the experience was at the time. The inner life relates to spirituality because, although spirituality is concerned with ultimate meaning, it is not discontinuous from ordinary human meaning. I suggest that meaning lies along a continuum from minor to cosmic. Going out to see a moonrise is a spiritual experience. The inner life connects with the spiritual quest because reflection is necessary to generate ordinary human meaning, which in turn allows us to access so-called spiritual meaning. Creating meaning for ourselves is a mental skill we need to hone, rather than waiting for a sudden epiphany.
A questioner asked a prominent exponent of living in the now, Eckhart Tolle, how he could find the meaning of his life. Tolle answered that the meaning of his life was in that present moment. This was disingenuous. Essentially, Tolle was saying that there is no overall meaning, and that seeking it is a futile quest. For Tolle, nothing outside the present moment is of any real worth. This essay contrasts the views of people like Tolle with the spirit of the quotes from Sacks and Socrates.
The mystical view
It seems to me that the mystical paths, such as Buddhism, seek to deny the inner life. They aim to suppress it as much as possible, at least at the conscious level. Meditation is essentially the banishing of thought. The goal of mysticism is to experience unity with Being, and thought itself is regarded as the greatest obstacle on this path. The various mystical disciplines require us to use bare consciousness without thought, reflection, or evaluation. In Hinduism these are seen as the veil of Maya, which prevents us from perceiving the ultimate reality. Krishnamurti stated that the reason we don't see reality are the noises of the mind. He is right that being caught up in our thoughts prevents us from paying attention to what is around us. Yet Eastern philosophies are life-denying in the sense that they urge us to turn away from the world of ordinary human meaning, particularly from our thoughts, which give rise to and express what is meaningful to us. In addition, Buddhism seeks to draw us away from the pursuit of pleasure and enjoyment.
Krishnamurti believed it possible to see a tree without any preconceptions, with bare awareness only. He naively believed that the perception of a tree is a simple fact given to us by our senses. He contrasted this with what he saw as the secondary reactions of emotion and thought. Krishnamurti: "When you see a dangerous precipice or are faced by a dangerous animal there is no partial understanding or partial action." What he didn't realise is that even perception of depth and learning to identify dangers is something we have to learn as children.
Krishnamurti chided us for not being able to look at a flower without invoking memory and interpretation. It's true that we see with preconceptions, but in the light of Oliver Sacks' essay on vision, "To See and Not See", I believe that Krishnamurti was asking us to do the impossible. Sacks tells us that the person born blind, whose sight is restored as an adult does not see a flower. They see only colour and movement, without any shapes or boundaries. It takes a prodigious amount of learning, of accumulation in Krishnamurti's terms, to see the flower. The alternative is to make no sense of one's surroundings, to make no sense of anything. Ultimately, Krishnamurti and others of his ilk are saying that we should discard the very qualities that distinguish humans from other animals, such as discursive thought and awareness of being a self. In any case, perception is not a given but an artefact. It is not possible to make sense of our experience without using the interpretative power of our mind. This interpretative power derives from the perception of patterns in the past and their subsequent recognition.
Krishnamurti also says that thought cannot be creative because it always relates to the past. I disagree. No form of creativity is ever totally free from what went before. All innovations in science and art build on pre-existing ideas. It is not possible to create anything worthwhile starting from scratch. Even Newton stood on the shoulders of giants. As a poet put it, "What other people have done is the launching pad for your own work".
Being in the moment
Both Eastern philosophy and Western psychology emphasise the importance of mindfulness, ie of living in the moment. But what does this really mean? Being in the moment is usually defined as paying attention to the five senses, and other signals from our body (such as hunger, thirst, nausea etc), plus our feelings. According to this view, not being in the moment means turning with our thoughts to the future or to the past. Note that not every thought is about the future or the past. We may be thinking about how to handle a present problem requiring immediate action. Or we may be trying to understand something we have just noticed or that has been said to us. However, thought must use memory, if only the memory of word meanings, so it always references the past, at least indirectly. Hence being in the moment means attending to everything except a part of our mental activity, ie thought. Why should this be the one area of experience unworthy of our attention?
This view entails turning away from a huge part of human experience, essentially denying that we think, since our thoughts reference the future or the past, if only indirectly. Interestingly, the Buddhists regard thought as a sixth sense. They believe we do not originate, but merely pick up our thoughts from some external source, like radio receivers, each tuned to a different station. Whether this view is right or not, it seems undeniable that at almost every moment we experience a thought. What happens when we decide to be in the moment in the sense of the above definition? Whenever it appears, a thought of the future is judged to be an escape from the present, so we drop it. In so doing, we disregard a part of the present. This is a paradox, in that we are rejecting a part of our present experience on the grounds that it refers to the future.
A rival definition of mindfulness, or of being in the moment, is that we are fully aware of what is going on in our experience, that we are not just being angry (or whatever) but are aware that we are angry, and are aware that we can choose to be otherwise. It does not mean banishing thoughts of the past and future. When we are thinking about the past or future while being in the moment, we are conscious that we are reflecting, and we're not lost in thought. So it is not a matter of what we are thinking or feeling, but the awareness we bring to it. Whatever is currently present in our mind, we are being mindful if a part of our mind is able to observe what is going on, without being fully immersed in it.
This definition raises the question of whether we want to keep watch over ourselves like Big Brother. Such an attitude seems to compromise spontaneity and creativity. It also means splitting our awareness into two, ordinary awareness and the observer within.
Being in flow
What about the state of mind that sports-people, dancers, artists and backyard tinkerers call flow, or being in the zone? Wikipedia defines this as the mental state "in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity... characterized by complete absorption in what one does." This means losing awareness of time, and of one's self, replaced by a single-minded concentration on what one is doing. Being in flow entails loss of awareness of what is happening outside a narrow focus, and brings about a feeling of unity with the activity. But is this mindfulness or its opposite? It is mindfulness according to the first definition, but not according to the second, as we are not observing ourselves when in flow. Indeed, being in flow has been likened to overcoming the duality of subject and object, so that there is no room for an observer.
While being in flow is normally experienced during an engrossing and challenging activity, where one's performance may approach mastery, one can also experience flow while doing almost nothing. If one experiences flow during meditation then this is probably what is referred to as "enlightenment". The difference between pre- and post-enlightenment has been described by my informant, Alan, as that between thinking about our experiences versus experiencing our thoughts.
It is worth adding that another example of being in flow is making love. This is not an activity where the inner observer is useful! So the experience of flow in its various forms seems to invalidate the definition that requires self-observation. Because being in flow is a quintessential example of mindfulness, it's better to accept the narrow definition of being in the moment, but with a significant rider.
Balancing the moment with living in time
The important rider is that we need to escape from the moment. Optimal living entails alternating being in the moment, with exercising imagination and reflection in appropriate ways. The moment often feels too small for us to dwell exclusively inside it. Our minds seek expansion into the vast realms of the remembered past and the imagined future. When I am washing my teeth or sitting in a traffic jam, it is more productive for me to plan some future activity or attempt to solve a problem, than to merely observe the humdrum. The development of civilisation depended and still depends, on the use of the mind. We need to imagine a better future in order to make steps in a forward direction. Without that, we'd still be in the caves. Also, at any given time, only a very restricted range of actions is open to us. If we want to do something else then we have to plan it for a later time.
Human beings need to operate both in the moment and out of it. How to juggle being in time? When and how much should we think about the future and about the past? There can be no simple answer.
The question is, how are we to apportion our attention among the competing inputs we receive from our body, our emotions, and our thoughts? We want to integrate these separate modalities into a coherent whole, giving appropriate weighting to the competing inputs. I suggest that we pay attention to our sensations, our emotions, and our thoughts in a way that gives an optimal weighting to each at any given time. This will vary greatly depending on what we are doing. Some activities, such as sport, dancing and sex, require a narrow focus on what is happening right now; others, such as conversation, require diverse mental behaviours, some of which reference the future and the past.
This prescription does away with the ceaseless and futile effort to avoid thinking about the past or future. Thinking is not the villain of the human drama, but merely a faculty that can receive too much of our attention. There is a useful analogy with sex. Sex is an important part of life, and thinking about it is neither bad nor inappropriate per se. It is only bad if it disrupts other aspects of our life or makes us one-sided. It is not wrong to see another person in a sexual way; what is wrong is to see them exclusively as a sexual being. Using this analogy, it is not appropriate to chastise ourselves for escaping the present (defined as only sensation and feelings) into our thoughts, including sexual thoughts. Our thoughts are an integral part of our present experience. They may be trivial or profound, useful or harmful, and may cause us joy or pain. We need to keep watch over them to see which is the case, and whether an emphasis on thinking is inappropriately devaluing other parts of our experience.
The present moment is all there ever is; it is the sole reality. The past exists only in present memory; the future only in imagination exercised in the present. So the recipe for enlightenment, for happiness, and for effective living seems to lie in focusing on the moment. Most people find it exceedingly hard to do this. Certainly, I am rarely in the moment, though I have been aware of this issue for decades. Not living in the present means a life of waiting. As Russell Hoban observed, "There is no such thing as an in-between time." This is it, right now.
Compulsive worry and fearful thoughts about possible future events eat away at our mental wellbeing and can produce neurosis. The same applies to dwelling on regret about past setbacks. Too much focus on the future or the past is destructive of our happiness in the present. In particular, repeated negative thought patterns that lead nowhere are to be avoided. Moreover, not being in the moment fosters procrastination.
The Eastern spiritual disciplines see the mind as a gang of cheeky monkeys, who distract us with their ceaseless and trivial chatter. The Oriental gurus aim to still the mind. What they neglect is that mental chatter can lead to insight, creative solutions and ideas for new directions. Speculation, day-dreaming and mental playfulness are productive. Creativity is actually a form of play. Not to mention how boring it can be to remain in the moment. The difficulty is that being in the moment only lasts a moment, as the next moment is a new one. As often as not, we step out of it into thought.
The present moment is often boring, allowing little scope for action. So we go into our thoughts, which are more interesting and seem more productive. Moreover, we need to spend time in our thoughts in order to work out new solutions to our problems, initiate new actions, and plan for the future. Though it is true that the unconscious occasionally gives us answers without any conscious effort on our part, this is not a reliable way of organising our lives, or of planning what we will do in the future.
In common with excessive living outside the moment, living exclusively in the moment also has its drawbacks, as one neglects reflection, evaluation and planning. It is better to achieve a balance between mindfulness and living in time. We humans are almost unavoidably future-oriented beings, unlike the other animals, who virtually live in the present moment. Balancing our focus on the past and future with the present is a difficult tightrope act, but a necessary one. The optimal solution is to find a middle path between living in memory or imagination on the one hand, and only paying attention to what is currently happening outside us, on the other.
We need to integrate living in time with being in the moment. This requires constant creativity to achieve the right mix. Being predominantly one way or another with regard to time is uncreative, because it is a rigid way of being. To spend twenty years meditating in a cave is as rigid and one-sided as devoting one's life to becoming a millionaire. What does it mean to live creatively? It means to be spontaneous, unpredictable, to do new things, and to respond to each event anew, not out of our pre-existing repertoire.
We can step out of our repertoire of habitual reactions by responding in a new way to another person, or to something around us. This may happen due to the thought of a new possibility, by means of a fresh insight into the past, or for other reasons. Thoughts about the future or the past do play a creative role.
If humans are basically different from other animals then the difference is due, as much as anything, to our inner life of thought, feeling, recollection and rumination (pun intended). Animals, one presumes, live largely in the moment. They lack the tool of language, a developed sense of time, full awareness of being a self, awareness of mortality, and abstract thought. Every one of these is both characteristically human and takes us away from being in the moment. I doubt that a dog can ponder on the events that occurred yesterday, or to savour tomorrow's meal, except perhaps in a vague way. Although animals experience fear, which means living in the future, this is always directly connected to what is happening at the present moment. A beagle does not fear seeing the vet next week.
Having a well-developed sense of time distinguishes us from animals. For human beings, the future and the past can appear to be as real, or even more real, as well as more important, than our present experience. This is especially true of times when we do mundane or routine things, as compared to significant events in the future or the past. Without a lively and reliable sense of what has gone before, memory that we can actively interrogate, we are unable to negotiate our way through daily life. People with dementia illustrate this strikingly. Such people may be living in the moment, but it's only because so little is happening inside their minds. Because they cannot recall what they have said in the last few minutes, it is nearly impossible to avoid repeating themselves. Memory plays a crucial role in creativity, because we can only try something new if we remember what we have done previously.
The mystical goal of no-thought seems close to the functioning of animals, who react intuitively and spontaneously. Of course, animals do think as well, but at a much simpler level than we do. Unlike us, they are largely unable to stand outside the moment.
Introspection is another human faculty that is probably absent from animal life. It allows us to examine our own behaviour, motives and feelings, with a view to improving the conduct of our lives. Rationality has been succinctly defined as the willingness to admit we are wrong.
We differ from the animals in our greater capacity for altering our behaviour. Most kinds of learning depend on comparing what has just happened with what we wanted. We learn by making errors and correcting them. Failure is a great teacher, but it is effective only if we reflect on what went wrong in the past. In addition to analysing past events, inner life includes rehearsing conversations, envisaging and trying to improve our future performance, and trying to foresee difficulties. Our thoughts simulate the world, allowing us a degree of being able to predict the future. We interrogate the world in our thoughts, we predict how we expect things to happen, and then re-adjust our thinking after the fact. This continuing interplay between our reflections and expectations and what actually happens allows us to modify our behaviour, and is at the heart of the learning process.
Making comparisons is another important aspect of inner life. We hold internal dialogues weighing up the pros and cons of various scenarios as we examine different sides of an issue. Then there is the inner critic, that comments on what we do and urges us to do better. We compare our expectations or desires with what actually happened. This is important for making decisions and choosing between options, as well as for improving our mental model of the world. We have a simple mental image of things, such as of a country or profession, and these are needed for planning travel or job choices. The shape of our life depends on the choices that we have made. Those choices depend on the mental images we form of alternative scenarios, ie on our perceptions.
Perception is more important than reality. Though I first heard this said in a business context, I believe it applies to all of life. It is our interpretation of people and things that determines our attitudes to them. It's the interpretation that we make, whether it is justified or not, that makes us happy or sad, excited or bored, approving or disapproving, and so on. Fear is usually caused by what we think and feel, not by external circumstances. Toynbee stressed that the psychological impact of each historical event was greater than the event itself. We trust a person if we perceive them as being honest - we do not know whether they are or not. Even with people I know well, I effectively relate not to the actual person but to my internal image of that person. I choose my words for the effect I expect them to have on the person I am speaking to. As with people, it is my perception of an investment that matters. It is my perception of its soundness that determines my choice, not the financial nitty gritty.
A healthy inner life is an internal dialogue that clarifies our opinions, attitudes and wants. It plays a major role in generating our self-image and how we see ourselves in relationship to other people, to our work and to every other area of our lives. Our mental life moulds our ethics and other guiding principles. Inner life includes mental play, where we try out ideas and explore alternative possibilities. This prepares us for reality, just as physical play does in children and animals. The imaginative act is the first creation, preceding the physical making of something new. The world of thought is infinitely more malleable than the physical world, hence we are drawn to indulge in fantasy, which is a much needed faculty for release, recreation and creativity. Apart from more-or-less realistic thoughts of the future and the past, we also fantasise about what could have been, but wasn't, as well as indulging in wishful thinking about the future. Advocates of living in the moment are particularly critical of such thoughts. Yet, even wishful thinking and reckless fantasy can be productive. Take Wikipedia, 30 years ago it would have seemed an impossible project, not to mention the Internet itself.
Some people feel a strong need to ponder the imponderable, and arguably this can be beneficial. When the human imagination soars, the five senses can be beside the point. Witness that Beethoven created some of his greatest masterpieces, such as the work he regarded as his most perfect one, the 14th string quartet, when he was deaf.
Is the past real, and does the past matter?
It is worth noting that human memory is not like computer memory, which is a passive and exact registration of data. When we recall a memory, this is an active process of regenerating an image of a past experience. What we perceive as we do so is not the past as it was, but a recreation synthesised anew by our mind. This recreation usually suffers from distortion and is highly selective. No matter how strongly we feel about a past event, our emotion is actually generated by a construct - the revived memory - created by our mind now, not by the past itself, which is essentially unknowable. The "real" past, ie what actually happened, has no existence except as traces in human memories, books, films and other records. Even when all these exist and are put together, the process of doing so can only take place in a human consciousness, and is itself a creation of mind, ie an artefact.
What is the past in itself? A photo or history book is not the past. On its own, it's not even a representation of the past, since only a mind can interpret one thing as representing another. Only a human mind can experience the past by reading a book or seeing a film. Seen objectively, the film or book is merely an object existing in the present, which has no reference to the past, no more so than does a stone. We don't experience the past when we read a book. Instead, we experience a bit of the present (the book), which we interpret as telling us about the past. In other words, our mind forges a link between present experience and a theoretical entity called 'the past'. Even a specific memory only refers to the past due to the interpretation we make of it - we don't confuse it with present events. When a memory surfaces in our mind as a current thought, we view it as referring to a past state. This interpretation may be automatic and unconscious, but it is an interpretation nonetheless.
Whether it is an illusion or not, whether it exists or not, it is undeniable that the past matters enormously to human beings. It matters deeply to us that certain things have happened or not happened, eg that there really was a Holocaust (especially if you are one of its survivors), that the present government was legally elected, that I didn't run over a little girl when my car went into a spin. Should these things not matter because the past does not actually exist? Should we care only about the present and future? Psychologically this is impossible. Something matters only if it matters to human beings (or other living things). What other definition could one use? There is no answer to the question, "What things matter objectively?" The word 'matters' presupposes a 'who' to whom it matters.
Regardless of any philosophical conclusions about time and the present moment, the reality remains that the past is vitally important to human beings. It makes no sense to forbid thinking about it.
The inner life of reflection, evaluation and imagination is the motor of both creativity and learning. Even more importantly, it creates meaning for us. We live in our feelings, and these are intimately coupled to our thoughts. The subjective side of our experience is at least as important as our physical life. Unlike animals, we need to stand outside the moment to gain our bearings. Given the importance of the inner life, and in particular, the need to imagine the future and to reflect on the past, it is clear that being in the moment is not always desirable. Human beings are inescapably concerned about both the future and the past, and it is neither possible nor beneficial to avoid these concerns.
It is a major paradox of life that while, on the one hand, the moment is all there is, and all thought of the future is an escape from this reality, on the other hand, human life is unavoidably based on living in the future. We are goal-oriented creatures, needing to make plans, follow schedules, prepare for what is to come, and execute projects step by step. This is labouring the obvious, yet it is hard to reconcile these opposing polarities. Although some people counsel us to live in the eternal present, without regard for the future or the past, this is actually impossible for human beings. The present life of each of us is what it is because of the past that preceded it, and most of our activities are directed towards some future benefit, such as earning money, acquiring a degree, or cooking dinner. Almost everything we do is related to something in our past: we never begin afresh with no history behind us. This is even true when we embark on an entirely new project. We still bring to it our body of experience, reading and thinking on this and related topics.
Human beings are bound to time. We cannot avoid thinking about the future, or reflecting on the past. I suggest that the optimal way to function is to be in the moment, as well as to escape from it, as appropriate. We need to find a balance between the two, to avoid the dangers of too much escape as well as the drawbacks of being stuck in the moment. Accordingly, the best strategy seems to be to balance the moment with the demands of time, which requires creativity. The paradox is that the present moment is all that is real, yet we also need to escape from it.
To make the best use of our human capabilities we need to intelligently alternate being in the moment with removing ourselves from it, in order to examine the past and the future. The aim is to achieve a working balance between reflection, planning and spontaneity.