Is the Present Moment Really the Only Thing That Exists?

Are the past and future illusory fictions of the mind? If so, what should we focus our conscious awareness on?

We think that the world is limited and explained by its past. We tend to think that what happened in the past determines what is going to happen next, and we do not see that it is exactly the other way around! What is always the source of the world is the present; the past doesn’t explain a thing. The past trails behind the present like the wake of a ship and eventually disappears.

— Alan Watts

“What exactly is time, anyway?” is not exactly a question we routinely grapple with — unless we happen to be the kind of person interested in such things.

I don’t remember exploring any particular perspectives on time in school. Nor do I really feel like it was made to be that big of a deal at all.

Some would say it’s a question left for the pontifications of philosophers or the musings of theoretical physicists. I remember growing up and exploring the concept of time mostly through fiction — video games, books, movies, etc.

Then I happened upon the lectures of Alan Watts on YouTube during a period in my life in which I was feeling down on my luck.

Watts convinced me to explore the traditions of Daoism and Buddhism, which I had stayed away from during my college because I had lumped all religions into the same category of “crazy, superstitious nonsense that the world is better off without.”

Watts said something that immediately resonated with me, and it was, of course, pertaining to this notion that the present moment is all there really is and that the past and the future are merely concepts that are useful to the mind.

Watts deployed a keen metaphor to illustrate this point.

He likened the past to a wake left behind by a ship as it travels across the surface of the ocean. The ship being, of course, the “present moment” that creates the past as it encounters the future.

This contradicts many people’s common sense about time, which is that the past determines the present.

Think of how often we blame the past for our present misfortunes — on both the individual and societal level — rather than shifting our perspective to see that all problems are created here and now, the past being a record of what happened in the present.

I’ve often thought about how this perspective relates to our cosmic picture of existence as well. Could we not think of the image at the “end of time” — the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation — as the wake left behind by the present moment as it evolves and changes?

The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. Source.

While I’m fond of Watts’ metaphor, he was not the first to suggest that there is only a present moment. I don’t really know where this idea originates. It may even be connected to the notion of “perennial wisdom,” something which has been true for all ages.

One could make the argument that as we wind the evolutionary clock back, our ancestors dwell more in the present, and are aware less and less of the past and future.

If you think of animals, for instance, it’s easy to see that they don’t think about the past and the future the same way humans do. They may learn from events that happen to them in their environment, but they certainly aren’t writing volumes of history books to explain why the world is the way it is.

Furthermore, if this is indeed the correct picture of time, then pretty much every major world religion has hinted at this in their teachings and texts.

Take Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the foremost Zen Buddhists, for instance:

The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.

— Thich Nhat Hanh

This doesn’t accord well with our common-sense feeling regarding time, which has been informed by a causal interpretation of the universe.

Both religion and science have contributed to forming this common sense that something in the past caused things to be the way they are now.

In the Western world, the Christian tradition claims the first origin of things to be the Christian God, whereas in the scientific view it’s the Big Bang sits at the beginning of time, before which we know not what strange physics may have ruled the cosmos.

Both of these cultural forces have worked to inculcate the majority of the population with the common sense that the past has more “weight” than the present, and indeed even that the future is more worthy of our consideration than what is happening right now.

In the scientific world, one would be hardpressed to question what we know of causality (although it is certainly true that quantum mechanics is forcing a revolution in our scientific worldview on this matter).

Causality pertains to cause and effect.

Put another way, our common sense is that event A causes event B in a linear sequence of events that we can neatly arrange on a timeline, and that if we keep following that timeline into the past, we’ll eventually get to the “first something-or-other that sparked all other something-or-others.”

For the longest time, the Big Bang was seen as that first “something-or-other,” but more and more scientists are beginning to come around to the idea that it wasn’t really the “beginning” of the universe, it’s simply that point beyond which we can’t see.

Religion in the Western world, which has predominantly grown from its Abrahamic origins, has likewise seen the universe as having a definitive “starting moment,” when God — who is beyond time — created it.

While the harshest critics of science and religion would like to draw distinctions between themselves, there can be no doubt that as society developed, the two informed each other.

Aware of it or not, early scientists were operating from the common-sense notion of time inherited from the Abrahamic traditions, which saw a necessity for something to act as a “beginning event” from which all other events followed.

This type of thinking also impacts the way we go about living our daily lives, though it is hard to become aware of the myriad ways that this is so.

For instance, we place an undue amount of attention on our past in order to understand ourselves and where we come from, and an undue amount of attention on the future because we are scared of uncertainty and what might happen to us at some later point in time, either to our eternal souls which will persist beyond death (if you believe in such things) or to our living body here on Earth.

An argument has also been put forth that the function of the mind — which became more highly evolved in humans relative to our animal kin — has to do with learning from the past to predict the future, which assisted our species with surviving in it’s harsh starting conditions.

In other words, the evolution of more advanced thinking about the past and the future gave rise to a better “trial-and-error” method for learning about — and surviving in — our environment.

This knowledge can help us contemplate whether there really only is a present moment.

What was our experience of being alive like before our brains had the more advanced capability of remembering the past and predicting the future?

That’s an interesting topic, and one that I’ll leave for you — dear reader — to contemplate on your own.

It would be unfair to explore this perspective on time, however, without contemplating the counter-perspective.

I suppose one could say that the past is “real” because we are still, individually and collectively, suffering from the pains of our past.

This is often why people struggling with trauma or unresolved pain retaliate against those saying to “forget about it and live in the present” in a somewhat emotionally heated way.

They don’t like being told that what happened to them is somehow “fiction” because it’s in the “past” and that all they have to do is somehow figure out how to live “in the moment.”

This is an understandable response, but of course, we could very easily shift our perspective to reconcile these two seemingly divergent worldviews.

We could choose to see this as a quirk of language which produces a misunderstanding on the part of both parties.

One person says that the present is all there is and that the past has to be let go of in order to enjoy it fully, whereas another says that the past is still affecting them and preventing them from living in the present.

In reality, their pain is not felt “in the past,” it is felt in the present. Trauma is really a physiological response of the body that is sustained long after the initial traumatizing event(s) have been experienced.

It’s not so much a past event that is continuing to cause pain, it is the body’s present-moment physiology that continues to sustain that pain.

It might seem like this is a meaningless word game, but the goal of therapy is to truly get people back into a state of mind where they feel like they enjoy life on a day-to-day basis (one might even say present-moment basis) again, rather than being forced to relive the pain they experienced in the past.

To do that, we need to understand how to treat things like trauma as an illness manifesting in the present moment, and that often involves helping patients redefine their perspectives on the past and future so as to live more fully in the moment.

But I suppose this has become a digression.

The point I am trying to make is that it’s possible to simultaneously believe that the past is no longer real while acknowledging the pain that lingers in the present from something that happened in the past — which, of course, was the present when it was happening.

Even memories are present-moment physiological phenomena that remind us in some way of what the moment was like when it was different.

But the key thing to remember here is that everything that happens always happens in the present — events cannot happen “in the past” or “in the future.”

Once the present moment changes, what it once was is gone and cannot determine anything — unless we allow it to through our own thinking and behavioral patterns.

This isn’t to suggest that we ought to be dismissive towards people who take the point-of-view that the past is the cause of their current pain.

In other words, this notion that it’s “all in your head” has no merit, as our “head” is a part of our physical body which is constantly giving rise to complex processes that determine whether our moment-to-moment experience of life is pleasant, negative, or somewhere in-between.

But to return to the point, what can we do on a day-to-day basis to get back in tune with this feeling that the past and the future are concepts and that the real experience of life is to be felt in the here and now?

Both mindfulness and meditation help reconnect us with the present by training us to pay more attention to what is happening within and around us rather than all the abstract mental formulations that pop into our minds.

We can still think about the past and the future as we are meditating, but with the added awareness that this “thinking” we are doing is happening in the present, and that we have some degree of choice as to whether or not we’d like to get swept up in those thought patterns.

So in a funny way, we come full circle.

We can say that the past and the future are nothing more than mere concepts, but we can likewise understand that concepts are real when understood as concepts — a thing in and of themselves, which are useful to us for a variety of reasons.

It’s not that we should abandon thinking about the past and future altogether. The real problem arises when our thinking about these concepts gets in the way of enjoying the present.

Jedi Knights Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi get at this in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, in one of their dialogue exchanges:

Qui-Gon Jinn: Don’t center on your anxieties, Obi-Wan. Keep your concentration here and now, where it belongs.

Obi-Wan Kenobi: But Master Yoda says I should be mindful of the future.

Qui-Gon Jinn: But not at the expense of the moment. Be mindful of the living Force, my young Padawan.

I think conscious awareness is something like a light that we shine in our own minds, and that we can choose to shine it on that endless stream of thoughts pertaining to the past and the future, or we can choose to shine it on something happening right now — such as our breath, for instance.

When we shine our awareness onto a particular thought, that thought carries with it the potential of evoking a corresponding emotion pertaining to that thought.

That’s why Qui-Gon tells Obi-Wan not to center himself on his anxieties. Where we direct our focus — or awareness — determines how we are “centered.”

If all we ever do is think about the future and how terrible it might be, or whether or not we will be “successful” or “accepted” by the rest of society, then our corresponding emotional state will be one of anxiety and pain and any actions born from that centering will be colored by that anxiety.

Likewise, if all we ever do is ruminate upon thoughts pertaining to our past, we are sustaining those painful memories within us, which keeps the emotions alive and well in the present.

It’s important to consider this perspective because we do seem to live in a culture that thinks everything is largely determined by the past and that is largely fearful of what might happen in the future.

This prevents people from taking actionable steps in the present to improve the quality of life for everyone all around.

That is true of individuals who believe they cannot heal from pain or trauma and it is true collectively when different groups think that we cannot overcome our differences as a species in order to move toward a fairer and more equitable society.

If we instead take the view put forth by Watts — that the present moment determines everything — we regain a sense of empowerment. It becomes possible to once again believe that we have some agency in determining our destinies and that we aren’t being “pushed around” by a cold, callous, and indifferent universe.

To answer the question put forth by this piece, I do believe the present moment is really all there is. That it changes into new forms doesn’t negate this fact.

This makes talking about anything in the current cultural landscape a bit difficult because it seems to me that people are only interested in being right about the past (why things are the way they are) and prophesying about the future (this will happen unless we do this).

There is very little discussion about how to actually solve human problems in the here and now, and I get the sense that this is so because it is far easier to offer our quick opinions about the world than to actually do anything to meaningfully change it.

More and more I get the sense that the real problem-solvers of the world are ones that don’t have much time to talk about the past or future because they are too busy solving whatever problems they are brought into contact with in their particular field each and every day.

Hopefully, I figure out how to become a better problem-solver, first in my own life, and then for society at large.

I’m only certain of one thing: the way to get there is by contemplating how to live more in the present, and only think about the past and the future when it serves the present.

“The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” — Joseph Campbell

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