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 many try to tackle, 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 college because I had lumped all religions into the same category of “crazy, superstitious nonsense that we were better without.”

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

When I heard the metaphor I quoted above, which is that we exist in a present moment that is ever-changing, in which the past flows out from that present in the same manner as the wake left in the water by a traveling ship, I felt as if time suddenly “made sense.”

After all, could we not think of the image being returned to us from the cosmos as the very same thing as a “wake” being left behind in the cosmic sea as the present moment evolves and changes?

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

It would make sense to me that — if this is indeed the correct picture of time — that all the world’s religions would have voiced the same perspective at some point.

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

Now, this doesn’t accord well with our common-sense feeling pertaining to how time works, which has been informed by an overly-causal interpretation of things.

For those that don’t know, causality pertains to cause and effect. In other words, our common sense leads us to assume that event A causes event B in a linear sequence of events that we can neatly place on a linear timeline, and that if we keep following that linear timeline into the past, we’ll eventually get to the “first something or other.”

The reason modern society is having such a hard time ditching the blame-game in favor of something more contextual, in my view, is that we are having a tough time breaking free from seeing history as a linear process of events leading to other events, rather than the much more complicated context that was surrounding each and every event as it happened, but this kind of topic definitely deserves its own post.

Science takes the view that the universe began with the Big Bang. Some scientists are beginning to question if that was really the “beginning,” however, or simply that point in time beyond which we cannot gaze.

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.

It’s my view that the reason science likewise maintained this idea that there is a “beginning” to the cosmos is that Western science evolved alongside Western religion and that perhaps some of our underlying, unconscious attitudes have yet to truly break free from the common-sense feeling of the world that we have inherited from our primarily Judeo-Christian origins.

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

I believe 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.

We were able to basically develop a better “trial and error” mechanism of learning about our environment.

But let’s get back to the view that there really is only a present moment.

What sort of counter-argument could one make against this?

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 a “fiction” because it’s in the “past” and that all they have to do is somehow figure out how to live “in the moment.”

I think this is largely the error of language, however, which produces a misunderstanding on the part of both parties.

To be fair, there are some people who aren’t really interested in helping people heal, which requires listening to them and the stories of their pain, so they say things like, “Ah just forget about it and enjoy the moment!” as if it’s something easy, which of course it’s not, because if it was, we’d all be doing it.

Anywho.

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.

A book that I am interested in reading someday that talks about how the body carries traumatic experiences into the present is The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.

After all, what is a memory, but some sort of present-moment impression that has been left within the body that sustains the feelings associated with that memory?

Since the brain and the body are all a physical organism, existing in the present moment, it is reasonable to believe that painful memories do sustain trauma in some sort of physically real way.

In other words, this quick-dismissal of mental health struggles as being “all in your head,” has no merit, unless of course, we understand that it really is all in our head, but that the head is a very physically real thing, in which complex chemistry is going on that gives rise to the continued experiences of pleasure, pain, and everything in-between.

Why do we even have the view that someone’s “mental pain” is somehow a ghostly, non-real thing compared to physical pain?

That seems absurd to me, as it would assume that the pain that one experiences in the mind is not of this physical reality, and is, in fact, coming from “somewhere else” or being made up altogether.

I think the reality on this one is simple: some people simply don’t care to listen, and would rather shut you down than hear your story, but I suppose this has become a bit of a digression.

I’m interested in this question of whether or not we really live in just a present moment, in which the past and the future are concepts utilized by the mind.

I do believe that is the case, and that mindfulness and meditation help us reconnect with the present by helping train ourselves back into being aware of what is happening around us as opposed to all the mental imaginings pertaining to the past and the future that we fall victim to day after day.

The past and the future are concepts of the mind, which are real in and of themselves. It’s important to have a past and to use that past to inform how we go about pursuing a future, but not by forgetting to live mindfully in 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.

I believe that 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 then 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.

That is certainly true of individuals who believe they cannot heal from past pain or trauma, and it is certainly 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.

Everything from our thinking habits to what we actually do every day becomes important. We begin to believe that we are not necessarily determined by our past mistakes, and that we can, slowly but surely, create the future we would like to live in.

Now, I take this all one step further.

I believe that Watts is right both when he agrees with other wisdom traditions that we only live in a present moment, and when he makes the bold claim that the Big Bang is still happening.

My view is that the Big Bang was not a singular event that happened some 13.7 billion years in the past, but is in fact a process that is still occurring, and that the image of the past that we see after 13.7 billion years has elapsed is a lot like the wake of that ship traveling through the cosmic sea.

Put another way, in another 13.7 billion years, I would expect the universe to return the same sort of image — slightly varied, of course — back to someone observing the cosmic horizon from any point in the universe.

This is not in conflict with the observations of modern science. After all, what we observe is merely that “image” of the past. It is both possible for all the science that has been done investigating the Big Bang and our cosmic horizon to be true at the same time as this notion that the Big Bang is still happening, but I suppose I should explore this topic in its own piece.

For now, I think it suffices to say that there are some really good reasons to believe that we only exist in the present moment:

  • It’s an idea that recurs in the various religious traditions throughout the world. Even in Christianity — with its peculiar emphasis on God as the “creator” of a universe that has a definite “starting point,” there have been saints and other thinkers who have expressed this view that we dwell only in the present. Additionally, this “concept” of God as it exists in the Abrahamic traditions goes beyond time, as God was the creator of the linear, time-bounded cosmos in the first place. That makes God, in these traditions, distinctly non-temporal in the very same way that the present moment always has existed and always will exist. I think that is the meaning of “I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.”
  • It helps one regain a sense of empowerment. There is always something we can do right now to move toward our own healing, or to help create the world we want to see or the life we want to live. The problem is in thinking that we can do it all at once when in reality, we have to understand where we are along our journey and what steps we have to take to move in a more positive direction. There is something slow and gentle about healing, but we were brought up in an instant-gratification culture that wants to always rush toward some idealized “destination,” and so forgets how to actually exist in the present.
  • From the more philosophical, thought-experiment perspective, it is hard to contest the notion that the universe is always “presently” existing. In fact, the only thing we can prove as far as time goes is that a present moment exists. We do not yet know if the past and the future are still existing after the moment has expired (in the case of the past) or before the moment has arisen (in the case of the future). This may certainly be the case, and some scientists put forth notions that there are simultaneously existing timelines and things of that nature, but it gets rather speculative. Right now, all we can say for certain is that there is a present moment, and that we are living in it.

So, to answer the question put forth in the titles of this piece, I do believe the present is the only thing currently existing, and that the past and the future are concepts in the mind.

Concepts, in my view, are still real in and of themselves. After all, we’re thinking about the past and the future presently. Thinking is an activity we do in the present, like anything else, as in the instance of me writing this piece. Even when my awareness is on thoughts about the past or the future, I’m still observing those thoughts in the present.

It would then perhaps be a bit unfair to label the past and the future as “fictions.” There is something fictional about them, in that no proposed future is really certain until it happens, and that even our best descriptions of things that happened in the past are still only narratives, not the total truth.

That 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.

What are we to talk about if we are trying to return our focus to the present moment? I’ve had a hard time figuring that one out, as being a writer really means expressing thoughts, which of course meditative and mindfulness practice try to take our focus away from!

So this has all been a really maddening exercise for me, though I’ve begun to see that there is something meditative about the act of writing itself when there is no particular goal in mind.

Sometimes, it just feels good to put words on a page and see what comes of it, and that’s really the gist of it.

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

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