The Poignancy of the Now
I was re-watching the DVD of the movie "Waking Life" last night. It's an odd flick, an animation over film, in which the main character ends up caught in a dream (or dead - one character in the film says that death is an endless dream from which you can neither awake nor return to your body.)
In one scene, a woman describes picking up a picture of herself as a child, and saying "That's me!" In order to do this, the person with the picture has to tell a story. "I was born, and I lived here and moved there and grew up to become me."
Except that story is a convenient fiction.
There is no other you than the you that is reading this sentence right now. There is no other moment than this moment, and that has been true since the beginning of time. In fact, as Einstein proved with his Theory of Relativity, even time is a convenient yet unreal construct. We live in what philosophers call "The Eternal Now." (see esp. Eckhart Tolle's books. )
One "proof" of the relative elasticity of time is the dream state. You wake up at 8 am. You fall back asleep and have a rich, detailed dream of an entire day. You wake up, and it's 8:03.
In the "real" world, we've been distracted, and time flew by, or we've waited by the phone for news and time dragged. Time, in this sense, is an artificial construct.
The reason this is important is that, without discipline, most people spend their lives immersed in the stories in their heads, and those stories point in one of two ways - past or future. Past stories are often "regret" stories, and future stories are often "catastrophe" stories. Both are used by us to create "drama and meaning" for our lives.
Now, I want to differentiate this kind of "pain-based" thinking from having an active fantasy life. Nothing wrong with my setting aside some time to imagine living in a tropical paradise, having sex with everyone I've ever fantasized about. I just don't want to confuse this with "reality."
The only "reality" I can ever know exists moment by moment. The only way I can know it is to be present in it. If I am sitting with you and thinking about something other than sitting attentively with you - if I'm thinking about what I had for dinner last night or what you really meant by something I think I remember you saying - I am no longer present with you. I have decided that what's going on in my head - the stories and dramas I'm telling myself - are more important (in a sense, more "real") than you.
I set up an experience for a couple recently. They'd been fighting about stuff, repeatedly, for years. Rather than rehash the past, I asked them to shift focus and state their present intention for the relationship, and asked the other person to simply listen. After each stated their intention, their partner responded, "I didn't know you thought that!"
Which is sort of true. More clearly stated, it's "I was so busy up in my head, making you the bad guy, and then supporting my stance with memories I created, that I was unaware of you. I chose only to hear what would support my preconceived notion that you are a jerk."
The poignancy of the now is the somewhat rueful realization that I am simply who I am in this moment, and who and how I "register" who I am in this moment is based entirely on how I have interpreted each of my experiences. (And this experience. And this experience. Until you die.) It also means that, if I don't like who I am in this moment, I can change my interpretations - the story I'm telling myself, right now.
Thus, in the above client illustration, the shift came as each actively listened - as they listened, they added to (changed) the story each was telling him or herself. This happened, as does all of life, in the moment, and has absolutely nothing to do with past experience or future expectation.
Each life is lived moment by moment, choice by choice. The past rolls up behind us (like the Langoliers roll up time in Stephen King's Four Past Midnight) and the future never is.
In other words, you have no future. Me either. All you ever have is this moment. This is why waiting for something to happen in the future ("and then I'll be happy!") is so stupid. Happiness, like everything else, is a moment-by-moment choice, not a future destination.
Another example: take the life of a significant person, say FDR. He's dead. So, we tell his story to remember. Except that you can read 30 biographies, and get 30 versions of FDR. If you read his autobiography, you get another, equally strange story. The story we tell about others is just as subjective as the story we tell about ourselves. There is not one ‘true' story about any person, including you. The person is the person, and that person lived one moment at a time. The person doesn't actually exist as an entity from birth to death. All that exists is moment-by-moment choice, moment-by-moment experience.
Yet another example: Now, admittedly, I have an internal representation of Dar. It's based upon my experiences with her, since 1982. Except I've only been in her physical presence a fraction of that time. (She's at work, she's away, she's asleep.) In a sense, I know of her, without knowing her. And what I know of her is totally about my interpretation of what I think I saw her "do." The Dar in my head is the sum total of my explanations of my experiences with Dar.
It's just not Dar.
So, I have certain expectations and presuppositions regarding her, but no assurances about any of it. We jokingly say we greet each other not by saying "How are you today?" but rather by saying "Who are you today?" In the end, the only "real" Dar is the one I can reach out and touch, in the here and now. The rest of the stuff in my head is me, dressing up to look like Dar.
Each moment offers us a choice - will I play in my head with my presuppositions, dramas, stories and pain, or will I be present? Am I brave enough to understand that this moment is all the time I have with Dar, and is all I will ever have with her? Everything else is a fiction designed to get me past scaring myself about the impermanence of my life.
One point of "Waking Life" is captured in the title - one can choose to wake up to life. Or, one can live forever trapped in a dreamscape, living a "life" of "woulda, coulda, shoulda." In a hundred years, no one will remember your name. No one, ever, will know you. Except, possibly, you. If you choose.
And the only you that you can know is the ‘you' that you are in this moment. You are not your past - all you have is a present explanation of the story you tell yourself about what you believe happened to you. In other words, you experience your past NOW and only now.
You are nothing more than this moment, this breath. In this moment, you can be fully alive and fully present. And in that choice, you are whole, complete and without blemish.
Authentic, enlightened humanity exists only in The Eternal Now.