Living In The Moment, Comfortable Illusion
Future - Always Straight Ahead
The Book From Which This Free Chapter Is Taken
I never planned to write a nonfiction book, but once it started leaking onto the screen, it wouldn't stop.
A Million Different Things: ...And Night, Meditation #10
Meditation #10 from the final section of my book, A Million Different Things: Meditations of The World's Happiest Man, is all about time and how we learn to create past and future.
A Million Different Things: ...And Night, Meditation #10
Let’s go back to the helm, to the person reading this, considering it, mulling among a mix of understandings, experience and intuition, agreeing with some, pulling back from others. That individual is connected and disconnected all at once. It’s a little like being the engineer on a train, feeling the power of the engines, the drag of the cars, but always being apart from it.
Really, it’s more like being the person who supplies power to the supercomputer that runs the mechanisms of the train and records its experience while dreaming about the road ahead and new software, even a new supercomputer to improve the train’s performance. Nevertheless, go back as far as we like, we can never detach ourselves from the train. Operating the train is all we do. The train will one day detach itself, of course. Neither can we be absorbed completely with immediate operations. We are permanently in the middle.
Three processes occur in unison, establishing us in place. First and simplest, we pay the faintest attention to the automations that go on, maintaining us in physical space. Our toenails keep growing, and we remember that, in Biology, they told us that dead old cells were repurposed for nails at our extremities. No problem there. We continue clipping. Electrical impulses keep our hearts pumping nourishment out along the trails of veins and arteries and replenishing the stream when it returns wasted. We breathe. We digest. Stem cells throughout our bodies give birth to replacement cells. Protein empowers DNA to make RNA which then makes building block proteins, and on and on. At least at this point in evolution, our mind’s eye lacks the broad capacity to experience anything more than the general, successful result, the details being left to unobserved interactions.
Some advanced masters, Zen practitioners, have been observed to have the power for controlling things previously believed uncontrollable, like body temperature, after years of focused meditation. These capabilities point the way to future options. Maybe, blessed with knowledge, we will become more engaged with the processes we now accept as nature’s gift.
Another process–and not in any in order of importance or preference–is our engagement with the past, starting with what we think of as now, really the most immediate past, and reaching back to that storehouse of experience and knowledge embedded in memory. Our memories seem likely to extend beyond our minds in some way as do our skills in communication. No one knows how this works, and science doesn’t accept it enough to take a serious look. Evidence suggests, however, we are somehow more richly connected to ideas, experiences and emotions developed and stored by others than generally acknowledged.
So, for now, the past we know is our most convenient source of wisdom, our capacity for re-experiencing events and our vault of information, and it is ever-changing. Accumulating sensory information alters our minds as we blend it with everything that has come before. Salt with informed anticipation and, whamo, this is it, this is now. We are able to declare this for less than a jiffy, the smallest, scientific measurement of time. The next now is already upon us.
I regret having no way to express our experience of now in terms not suggesting time. Rather than a moment, it’s more like a pool in which the chemistry is always changing, elements migrating in and out, altering the colors and moods and viscosities. Calling this a moment or a jiffy or any other time related term suggests a pause or limits, and pauses are as unlikely in nature as are vacuums. Now is a pool that has always been our experience of life in all its facets. It neither comes nor goes. It just is. It’s full of everything about us, and everything about us never sits still. I’m not really crazy about the pool analogy either, but it’s a description much closer than time is in explaining how reality emerges out of chaos.
We invented and developed time for a good reason. Sequencing events gave us a way to see how one event related to another, separating them from now for analysis. In the long run, we seem to have given time too prominent a seat at the table. It can become as much a lock as a key. It’s the utter practicality of time, the way we absorb it as immutable, that sets in us a trust in logical realities that have life only in our contemplation.
There is the famous positivists’ question: If a tree falls in the woods and no one is present, does it make a sound? (It doesn’t.) But let’s look at this as a test of time, instead. If we are not watching the clock or otherwise locked into sequential observation, does time pass? (It doesn’t.)
Things happen, and they happen in every direction simultaneously. Actions or reactions are not bound by seconds and minutes that are the same for everyone, disorienting as this may seem. When we step outside the rigors of time and stand in the pool of now instead, a fresh wash of awareness and feeling sweeps over us.
Time is an analyst. Time takes things that have happened and helps us analyze them. The future is owned, however, by anticipation. The future exists completely outside the strictures of time, even as we try to project it, making time our security and scaffolding. There is nothing that forces anyone to accept time as a component of the future. The future is an idea that never really exists in practical fact. We can throw away time and imagine freely.
Our expectation of what happens next, of which shoe will drop, what color and style, empowered by the freedom given us by automation and wisdom gained from the past, is the fuel that runs everything else. The next keystroke on this computer, the next rhythmic taps of a cat’s paws coming up the hall behind me, the increase of light in the eastern sky–a million other things–these are what make our days the triggers for inspiration.
A big statement, but here’s a bigger one. The only time we are not looking into the future, even if we’re looking at the past simultaneously, is when we are physically gone from the wonder and thrills of life experience, i.e., we are dead. My argument, the greatest thing I think I have ever learned in this world, is that conscious attention to what’s ahead, not the present, to steering and imagining and making choices, is the key process in life. It’s also the one at which we are most inept or, worse, lackadaisical.
Let’s take a closer look.
If ninety-nine percent of what happens to our physical selves is automatic, blood circulates, our skin repairs itself, our hair keeps advancing out of it’s follicles, we can set those activities aside until called to our attention. An injury occurs. We must evaluate it. We catch a cold, as they say.
But for the most part, we set the tone and, then, benefit from the amazing precision of fifty-trillion cells doing all nature designed them to do, essentially without conscious oversight. We can also set aside memory, wisdom and knowledge. These have already happened or accumulated and will be there like some phenomenal library, very well cataloged, whenever we need them. We can add to the shelves and their organization and contents will be adjusted, but we can’t change what has already occurred. If our concentration is right, we won’t be lulled by any such desire anyway. The concluding fact is that the only part of this multilayered and ever-changing pool over which we exercise any control is what happens next, how the future will be experienced and when.
Our eyes look ahead for a reason, and our mind’s eye repeats that panoramic fabric. We can see it as lovely or profane, but there it is in all its component parts, levels and observable operations. We have no option but to choose and to do so constantly about where we ramble.
We can soar to the clouds. We can go to that cute little girl struggling to make a kite fly. We can sift the dirt on your hands or appreciate the rapturous beauty of green leaves mingling with the deep blue of the sky. The one thing disallowed is no. We can shut our eyes, as we all understand from sleep, but our mind’s eye departs from the model here. It keeps looking.
Knowing this, we take a grip.
Since we can see the present moment only in retrospect, we have no control over it. We do have a lot to say about how we interpret it, but since I’m a missionary for conscious awareness, I’m not recommending the twisting of nature through personal filters after the fact. I think it’s best to know as much about everything as we can. The more we know, the better informed our choices, and choices are always the business of the future. Choose now for then. Proactivity is more effective than repair.
Attitude is anticipation’s tool. Are we looking for bright lights and flowers, or are we seeking earthquakes and military takeovers? One is no more legitimate than the other. Everything we can think of can take place, and the way we get control of our lives starts with discovering what makes our pulses pound hardest, what draws the life force up with the most power. I’m not talking about living vicariously through television or movies. I’m talking about being on the street, and what is it we want the street to show us. In reality, the street doesn’t really bring us anything.
We either draw it or move toward it, but the analogy brings us closer to our expressions of common experience.
We think of ourselves as on path or a trail, don’t we? Some sort of continuous activity takes us through opportunities and experiences. We act within the confines of what we believe we are given. This idea of a defined path was developed in evolution as a way of observing sequence. It helps us understand how one thing affects another, one foot placed ahead of the last, but it’s been given too tight a grip on how we think. We now mistakenly believe that this tool, time, actually describes an essential feature of reality.
It’s an odd belief because it’s so clear that time can’t be what we embrace it to be. There isn’t even anything as simple as a moment. A moment is a slice of time or, more broadly, a collection of things, bells, whistles and twine, held still to enforce time, but nature can’t pause. Stop to catch a breath or take in the scenery. The action continues.
We can’t leave a trail of moments behind us or expect them to line up for our future. The reason is simple. Any pause, any sequence that requires holding still, must create additional matter.
Even if our moments are separate or sequential, they must have substance. Every true now, if held, must be doubled by the one following. Here’s the simplest way to show it: two moments require two universes, one for each to make them complete. Like Pringles, who can ever stop at two? Realities would line up like dominos, one after another. Yet, our universe is already full and all the chemistry making it up is engaged. There are no vacuums or motionless parts. We can’t hold a moment anywhere. Time, as we perceive it every day, defies the laws of nature. If the continuous actions circulating, mixing, folding and playing around us pause, even for a jiffy, the calamity will be beyond our abilities to conceive or survive. Reality itself falls apart.
Now that we’ve whisked the illusion of time out of our minds, let’s talk about what does happen. Reality is a pool, and it surrounds us. An air-absorbing channel that connects us to anything outside, like a funky snorkel, offers continuous interchange. Just as oxygen is the element that allows our bodies to fire, the fuel received down the channel energizes us in the water. The pool is more complex and variable than simple water, but let’s use that familiar substance to make it simple.
A panorama, neither defined nor simple, spreads across our field of vision. Our brains have evolved to reduce our view to the identifiable shapes and forms we call reality. We never get to see everything. Instead, we see about as much as we can manage for our purposes. We start as infants, before infancy really, collecting information and storing it. How much we pass forward as our contribution to a collective unconscious is debatable and will be for some time, maybe forever. Nevertheless, we arrive in our physical reality with the tools to begin identifying the contents of our experience. That’s no small thing. Our senses begin delivering millions of bits of information immediately. Although the delivery room lights flashing off all the metal is new to us, we never seem to have more than a partial meltdown. We have good cause to scream in panic.
Those warm amniotic fluids that soothed and nourished us for months are gone, and our senses, so buffered inside the womb, are suddenly flooded with a world for which we are only roughly prepared.
Early in life, we study faces and get ideas about what their expressions convey. Our intelligence is peppered with little knots that slowly unravel as we interpret our surroundings. Sounds are embedded in our environment. Touches and tastes are pleasant or repulsive. No one yet has preserved enough in memory to explain how our minds untangle and expand, but in recent decades, we have abandoned the suggestion of an empty bucket that fills with acquired knowledge. The bucket of us seems to be full from the beginning but full of sediment that needs to clear and settle.
Our individual version of reality begins to be established. An external world gradually merges with our inner reality. They blend and compliment. Who knows the balance? My interest here is in the subtle or overt and continuous messages we get from our parents and others during our restricted childhood years.
A child learning to walk and run loses her balance and plunks a cushioned butt on the floor. The child looks to Mom for instruction on what it means. If Mom laughs over the clownishness of this harmless fall, a child learns that every adverse event in life isn’t likely to be dangerous or harmful. Maybe she learns, instead, that accidents can be fun and a welcome part of a bigger carnival ahead. When a parent rushes over after a spill to comfort an uninjured child, the message of weakness and vulnerability is inescapable.
Day after day, week after week, our world views are shaped by our observations of how others are changed by their experiences and how that contrasts with our own inclinations. At a transitional point, different for each of us, we assume full responsibility for accepting experience as a series of privileges and thrills or as a journey loaded up with difficulties where the best rewards wait for the end.
We're surrounded by nature. We are totally submerged in life. The components vibrating into matter around us are varied beyond any degree we can estimate. The only limits are those we imagine or, better yet, the freedoms we don’t imagine. Our minds are so enriched by information about the world from our senses, we must let almost all of it wash passed. We strike a balance over what enables us to thrive in an environment defined by our choices. We’ve learned enough about safety that we don’t walk off many cliffs. We know gravity is not always our friend. We gather nourishment from many sources. We consume food, air and water, and we load it into the heat-seeking soft machine that carries our desires and imagination around. At a level in our minds where we can reach out and gain insight at a distance, we make conscious choices about…
No, strike that. We have the freedom to make conscious choices, not the certainty.
The quality and effectiveness of our choices is worth thinking about. If we drink contaminated water or a substitute packed with additives, we are usually not much aware of what we’re pouring directly into our internal engines. We commonly chose nourishing foods with minimal awareness of the details. We eat and drink with trust and ignorance. Mostly, we do well. The most important nourishment we seek is emotional. We want the sustenance that contact and exchange with others brings us. Contact, the consumption of other’s lives, is a food no one flourishes without. Contact softens. Contact lubricates.
As our connections go, so go our emotional selves in the same way our bodies depend on staples and grains. The complexities of social life require us to learn the rules of the games. We’re best off discovering games with rules that don’t push so hard in an adverse direction that they become inhibitions. Intentional awareness helps us pick better, more fulfilling games.
We’ve become masters of the more practical how-tos of getting around in a universe chock full of physical objects, some moving, some vibrating, most completely invisible to us. We employ tools to our advantage, enabling us to get to our next adventure faster, although a less brisk pace might enrich the experience. Walking, we pull other tools out of the box, sidewalks and shoes for comfort, eyeglasses and music to smooth integration. We collect information about context and hierarchies. We learn that a kiss is different in a public park than in a secluded room at home. We understand that society is structured and that we can maneuver our place in it. Learning expands and better prepares us for our next experiences. How we, then, develop our experiences is a matter of tone, and that’s where we are in full control and able to run our own lives.
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