LIFE ONLY AVAILS, NOT THE HAVING LIVED
People who are dogged by unwanted thoughts and feelings are sometimes told, "Live in the present. The past is over and done with. Forget it and move on with your life." This sounds like good advice. The past is, indeed, over and done with, and living occurs only in the present, not in the past or in the future.
Most of us would like to dump our memories of a lot of bad experiences. We'd like to be born again, to be free of tangles from the past. We'd like, in accordance with the advice, to live in the present. We'd like for our burdens to be lightened.
However, we have to ask, is it possible to forget the past? What does it mean to "live in the present"?
How long is "now"? Since time is continuous, there are no boundaries to define it. It can be as long as the tick (or tock) of a clock, or it can be the length of a conversation or a symphony.
"The present" is not something specific. Thought of as the separation between the past and the future, it is not even an instant. It is just a moving front, without duration, without content. For it to contain content, it has to include the past. Time is continuous, the past being inevitably connected with the future across the moving front of the present. Time does not proceed in snapshots, one after another, as if it consisted of packets set end to end, but, rather, it is continuous. (W. H. Auden had the wrong take on this. In the following poem he thinks of time as a movie reel, with still shots run through a machine: "At any given instant/All solids dissolve, no wheels revolve,/And facts have no endurance - /And who knows if it is by design or pure inadvertence/That the Present destroys its inherited self-importance?") If you look at a sweep second hand, you will see the effect of time's continuously moving front. The passage of time is continuous throughout the universe. What, then, is the present?
There are two kinds of "the present" - one that we can call the meaningless kind and the other that we can call the meaningful kind. As was explained above, the meaningless kind is the moving edge separating the future from the past. It has no duration and so does not last long enough to hold anything meaningful, such as a word or a sentence.
The meaningful kind lasts long enough to contain meaning. The mind gives duration to the ongoing present to make room for meaningful wholes. Before an action is taken, the mind knows what is to occur. For example, any whole sentence is in the mind before it is spoken and any whole motion is conceived of before a muscle is used. This faculty is throughout life. The bee knows that it will go on a hunt for nectar before it leaves the hive. Each beat of its wings disappears into the past, but the bee flies on, in accordance with its intentions. Human beings hold the beginning of a word or sentence long enough in time to join it to the end of the word or sentence. The whole word or the whole sentence is in the present. Thus, parts of the past are kept active in the present in order to make the present meaningful. The mind allows the present to include more than a meaningless edge or instant.The meaningless present, a moving edge continuously leaving the past behind, and the meaningful present, which combines the future with the past, are the two dimensions of time.
The future is continuously anticipated in the meaningful present. Intending ties the future to the present. We live continuously future bent. We move with time into the future, intending continuously - I intend to write this next word, I intend to complete this sentence, I intend to get up later from this chair, I intend (later) to go shopping, etc. Every moment is filled with intentions. Intention is a characteristic of the continuity of life. It exists throughout life. The bee intends to look for nectar. The tree intends to raise sap from its roots. These intentions are more than just a matter of physics. They are a characteristic of life.
The meaningful present in this sense varies. Its meaning depends on what use it is being put to. Maybe it's something that you're absorbed in - handwork, operating on a patient, reading a book, engaging in an argument, playing a game, contemplating, meditating, or some other project. The meaningful present is something known by the mind, be it a bee on its way to look for nectar or a human being engaged in something. It is known only by the mind and not by non-living nature.
In everyday life, many meaningful wholes are quickly lost into the past. For example, brushing teeth, getting dressed, and preparing and eating breakfast are quickly consigned to the past, as are stock market reports and the scores of sports teams. However, at the same time that I am preparing breakfast or listening to a stock market report, I might be recalling unfinished projects or unresolved happenings in my past. The present, then, is a mix of things, some soon dismissed and others lingering.
The fact that the present has duration, when it is seen as more than only a moving edge, makes it possible for the person to correct some bad situations. For example, if I make a mistake while typing, I can correct it. If I hurt someone, I can apologize or make amends. If I fail, I can learn from my failings. If I am insulted, I can respond. Occurrences, then, are not totally unchangeable. Some can be adjusted in our favor.
Since this is true, we human beings hold in the meaningful present much of the past that we wish that we could undo. Since you can operate in the present, making decisions moment by moment, you think, mistakenly, that you can fix up all past trauma, humiliations, failures, and rejections. You relive again and again many terrible happenings, keeping them as part of the present. You are under the delusion that you can remake the past, just as you can make the present, when, in fact, the past is irreversible. Outside of the mind, only the facts remain.
We are poor at recognizing when it is time to let the past die. Student piano players, for example, who make a mistake while playing, often stop the music, go back to correct the mistake, and then proceed. In reality, they have not corrected the mistake. Rather, they have played the notes correctly after having played them incorrectly, and in the process they have departed from the beat, and the music sounds worse than if they had allowed the mistake to stand.
Many of us are poor at something else: we live our lives trying to push the present, to cram more and more into the present. We are always rushing, eating fast, hurrying our steps, talking fast, etc. It is the opposite of trying to put the brakes on time - remembering the past, resurrecting regrets, or worrying about what we did. Could it be that it is possible to keep pace with time, not trying to cram more and more into it and not trying to keep the past alive? Maybe we can take time to savor the moment. We can sit at the table before eating. We can observe a friend before speaking.
Living too fast is frustrating. We never settle down into feeling that what we are doing is satisfactory. The frustration is an outcome of impatience - the two are allies. In both cases we are trying to force the present not to be.
When people say, "Live in the present. Forget the past," they are most likely referring to the present moment, but even this term is imprecise, since the present is continuous and therefore has no bounds. We all live together meaningfully in the present. It is apparent that it is more than just the moving edge that separates the future from the past. What we experience is more than just the moving edge. Just what it is is one of the mysteries of existence.
When you think of the present you think of something in motion, continuously changing, moving forward into the future and being converted into the past. The Buddhists call it mindfulness - giving one's attention to one's life in the present moment. When we give, we are not bound up with self-justification. Rather, we give Nature/life its due. Mindfulness is the experience of being current, of functioning freely in the present. It is a mood of trusting our nature/life to deal with present circumstances, not pushing and not forcing ourselves, not craving and not clinging but, rather, just being. Sherlock Holmes was a good detective because he had respect for what was under his nose. We are creative beings - every word that is spoken and every movement through space is created anew, welling up from our nature/life. Mindfulness is the awareness of our newness in each moment.
It is also living with the senses, which move quickly - the eyes continuously take in new sights, the ears continuously hear new sounds, and smell, taste, and feeling also change quickly. When we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel, we are living in the present, since our senses serve us only in the present. When we live in the present, that is, mindfully, they are not overwhelmed by the activities of the mind. Rather, they are given full play.