I used to picture time – the collective moments of a lived life – as a horizontal line. The present moment was a point on that line, with everything to the left of now constituting the past (the already-lived moments), and everything to the right being the moments-to-come. As I saw it, the present-moment point was constantly moving to the left part of the line, like a bead being slid along a string, with the new present moment slipping in to replace it from the right side of the line. Time was flowing. The present moment was in motion.
This image got installed the day my history teacher drew a chalk line on the blackboard. That line was recorded history, and he could point to particular events – moments – on the line. This became my way of visualizing personal time – my own past, future, and (as if between them) the present.
While everyone knows that all of accumulated history occurred before any one of us entered the scene (and will go on nicely without us, after), I became obsessed with the knowledge that my own personal timeline would have an end. That there was a fixed (but unknowable!) number of days and moments available for me to live: to get necessary things done, to make my life worthwhile. Life, it seemed, was passing by at a furious clip. So much time had already been wasted, the totality of available moments steadily dwindling, like in an hourglass, each now a particle of disappearing sand. Each moment was potent with opportunity . . . and almost always squandered, it seemed. The future shimmered with a desperate kind of hope. (If only there’d be enough of it!)
A moment of life was something to be used. It was a kind of raw material, a chunk of clay to be made into something worthwhile. The present was an empty space to be filled, not to be wasted. The voice in my head (a ferocious task-master) said that if I could make each moment really “count” – if it could embody something I valued (progress toward a desired end), becoming a “good” point on that timeline with its movable points rushing into the past – then life would be good. A “good life” was an accumulation of moments adding up to fulfill a dream or achieve a goal. Like being a good mother, keeping my children safe and happy. Like “making progress” in my spiritual life, or in my life as a writer. Or improving the world around me.
It isn’t the mind that lives, that experiences: it’s embodied awareness.
Constantly I goaded myself on, taking the measure of each day, meaning always to do better, to clarify priorities, to not “waste time.” Full of elaborate unrealistic intentions of what I would accomplish tomorrow, I was goal-oriented, an achiever. I tortured myself, often under terrible stress, never satisfied, unable to rest. Always rushing, multi-tasking, feeling like a failure, fearing the hours draining away to nothing. There were lists everywhere. Other things – unanticipated life events, necessary practical tasks, my mood, other people’s needs – kept interfering with getting the “important” things done! Problems persisted. (No wonder I finally had a breakdown when I was 30.)
Does any of this ring a bell?
For decades this is how I lived, how I experienced “my life.” Yet on some level, all the while this was going on, even with the pockets of “success,” I could tell – I could feel – that I wasn’t really living. I imagined that if my moments could only be better lived, that would resolve the underlying sense that I was missing life itself. Yet virtually every moment of every day, I was focused on “what’s next,” on what I wasn’t getting done. I was seldom really here at all. I was in my head, which kept me focused on the before-and-after of life.
* * * * *
It turns out that the visualized timeline of personal life, with the present being where the past and the future “touch,” cannot begin to account for how we actually experience life itself.
Any model of a life (whether it’s a horizontal line, a story, or an image) is a mental representation. It’s a concept that “lives” in the reflecting, remembering, projecting mind. It’s at a remove from life itself.
“Life” is a lived moment, right now. That’s it. Yes, really. Every moment you’ve ever lived has occurred as an actual experience (whether or not you were consciously aware at the time the thing was happening, and as you know, you seldom were). Conscious or not, nothing can be experienced (actually lived) but the now. Everything else is idea, memory, projection – all things of the mind. The mind cannot “experience” the now. Only a living, breathing, feeling creature – in motion, aware, senses attuned – can feel itself being here, in the very act of being alive. This is what it is to be present in the now, in a given moment of life. (And only a really intelligent creature, like a human being, can mistake the mental picture of such a moment for life itself.)
What finally became clear to me is that this moment – lived experience itself – is nowhere on the timeline. It’s only once the now has slipped into something that can be remembered that it takes a place on that visualized line of the accumulating past. While that image of time might suit the purposes of a history teacher, and while it can provide a handy picture of a person’s past events and dreamed-of (or dreaded) future, a two-dimensional line cannot hope to represent the living now.
So when I was trying (so hard it was heartbreaking!) to “make each moment count,” I was imagining that I could somehow really live this moment while being in my head (where I stored things like values and goals, memories and worries and hope).
* * * * *
Any moment in which you’re really here, in which all attention is on what’s happening right now, in your very midst, is a state of being. There’s no sense of movement, toward either the past or the future, no mental processing. The sensation is that “time has stopped.” When you’re really present, it’s a feeling. It registers in the body, in the “heart,” not in the head. Consciousness is directly experiencing life itself. You can actually feel this happening, in your body. It’s a subtle but unmistakable sensation.
We all recognize this. Most anyone can recall a moment it felt that way, when the mind grew still, the immediate scene taking up all the space of awareness. This is why eternity – the “sensation” of being fully present – is sometimes depicted as a vertical line that bisects the apparent flow of “horizontal” time. Being really present has more of a spatial feel to it than one of movement.
In such a moment, time hasn’t actually stopped. In truth, time never was felt to move. What we think we can ordinarily “feel” moving – that appearance of time in motion – takes place entirely in the constantly-processing mind, which cannot seem to rest from remembering and evaluating. But it isn’t the mind that lives, that experiences: it’s embodied awareness (which is as distinct from thinking as the taste of peach is from any words for it).
Nearly every moment we “live,” we are in our heads, busily anticipating, dreading, remembering, interpreting. We’re not actually living! The deliciousness of living itself – the very thing we all truly long for – is missed, because we think a moment has to “mean” something. But meaning lives in the head, which cannot help but be at a remove from life itself – at a distance from the felt sensation of being alive, which is precious above any possible idea or memory.
A moment that’s truly “lived” has a profoundly three-dimensional quality. You can feel yourself being here. It’s utterly still. Attention (so different from thinking!) has an arrested feel to it. That “timeless” quality is an indication that you’re really and truly in the present. Such a moment doesn’t “mean” something, because it isn’t being located in some kind of mental context.
The ultimate value of a human existence is about knowing what you deeply are – not about anything you might accomplish, not about how you “spend” time. It’s only in present-moment awareness that the truth of being reveals itself. But the mind (where time exists) does not have access to this truth. Only bodied awareness senses this reality.
Please don’t take somebody’s word for this. You must explore the truth of what I’m saying in your own awareness. (If all you do is take my word for it, nothing will change. All it will do is become yet another spiritual idea in your head. Perhaps there are already plenty of those.)
* * * * *
Probably right about now you’re thinking “Well, but there really is a lot that daily life asks of a person. Stuff that needs to be done. There are real problems to be addressed.”
Do you think that isn’t true of me too? What makes you think there’s some inconsistency between being present – feeling yourself be here, just now – and doing what truly needs doing? Why would you suppose there’s a conflict between doing and presence? Between outer busy-ness and inner stillness?
Life never was (never could be) lived in any way but one moment at a time. You simply cannot “live” (or get something done) ahead of time. You really cannot do two things at a time (and doing one thing while thinking about another is attempting just that). When you finally come to know this in your bones (which has nothing to do with “knowing” it in your head), then you get to feel – to experience – what it’s like to do just the thing you’re doing right now. To not have your head on “what’s next,” or on how much there’s left to do. Or on your “problems.”
Bring all your attention to the tire you’re changing, the soup you’re stirring, the song being sung by your child or your declining parent, the sick feeling in your stomach as you watch the news. It’s all part of what it feels to be alive, just now. Something new comes along in the next moment. Everything is brief, yes. But each moment is its own still thing – if you allow it to be, without resistance. If you’re really here for it, with it. You can feel that you’re here, and that matters more than the particular shape of the moment.
Something is always happening right here, every moment you live. Can you be with that – just that – as it comes along?
Somehow what truly needs doing actually gets done. Meanwhile, none of it has to “mean” something, in the familiar way, because each moment is fully lived. You’ve stopped looking to some future moment to give your life meaning. Life’s value comes not of what you do “with” the moment, but of how awareness senses itself in the now. Just by finally really being, moment to moment, you discover life to be a jewel – however painful or challenging a given now turns out to be.
Also (by the way) you discover that an awful lot of what you’ve believed “needed” to be done had something questionable driving its engine. Previously unseen assumptions (about what’s “true,” about what deeply motivates you) will come to light. Bit by bit all of this will lead to a deepening inquiry into what exactly constitutes “necessity,” an exploration of your values. Don’t expect this process to be always comfortable. Some outer things will surely change, and many will be let go altogether. Do expect your load to lighten, and the feeling of aliveness to blossom. Gradually you find you have plenty of “time” for delight, and even for spontaneity.
Along the way, as you experience how good it feels to simply really be here in a given moment, you’ll notice how (gently, gently) some of what consumed awareness before has had the “meaning” trickle right out of it. You’ll be better able to take life as it comes, to not obsess about things you cannot really control anyhow.
It’s all radically freeing. And when it comes time to die, you won’t feel that you’ve missed your beloved life. No matter how you “spent time.” No matter how much you didn’t get done.