What is the ‘present moment?’

So, what is this ‘present moment’ which is given such prominence in Buddhism, and Zen in particular?

While often described as ‘ultimate reality’ or the ‘really real,’ the present ‘moment’ is also an illusion, a phantom. For each moment has no substance, no existence in, and for, itself. Moments, as independent units only exist as abstractions or linguistic categories – in practice, there is only the flow of experience – ‘moments’ merging one into another. As the moment is experienced it is simultaneously another moment – a fluid, seamless stream of experiences in momentum. Indeed, it might be better to use a word such as momentum to describe the movement of experiential time. And yet, in a sense, there is only one eternal moment for each of us, or there is no moment at all that we can identify or hold on to. This may be why time seems to stop when we are truly present.

All we find when we pay attention is process – a continuous flow of experiences, one merging into another – ‘empty’ of separateness and self-existence. Yet we often try to grasp or hold on to these phantom moments in a vain attempt to prolong pleasure or relief from pain. We identify with this fluid stream of experiences, as if it is the core of who we are. We claim these experiences as if they were our possessions – the bundle of memories, tastes and thoughts we call ‘our own.’ And yet, fundamentally, there is nothing substantial that can be grasped, for it is like trying to grasp fine sand, or water in a river – it is ungraspable, dynamic, always in motion, always renewing and changing.

When we observe what is occurring NOW, we notice that there is no enduring substance to what we are experiencing – there is no single moment, no object of attention – as there is no substance to all phenomena, for all phenomena are in process. There is only the motion, the flow of consciousness – endlessly changing patterns of experience, thought, memory, feeling, sensation – light, fleeting and wonderful.

This is the great mystery of consciousness, and of time and the present. In a sense it might be more correct to speak of ‘instanting,’ rather than ‘the instant’ – for there is no perceptible instant. Or to say we are ‘presencing’ – rather than that we are observing a present moment – or ‘momenting.’ To be present, or presencing, is to be in the flux of experiencing – to be participating in the unfolding process, which is life, reality, existence.

These ideas about time, or rather experiences of time, have parallels with the ideas put forward by the French philosopher, Henri Bergson (1859-1941). Bergson distinguishes between two modes, or two ways of looking at, time. On the one hand there is ‘le temps’ – clock time or scientific time; and on the other hand, ‘la durée’ – psychological or ‘lived’ time. The former is quantitative and measurable – able to be analysed, computed and used for prediction. The latter is the time we experience – merging and flowing – the experiential present that contains both past and future as we remember and imagine. The former is abstract and mathematical, while the latter is what we feel to be actual.

Bergson suggests that with le temps we are treating time as if it were an object, a spatial phenomenon – as if ‘moments’ were discrete entities succeeding each other, one after the other, like footprints across wet sand. This is very useful as a quantitative measure, as an abstractive device for analysing and predicting, but it is very different to la durée – the actuality of time as we experience it. Another analogy he uses, is the difference between an analogue piece of film, a strip of celluloid divided into frames projected on a screen one after another, and our experience of the film as a continuous life-like phenomenon.

In mindful meditation, we experience what it is to be alive, to be living, to be in process, evolving, growing, in motion. There is no isolated moment, no present, only process and presencing. What we experience is a stream, or river, of consciousness not a series of static images or staccato moments. In a sense, this means that past and future are always folded into the present – past present and future present. To live, to manifest presence, to be present – is to be in the stream of all of it, participating in the whole of creation as it is creating itself.

Just as the self and all supposed ‘objects’ have no existence separate from the rest of reality – they are ‘empty’ of self-existence (what is known as anatta (non-self) or sunyata (emptiness) in Buddhist terminology) there is no moment separate from the flow of all moments. To ‘be’ is a great mystery, an activity that is indefinable, paradoxical and contradictory. To pay attention, is to be attentive and to be in the indefinable present – to be in the momentum of living and being. Realising this process is integral to any understanding of who we are and is a vital part of learning the art of awakening. Mindful meditation is one method of attending to the mystery of time.

So, enjoy the pleasures of ‘just being-here’ – drinking tea, weeding the garden, eating a sandwich, being irritable or relaxed, walking or driving to work, hearing birdsong in the middle of a city, hearing the chatter of children next door, seeing blossom opening, listening to music, watching TV, feeling lousy with a cold, noticing weeds growing on the pavement. By paying attention to all experiences, unburdened by craving and reactive habits, these simple pleasures become nourishing, enjoyable and opportunities for insight.

Life is short. To be here at all, is a miracle. Be mindful of the passing nature of existence. Each moment is an illusion, without beginning or end. Be open to the stream of living. Be here.