Living in the Now
In the spiritual classic, Yoga Vasishtha, we find the following teaching:
The way to be rid of this delusion of the mind is to fix our attention upon the present moment, and not to employ our thoughts on past or future events. The mind is clouded so long as the mist of its desires and fancies overshadows it, as the sky is overcast so long as drifting clouds spread over it.
Teachings that urge us to rest in the present moment—the now—are common to all the great spiritual traditions. Jesus advises his disciples to ‘take no thought for the morrow’. The 13th century Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, speaks of the eternal now: ‘There exists only the present instant... a Now which always and without end is itself new.’ And in the Masnavi, Rumi quotes the saying: ‘The Sufi is the son of the moment’ and adds: ‘He is of the (timeless) River, not of Time, for “with God is neither morn nor eve”: there the past and the future and time without beginning and time without end do not exist.’
In one sense it is logical to consider that reality is contained in the present moment. The past has by definition vanished; the future has not yet arrived. Even in past times, what we experience is always experienced in the present moment, which in turn had its own phenomenal past and imagined future. And what we will experience tomorrow will again be only in the present moment. So there is an obviousness in the teachings that remind us to rest in the eternal now.
On the other hand, the teaching ‘to fix our attention upon the present moment’ is subtle, profound and not to be achieved without deep insight and a genuine urge to renounce spiritual ignorance (avidya) and be free from attachment. For it is clear that in a sense the past has not gone away at all, because that marvellous instrument, the human mind, harbours the impressions of everything we have ever consciously experienced or known—or known about.
Hence any obscure detail from the seemingly forgotten past can flash into the mind in waking or in dream with a vividness that has lost nothing with the passage of time. Such is human imagination, human memory, that the past is gone. but won’t go away; the future has not yet come, yet looms large in our thought world.
Yet though impressions cling to, and even characterize, the mind (antahkarana), they have no ultimate reality. The very transiency of these mental events, their passing from the unmanifest into manifestation and back again, exposes their phenomenal nature. When the Bhagavad Gita tells us ‘Beings have their beginning unseen, their middle seen, and their end unseen again’, this truth applies equally to the world of thought, which alike is comprised of the ever-shifting qualities of matter (the gunas of prakriti), the ever-flowing river of worldly experience (sansara). So we might equally say: ‘Thoughts have their beginning unseen, their middle seen and their end unseen again.’
What binds us to past and future is desire and attachment, for these always refer back to what has been enjoyed and look forward to satisfaction. What liberates us is to pursue the ultimate desire, the only desire that is truly fulfillable and based on the real—the desire to realize one’s true identity as the Self of all. The sage Vasishtha continues:
The minds of the wise are not without activity, but, through their knowledge of the vanity of earthly things, they are without those feelings which bind.
Our strategy is not to manipulate experience in such a way that the mind no longer has thoughts, for the mind is thoughts and nothing else. Our way forward is to free our true Self from its sense of identity with the life of the mind, to stand back, so to say, and realize that the passing clouds of thoughts are different from and never taint our infinite and immortal Self, the unwavering, pure consciousness that witnesses all change but is never affected by it.
This innermost consciousness is the source of the reality of the present moment, the eternal now. It is our true ‘I’, ever above time, and self-knowledge is to know directly:
I was, I am and I shall be! Nothing other than Myself ever was or is now or ever shall be! What bliss that I have now come to remember that whatever existed in the past was verily my own Self, and whatever I knew was indeed my Self-cognition! (Vira Vijaya 132-4)