There is certainly something compelling about the power of now (pace Eckhart Tolle). This moment, no doubt, is perfect. It's only when we feel the burden of yesterday or tomorrow that we find anxiety, stress, negativity.
As Tolle says, if you focus only on the now, there can be no stress. But when you think about the past and feel regret or shame or even pride, then the now becomes a burden. When you think about the future, your fears about what might transpire sully the now. Ah, but right this very moment, here and now, all is perfect — necessarily.
We've all had those moments: the world falls away as the self dissolves into a flowing seething surging now and yes indeedy holy moly it is awesome.
But the now is complex for it is always a before and after. The now is a network — a singularity, perhaps, but it is not what I'd call self-same: it is a multiplicity, a fold of possibilities and affective states. The past undulates through it; the future casts shadows; the present inflects. And it's not that those elements interfere with the now: they are the now.
Think of it this way. You're sitting on a bench, awash in the now. At some point, you bend down and tie your shoes. Later, you zip up your jacket. After sitting for a few hours, you get hungry and walk towards a restaurant you know and, after perusing the menu, order your favorite thing. How did you know how to do all these things? From memory, from your past. How did you know the meal would sate your hunger or that you would even like it? Your memory about what the future will bring.
Time is not linear. It is not those clock hands going in their steady circle; it is not the cyclical flip of digital numbers. The now cannot be clearly delineated from the past and future.
And, to complicate things, the past can't be clearly delineated, either. Which seems odd because isn't the past over and done? Well, no, it's not. Memory is not a record of the past. It is the past still happening. You are all the things that have happened to you. That scar on your finger where you cut yourself in 5th grade? That's the past that is you now. You are made up of such scars — how you feel and what you want and how you react and behave and live and love are all forged through your experiences, through what your body and your emotions experience and have experienced.
But it's not that the past determines who you are. The present, what's happening right now, inflects the past. Picture it like this: if the past is a trajectory — and it not just one but multiple trajectories — that looks like it leads into the now, whatever you do now shifts that trajectory, like sending ripples down a string. Which is to say, it's not that the past leads to this moment; that is the language of linearity. It's that the past and the present are continuous threads of your becoming, of the trajectory that is you. So, of necessity, what you do now shapes the past.
The future can't be clearly delineated, either. For while it is by definition that which has not happened yet but will happen, this set of possibilities is necessarily delimited by the past and the now.
When I greet the day, I don't just embrace the now. Like many people, I imagine the day, how it might go. This is not an abandonment of the now. On the contrary, I let the now lead me into possible future states, how my present state might lead this way or that. This is not an attempt to control the future. It entails a beautiful abandonment to the flow of the day, the flow of the now, a flow that doesn't stand still ever, a flow that moves through multiple pasts and multiple nows and multiple futures.
The now, then, is not a blank or neutral stopping point. It is, rather, an inflection point, a juncture at which multiple paths turn (or not) and create different possible futures — it's the turn in the stream of things. The trick, to me, is not to grasp the now but abandon to this turn, to this flow, to this Heraclitian river — to this now that will never be a now but always a knotting of time.
So, yes, I believe along with Tolle that regret and shame and fear — a certain thinking
about the past and future — are the source of our anxiety, our
sickness. But I want to shape his invocation of the now, draw a more elaborate image, one that is not sublime but effable and thinkable. There are those sublime moments of the now, moments I love. But these, to me, are different than the way I greet the now everyday.
The now I live in is this gloriously complex surging and folding, this pleating and extending in all directions at once. This now is not as much a steady hum as it is a glorious orchestration of time, an impossible but actual origami.