For years, New Age axioms include “Be in the present.” Are they wrong about that? No. They are just incomplete. The misunderstanding comes from the notion that being focused on the “now” will lead to enlightenment and everlasting well-being.
First, we must observe, that it is hard to be in the “now.” Our minds love to drift, free associate, speculate, worry, daydream, or just take a siesta. Our minds are lazy. Our minds run on automatic if left to their own devices. So, to counter that tendency, the very good discipline is to pay attention to what is happening right now before your eyes, ears, and awareness.
Once you do that, your mind has a job, to focus on the present. This takes training for sure. The mind rebels, and just wants to run on automatic. All disciplines are unnatural of course, so the most natural thing to do is nothing. The true discipline is to sharpen your focus and pay attention to what is right there, in the –shall we say it – “now.”
Those who have spent many years following this advice become very good at being “in the moment.” But, for them, whether they know it or not, something is missing that is built into the human condition, and that is a sense of future. In fact, the psychiatrist William Glasser, the man who developed Reality Therapy, argued that people are unhappy without a sense of future.
Therefore, to be in the “now” denies one a sense of future if that’s all you do.
But, we could create a parallel observation to that; to be in the future denies one a sense of present, if that’s all you do.
Living in the future or living in the “now” is as incomplete as a chair with a leg missing. Some say there is power in living in the “now.” Power for what? Yes, your mind may no longer be running in several directions at once, but that’s about it. It’s true you can stay in the “now” for long periods of time. But, quite frankly, so what? Things change in the “now” and you can observe them change, but you have very little causal relationship to these changes.
Partly this notion of being in the “now” is from Eastern spiritual traditions in which suffering is the biggest sin to avoid. The mind, it is thought, needs to be disciplined so it does not obsess with distractions. Peace of mind is seen as one of the higher virtues that human beings can achieve. Read that as two things: suspension of conflict; and “detachment” from desire. Naturally, if you convince yourself that desire is bad, you’d better not have any. From this vantage point, you may be able to reach a point that many describe as “pure consciousness.”
You become mindful of mindlessness. Aware of nothing, or that everything is illusion. Okay, and then what? Why is that a good thing? Is that the height of the human spirit?
But, once we link a sense of the present with a sense of future, the human spirit is unleashed. This is the essence of the creative process, to bring something into being that has not yet existed. When we create, we are in two places at once: now and in the future. But that sets up a structural tension, which strives for resolution. This is not a steady state but a dynamic. Something that has, build into it, the tendency to change and move. And there is an end point. This is in the universe of the temporal, where time and space exist. The story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, just like Aristotle described in his Poetics.
We need to be able to focus in the present, and that means training the mind to do something it is not used to doing. But we also need to be able to focus on the now and future simultaneously. From that vantage point, new worlds open, and the human spirit is engaged in one of its highest purposes.