Notting Hill, London. Photo by Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum

Essay/
Philosophy of mind

Notting Hill, London. Photo by Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum

The problem of now

The injunction to immerse yourself in the present might be psychologically potent, but is it metaphysically meaningful?

John Martin Fischer

Notting Hill, London. Photo by Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum

John Martin Fischer

is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, and University Professor at the University of California. He was project leader of the Immortality Project, sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. He is the author of Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife (2016), co-authored with Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin, and Death, Immortality, and Meaning in Life (2020) and has published widely on free will, moral responsibility, ethics, and the metaphysics and ethics of death and immortality.

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Edited by Nigel Warburton

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Many spiritual teachers have emphasised the notion of being fully present ‘in the now’. Proponents of meditative practices of various sorts tout meditation as a way of immersing oneself fully in the present moment, and not attending to the past or future. The spiritual teachers (including prominent authors) and proponents of meditation typically point to many benefits of being fully present in the now. As the influential contemporary author Eckhart Tolle puts it in his book The Power of Now (1997):

Since ancient times, spiritual masters of all traditions have pointed to the Now as the key to the spiritual dimension.

Some, however, don’t leave it at that. They don’t simply argue for the advantages of presence in the current moment on the basis of psychological or other practical benefits. Rather, they point to the ‘singularity’ of the present moment: the idea that the now is all we have (temporally). I will use singular, in the claim ‘The present moment is singular’, to refer to this idea of ‘being the one and only’. The ‘singularity thesis’ is the idea that the present moment is all we have – the one and only time. The Flaming Lips remind us of this in their song All We Have Is Now (2002). What I will dub the ‘connection thesis’ is a central claim of various spiritual practitioners, authors, lecturers and workshop leaders; it’s the contention that we should focus our full attention on the present moment precisely because of its singularity.

The view being considered is that, although it might seem to us that other times – past and future – are appropriate targets of attention, we can come to understand (intellectually and affectively) that in a fundamental sense (perhaps difficult to specify), there is only the now, and thus our attention should be focused on it. Our appropriate target of full attention, then, depends on and arises from singularity.

The importance of the now is arguably a key idea in various religious, mystical traditions. Many spiritual teachers, including Ram Dass, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Alan Watts, have emphasised it. Some have even articulated the singularity thesis. Perhaps the most salient contemporary spiritual teacher who emphasises both the ontological uniqueness of the present and also the connection thesis is Tolle, who collates and reworks many of the insights of a wide variety of thinkers. He not only highlights what he takes to be the fact that the present is the one and only moment, but he also explicitly contends that we ought to give our full attention to the present precisely because of this singularity.

Through various media, including many widely read books, Tolle has brought ideas about spirituality, mindfulness and meditation to many millions of people. At the very centre of it all is his advocacy of the connection thesis.

For example, in The Power of Now, Tolle writes:

Realise deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. Make the Now the primary focus of your life … Always say ‘yes’ to the present moment. What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to something that already is? What could be more insane than to oppose life itself which is now and always now? Surrender to what is. Say ‘yes’ to life – and see how life suddenly starts working for you, rather than against you.

And:

the Now [is] the most precious thing there is. Why is it the most precious thing? Firstly, because it is the only thing … Life is now. There was never a time when your life was not now, nor will there ever be.

I am interested in the ideas that are clearly suggested by Tolle’s remarks, as quoted above, but not in engaging in an exegetical exercise. The claims are very prevalent and influential, whether or not they are fully accurate interpretations of Tolle’s overall views, when analytically reconstructed. Such a reconstruction would contrive to render the total set of views consistent – not an easy task.

Let’s begin by considering the claim that the present moment is ontologically unique – the one and only time, and thus all we have. This claim of the singularity of the present can be put in various ways, including ‘it is always now’. The idea is that if it is always the same time, ie, now, there is just one time – the now. It was that same time yesterday, it is that time in the current moment, and it will be that time tomorrow: we never have had or will have any other time than the now.

The singularity of the now might appear to be a deep and profound insight. It’s the springboard for various more practical strategies for achieving enlightenment and self-enhancement. But the claim that it is always now is so trivial that it can’t support any interesting inference, and there are other ways of justifying these same strategies and practices.

What exactly does it mean that it is always now? I think that the best way to interpret the claim is first to note that the term now is an indexical term. That is, it’s employed flexibly to point to the particular time when it’s used, not the same time every time it’s used. Similarly, the term here is an indexical term, employed flexibly to refer to the place where it’s uttered, not the same place wherever it’s uttered. Now is a temporal indexical, and here is a spatial indexical.

What is thus indisputably true is that if anyone were to think or utter ‘It is now’, the proposition expressed would be true. Seeing that now is a temporal indexical explains why ‘It is now’ is always true and, in this sense, it is always now. If I were to say or think ‘It is now Monday’ on Monday, now would refer to a time on Monday. If I were to say or think ‘It is now Tuesday’ on Tuesday, now would refer to a time on Tuesday. And so forth, for every statement or thought to the effect that ‘It is now…’ on subsequent days.

Is the claim of the singularity of the present a truth accessible via a mystical experience or through meditation?

By the linguistic rules of usage, now helps to specify a proposition expressed by the statement in which it occurs, contributing a different time on different occasions of usage. So, whereas ‘It is now’ is always true, it does not follow, and it is not true, that the locution always expresses the same proposition. It’s thus not true that it’s always now, in the sense that it’s always the same time ­– the only time we have.

So the initial insight, rendered true by the semantic rules pertaining to the temporal indexical now, is too trivial to imply the substantive and important claim: the connection thesis. Interpreted so that it’s correct, the intuitive idea that it’s always now doesn’t support the crucial inference that we should focus on the present because of its singularity – because it’s all we have.

Is the claim of the singularity of the present a truth accessible via a mystical experience or through meditation? Since meditation typically involves full immersion in the here and now, this proposed interpretation would begin with full attention to the now, and this would lead to the singularity insight. This, however, gets the logic of the view backward, since the main idea is that we start with the singularity point and then infer the appropriateness of full immersion.

We noted above that here is a spatial indexical, just as now is a temporal indexical. Whenever one thinks or asserts ‘I am here now’, it is true. Similarly for ‘I am here’. It doesn’t, however, follow that there is just one place, or that our current place is the one and only place – the only place we have. This would be a spurious transition, a fallacious inference of the sort we identified above with respect to now.

In the philosophy of time there are two main views: ‘presentism’ and ‘eternalism’. The presentist holds that only the present moment is real or exists, whereas the eternalist holds that every moment is equally real or extant. It’s clear that one cannot propound the singularity thesis (or the connection thesis) on the assumption of eternalism. After all, eternalism holds that all times are equally real.

Perhaps the proponent of the connection thesis embraces the doctrine of presentism, on the basis of which he goes on to argue that our full attention should be focused on the only extant time – the now. Note, however, that presentism doesn’t entail that we should focus only on the present moment. It’s possible to attend to nonexistent entities, such as fictional characters; I can focus my attention on Macbeth, for example. It’s possible to focus our attention on imaginary creatures, such as unicorns or hobbits and also on not-currently existing individuals, such as Aristotle or Kant. (I’ve taken philosophy classes!) We can also consider possibilities for our future – different paths our lives could take going forward. Eternalism and presentism are views about metaphysics, not psychology or practical reasoning. Echoing this point, Fleetwood Mac counter the Flaming Lips in their 1977 song lyric: ‘Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.’

My point is not that the mere fact of these possibilities entails that we should fully and solely attend to any of them. Rather, it’s that there’s no necessity or inevitability to focusing only on the present moment, based on the fact (if it is a fact) that it’s the only moment that exists or is real.

Here is a way one might seek to defend the connection thesis, building on (or at least presupposing) presentism. On this view, the current moment is all we have, because only the present exists or is real; thus our actions can take place only in the present. Recall that Tolle has pointed out (as quoted above) that nothing can either be or happen outside of the now. Similarly, one cannot act except in the now, given that the present is all we have. Now is where the action is.

Even if the present is singular, it doesn’t follow that we should fully and solely attend to it

This is, however, unconvincing. To see why, we need to distinguish ‘basic’ from ‘non-basic’ actions. Roughly speaking, a basic action is an action one performs, but not by performing any other action. Some think of basic actions as mental – perhaps acts of will, choices or decisions. Others think of them as bodily movements (where this can include keeping still). For example, pulling the trigger (or perhaps choosing to pull the trigger) would be a basic action. You might say that an agent performs a basic action ‘directly’: you do not, say, choose to pull the trigger by performing some other action. In contrast, a non-basic action is performed by performing another action. For example, assuming that you kill the mayor by shooting her, killing the mayor is non-basic.

We can perform basic actions only in the present moment – other times are not directly available. You pull the trigger now. It’s important, however, that a basic action can have consequences for other times, and that in performing a basic action we might also be performing a non-basic one. Your killing the mayor is an extended process (a non-basic action) that takes place over time. In selecting my action now, I should (or, at least, might) consider the consequences of various actions for future times (that don’t yet exist), and the consequences of my actions. Now is only where the basic actions are.

Neither presentism nor eternalism is helpful to the proponent of the connection thesis. Even if the present is singular – the one and only extant time – it doesn’t follow that we should fully and solely attend to it. Additionally, the connection theorist cannot accept eternalism, as it straightforwardly denies the singularity of the present.

It’s not even clear that we are ever given a pure experience of the now. In James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922), Stephen Dedalus laments that history is ‘a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’. It’s doubtful that he – or anyone – can. This point is a staple of psychoanalysis, as well as a broad range of psychotherapies, particularly those that are psychodynamically informed, that is, informed by facts about one’s family relationships – especially, but not exclusively, in one’s early years. Additionally, the phenomenological tradition (developed in the work of Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty) holds that the now is necessarily structured by horizons of the past and the future. So every way of inhabiting the now (including ‘being here now’) is also a way of taking up the past and orienting ourselves to the future.

‘Be here now.’ I’ve argued that this recommendation cannot be supported by the singularity of the now. Two of the most salient alternative ways of justifying it are psychological health and enlightenment. Very broadly and roughly, one might distinguish meditation for serenity (Samatha) and meditation for insight (Vipassana). These are compatible approaches and one could, of course, have more than one reason for meditation.

Enlightenment can be gained through Vipassana meditation and, in the Buddhist view, this consists in some version of the ‘no-self’ view. Where gaining this sort of enlightenment would lead us is an open question. Some will find it comforting, especially as one considers one’s own death, which loses its status as a fundamental and daunting change in metaphysical status. I am not what I thought I was ­– an enduring, substantial self – and thus my going out of existence isn’t a matter for concern. Others will find this insight existentially disorienting: adopting the no-self view implies a potentially significant disruption of our metaphysical proprioception. Even some Zen monks fear their own deaths.

Although insight meditation won’t necessarily be a welcome therapeutic tool, serenity is possible through certain meditative practices. Many, especially in the contemporary self-help literature, including proponents of mindfulness meditation, point to the considerable therapeutic benefits of certain kinds of meditation. There are specific sorts of meditations for the relief of fear and anxiety in the Buddhist tradition.

Insight and serenity are compelling justifications for meditation, but there is another, which can go unnoticed. A good reason to meditate is to cultivate and sustain a certain kind of attentiveness. The idea here is to calm the mind and to free it from undue identification with particular thoughts and feelings. Thus the mind isn’t scattered or captured, but is free to fully take in the unfolding reality in front of one. (These ideas are present in the work of the philosopher and spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff and his followers, including Jean Vaysse.) This isn’t a passive reception of one’s environment, nor does it issue solely in a cognitive apprehension. An attention that is active and open to what is unfolding in front of one is rare, but it can be cultivated. On this view, when one says ‘Be here now’, the emphasis is on ‘be’. ‘Be here now’, not ‘Be here now.’ The norm encourages the development of a kind of being that involves unmediated openness to the unfolding world. It’s the power of be.

We have a choice about what we focus on, a choice not dictated by the unique present, if there is one

Unlike the typology considered above (with two options), we might then distinguish between (at least) three kinds of meditation: serenity, insight and what I’ll call ‘awareness’ meditation. Insight meditation can lead to enlightenment, in the sense of a recognition (both cognitively and affectively) of certain basic truths about us and our relationship to the broader world. Serenity meditation seeks a peaceful affective homeostasis. Awareness meditation does not seek, in the first instance, the acquisition of truths, or even of serenity, but an active and clear-minded attention to (but not absorption in) what is unfolding in the here and now. ‘Be here now’ can thus be construed as commending a certain quality of attentiveness ­­­­– a certain way of being.

Our everyday consciousness is typified by a poor quality of attention. Either (1) our attention is captured, utterly absorbed, caught up in what is happening, where our sense of self is absent, and we are identified with our thoughts and feelings, having no distance from them; or (2) our attention is scattered, rushing associatively from one surface to another. Being here now requires (3) an open, active attention. A key idea, actually found in Tolle’s work, is that we’re not identical to our thoughts, but can instead separate ourselves from our mind and reflect on it. We are the watcher, not the mind. This recognition can help us to free ourselves from total absorption in the passing scene and the loss of self, but also to remain attentive and focused.

I have not challenged or impugned the desirability of achieving greater presence in the moment. I find this persuasive and important. I am, however, calling into question the connection thesis ­– the contention that we can defend an immersion in the present by noting that the present is the only time we have.

The singularity of the present is emphasised by influential spiritual teachers and it appears, at first, to be a profound truth. It is, however, superficial and not substantive enough to support the inference to immersion in the now. From the perspective of philosophy of language, we can see the impotence of now. From that of philosophy of time, we see that presentism doesn’t, in itself, have any implication for psychology, and eternalism is a non-starter. The connection thesis can be interpreted as linking focus on the present to a kind of necessity: the present is all there is. It’s not surprising, then, that Tolle calls it a kind of ‘surrender’ – a surrender to the now. The thrust of my argument can be construed as rejecting the surrender model and plumping for a ‘choice’ model. We have a choice about what we focus on, a choice not dictated by the unique present, if there is one. We are free to choose how we wish to be. We should indeed be here now, but not because the now is all we have.

John Martin Fischer

is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, and University Professor at the University of California. He was project leader of the Immortality Project, sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. He is the author of Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife (2016), co-authored with Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin, and Death, Immortality, and Meaning in Life (2020) and has published widely on free will, moral responsibility, ethics, and the metaphysics and ethics of death and immortality.

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