Live in the moment. Oft-heard advice. Seems to make sense. Why worry about the past or obsess about the future? Be here now. Anyway, what choice do we have? Isn't everything happening to us now?
Yes, that's pretty much what neuroscientist Sam Harris says in an interesting You Tube'd talk, "Death and the Present Moment." (Watch from the 20 minute mark to the 30-35 minute mark, if you don't have time to see it all.)
But no normal person truly lives in the present moment. Meaning, our experience of the present is conditioned by experiences of the past. Memories, both conscious and unconscious, have a large influence on how the present appears to us.
This is as it should be. In his book, "The Self Illusion," psychologist Bruce Hood describes the condition of a man, Clive, who got herpes simplex encephalitis, which caused damage to his brain and left him with severe amnesia.
In her 2005 memoir, Forever Today, Deborah Wearing describes her husband Clive's tormented existence:
It was as if every waking moment was the first waking moment. Clive was under the constant impression that he had just emerged from unconsciousness because he had no evidence in his own mind of ever being awake before... "I haven't heard anything, seen anything, touched anything, smelled anything," he would say. "It's like being dead."
Perhaps the most harrowing aspect of Clive's condition is that he still remembers fragments of his previous life and knows exactly who Deborah is -- each time he sees her, he runs tearfully into her arms as if it is the reunion of longlost lovers when in reality she may have only left the room minutes earlier.
Without the ability to store new memories, Clive is permanently trapped in the here and now... WIthout the ability to form new memories, everything that is out of sight is out of mind for Clive Wearing.
Sounds horrible. So when we advise ourselves to live in the present moment, we're fortunate that this is impossible for anyone with a normal brain. Hood writes:
One of the greatest discoveries in psychology is that human memories are reconstructed and malleable. We do not have a recording of our own personal experiences in our head like some video archive. There are no microfilms in our memory banks.
Memories are constantly active -- like a story being retold over and over again. Moreover, when we encounter related new experiences, we interpret them in terms of our existing memories, which in turn are transformed by the new experiences. We are constantly integrating the here and now into our past.
This neuroscientific truth is what led me to grab my highlighter and pen a big "?" in the margin next to this sentence in another book that I'm reading (and liking): Tim Freke's "The Mystery Experience."
In the state of beginner's mind I see what-is with fresh eyes, uncontaminated by my previous experience.
No, Tim, you can't.
You may believe that in this present moment you are experiencing it as if for the first time. But unless you have a damaged brain like Clive Wearing's, unconscious processes in your brain are constantly viewing the present in light of your past.
In his book, Bruce Hood includes a quotation by Elizabeth Loftus, "the world's greatest authority on false memories." What she says applies to many areas of life, not just memories.
The most horrifying idea is that what we believe with all our hearts is not necessarily the truth.
Now, to be fair to Freke, he isn't advocating living entirely in the moment (even though he seems to feel that this is possible, episodically). So in this regard he's on the same wavelength as Bruce Hood. Freke says:
There is a current fad in spirituality for "being in the now" instead of thinking about time. I meet a lot of people whose mantra has become 'just be in the present moment.' But we can't just be in the present moment.
If we actually stopped thinking about time we wouldn't know who we are and what happened yesterday. We'd become amnesiac. And that's not a sign of spiritual awakening. It's a challenging medical condition we'd all like to avoid.
For sure. Just ask Clive Wearing and his wife.