Chapter 3: notice the moment

Ten Suggestions for a Life of Inner Freedom

by Dean Sluyter
Illustrated by Maggy Sluyter

Copyright © 2001 by Dean Sluyter
All Rights Reserved
Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam
ISBN 1-58542-084-0



     “The rule is, jam tomorrow, and jam yesterday — but never jam today.” 
     “It must come sometimes to ‘jam today,’ ” Alice objected.
     “No, it can’t,” said the Queen. “It’s jam every other day: today isn’t any other day, you know.”
– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

The moment just before the car crash seems like an eternity — that’s what people say. Perhaps it’s because that moment, and every moment, is eternity … only, as the tires screech and we’re pressed back into the seat, we’re paying attention for a change. If you’ve been in such a crash (or a near miss), you probably still recall, even years later, not only the slow-motion approach of the other car but your view of the road through the windshield, the feel of the steering wheel in your hands, the precise quality of the daylight or the oncoming headlights filtered through the dry or humid air.

Perhaps you remember your first kiss the same way, or the birth of your child, or the time you scored a big goal or basket. In each case, the importance of the moment rivets your attention, with a vivid clarity that somehow bursts through the fabric of time. What makes sex ecstatic is not only the intensity of physical sensation, but how that intensity makes us pay attention to what’s happening now, makes the past and future melt away, awakening us to the ecstatic quality of timelessness. Music works in much the same way: a Ravi Shankar or Jimi Hendrix or Fritz Kreisler or Lester Young uses his instrument as a power tool to slice and dice time, leaving us in that space which, even if it’s only a split second on the clock, lasts forever because it is forever — the underlying timeless silence revealed.

John Brown, as he was being carted off to be hanged for leading the raid at Harper’s Ferry, was heard to say, “This is a beautiful country.” We can imagine that at that moment, no longer consumed by apocalyptic visions of the nation’s destiny or last-minute anxieties about his own, Brown was freed from agitation in time and could rest at last in the timeless clarity of the moment. But do we need to be on the gallows (or in the birthing room, or in a car crash) to achieve that kind of clarity? Must it be reserved for “important” moments? Or can we live outside time all the time?

Target Practice

Here’s an experiment. Starting from about a foot away, please bring your finger very slowly toward the target till it touches it. Repeat a few times, paying close attention to your experience, before reading on.


O.K. This may sound silly, but did you notice that your finger is always exactly where it is — that it’s never anywhere else? When the situation of being a foot away from the target exists, the situation of touching the target does not exist. When any intermediate position exists, none of the others exist.

Now, does the moment of touching the target have any more weighty reality, any more importance, than all the moments of not touching it? If so, where does that importance reside? In the finger? In the target? Or in your mind? Try it a few more times — play with the situation, get intimate with it.

The tricky part, you may notice, is the habit of dividing our experience into “important” and “unimportant” moments. The important ones are those in which we’re closing in on some kind of target, sinking a putt or closing a deal or solving an equation, something desirable for us to pull toward; or else there’s something undesirable for us to push away from, like a fight or a car crash. The rest we tend to ignore.

Each morning there’s a time in the bathroom when I’ve turned on the shower and I’m just standing, waiting for the water to get hot. I’m eager to roar into the day, to get to the important moments, but there’s nothing for me to do just then. I actually used to try to make that unimportant time disappear by mentally counting — “One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi” — to distract myself from having to consciously live through that nothing-happening time. But “nothing happening” is precisely where it all happens — where the mind rests in freedom. Trying to make the present moment go away is cutting yourself off from the time when you can glimpse the timeless.

As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.
– Thoreau

To embrace eternity instead, we can start by changing some of the habits we’ve developed to distract ourselves from it. Don’t automatically turn on the radio every time you get in the car, don’t turn on the TV the moment you find yourself home alone, don’t read the newspaper every time you get on the exercise machine, don’t light a cigarette or pick up a magazine every time you find yourself waiting. There is no waiting; there’s only being.

On our journey through life, we think of, say, stopping for gas or going to the bathroom as time out from the main event, from our “real” activities. We think of the time we spend walking down the corridor from Office A to Office B as intermission, dead time, mere connective tissue. But there is no intermission. The show never stops. Every moment is the only moment.

There’s nothing special about the present moment except that it’s all we have.
– Charles Genoud

Guy walks into a bar and sees a big sign: Free Beer Tomorrow. So he comes back the next day and asks for his free beer. The bartender points to the sign and says, “Whatsa matter, buddy, can’t you read? It says, ‘Free Beer Tomorrow.’ ” It’s never the future. It’s never the past. The ancient Greeks had no idea they were ancient. They experienced themselves as living now, on the cutting edge of modernity, wearing the very latest styles in togas. And the Jetsons, or whoever lives in what we picture as the gee-whiz future, will also be living now. Back in the 60’s or 70’s, someone came up with the refreshing slogan, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” But we can go further and claim our freedom from the future as well as the past by saying, “Now is the only moment of your life.”

The Length of Now

Well then, if now is all we have, how long do we have it? Here’s another experiment. Try saying the word “now” very, very slowly. Notice that first you say n-n-n, then a-a-a (as in “cat”), then oo-oo-oo.

N-N-N … A-A-A … OO-OO-OO

While you’re saying a-a-a, where are the n-n-n and the oo-oo-oo? They have no reality then, just as finger-touching-the-target and finger-a-foot-away have no reality during the intermediate positions. And by the time you get to the oo-oo-oo, where have the n-n-n and the a-a-a gone?

Into the air, and what seem’d corporal
Melted, as breath into the wind.
– Macbeth

If we say “now” really fast, does that change matters? It can speed up the appearing-and-vanishing act to the point where our ear is fooled, just as the magician’s nimble fingers fool our eye, but even if we pronounce it in a nanosecond, it’s too long: it’s still a succession of nows, masquerading as now. No matter how fine we slice it, any amount of time is too gross to express the timelessness in which we actually live. The real now has no length at all.

Yet in the continuity of this timelessness, the events we call “time” somehow happen. From its mysterious center, the present perpetually blossoms. To experience this mystery, watch something in continuous motion, such as a stream or waterfall, or listen to a continuous sound, such as the roar of traffic on a busy street. Notice that you’re always seeing or hearing precisely in the present, never even one second in the past or future, yet somehow you can experience the continuity. It’s really quite baffling, yet we do it all the time.

Time is the moving image of eternity.
– Plato

So there is no sequence of moments. There’s only one moment, which is perpetual, or, we could say, eternal. Many people assume that “eternity” means an unthinkably long time — all the zillions of years we can imagine plus a smidgen more. Similarly, they assume that “infinity” means unthinkably big — all the zillions of miles we can imagine, plus one more inch to completely boggle our minds (like the overstuffed stomach of the glutton in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life: “Just one wafer-thin mint,” and ka-boom!). Infinity, however, is neither big nor small; it has nothing at all to do with space. And eternity is neither long nor short; it has nothing at all to do with time. This misunderstanding has provided material for many spectacular hellfire sermons:

What must it be, then, to bear the manifold tortures of hell for ever? … Now imagine a mountain of … sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space, and a million miles in thickness: and imagine such an enormous mass of countless particles of sand multiplied as often as there are leaves in the forest, drops of water in the mighty ocean, feathers on birds, scales on fish, hairs on animals, atoms in the vast expanse of the air: and imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many eons upon eons of ages before it had carried away all. Yet at the end of that immense stretch of time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended. At the end of all those billions and trillions of years eternity would have scarcely begun.
– James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Whew! This is ingenious but, fortunately, confused. Eternity is not zillions of years; it’s the timelessness of now, in which there are no years.

Free Space

The good news applies to this world as well. Twelve Step programs have the right idea with “One day at a time,” but we can go further with “One moment at a time.” Our habit is to blur one moment’s problems into the next, to say, “My stomach hurt all day” or “He’s constantly making fun of me.” But if you pay close attention you’ll see there are numerous mind-moments throughout the day when there’s no stomachache or ridicule — great spaces of present freedom, untainted by past and future.

Sometimes this freedom practically ravishes us, if we let it. Where are your business problems when you sneeze? Where are your times tables at the moment of orgasm? (The “problem” of 9 x 12 exists only when we think about it.) Where are your religious conflicts and political confusions, or your broken heart or your tragic childhood, when the roller coaster is screaming down that first hill? We may be convinced we have to “process” and “resolve” our traumas before we can drop them, but in fact we drop them repeatedly. (And then pick them up again. Why?)

Living in nowness means living at ease. When we sit at that red light with our knuckles turning white on the steering wheel, isn’t it because we’re trying — impossibly — to strain forward into the future moment when the light will turn green? After an emotional confrontation, don’t we mentally replay the conversation, trying to splice into the past what we now realize we shoulda said? Fortunately, you don’t need to stop such habits. Simply notice that your thoughts about past and future are only thoughts and that you’re always thinking them in the present. Then you’re no longer lost in them, and that’s the crucial difference.

So the past always only was, the future always only will be, the present alone is. We’re the donkey. The future is the carrot dangling on the stick just ahead of us, the past is the pink ribbons of nostalgia and the clanking tin cans of trauma tied to our tail. Dreaming of beginnings and endings, we’re always in the middle, and the beat goes on. Through the repeated practice of finding freedom in the space of present awareness, we awake to our situation and stop chasing the mirage of fulfillment outside the now. Then every meal is our last meal, every kiss our first kiss. Then we’re living our life. As my wife says, “I hope you’re having a good time, because this is it.”

Now What?

Listen to the way people say, “Now what?” — usually in a sort of sarcastic huff, not as a lucid opening into this moment but as an irritated anticipation of the next (half holding their breath, tensing their muscles as they brace for calamity). But inflected differently, that same phrase can be the mantra that reminds you to notice the actuality of the present: the what of the now. Just breathe out and use the phrase as your cue for an innocent, wide-eyed, appreciative encounter with whatever the present presents. I used to dogsit a neighbor’s sweet-tempered white Labrador retriever. Taking Butterbeans for a walk was always a wonderful lesson in “Now what?” Tongue out, tail wagging, she greeted each rock, tree, squirrel with total enthusiasm, then dismissed it and moved just as enthusiastically to the next.

Living in the present doesn’t mean hedonistic irresponsibility about the future — shouting “Carpe diem!” as you fall drunk down the stairs and pretend there won’t be consequences in the morning. Of course nowness doesn’t abolish the sequence of cause and effect, but it radically shifts the way we experience it. Every time we look it’s still now, but we go from now to now as if crossing a stream on stepping-stones; we must step alertly, with sure-footed balance.

That also means not rushing. You can move quickly: rushing is not a fast physical speed but a harried mental state, one that blurs our vision as we strain to lean into the future and so miss the present. In fact, the clearer our sense of now, the faster we can move without getting lost in time-blur.

Festina lente. (Hurry slowly.)
– Caesar Augustus

One way to develop this skill is through your posture. Start by watching pedestrians on a city sidewalk. You can usually pick out the ones who are rushing, not only by their speed but by the way they carry themselves: shoulders slightly hunched, head down, bent slightly forward at the waist as they lose themselves in thoughts of their destination and try to lean into the future where they’ve already arrived. Then practice walking in a nonrushing posture and notice that you can walk plenty fast this way: head up, shoulders back and down, looking about and enjoying the passing scenery instead of worrying about being late. (You’re not late till you get there.)

Melting Masks

Time is of the essence — the essence of our sense of being a limited, wavelike identity defined by specific traits, rather than limitless ocean. Strictly speaking, there’s no such thing as, say, a vegetarian or a Republican, only a pattern of behavior in past moments which may or may not be repeated in future moments. When we say, “He is a vegetarian,” or “She is a Republican,” we’re using the present tense to blur past behavior into an illusion of solid, continuous, once-and-future reality.

It depends upon what the meaning of the word “is” is.
– Bill Clinton

Certainly for practical purposes we must make such generalizations, but we shouldn’t be too shocked when they break down because they’re not solid identities, only shifting patterns. The present, because it does not endure even for a nanosecond, is too short for us to “be” anyone or anything; in zero time there are no patterns.

If this sounds like an abstraction, here’s an exercise that makes it more concrete. Go through your photo album and find pictures of yourself when you were younger. (Actually, they’re all pictures of you when you were younger, including a Polaroid snapped one minute ago.) Look at yourself in infancy, in high school or college, with your old boyfriend or girlfriend, and so forth. Gazing at a picture, try to recall what it felt like to be “you” then. What preoccupied that person? What did she want? What was she worried about? What thoughts and feelings dominated her life? Repeat this process with other pictures, and as you do, see if you can actually reinhabit each past state — can you be that person now? If not, where is the solid, continuous identity that supposedly runs through time?

In fact, the word “person” comes from the Greek persona, mask. Time is the glue that holds our masks together. The insubstantiality of time reveals the insubstantiality of everything we think we “are,” of all those limited identities.

Accepting the Present

The mystery, as it turns out, is not eternity, but this elusive thing called time. What is this strange mechanism that keeps turning the future, which we never experience, into the past, which we never experience? Even Einstein shrugged his shoulders and said time is that which clocks indicate.

To notice timelessness is to receive the gift of the now, to accept the present of the present. This moment is already however it is; it’s too late to change it. Any striving to improve things can only be aimed at the future, even the future one second from now. That’s a worthy occupation, but sometimes we need to take a vacation and abide in what is, now after now.

In time, everything becomes old and stale, but now is ever-fresh; it redeems the routine activity that civilization requires. Drudgery becomes freedom, a chance to melt into timelessness within the reliable structure of the routine. The same-old same-old becomes the same-old brand-new.

See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!
– 2 Corinthians 6:2

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