Inspiration for the Octave Alliance No Boundary concert and CD, written by Ken Wilber:
the eternal present
The mystic is not saying that we should live in the present by forgetting about or trying to ignore the past and future. The mystic is saying - and at first this will sound worse - that there is no past and future. . . . To start we will look to direct experience for any evidence as to whether or not time, the flow from past to future, actually exists.
Let us begin with our senses. Do we ever sense time? Do we ever directly sense a past or a future? Start with hearing. For the moment concentrate your attention on just your auditory field, and notice the flux of sounds kaleidoscoping through your awareness. You may be able to hear people talking, dogs barking . . . perhaps wind blowing . . the house creaking . . . But notice: all these sounds are present sounds. You cannot hear past sounds, nor can you hear future sounds. The only thing you ever hear is the present. You do not and cannot hear a past or future.
Just as all sound are only present sounds, so all tastes are only present tastes, all smells are present smells, and all sights are present sights. . . In your direct and immediate awareness, there is no time - no past, no future, only an endlessly changing present, shorter than a minisecond yet never coming to an end.
And yet, what is it that gives me the overwhelming impression that I am aware of time, especially of time past, of my whole personal history, of all the things that were? No verbal slight-of-hand can convince me otherwise, for there is something which speaks clearly and forcefully to me of things which happened minutes ago, days ago, even years ago. What is that? And how can it be denied?
The answer to the first question seems obvious: it is memory. . . . Memory alone assures me that there was a past, and, in fact, were it not for memory I would have no idea of time whatsoever. Further, I notice that other people seem to have a memory also, and they all substantially report the same type of past that I recall.
And so, I assume, memory givs me a knowledge of the actual past . . But right here, claims the mystic, I have made a fatal mistake. The mystic agrees that when I think of the past, all I really know is a certain memory - but, she adds, that memory is itself a present experience. Alan Watts elaborates: "But what about memories? Surely by remembering I can also know what is past? Very well, remember something. Remember the incident of seeing a friend walking down the street. You are not actually watching the veritable event of your friend walking down the street. You cant go up and shake hands with him, or get an answer to a question you forgot to ask him at the past time you are now remembering. In other words you are not looking at the actual past at all. You are looking at a present trace of the past. . .You know the past only in the present, and as part of the present"
Thus, I never know the actual past at all, I know only memories of the past, and those memories exist only as a present experience. Further, when what we call the "past" actually occurred, it was a present occurrence . . . In the same way I never know the future, I know only anticipations or expectations - which nevertheless are themselves parts of present experience.
To see that the past as memory and future as anticipation are both present facts is to see all time existing now. . .
So it is that our bondage to time and all its problems is a vast illusion. There is no time but now, and the only thing you ever experience is the eternal present - whatever is outward forms may be. But most of us usually feel that our present moment is hardly an eternal one. We feel instead that our present moment is a slender present, a fleeting present lasting about one, maybe two, seconds. Another way to say this is that we feel our present moment is bounded and limited It seems to be sandwiched in between the past and the future. For, through the confusion of memory-symbols with ifact, we impose a boundary upon the timeless present, severing it into the opposites of past vs. future, and then conceive of time as a movement from the past through our "fleeting present" to the future. We introduce a boundary into the territory of eternity and thereby fence ourselves in.
. . . .The past seems to be something real and substantial behind me, something real that I look backward to. Many people feel that the past lies not only behind them, but to their "left", probably because we read from left to right. On the other side of our passing present lies the future. It, too, seems very real and substantial- a little more uncertain than the past, of course, because we can only guess what it will be like. But that it is there seems certain. The future bounds our present in the front, ahead of us, to the right of us. . . .
From all sides, then, our present is bounded, sandwiched in between past and future. It is limited, fenced, restricted. It is not an open moment, it is a squeezed moment, a pressed moment, and therefore a fleeting moment. It just passes. Since the past and the future seem so real, our present moment, the very meat of the sandwich, is reduced to a mere thin slice, so that our reality soon becomes all bread-ends with no filling.
But when it is seen that the past as memory is always a present experience, the boundary behind this moment collapses . . . And likewise, when it is seen that the future of expectation is always a present experience the boundary ahead of this moment explodes. The whole weight of there being something behind us or in front of us quickly, suddenly, and completely vanishes. This present is no longer hemmed-in, but expands to fill all time, and thus the "passing present" unfolds into the eternal present . . . . And this present is no mere slice of reality. On the contrary, in this now resides the cosmos, with all the time and the space in the world.
This now . . is a no-boundary moment. It has no boundaries because the past as memory and the future as expectation are in it, not around it . . .
Thus, it is not true that the mystic flees time by keeping his nose glued to the immediate present, thereby shirking his responsibilities in the pressing world of history . . . He does not so much flee time as embrace all time; he is perfectly free to ponder the past and the future, but through the realization that these ponderings, too, are but present events, he is never bound by the past and the future. . . . The past as memory does not push him, and the future as expectation does not pull him. For his present includes past and future and thus has nothing outside it which can exert a push or a pull. He is not in time at all, for all time is in him.
Thus, to see all memory as present experience is to collapse the boundaries of this present moment, to free it of illusory limits, to deliver it from the opposites of past vs. future. It becomes obvious that there is nothing behind you in time nor before you in time. . . . There never was, nor will there ever be, any time other than Now. . . You thus have nowhere to stand but in the timeless present, and thus nowhere to stand but in eternity.
excerpted from No Boundary by Ken Wilber (1979)