The past and future are illusions.
That’s a sweeping statement, one that flies in the face of common sense. If you’ve not given this a lot of thought already, you may disagree. Most people do. However, that does not make them correct. That the past and future are illusions is not a new idea. Great thinkers arrived at this conclusion a long time ago and science is backing up their judgment. Consider what Albert Einstein said on the occasion of the passing of a close friend, a fellow physicist:
Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.
Whether or not you agree, stay with me for a while because this is, surprisingly, the key to real happiness.
The mystery of past and future has always aroused my interest. I had an interest in physics so I studied the Theory of Relativity, perhaps the most widely accepted theory in science. I was perplexed over one of its main tenets, that time is not fixed. It varies depending on how fast I’m moving and it can even stop if I’m going fast enough. Stop? What is time if it has stopped? Nothing, I had to conclude. It dawned on me that time can vary simply because it is, fundamentally, an illusion. This was one of Einstein’s greatest insights.
Here’s a test to begin to feel the illusion of past and future. Ask yourself this question: When does life occur? The answer is now, this very second. Think about it. Life never, ever, happens at any other time. How chaotic would it be if life could occur in the past or future? What a disorderly mess that would be. The past is merely a memory in the mind with no physical reality whatsoever. The future is a mental construct too. The present is real; it’s where life lives.
In spite of how ethereal the past and future are, we make it into something that appears real by way of our thoughts. In fact, we tend to spend much of our time thinking about the past and projecting our thoughts into the future, to a large degree skipping over the real part, the present. These thoughts are the constant chatter in our minds, the birthplace of worry, the fertile soil where fear and anxiety take root.
Here’s an illustration of how my thoughts of the future created unhappiness. Every time I drove my car, it was to get somewhere in the future. For one reason or another, I was not satisfied with the present moment (where I was) and I wanted to be somewhere else. Perhaps I was home and I needed to get to work for an eight o’clock appointment. But things happened along the way. Perhaps too many other cars created a traffic jam. Now the present moment (me stuck in traffic) became an obstacle to getting to work on time. My thoughts were locked on the future. I grew frustrated and that lead to worry: what if I don’t get there on time? If I miss the appointment, my client might not do business with me again. That could cut into my income. All kinds of thoughts – chatter – ran through my head. None of this worry helped me get to work on time. Only when I turned my attention back to the present moment and driving the car could I do something constructive about the problem. Perhaps I should take a different route or phone ahead. Aha, a solution. But I couldn’t see it until I returned to the present. My life experience was like that in a thousand different ways, some much bigger than traffic problems, and together, they added up to persistent unhappiness.
Unlike the future or past, the present moment is without worry or fear. It is the place for living. Only when I project into the future or dwell on incidents of the past does worry enter. Yet the past and future, as I have attempted to show, are illusions, useful as guideposts for navigating life, true, but the more emphasis I place on them, and the less focus I place on the present, the more frustrating life becomes. Therefore, I began placing my emphasis on the present. It was a simple change in my life but not particularly easy because my thought habits were well established.
To be completely honest, I have to say that I did not start out with the idea in my head that I was unhappy and I needed to discipline my thoughts and return to the present in order to experience happiness. I only barely recognized how unhappy I was. I was like a fish in water. What water? The state of my consciousness seemed unpleasant but normal. What I did do, for other reasons, was begin a daily meditation practice. The object of meditation is to focus the mind on the present moment. I didn’t realize that by doing so, I would become a happier person but that is exactly what happened.
The pathway to the present moment is to stop the chatter of the thinking mind, whether in meditation or any other time. How does one do that? There are many ways but one that works best for me is to focus my attention on breathing. It really is as simple as that. When I’m focusing on my breathing, I’m focusing on an activity in the present moment, right now. I think about how my chest is expanding and air is filling my lungs. I then focus on the transition between the in-breath and exhaling. Then another transition. I learned a curious fact that the chatter of my mind had to stop when I focused my thoughts on the present this way. My mind could not do both at the same time. After a while, I’d notice the chatter returning and so I again focused on my breathing. Each meditation lasted about 30 minutes. After a while, I got better at taming the chatter even when I was not meditating. I’m a long way from perfection but I’m getting better. The good news is this: one does not have to be perfect or anywhere near perfect to get a huge benefit from being present. Worry, fear and anxiety begin to retreat surprisingly fast. Try it for yourself. You might just find out you enjoy life more.