The concept of the “now” – the present moment – long has interested philosophers and psychologists. In this essay I will examine the views of four of them. Since they essentially are incompatible, juxtaposing them is an interesting thought experiment. To start off with I should say I do not intend to address time from an Aristotelian/Cartesian perspective (time as a sequence of “now points” or from the standpoint of science/physics. Rather this is about experiential or lived time.
Later in his career Wittgenstein became concerned with the immediate experience of the present moment and whether it can be described. He thought this could not be done because one’s immediate experience comprises one’s entire world. It isn’t connected or related to anything else and there is no other place from which it’s intelligible. One can regard one’s immediate experiences as interconnected only if one is able to evaluate them from a non-experiential space, where they can be seen to stand in a certain relationship with each other. However there is no place outside of experience. We may be mislead into thinking there is such a place, for example, imagine one is standing on the moon viewing events on earth. Even then one still is “in time;” such a privileged location doesn’t exist. “Experience isn’t something that one can demarcate by determinations of something else which isn’t experience.” The present therefore is not “in time;” it is atemporal.
One of Wittgenstein’s favorite metaphors is that of a film. “The present is the picture which is before the light, but the future is still on the roll to pass, and the past is on that roll. It’s gone through already. Now imagine that there is only the present. There is no future roll, and no past roll.” While the experience of the present moment is all that is real it continually is changing and eludes our grasp. One cannot grasp hold of the present because everything graspable disappears. It cannot be pictured or put into words. Another Wittgenstein metaphor is a river. “One cannot step twice into the same river” because the water constantly is moving. The experience of it is “blurred” and “indeterminate” and can’t be fixed because it is inherently inexpressible. “The present disappears into the past without our being able to prevent it.”
Wittgenstein imagined a description of immediate experience without commitments about what’s happened before or what happens next, which he called a “phenomenological language.” He concluded this was impossible because there’s no way to guarantee thoughts would be about their objects or for that matter about anything at all. As soon as such a language becomes descriptive it no longer is immediate. What one is directly acquainted with in immediate experience lies beyond the limits of language and can’t be expressed. (1)
Wittgenstein’s analysis of immediate experience essentially is solipsistic or even pessimistic. Since we can’t talk about it intelligibly, there is a profound sense in which it presents a false issue or a non-problem, or possibly doesn’t even exist. For Heidegger on the other hand the “now” is something completely different. It is the means by which the future becomes the present.
Consider for example a carpenter hammering in a nail. She uses the hammer as a tool or as a piece of equipment, without regarding it as a thing-in-itself. She doesn’t think about it at all. Rather her attention is focused on accomplishing an objective, which is driving in the nail. She is absorbed by the future. If she was to measure time, the way she would do so would be by how long it takes her to hammer in the nail, not the passage of seconds on a clock. She makes the hammer and the nail come into the present by using them (and she could not do so if she didn’t understand what was involved in being a carpenter). If she does this with ease and facility, then she can move on to her next task (for example, hammering in another nail). If her effort is frustrated – for example, the nail bends and she has to pull it out – then she is yanked out of the flow of existential time back into clock time, which is a sequence of countable moments. She no longer is transparently interacting with her environment. She may even look at her watch and wonder how much longer she has to stay at work.
What “now” means varies with the scope of one’s engagement and how one subjectively interacts with one’s practical involvements and projects. One imposes a frame of reference on the world and is temporally oriented towards that with which one primarily is concerned. Absent disruption, temporality is structured by what one cares about and what one is doing – the role one has assumed and one’s practical projects in the world. The moment of “now” is disclosed, or unconceals itself, within the context of human activity. One devises goals, plans and projects, which are the reason why – the “for-the-sake-of-which” – one exists. One must “press ahead” confidently into the future in order to realize them.
As expressed by Rollo May: “Having placed time in the center of the psychological picture, [Heidegger] then proposes that the future, in contrast to the present or past, is the dominant mode of time for human beings. Personality can be understood only as we see it on a trajectory toward its future; a man can understand himself only as he projects himself forward. This is a corollary of the fact that the person is always becoming, always emerging into the future.” (3)
Another important reference point is ecological time, for example, the rising and setting of the sun; the earth’s rotation around the sun; the earth’s revolution; the phenomenon of precession; and others. These give rise to spiritual practices such as those set forth in the Book of Hours and other daily liturgies based on the passage of time. In the Catholic Church these include lauds (dawn prayer); prime or early morning prayer; terce or mid-morning prayer; sext or mid-day prayer; none or mid-afternoon prayer; vespers or evening prayer; and compline or night prayer. Islam’s requirement for prayer five times a day is similar. The time for the performance of these rites is not fixed by clock. Rather it varies with environmentally-imposed constraints. These rituals are another important way we structure temporality around human experience.
Heidegger conceived of himself as a philosopher. His central concern was the meaning of “Being” (capital “B”) – what it is for anything to “exist,” all the way from simple objects such as rocks to more complicated phenomena such as people. He was not particularly concerned with the “being” (lower case “b”) of particular individuals, which he thought of as the domain of psychology.
It might not be possible to perform this extrapolation. Heidegger himself was a real person who existed in space and time. The socio-cultural milieu in which he lived and worked (predominantly, World War I and Wiemar Germany) profoundly affected his attitude, orientation and outlook. For this reason it might make more sense to regard him as a phenomenological psychologist. Even though he was concerned with what it is for something to exist, it is a mistake to think of him as an “existentialist.” Existentialism also is concerned with being (lower case “b”), not Being (upper case “B”). It was precipitated by and specifically was in opposition to an interpretation of the Judeo-Christian Tradition, about which Heidegger could care less.
Several of Heidegger’s colleagues explicitly developed the case for how particular individuals are in the world – the topic that Heidegger pointed to but then left unexplored. Among them were Medard Boss and Ludwig Binswanger, who became interested in narratives of how people are in the world, their interactions with society and culture and the self-construals they adopted as a result.
The branch of post-Heidegger thought that put the most emphasis on “the now” was Gestalt Therapy. For Gestalt therapists such as Fritz Perls “the now” became the central point of an integrated approach to psychological problems and issues. Illustrative is Perl’s discussion in Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. “Anxiety, as it’s called in psychiatry, is considered a very difficult problem. It’s actually nothing but stage fright. If you are in the now, you have security. As soon as you jump out of the now, for instance into the future, the gap between the now and the ten is filled with pent-up excitement and it’s experienced as anxiety.” (4) Elsewhere Perls states: “To the extent that your feeling of actuality has been split off from your workaday personality, the effort to experience actuality will rouse anxiety … and what specifically rouses your anxiety will be the particular resistance by which you throttle and prevent full experience.” (5)
What Perls envisions then is completely different from Heidegger. Perls hypothesizes a gap between the present moment and some future hypothetical moment. Both move forward in time, adjusting the space between themselves as one defines and redefines one’s goals, projects and aspirations. They never however converge. This gap between the present and the future is experienced as anxiety. One might not for example be able to realize or accomplish the objective one has set for oneself. Heidegger was not concerned with this interlude. Rather for Heidegger the gap identified by Perls is a critical component of human personality, an essential feature of the meaning of what it is to be a person. Heidegger and Perls are fundamentally opposed on the nature, role and function of “the now” and how it relates to “the future.”
Gestalt Therapy is a precursor to the fourth perspective I’d like to examine, which is that advocated by mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (“MBCT”). Its key proponents are psychologists such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, David Abram and Daniel J. Siegel. (6) For them concentrating on the “now” is a way of channeling or controlling one’s perception of the past and the future. Contrary to Wittgenstein, MBCT has no problem at all with conceptualizing the present moment. Contrary to Heidegger, it doesn’t view the present moment as the platform for a projective orientation towards the future. Contrary to Gestalt Therapy, it doesn’t view it as a potential source of anxiety. Rather the “now” is the key pivot-point for achieving a fuller self, better integrated psychologically, somatically and environmentally.
Illustrative is David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous. Abram describes a “useful exercise” he devised to keep himself “from falling completely into the civilized oblivion of linear time.” His explanation is as good a one as there is to describe the epistemological approach of MBCT. First Abram locates himself in an open space such as a hillside or a wide field. He relaxes, breathes then gazes around. Then “I close my eyes, and let myself begin to feel the whole bulk of my past – the whole mass of events leading up to this very moment. And I call into awareness, as well, my whole future – all those projects and possibilities that lie waiting to be realized. I imagine this past and future as two vast balloons of time, separated from each other like the bulbs of an hourglass, yet linked together at the single moment where I stand pondering them. And then, very slowly, I allow both of these immense bulbs of time to begin leaking their substance into this minute moment between them, into the present. Slowly, imperceptibly at first, the present moment begins to grow. Nourished by the leakage from the past and the future, the present moment swells in proportion as those other dimensions shrink. Soon it is very large; and the past and future have dwindled down to mere knots on the edge of this huge expanse. At this point I let the past and the future dissolve entirely.”
What Abram is describing is a lot like Wittgenstein’s river, only Abram immerses himself in direct awareness of it rather than standing on the bank letting it puzzle him. As a result, Abram experiences a form of internal attunement and resonance with his environment. Instead of letting his attention wander he has redirected it to the experience of the present. His mind has not become “blank” or devoid of thought. Rather he uses his thoughts (like the bank of the river controls the course of the water) to refocus his attention. This activity isn’t a horizon presaging the future, as with Heidegger; nor is it a source of anxiety, as with Perls. It is a kind of eternity in time, where the experience of “the now” is all that happens. In this sense it realizes the poet William Blake’s vision: “To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.”
(1) This discussion derived from Stern, D. (1995). Wittgenstein on Mind and Language. New York, NY: Oxford U. Press. Stern bases his remarks on various unpublished Wittgenstein manuscripts.
(2) Heidegger, M. (1927). Being and Time. Macquarrie, J. & Robinson, E. (tr.) (1962). New York, NY: Harper & Row; Heidegger, M. (1962). On Time and Being. Stambaugh, J. (tr.) (1972). New York, NY: Harper & Row.
(3) May R. (1958). “Contributions of Existential Psychotherapy. In May, R. (ed.). Existence – a New Dimension in Psychiatry and Psychology. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
(4) Perls, F. (1969). Gestalt Therapy Verbatim New York, NY: Bantam Books.
(5) Perls, F., Hefferline, R. & Goodman, P. (1951). Gestalt Therapy – Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. New York, NY: Dell Publishing Co.
(6) Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Coming to Our Senses – Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness. New York, NY: Hyperion; Abram, D. (1996). The Spell of the Sensuous. New York, NY: Random House; Siegel, D. (2007). The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being. New York, NY: Norton.