What is this 'now'?
The present moment is a big deal in spiritual circles. Maybe you've read Eckhart Tolle's book 'The Power of Now', or encountered a definition of mindfulness which is something like 'non-judgemental present-moment attention'. You might even have seen one of those clocks where, instead of having numbers for each hour, it simply says 'Now' all the way around the clock face.
There are plenty of good reasons for training yourself to focus on the present moment. We tend to spend a lot of time worrying about things that haven't happened yet, or replaying things that have already happened over and over. Most of this is wasted energy, quite apart from being an unpleasant way to spend your time. While there's certainly value in planning for the future and learning from past mistakes, it's important to understand that the only moment in time where we can ever actually make a difference is this moment - right now. The future you're imagining might never come to pass, or at least not in the way that you're imagining it, and the past has been and gone already - what's done is done. But what's right in front of us, here and now: this, and only this, is where we're actually alive.
Hence all the books, videos and teachings encouraging you to 'be in the now'. But what actually is this now? And how could we ever be anywhere else anyway?
The strange nature of the present moment
We tend to imagine time as a kind of line that we're travelling along. Maybe the line runs from left to right, with the past on the left and the future on the right, and 'now' in the middle. Or maybe you see the line as moving forward, with the future ahead of you and the past behind you. (Apparently in some Asian countries it's the other way round; they see the past as in front of them, because you can 'look upon' the past and see what happened, whereas the future is behind you, sneaking up on you unawares.)
Let's go with the line for now. What, then, is 'now' in this way of looking at things? Is it a little piece of the line? If so, how long is it? If you say that 'now' has some duration - say, five seconds - then there's a part of 'now' which is 'earlier' and a part which is 'later'. That doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense - the whole point of now is that it's, well, NOW. And, if it has some fixed duration, then maybe there's a smaller 'now' inside the bigger one; which one is 'more now'?
OK, so viewing 'now' as having some fixed duration seems to have some problems. Maybe, instead of being a piece of the line, it's actually a point on the line instead. Then we don't have an 'earlier part of now' and a 'later part of now'. But, on the other hand, a point has no length at all, which means that a point-like 'now' has no duration. Can something with no duration whatsoever really be said to be part of 'time'? And how do we move through time, if 'now' never has any duration? No matter how many 0s you add together, you never reach 1. Then again, there must be some kind of continuity from moment to moment - if each moment was totally disconnected from every other, it would be impossible for you to read a sentence containing more than one word and have it make any kind of sense.
Whichever way you look at it, it's very hard to pin down exactly what this present moment is. (Readers familiar with the practice of investigating the sense of self may recognise the slippery, ungraspable quality of the territory we're getting into. That's a big clue for where this inquiry will ultimately take us.)
What does Zen have to say about time?
The great Zen master Dogen, who lived in Japan in the 13th century, wrote a famous text called Genjokoan, which is sufficiently cryptic that scholars today can't even agree on what the title means, let alone the contents. There's a section in there about time:
"Firewood becomes ash. Ash cannot become firewood again. However, we should not view ash as after and firewood as before. We should know that firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and has its own before and after. Although before and after exist, past and future are cut off. Ash stays in the position of ash, with its own before and after. As firewood never becomes firewood again after it has burned to ash, there is no return to living after a person dies. However, in Buddha Dharma it is an unchanged tradition not to say that life becomes death. Therefore we call it no-arising. It is the established way of buddhas' turning the Dharma wheel not to say that death becomes life. Therefore, we call it no-perishing. Life is a position in time; death is also a position in time. This is like winter and spring. We don't think that winter becomes spring, and we don't say that spring becomes summer." -Genjokoan, translated by Shohaku Okumura.
(Dogen actually has another piece, Uji ('being-time'), which goes into much more detail about his view of time, but it's even more difficult than Genjokoan. Feel free to look it up and tell me what you make of it, though!)
So what is Dogen actually saying here? Well, bearing in mind that professional Dogen scholars have written entire books about Genjokoan, what I'm about to say is just one way of looking at it, and probably misses out a lot of subtle details. (If you're interested in going deeper into Genjokoan, I recommend Shohaku Okumura's excellent book 'Realizing Genjokoan'.)
Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, here's my take on it.
'Firewood becomes ash. Ash cannot become firewood again.'
This is the conventional view of time. We have cause and effect. When you burn firewood, it turns into ash, and there's no undo button. So far, so straightforward. Dogen is always keen to emphasise that the conventional way of seeing things is not 'false', and it isn't that if you become enlightened enough cause and effect stops working. (The second koan in the famous collection called 'The Gateless Barrier' describes the story of a monk who claimed that enlightened beings were no longer subject to cause and effect, and was reborn as a fox for five hundred lifetimes. Yikes!)
'However, we should not view ash as after and firewood as before. We should know that firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and has its own before and after. Although before and after exist, past and future are cut off.'
So this is where things get weird, or at least where Dogen's words no longer make sense in terms of our model of moving along the line of time in a nice orderly fashion.
As always with Zen study, there comes a point where we have to let go of our ideas about how we think things are, and look at our direct experience. This is very difficult to do, because our experience is inevitably coloured by our view, and we tend to see what we expect to see based on our view. Seeing beyond our existing view requires subtlety and patience, and generally a lot of meditation practice - but that's OK, that's why we're here, right?
So here's another way to look at time, which is grounded more in direct experience and less in an abstract idea about how we think time works.
In this present moment, we have the situation at hand. Perhaps you're looking at some firewood; so, in this moment, there is firewood. This moment has a sense of past and future to it: we can perhaps imagine the tree that the firewood came from; and we can perhaps imagine the ash that will be left after we burn the firewood. So, in this present moment, the firewood has its own 'before' and 'after'. Notice, however, that these are only ideas, and they might even be wrong. The past of this firewood might not be exactly how we imagine it, and the future might not come to pass the way we expect. So, although in conventional terms there's a 'before' and 'after' for this firewood, the 'past' and 'future' that are present in this moment are not the same as its actual past and future. In the future, there may indeed be ash, and perhaps in that future 'present moment' you will have an idea of the 'past' of that ash as firewood, but the 'past' of that present moment in the future will not be the same as your present moment experience right now. (For one thing, in this present moment, you can make choices and affect how things turn out, whereas when the future 'present moment' finally arrives, you will not be able to affect what will, by then, have become a 'past moment'.)
Our idea of time is back to front
To put it another way: we tend to think that 'now' arises within 'time', but actually 'time' arises within 'now'. All we ever experience is 'now'; but, in order to explain our experience, we come up with a concept of time, and apply it to what arises within the 'now'. We create seemingly real, solid objects out of what appears to us in the present moment, and we give those solid objects identities with histories and futures and all the rest of it. Ultimately, however, all of this is simply an elaborate story that we tell ourselves, and one which crumbles upon close examination.
As we explore our present-moment experience, we come to a view of time which is vastly more interconnected than simply a point travelling along a timeline. The total experience in this present moment arises in dependence on every single aspect of this moment - every part of the experience contributes to the whole. Part of that experience is our sense of the past - the history of everything present in this moment, both ourselves and the perceived objects around us. (Notice how your experience of sitting in meditation changes before and after the bell that ends the session. Both before and after the bell you're sitting quietly, potentially in exactly the same position, but your experience after the bell has a totally different quality because the sound of the bell has indicated 'the meditation is over'.) And another part of the experience in the present moment is our sense of the future - what we're going to be doing next, what our future plans are, what we're going to have to deal with later on today or tomorrow.
Furthermore, past, present and future are deeply intertwined in terms of cause and effect. Some examples:
Actually, though, even this is just part of the story. So far we've looked at how each moment has, in effect, its own past, present and future, as opposed to time being a single line that we move along. But Dogen wants us to go further even than that. The clue is in his term 'being-time', which takes the previous idea of the vastly interconnected nature of time and doubles down on it to include everything else as well.
Let's go back to the firewood. In the moment of encountering the firewood, you have a sense of the existence (the 'being') of the firewood in front of you, and the associated sense of past, present and future (the 'time') of the firewood. These two are not really separable - while it might make sense in the abstract to think intellectually about the timeline of the firewood as distinct from the experience of its physical presence, when you actually encounter the firewood in the moment, both being and time are intimately intertwined. In his essay 'Being-Time', Dogen goes as far as to say that being is time, because we cannot ultimately separate them.
And even this being-time of the firewood is not all that's going on in the moment of the encounter. There's also you present, with your own associated sense of past, present and future. There's also the environment - are you outside or inside, warm or cold? There are sights, sounds, feelings, each with their own being-time. The present moment experience you're having is not simply 'firewood', or even 'past, present and future of firewood', but it's also the total being-time of all these other things. Every aspect of this experience is an inseparable part of the greater whole, as it is experienced right now. The whole universe comes together in every moment to create this total experience.
As I've mentioned in a previous article, it isn't enough just to think about this stuff, as interesting as that might be. The important thing in Zen practice is to get an experiential sense of what's being discussed. Ultimately, the point is to change your underlying view of reality, and simply thinking about it won't go deep enough to do that.
Last time we looked at Silent Illumination, one of the two most well-known forms of Zen practice. Silent Illumination is essentially about relaxing into the present moment so thoroughly and completely that the nature of reality reveals itself to us - the basic premise is that what gets in the way of seeing the empty nature of all phenomena is 'mental obscurations', which turn out to be a kind of mental activity; if we can relax enough, without falling asleep or losing our clarity, that mental activity eventually comes to a halt, and we can see what's normally obscured.
However, there's another approach to Zen practice, based around active investigation of a question, or koan. This is a more vigorous approach than Silent Illumination - rather than 'just sitting', waiting for reality to show itself to us as we settle down into it, we instead poke and probe our experience until we're catapulted into direct contact with what's going on beneath the obscurations.
If you'd like to explore the nature of time, I suggest using either 'What is this present moment?' or 'What is this "now"?' as your question. (Readers familiar with koan study will notice the similarity to 'What is this?', a classic koan used very widely in Korean Zen.)
If you've never done koan practice before, there's a guided audio using the question 'Who am I?' on the Audio page. In brief, though, the practice is to ask the question to yourself, silently, and then see what comes back in response. Then, no matter what happened (or didn't happen), ask the question again, and see what comes back in response. Simply keep going like that.
Koan practice often brings up a lot of thoughts at first, and some of those thoughts might seem really clever, insightful or interesting. No matter what, though, just notice them, put them down, and then ask the question again. The answer that we're looking for in this practice does not take the form of a thought, no matter how awesome a thought it is. Just keep going.
'Nothing happens when I ask the question!'
One of the most common complaints I get from students who have been working with a koan for a while is that 'nothing happens' - they ask the question but don't get any kind of answer, let alone the earth-shaking insight they're probably expecting.
The short answer is 'That's fine, keep going,' but people get grumpy enough about this that it might be helpful to say a bit more about 'nothing'.
There are two kinds of 'nothing' that can come up in practice. One is relatively rare, and is usually called 'cessation'. In cessation, your entire conscious experience stops. It isn't that everything goes black or that the world appears frozen; there's simply no experience at all, so you can only even tell that it happened if you have some way to notice a discontinuity. Maybe you literally just looked at your clock and it said 10.40, but now it's 11.30. Or maybe you had your eyes open and you notice a kind of visual 'stutter', like a few frames were deleted out of the movie of your life. (Cessations can be really short or quite long.)
If you have a cessation, this is a fabulous opportunity. Your entire conscious mind just switched off, and it'll take a little while to put itself back together again. So if you pay really close attention to what's going on, you can actually see your experience reassembling itself, bit by bit, and thus gain tremendous insight into the nature of how your mind works. So if you get this kind of nothing, pay attention!
More likely, though, is that the kind of 'nothing' that's being reported is more like a kind of 'absence' - like the 'nothing' that happens when you open the fridge to get some milk, but there's no milk there. There's a moment where your expectations are confounded - you wanted something but you found nothing.
In koan practice, this frustrating experience of 'nothing happening' comes about because we're asking a question, and when we ask questions we normally expect to get an answer - to be able to 'solve the problem' and arrive at some thing nice and concrete. To make matters worse, maybe the teacher told you that looking at this koan will reveal some kind of awesome truth about your true nature, and give you that kensho experience you've heard so much about. But all that happens is... well, nothing.
Actually, in this case too, my advice is to pay attention! Investigate the 'nothing'. Try to see it as clearly as you can.
Wait, wait, wait. How can you investigate nothing? You can only investigate something, surely!
Well, actually, 'nothing' is a kind of experience too - just a different kind of experience to the experience of 'something'. (If you get into deep concentration practice, the seventh jhana is a state of deep, unwavering focus on the experience of nothing. It's possible to stay there for hours if you get good at it.)
So what is this 'nothing' like? Maybe a sense of 'absence'? A sense of frustration, at not getting what you want? A kind of weird, slippery sensation, like you're trying to pin something down but it moves every time you think you've got it cornered? Maybe your mind slides right off the nothing and comes back to your breath, body sensations, the sounds of the room around you?
If you find yourself consistently getting 'nothing' when asking the question, then this has become your practice - investigating the 'nothing'. It's surprising how much you can find in nothing if you look closely enough.
So don't worry if nothing is happening in your koan practice - if anything, it's likely to be a sign that you're moving in the right direction. You just have to stay the course. Good luck!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!