questioner: In my yoga class, the teacher keeps on saying that we should live in the now, and I have been reading a book by Eckhart Tolle that says that past and future really do not exist. But this confuses me. How can I live if I forget the past and if I make no plans for the future?
dr-robert: Undeniably, tomorrow never comes. We never actually experience "tomorrow," for experience can only occur in this precise moment, and exists neither in the future, nor in the past. What we call tomorrow consists of our fantasies and projections of what we imagine will happen. In other words, tomorrow is an imaginary construction which has reality as an idea, a fantasy, but lacks reality as an actual experience.
To put this in other words, I may write a kind of screenplay about tomorrow, but when tomorrow comes, it comes as an immediate happening, not as a script. And that happening is always full of surprises not anticipated in the screenplay, be they pleasant or unpleasant. Because it never arrives, the future demands nothing of us, but the present demands everything of us, forcing us to respond, not to what we had imagined, but to what actually occurs.
The situation with the past is a bit different since what has happened can be remembered, or even revisited in a way through photographs, sound recordings, and other records. However, our memories of the past, and our experiences of it through recording media also take place only in the present. And, as we know so well, there is no going back to what has happened, no changing it. Therefore, like the future, the past exists only as a mental picture that one experiences right now in the present. Nothing can be done in the past, for "the past," which once was "the present," now is only an idea, and like "the future" has no reality as an actual experience.
You ask, How can we live if we forget the past and if we make no plans for the future? Certainly, as long as memories come and go, the past can not be forgotten, and most of us must make some provisions for the future (after all, you and I spent two years making and keeping appointments). But when your yoga teacher advises living in the now, and when Tolle says that past and future really do not exist, this is really a way of saying that one must not, and truly cannot live in the past or the future. In other words, psychologically, or soulfully if you prefer that word (psyche meant soul in Greek), ones life takes place in the present, and cannot take place anywhere else.
This does not mean that one should not make plans. It simply means that while making the plans one knows and understands that they are just plans, and may or may not truly occur. And knowing this, one does not get lost in fantasies of pleasure or pain having to do with the plans. In other words, one ceases to regard "the future" as a space in which to have emotional experiences. With this attitude, one may remain focused on the present moment, including one's emotions, which is the only place one is fully real, fully alive.
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