One of the most difficult to deny realities is the perceived shift from future to past tense. Despite some solid Physics that shows that time does not exist as we experience it, we humans do indeed perceive and remember, at the least, difference. The perception of time is inseparable from this recognition of difference: the hour hand has moved, time has passed; slowly crow feet form from smiling, I have aged, time has passed; the steady accumulation of years of practice making a virtuoso; the meal that was in front of me is now inside me.
Time passed – time passes – time will pass. Aren’t these three tenses just different ways of articulating difference? Even if we “zone out,” the laws of biology guarantee a difference in our physical and mental (aren’t they the same, in the end?) states. When we sleep, time passes. In that deep sleep that comes from overwork, when no sooner does our head rest upon the pillow than the sun suddenly shines brilliant on our eyes – this instantaneous transition when we seem to leap and lose hours of time – isn’t this “loss” of time due to the fact that we cannot perceive the minute differences that mark one moment to the next? In short, that deep sleep robbed me of my senses and ability to notice change, and so an empirical gap of several hours has passed “unnoticed”.
And yet how implacable, impartial these few hours have been! Time has imperturbably been applied to all things and all beings. An eyebrow, a bus axle, magma, the stars of Ursa Minor, magma…all have age – change – in those hours. Even as we wake, we become cognizant of difference (the window has changed color), and know that the time is different. We are older, and so is everything else.
It was only in the absence of cognizance that time disappeared – ultimately a disappearance that cannot maintain if we come to our senses. In short: only in an interruption or distortion of our cognitive processes, which then alters or cancels our ability to perceive change, have we the hope of “escaping time”. Then by extending this line of logic, couldn’t one say that “time” is in-fact wholly dependent on difference? After all difference will happen, whether we are there to notice it or not.
Consider the most basic artificial division of time: the measure of a second. In 1967, a second was officially defined as the time that elapses during 9,192,631,770 (9.192631770 x 10 9 ) cycles of the radiation produced by the transition between two levels of the Cesium 133 atom. This definition can not be untangled from difference. And suggestively, it can not be removed from movement. In human measurements, time can not escape difference or movement. So one could say that movement and difference are the medium through which time passes. Or posture the reverse!: time is the medium through which movement and difference occur. Ultimately, the various laws of relativity make the disentanglement of these three concepts impossible; the semantic barriers between these terms are for the sake of human convenience.
So, let’s stick with human convenience for now. By the time we notice a moment, it has passed. Difference has “always happened”. When we experience “moment,” since we have the cognitive ability to “know what is coming and what has gone,” it is arguable that “now” lasts about three seconds: the 1.5 seconds that are coming, and the 1.5 seconds that have passed, with Vee between peaking in the eternal present. The relentless present, even, for it is always here, assailing now, now, and now.
By definition, we only notice change because it has occurred (how implacably so!). And since all our memory of experience lies just after the present, from a certain perspective, all of everything could be said to (have) occur(red) in the past tense. After all it is quite impossible for anything to occur in the future, since it isn’t here yet (and will never be). As for “now,” whenever we experience the now, the experience has already, automatically, become just past us. (How could we experience “now” without a consciousness of difference?)
A word on the now. The “now” constructed as still point, as unchanging and invisible, a place where events rush by: the “eternal present”. Another now: the moving peak, the motion forward, steering hither and yon, slowing or speeding up, an unstoppable train.
What will happen in five years in my life, or the morning commute on Saturday that I am dreading…these things will only become accessible as “real” when they already have happened. Before then, those things are accessible only via the imagination. Regardless of your view of fate or relativistic physics, for humans, tomorrow can only come…tomorrow. Yet in a very real sense, once tomorrow occurs, it will already have occurred, that is – by the time tomorrow happens, it will become past tense by default.
“Experience” then, accumulates because in our own limited viewpoints, the present moments turn (before we know it) into memories which inform our decisions and movements which are always modifying the present moment in order to have a choice in the futures that come and the pasts that remain in memory. Only the past is visible: in elusive memory and aftereffects alone. The future is merely imaginable. Therefore, to be even more reductive, I’d like to introduce a grammar in which the future will always be in the past tense: the future will always “have happened”.
What is gained by such a grammar? Why even go to the trouble to create such a solipsistic notion? It is oddly comforting and oddly frightening. The eyeblink between childhood and now…between youth and old age. Another eyeblink between the workday I dread next week and the sweet night after. The very trite “all things will pass”. Since the future resides in the past, I would like to create a “past and present” that serve me well. Knowing that “tomorrow will already have happened” (ahh, the limits of English grammar) is a pretty strong incentive to make that future-past one that serves me well. Dare I say, that this idea help me become more vital? The beauty of this ground is that it serves as the intersection of fate and free will.
“Free will” because we can choose actions that will steer us in one direction or another…”fate” because the effects of those choices now are (already) unalterable: unless I die, tomorrow is coming, tomorrow is coming, tomorrow is coming. Within the limits of personhood, I am totally free to set in motion one or another set of events that are always becoming unalterable, yet modifying the next set of motions. So let’s invalidate the phrase “a better tomorrow” and instead ask what vital now will make for “nows” that become “pasts” that we would like to live with?
We already make vital decisions like this all the time. Those moments of dread before jumping into the winter ocean..how much worse they are than the actual dive into frigid water! And what a (literally) vital experience which will always serve in memory as a freshness experienced! We choose to put ourselves through such discomfort for the freshness of those few vital moments, we overcome the fear of cold for the sake of vivid memory. Experience teaches me that I would never regret such fun, just as I know that the dreary hours I spend practising the saxophone will (there is no choice) come to an end, and hopefully after many such ends, will have the symptom of me becoming a more skilful saxophone player.
Small habits or choices made or not made accumulate..an unswept floor “automatically” becomes dusty..not choosing sax practice and I’m already rusty…sticking to fifteen minutes of exercise daily “already” results in stronger muscles. So I would like to choose which habitual dominoes to topple that lead to a healthful life. And in like way an unpleasant but vivid experience might become a memory to chuckle over. But it is also possible that such experiences could lead to PTSD, or bad habits create conditions for lung cancer. As I write earlier, “within the limits of our personhood”: so many have no choice as to what becomes memory. Barriers both concrete and abstract shape a person, stunting and contorting them into narrow canyons where what happens is imposed by brutality or circumstance (both). In these cases, there can be no question of choice to avoid pain. Only that: “tomorrow will come,” that “all things come to an end,” that “we all come to an end eventually, and so will your pain”. I think such platitudes might help me face a hard day at the office, but what of the human currently undergoing brutality?
I have no answer. Save that the memories of hurting others aren’t easy to live with, so I would hope all we humans would choose not to.
I can only use this idea from a privileged place: a place where (more or less) I have freedom to choose the next moments, to plan my habits and my days so the future-past is one of fewer regrets and memories and habits that “already do” structure a pleasant life. This is not mindfulness. From the extensive research of the popular imagination that I have done, mindfulness seems to mean “living in the present moment”. This means very little to me: we are all already living in the “present moment,” we have no choice! (Ok: maybe some of us are truly living somewhere else: if you’re taking some strong drug or have a condition of the brain.) “Mindfulness” in terms of “living the present moment” makes sense if you define “living” as “ever-conscious of” the present moment. This produces two selves: a you that is “living” and “experiencing” the present, and another who is “fully conscious of” and “reminding one” of this present moment. This creates a distance between the experiencing self (!!cold!!) and the commenting self (gee, I see that I’m cold. But it’s ok, I’ll just turn on the heater). In this example, mindfulness is vital and useful. As it would also be in remembering to smile at the harried supermarket bagger, or not to snap at some small annoyance. But mindfulness can also be crippling: when the distance between the experiencing self and the commentator self grows larger, there is a sense of disassociation between experience and thought. When we are so mindful of now that we forget to immerse ourselves in good food (I’m noticing that I’m having good food) or good sex (I notice that I’m having sex) and so preventing the “dive” into the realm of the senses, the “loss of self” that is the aim of so many activities. We use this term “losing the self” in ways that project both our desire to lose mindfulness (lost in a good book, drowning in pleasure), and a warning not to (I’m sorry I yelled at you. I just lost it for a moment there.)
Ever-present mindfulness is an awful amount of work. I prefer instead to preserve those precious moments of the day when decisions are possible, and steer myself into habits and experiences that form desirable past-tenses. A warm smile is a habit that has rarely led to unhappy memories.
The secret of acknowledging the massive past-tense is that I can use “now” to alter the past: not only altering the “past-coming” but the “past-past”. Yes, with some determination and a little alchemy, that horrid memory could become – maybe not pleasant – but perhaps bearable or even useful. That car accident I precipitated…there is no way I can alter the fact of it. But maybe in the present moment I can change my viewing angle of the experience, not quite transmuting it into something nice, no never…but maybe realize how much I learned from the trauma, how much the experience of someone’s scream and the solid crush of metal on human taught me about fragility, irrevocablity, and mindfulness. (Driving is a good time to be mindful.) With some effort, now, I could ask myself to turn the memory into a ladder, a handrail to help climb the present moments that are always coming, and sometimes feel quite steep. Not to say that the abuse, the torture or the rape is ok…these will never be “ok.” Life is hard enough without now trying to trivialize real trauma by asking you to be Pollyanna about the past or to justify hurting others by telling yourself that their pain will, in hours or decades, become past tense.
It sounds like I am recommending that one live in the past. No. I recommend that one know that all becomes past, all movement has effected change, and so there is incentive to effect changes, there is responsibility.
So let it be an incentive and a comfort. It will all already have happened, so let’s decide to make it a good “have happened”. Apply it to yourself and for others. The habit of today will become the self of the past, and thus the self that you experience. Give other people the beauty of a good memory. Effort has effects, so don’t shy away. No rest also has effects. Overcome, because it already has happened. Use “now” to create something good; construct well. Use custom to automatically become skillful. Live, not in the past, but in a freedom of choice that will alter the past and thus the present and thus the future. You already have.