Take Your Present Back: The Past Is Not a Trap

being and time

Yesterday was Daylight Savings and by springing forward we “lost” an hour. Perhaps your witty Facebook friends also updated their statuses by asking: “Where did the time go?!” I’ll roll along with serendipity because, as of late, I’ve been thinking a lot about time, how it shapes our lives, and how conventional wisdom on the matter can be a little misleading. The saying goes: “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift; that’s why they call it the ‘Present.'” Sure. But there’s more to it than that.

Metaphysically, time raises philosophical conundrums: If everything froze and nothing changed, would the passage of time continue or would time, in effect, also stop? Heidegger wrote a whole lot about being and time in convoluted ways: “The way the present is rooted in the future and in the having-been is the existential and temporal condition of the possibility that what is projected in circumspect understanding can be brought nearer in a making present….” (Sein und Zeit, 360). Don’t let the philosophy-talk overwhelm you. Simply by being alive we can understand that time is a funny thing which strangely affects our experience. We remember the past. We experience the present. We anticipate the future. And sometimes being in between the past and the future can be difficult, confusing, and weird.

There’s a bit of sadness surrounding those who “live in the past” as they chant: “The good ol’ days are gone, never to return. It was then when we could live more happily, without a care in the world. Yes, back then we were in our prime.” Nostalgia can turn into a missing,  into a longing, into a dwelling that eventually makes one incapable of being present with what is. In this way, the past is a trap that never left at all.

It can be equally debilitating to project oneself into the future. Thinking about what you have yet to do can prevent you from appreciating what you actually are doing. Planning out your errand list for tomorrow, worrying about potential “what-ifs,” or even focusing too much on where you want to be in five years can steal your attention away from the fact that you are alive, right here and now, with people around you who are worthy of your attention. Before you know it, the children might be all grown up, you don’t know who your partner (or you) has become, and you’ve found yourself in a mid-life crisis wondering, “What have I done with my time?” To avoid this horrifying moment of regret (because, of course, we can’t retrieve the past for a do-over) we are urged to remember that we don’t know what tomorrow will bring or even if tomorrow will come. So let us all join hands, make the best of the present moment, and scream, “YOLO!”

Although we are encouraged to live each day as if it’s our last, it’s not always exactly clear what that means or how we are to do it. (Leave it up to The Lonely Island to highlight the vagueness behind the “YOLO” take on attending to the present.) Living in the moment is not valuable simply because the present is all we really have. I think it is important to note that the present is crucial because it fills out the entirety of our experience – an awareness and appreciation for what is present, right now, builds our past and supports our future.

The notion that the present “builds our past” might sound a bit too Heideggerian for most people’s tastes but it’s a really simple idea: We only remember that to which we pay attention. If our brains were wired to note and recall every detail of our experiences we could easily be overwhelmed with stimuli and crumble under information overload. But if we don’t pay enough attention to the details while they are with us, the things that we would want to remember and recall – the smell, the touch, the look, the feeling, the sounds of a first meeting, a birthday, a death, or just one particular moment – will join the vast majority of our experiences and become part of the forgotten past. In other words, when we don’t acknowledge what is present, with our full attention, it doesn’t just become a distant past. It becomes a past that is lost, that fades away, that can’t even be revived in a daydream.

The present obviously “supports our future” in the causal sense of what follows, what comes next. But we rarely appreciate how being with the present also supports our future by enabling us to recall our now-present (soon-past) moments later on. Sharing our memories of presents that have passed (to which we were attentive enough to remember) and reanimating these experiences can provide the content that builds and reinforces our connections with others. Without a longing kind of attachment that becomes a dwelling, it’s possible to revisit what was in a way that makes this visitation, newly, what is. Think about how one reminisces with old friends and loved ones about special times and fond memories. The act of recollection for the sake of sharing can become the new present…to which we can pay attention yet again.

Thinking about relationships is especially helpful for understanding how attention on the present further supports our futures. Here’s a bit on how to love by Thich Nhat Hanh: “If you do not give right attention to the one you love, it is a kind of killing. When you are in the car together, if you are lost in your thoughts, assuming you already know everything about her, she will slowly die. But with mindfulness, your attention will water the wilting flower. “I know you are here, beside me, and it makes me very happy.” With attention, you will be able to discover many new and wonderful things – her joys, her hidden talents, her deepest aspirations. If you do not practice appropriate attention, how can you say you love her?” (The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, 65) Attention, then, is kind of loving that can support future discovery, opening, and learning.

Being present is a being-with (oh, Heidegger again!) that helps us experience our being with others in the now, which becomes the present of the past and creates new presents for the future. In a way, then, the importance of paying attention to what’s present doesn’t simply derive from time’s passing nor its anticipated arrival; the present isn’t important because of some sleight of hand trick where everything else is no-longer or not-yet. Instead, the present is so important precisely because it is our past and our future.

Still want more (on) time? Here’s a personally beloved gem:

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11 thoughts on “Take Your Present Back: The Past Is Not a Trap

  1. Pingback: Leave The Past Behind | Inspired Every Moment

  2. Pingback: Why Are You Dwelling On Past Or The Future?…Live For Today! | From Ashy to Classy

  3. Memory is attention.

    Said Samuel Johnson.

    It was nice to meet you yesterday evening.

    Your Ace Gillett’s bartender,


    P.S. Love your videos. You’re very natural.

    • 🙂 It was lovely to meet you, Ray. Thank you for the cocktails, the book, and the Hershey’s kiss.

      I’ll be seeing you around again in some months. Until then, take care!

      P.S. Thank you for the encouragement about the videos. More are on the way!

  4. Pingback: Want Transformation? Think for a Change. | Cori Wong

  5. Hi, Caleb. Thank you for reading and leaving a reply. I have always loved Saul Williams! I think he does a really great job of bringing philosophical themes into his spoken word poetry (did you know he has a b.a. in philosophy?!). I’m glad that you know of his work, too. 🙂

  6. Pingback: Living on the eve of a new dawn… and not being able to stop that sunrise! | bluepearlgirl's world

  7. Hi, Helen. Thanks for leaving a comment. It is very difficult to live in the present moment–it takes discipline, practice, and even the ability to pay attention to your attention! I hope that, in time, you find more ways to really appreciate where you are, right when you are there. For me, I often just stop to remind myself and those around me that “We are alive. This is our life right now. When we think back on what we’ve done, this is it. This is our life. We’re living it!” And I say it just like that, really fast. Maybe it will work for you, too!

  8. Hi Cori. I really enjoyed reading this. I often struggle with either being stuck in the past or looking too far ahead into the future instead of being in the present moment. I love the Buddhism view on that subject – and yours 🙂

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