Past - Present - Future
Your response forum
A big thank you to everyone who wrote.
Jonathan started a whole new ball rolling on Tuesday February 19 when he
wrote about a letter from a regular reader:
"Dear Jonathan, Having sent this letter to you, it is now in my past. As you read it,
it immediately goes into
your past. Prior to writing it was in my future - and yours too. So when is
it in our present? It seems to me that we all live on the cusp of the past
and the future. The present hardly exists. So why are we so bothered about
I received this letter some while ago from Pete Perry in Stevenage. I am
still not quite sure how to reply. Any ideas?
We have been inundated with your replies.
Here is an edited selection from the hundreds of you who took the trouble to
Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift. That’s why we
call it the present.
"Time" is a loop. It’s not linear, with a neat "beginning, middle, end." Or,
maybe, if you want it to, it DOES. Solipsists believe, philosophically, that
perhaps nothing exists outside the consciousness of each individual. Zen
Buddhists have some hilarious and inspiring stuff to think, or "not think"
about concerning this stuff... But really, the "present" is called "The
Present," because it’s a gift. Thanks for inspiring a nice little journey
I found this inscription on a sun-dial: "On this moment eternity is hinged."
That seems to simplify it a bit!
Jeanette, Clitheroe, England
Your correspondent is getting lost in the detail and missing the message,
perhaps deliberately. As a Buddhist, "being present in the moment " is
something we are constantly encouraged to do. It means to keep in mind that
the past is over and, whilst it may have taught us valuable lessons, it
rarely if ever repeats itself down to the last detail. So we should never try
to respond in a way that fits the old scenario perfectly - for it is no
Likewise, living only for the future is self-defeating for
the future has not yet coalesced from the strands that will one day come
together and those that will fail to materialise. To live permanently
attached to possible outcomes is to live in a state of inevitable
disappointment - like people who pin all their hopes of happiness on winning
Living in the moment is perhaps better expressed as living today
as if it were your last. Smell the flowers, stop and listen to the birds
sing, part from your loved ones in a way that they know you love them. Do
today only those things for tomorrow that are likely to be for the good of
all people and creatures. Speak the truth kindly, but speak it: confront
wrong when you encounter it and do not worry about what that may mean
tomorrow, and above all relax in the knowledge that the Universe that created
you, loves and respects you as an important part of itself.
We have to train ourselves to focus on the present, and it doesn’t come easy.
When we are doing something, we are concurrently planning what we’re going to
do next or tomorrow, or thinking about what someone did yesterday. We push
the present away from ourselves.
Pete Perry will only find his present by teaching himself to focus the mind
and thoughts down and down into each current moment in time. Learn to just BE.
Try this. You’re out for a walk. You’re surrounded by the beauty of fields,
hill, trees, the sky. You’re probably deep in thought; pondering; going over
things in your mind. You notice what’s around you but you’re not living it.
Stop. Stand. Clear away your thoughts. Look. Just be in the moment. Discover
how wonderful it feels to be in your present.
How about, ‘Seize the moment before it becomes history’. Life is all about
appreciating each minute and second before it is gone. The present is now -
the future is unimportant and the past is history....
As he was writing the letter, that was the present moment. A fabulous book to
read about living in ‘the now’ is The Power Of Now by
Shelley, Sydney, Australia
Talk about looking for something that’s right under your nose! The past does
not exist, it has gone. The future does not exist, it has not yet arrived. We
exist only in the present, in this very moment. This is what all the masters
have been teaching....be here and now!
May I quote part of a James Taylor song, Secret Of Life:
"The secret of life is enjoy the passage of time." So, don’t think about what
will happen, or has happened. Live it! People usually think about the bad
things in life and dread them. Unless it’s life and death, endure it! Trouble
and stress are experience in work clothes. What won’t kill you will make you
stronger (allegedly ...)
‘Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future - concentrate your
mind on the present moment’.
I love this quote from Buddha. I am not a follower of Buddhism but this
always reminds me to stop dwelling on what cannot be changed and concentrate
on what I have learned at present and what next I can achieve and look to so
therefore the past is not as important as once seemed.
Good points Pete. As, I think, Nils Bohr once said, in deep truths the
opposite is also true (i.e. That life is ‘only’ a series of connected
moments or nows). The future is only a construction - if you had thought of
writing the letter but decided not to, it was a potential future when you
thought of it, and not so if you hadn’t sent it, or if it had got lost in the
post, or Jonathan hadn’t read it, or ....... - in each moment of ‘now’ you
can imagine many possible futures, but you don’t have complete control over
what will happen. The same with the past. Once something has happened it’s
very difficult to get anyone to agree on ‘what really happened’. All of our
memories are coded as patterns and emotions, not videotapes, so what we
remember depends on how we are in the moment we try to remember. Listen to
almost any debate, on radio, TV, in Parliament, and listen to people taking
partisan views about how they view the past, and what they want in the future
- very few of them are ‘present’ enough to want to work together to fix
things as they are now.
Oh no, That’s what I thought when I typed it 2 minutes ago, but do I still
agree with myself now ........??
The Chinese believe that all energies are constantly changing - yin to yang,
present to past, hate to love and so on. It is this understanding that helped
many ancient Chinese scholars cope with turbulent changes. They also,
according to the I-Ching, believe that the ancestors, who sit above all time
in the after-life cast die, and decide our fate. And if something truly great
or bad is to occur they can warn us. (Deja-vu, premonition etc.)
I believe that there is only one constant - that is the present. Think of it
like a chemical reaction. The future is potential energy, bound tightly
waiting to happen, waiting to explode. The past is the fallout of this spent
energy. The present is the chemical reaction, when the potential energy of
the future and the observances of the past are mixed with the
unpredictability of human beings and life here on earth. Like a chemical
reaction... there is always the same amount of energy, it is only its form which
changes - Past, Present or Future. And because all things change and become
each other - yin to yang - History does seem to repeat. The sky will always
change and back again, and the earth will always turn, Night to day, Life to
death. Sunset to Sunrise.
Where do you dig them up from? The Buddhists call this wrong view. We are
only ever in the present, nothing else exists. The past is a figment of our
imagination/memory as is the future. The only reality one can ever know, is
the Here and Now. This is what is meant by the wise folk of the world when
they refer to ‘waking’ up (i.e. realising that one has been stuck in the
imagination and memory, and missing out on the reality of the now). Try it,
it’s quite amazing. Full conscious awareness in the present moment. (there is
lots of stuff on the web about this, but Dr Charles Tarts is a good one:
The present is the exact moment you are in. We all want to know our future so
we are looking there, we all see things in our past that we either regret or
enjoyed, so we dwell there. But the only time you can do good is the second
that you are living now, make the most of it. The majority of people have
their minds elsewhere and miss the creativity of the now.
Pete Perry misses the point, I am afraid. Like I spent most of my life doing!
As you read his letter, you are in your present. This moment of the present,
according to many Eastern and African spiritual philosophies, is the MOST
important moment - how to live IN and fully comprehend and rejoice in THIS
present, precious moment...and THIS one, and THIS one. It is the way we live
the present that affects our future. If you doubt yourself in the moment that
he questions you, for example, the Universe will respond to that self doubt
and make a future based on that present self belief. Pete needs to live in
the NOW, as I am trying to do...living in the now has coloured my entire
future...and allowed my past to hurt me no longer.
Surely this chap could not even write this letter if he wasn’t, for that
moment, in the present, formulating those thoughts. Yes, when the letter left
his box it was in the past for him, but it became present for you (Jonathan)
as you read it, even if what he had written was history.
The present is in the doing, but it helps to be present in the doing!
The present is so important because what we do, or not, will shape our future
and be the legacy of our past. What would we like that to be? The answer to
that question will help determine how present we are in what we do, what we
say, what we create in our lives.
The present is all we have, transient though it is. We’ve had the past, we
may not have the future. Let’s treat every second as if it’s our last and
try to enjoy it without worrying about what’s gone or fretting about what may
be to come. Let’s face it - NOW is all we are guaranteed on this earth!
Whilst focusing on the past and the future, the present slips away. These
perplexing questions which haunt us all from time to time are in themselves a
waste of the present. They simply conjure more questions, which keep your
mind focused on things other than the present. However, life is a waste of
time. So why not waste it in a fun way?
It is precisely because the present is just a fleeting instant that it should
be honoured. All we have is the NOW - the past has happened (we can do
nothing about it) and the future has yet to happen (and we do not know if we
will be around to see it). It is only in the now that we can live in the
freedom of wanting nothing. It is only in the now that we live because we can
neither truly live in the past or the future. NOW, not an instant ago, not in
an instants time, NOW.
I think that people are not concerned with the Present. People are either
preoccupied with the past or the future. Happiest are those who really do
live ‘in the moment’. It is an art-form, the present is a fleeting moment.
I totally disagree that the present ‘hardly exists’ (as Pete Perry
mentioned). In my opinion the present is a constant. When something has
happened, it becomes the past. When something is yet to happen, it becomes
the future. But everything which happens NOW, is present. If as Pete
suggests, the letter you read immediately goes into your past, then why
couldn’t it also be in your future as you may go on to read it again. The
present is what happens as it happens, and is more real than the past or
future can ever be.
Only by paying attention to the present that we can have a past that we can
look back on with a smile and a future we can walk in to with hope knowing
that we put some effort into the present, which was its foundation....
The minds of human beings are always in the past and the future, looking back
and looking forward. Physically, though, all things that exist, humans
included, are in the present. That’s what makes humans such clever-clogs: the
ability to analyse the past and plan for the future.
It’s only when we really learn to let go of everything - to truly relax and
let things flow, living in Now and letting it be - that we begin to see
ourselves, and the rest of the universe, as it really is: to see it without
wishful thinking or the magic of retrospect. We are in now; and the past and
future are, to all intents and purposes, inside our heads: they are only
viewpoints from where we stand, always in now, as past and present pass us
by, as landmarks on our way through life.
Ian, Middlesbrough, England
We experience the present by going within, in the moment, and
being/feeling/experiencing. One can bring up a memory of the past or project
something into the future. Still, even in those moments, what is one
experiencing when going within, right now. Do you really want to begin to
understand the present, check out the book, The Power of Now by Eckard Tolle.
You will see that when we are into analysing, judging or critiquing we have
lost the power of the present moment. It is only when we are fully present
that we understand its power.
Sue, Rochester, NY, USA
Dear Pete, if you had not written that letter in your "present" to Jonathan
it would not exist in your future or your past. Now it touches me who was not
aware before you existed at all. Present has the memories and wisdom of the
past and seeds of the future.
The reason the present is of such great significance, and why we place so
much emphasis on it is because it is the one thing we can always participate
in, and we do have some degree of control over. The past, besides being over,
provides insight that we may apply to the present. The future, no offence to
your profession, is something we cannot see. Even the greatest guides and
forecasts only give insight, they do not dictate events. Therefore, we can
only live in the moment, and when in doubt, that is probably the only time
that absolutely matters. We may die tomorrow, but if we make the most of the
moment we have, however minute that moment is, we may still die happily
knowing we did everything we could with our moment in time. Our past, our
history must never be forgotten because it is important, it has made us who
we are. We must balance the weight we place on the past and on the future,
neither obsessing nor ignoring either. Yet the moment we are in provides us
the opportunity to reflect upon the past, and put the knowledge that we gain
into action to create our future.
Zen Buddhism teaches that the past is an illusion and the future is a dream.
All we can experience is the present moment. Try to touch a tabletop in the
past or in the future. Doesn’t work very well, does it ;)
We do tend to frame time in different ways and often delude ourselves in the
process. Lunch time seems to pass like a shot, when you’re young, life seems
to be endless, when you’re old, time’s too short. The problem deepens when
we consider the language we use. We talk about football teams that "play
away" -the present simple tense- next Friday (the future)! We also say things
like " I saw Tim just now." Which really means in the same present we all
believe we share; a present that’s around now, but includes the past and the
future when seen as a present fact; the team I support do play away next
Friday & I did see Tim just now! So, we divide "the now" into convenient,
understandable, manageable, periodic segments. Which is just as well really,
after all when asked to write a letter "now" or go shopping "now" nothing
would ever get done.
Pete’s problem is perceptual. Philosophically speaking, it can be argued that
both the past and the future are mental concepts, and do not exist, except in
the mind. Actually, all we have to ‘work with’ is the present, moment by
moment. Which is why the sages counsel us to always be aware of the ‘now’,
and to live in a ‘true present’, lest we miss our own lives completely!
Pete Perry is in danger of disappearing up his own metaphysical conundrum. If
this reasoning makes him feel better about a ‘present’ that is unpleasant,
then go for it. You can prove anything with statistics and you can obviously
prove anything with philosophy. It all boils down to the fact that, for ever
how short a time, my experiences are in the present. Something cannot just
jump from past to present, there obviously had to be a now at some point.
Instead of living on the cusp of the past and the future we are always living
in the present. It is the present that becomes the past and shapes the
future, that’s why we worry about it.
"It seems to me that we all live on the cusp of the past and the future. The
present hardly exists. " That’s why it’s called the present moment....it
only lasts a "moment"...but if we could keep ourselves out of the past and
out of the future...we could spend our lives in the present....which would
then be ALL that exists.
"So why are we so bothered about it?" I believe we all know deep inside that
the choices we make in the present will soon be in our past...and you can’t
change the past. Similarly, the choices we make in the present form our
future. Thus, the present is a most precious gift....we are "bothered"
because we know of its power.
Ann, Wisconsin, USA
Of course the present is worth "bothering over"! Even if it is short-lived,
it occupies the moments that are the culmination of our hopes, dreams, and
efforts--the very things that become our greatest memories and learning
experiences. How we think, feel, and behave in the present at least partially
determines our future.
If we were to dismiss the present as almost non-existent, then we are not
forced to take responsibility for our actions. And that would create a very
pathetic world, indeed.
Carolyn, Edmonton, Canada
‘The present’ is the moment of action which creates the past as well as
affecting the future. The future is only potential but the present moment is
our opportunity to shape the future. So every thought and action and word we
use ‘now’ is important because we can’t change what we’ve done but we can
change what we do.
The thing I like best about ‘now’ is that it goes on and on - there is
always an opportunity to change your life or your way of thinking. Whatever
the past has been there’s always a chance to create a new in now - or a new
As a child I used to play a game of ‘here comes the future, now it’s the
present, and now it’s the past’. Just by speaking, bringing words from the
future to the present and then on to the past. The future and present are
forever coming and going. I think we hold on to a present just so we don’t go
insane thinking about the coming future.
Carol, Ontario, Canada
There is only the present. Nothing else really exists outside the now. You
can remember yesterday You can imagine tomorrow You can only experience now.
As Gary Zukav wrote in The Dancing Wu Li Masters, "...the present is the
intersection of the past and the future". Accordingly, the concept or idea of
"being present" would give us a window on all that has been and that which
will be. The present is the cross roads of life where all things happen.
Greg, SC, USA
To be in the "present" is to "be" in a state of "being." To be in the past,
one must "do" something. That is generally to conjure feelings of remorse and
guilt - two very destructive states of feeling. To be in the future, one must
"do" something also. One must put oneself in a state of fear over things yet
to come - perhaps even more destructive. The NOW is really all we have. Mr.
Perry contends that to be in the present is to be "Nowhere." I think to be in
the present is to be "Now Here." When I am now here, there is nothing wrong
in my world. So the question is, Mr. Perry, how do you see yourself? Are you
a human doing or a human being. In one state you wage wars that exist only
between your ears, in the other, an opportunity to attain bliss on an ongoing
The present is always right here - the past and future never are. They are
Jody, Paris, France
"Yesterday is a cancelled check. Tomorrow is a promissory note. What we have
today is ready cash - so spend it wisely."
Jane, Newport Pagnell, England
If it weren’t for the present, when and how exactly would that letter have
appeared on the paper? Without the present, there can ‘be’ no past and
future, no perspective, no objectivity, no subjectivity, no thought, no
‘is’, no Tao, no Zen. Everything we are is now. Now is all we can be certain
of. I love now. Every now. The very nowness of now.
You can only truly live completely in yourself...now. It is.
As my favourite band Sunscreem once sang: "This is the infinite present..."
I received this e-mail shortly after reading you thought for the day for
February 19. The time issue is addressed very well here. I hope it helps.
Imagine... There is a bank that credits your account each morning with $86,400.
It carries over no balance from day to day. Every evening it deletes whatever
part of the balance you failed to use during the day. What would you do? Draw
out ALL OF IT, of course!!!!
Each of us has such a bank. Its name is TIME. Every morning, it credits you
with 86,400 seconds. Every night it writes off, as lost, whatever of this you
have failed to invest to good purpose. It carries over no balance. It allows
Each day it opens a new account for you. Each night it burns the remains of
the day. If you fail to use the day’s deposits, the loss is yours.
There is no going back. There is no drawing against the "tomorrow." You must
live in the present on today’s deposits. Invest it so as to get from it the
utmost in health, happiness, and success! The clock is running. Make the most
To realise the value of ONE YEAR, ask a student who failed a grade.
To realise the value of ONE MONTH, ask a mother who gave birth to a premature
To realise the value of ONE WEEK, ask the editor of a weekly newspaper.
To realise the value of ONE HOUR, ask the lovers who are waiting to meet.
To realise the value of ONE MINUTE, ask a person who missed the train.
To realise the value of ONE-SECOND, ask a person who just avoided an accident.
To realise the value of ONE MILLISECOND, ask the person who won a silver
medal in the Olympics.
Treasure every moment you have! And treasure it more because you shared it
with someone special, special enough to spend your time.
And remember that time waits for no one. Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a
mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present!!!
Friends are a very rare jewel, indeed. They make you smile and encourage you
to succeed. They lend an ear, they share a word of praise, and they always
want to open their heart to us.
In Hindi the word for both ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ is the same: Kal. The
word for ‘today’ is different: Aaj. So, when you say ‘yesterday, today and
tomorrow’ you say: ‘Kal, Aaj aur Kal’. Which makes me wonder, do both
yesterday and tomorrow have the same meaning and importance? Or the same
insignificance? But today is special and unique, with endless possibilities,
filled with options - shaped somewhat by what yesterday was, and, in turn
shaping what tomorrow will be. But ultimately, I guess your Kal (whichever
one you think it might be at any given moment in time) is what your Aaj must
NOT be. And your Aaj doesn’t really begin until your Kal is over or unstarted
(‘pas encore entamme’, as the French would say), not so much in terms of
events that happen, but more so with regard to how long they linger in the
form of worry, memory, anxiety and anticipation. So, I suppose I would call
Aaj everything that was joyous discovery - therefore, everything unplanned
(like this e-mail)!
Maneesha, Harrow, London
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