“Moreover, what we say of a life may be said of several lives. Since each is a passing present, one life may replay another at a different level, as if the philosopher and the pig, the criminal and the saint, played out the same past at different levels of a gigantic cone. This is what we call metempsychosis. Each chooses his pitch or his tone, perhaps even his lyrics, but the tune remains the same, and underneath all the lyrics the same tra-la-la, in all possible tones and all pitches.”—Gilles Deleuze, Difference & Repetition (83-84)
“A historic materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still and has come to a stop….[This present] supplies a unique experience with the past….enough to blast open the continuum of history.”—Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations (262)
The word ‘now’ has picked up a lot of rhetorical punch in the last few decades. Most of that derives from the increasing visibility of mindfulness meditation, both in spiritual and academic circles. It has mostly been a good thing and highlights what is implicit or just barely explicit in a lot of different spiritual practices. Still, there are some problems with the attention to now and they have bled through to discussions of embodiment and lived experience in troubling ways.
Most of those problems derive from a fetishization or idealization of the now which reduces it to whatever is right in front of your nose, within reach, within sight, on your tongue, or in shouting distance. Under this mistake, living in the now becomes increasingly synonymous with a deeper involvement with this narrow space. Touch it, put it in your mouth, scream in it, run around it. In short, fuck it.
As a technique, this actually has a good deal of value. Attention and involvement with the immediate does help us slow down and pull ourselves back into a deeper, more resonant now. However, the technique to get us there is not the same thing as the place and too often people seem to think they have reached some point of contact with the now when they are but on its threshold.
That is because the now isn’t abstracted from the past or future, but embeded within in it on its own terms. Each now, each moment, represents a particular locus of temporal force which aligns it more or less with other temporal moments. After we find our way into the moment, finding a way to appreciate the locus becomes the next task.
If it is difficult to find our way to the moment in the first place, difficult to dwell there, it is even harder to find and dwell within these alignments, in part because the alignments are in flux and we are only so flexible.
But when we do, that alignment flashes with moments of the past, moments of the future, parallel moments. We can experience the past-ness of the past, the future-ness of the future, points of rupture and opportunities for reunion. That seems to me one of the most basic elements of spiritual experience, around which a lot else congeals, from which a lot else develops.
What we can discover is that this kind of now isn’t the same thing as a discrete span of time measured by a clock, but a symphonic swell from which and in which we can lay hold of a sense of being, of selfhood, that allows us to orient the self and the swell, that commits us to a terrifying participation.
That orientation is a play of sympathies, from which we cannot disentangle ourselves and to which we cannot comfortably lay claim. Here prophetic force acquires its potency in sympathy with a past that rebukes the present, messianic hope raises up some fragment around which a future can be rallied.