Alienation from the present
August 23, 2010, 4:08 pm
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“Perhaps the biggest problem which our sense of linear time gives us is our alienation from the present-tense reality of our lives. The fact that we spend so much of our time immersed in thoughts about the future and past means that we don’t live fully–or even mainly–in the present. Rather than focusing our attention on the surroundings we’re in at a particular moment or the things we’re doing in the surroundings, we think about things we were doing–or surroundings we were in–at times in the past, or things we are planning to do in the future. This is slightly bizarre; the present is the only reality we have, we can only live in the present. The fact that we’re largely alienated from it means that, to a large extent, we aren’t actually living. As Blaise Pascal wrote, “We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee that only one that is… Thus we never actually live, but hope to live.”

More strictly, though, this isn’t specifically an effect of our awareness of the future and the past, but our thought-chatter in general. It isn’t so much that we think about the future and the past, but just that we think, that whenever our attention is free we become immersed in a world of abstraction in our heads. Rather than giving our attention to the present-tense reality of our lives, we give it to our thoughts–or, failing that, to distractions like television, computer games or newspapers. The only time we frequently come close to “living in the moment” is in moments of “active absorption” or “flow,” when our attention is completely concentrated on an activity–for example, dancing, writing, painting or playing a musical instrument–and get so involved in it that we forget ourselves and our surroundings. In these moments we do live in the present in the sense that we give our whole attention to something that we’re doing in the present. However, this is a very limited kind of present-tense awareness, since it involves “blanking out” the whole of our surroundings and our experience apart from one small part of it.

And our inability to live in the present is connected to the familiarity mechanism, too, which makes our present surroundings and the things we experience in them appear so drearily familiar to us that we don’t feel the need to pay attention to them, just as we don’t feel the need to watch an old film which has been on TV dozens of times before.

The ability to live fully in the present is one of the benefits that what I call the “trans-Fall” state of being brings us. In the words of D.H. Lawrence, there is a “marvelous rich world of contact and sheer fluid beauty/ and fearless face-to-face awareness of now-naked life” waiting for us, if we can manage to subdue our constant thought-chatter and transfer some of the vitality we waste through it into our perceptions of the world around us.”

~Steve Taylor
The Fall:
Evidence for a Golden Age,
6,000 years of insanity,
and the dawning of a new era

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