How long is ‘now’, the gap between the past and future? (continued) – New Scientist

Posted: March 9, 2021 at 11:48 pm


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Buddhists recommend living in the present moment. How long is this gap between the past and the future?

Andrew Fenn, Venerable Sampasadana (a Buddhist monk) Perth, Western Australia

The whole present moment idea is probably a little inaccurate. There is no sense of the Buddha using it in that form in the earliest texts, except as being mindful. It seems that it may well be a modern inspiration that became pop culture.

A little-known fact about mindfulness is that the ancient Pali word sati (or smrti in sanskrit), from which mindfulness is translated, means memory or recollection. It is about being mindful of what we have been trained in, in order to avoid unnecessary harm, delusion and conflict to oneself and others.

Buddhist practitioners are likewise taught to recollect why we are doing things, to realise there is a clear cause-and-effect going on. This is just a small part of what is called dependent origination in Buddhist lingo, which is the idea that the existence of any given phenomenon is dependent on the existence of other phenomena.

The present moment concept might be a modern idea. There is no sense of the Buddha using it in that form in early texts

Education is very important. We say samma sati, meaning right mindfulness, fully understanding that there is a wrong type of mindfulness. It was always meant to be used in an informed context with other factors, such as right view and right intention, and never on its own where it may easily be harmful.

The practitioner gains a clear realisation that while there is no absolute free will, we do have responsibility for and some agency over our choices, and positive change only starts from the here and now.

The whole living in the moment thing can be a trap since, as any good meditator knows, by the time you have experienced something and it has entered your brain, it has already gone into the past.

Bob McCrossin, Cooroy, Queensland, Australia

In a previous response to this question, Hillary Shaw discussed quantum Buddhists and black hole Buddhists who experience a very small gap between past and future, which is the present moment.

Yet consider the relativistic Buddhist. The laws of relativity state that an object travelling at the speed of light a photon, for example doesnt see time passing at all.

From the time when a photon is created until it hits something, no time at all passes. If created in the big bang, a photon has no past, no present and no future.

From our perspective, however, photons of the cosmic microwave background have existed for the entire age of our universe, more than 13 billion years. How can something that is measurable and therefore exist have experienced no time at all? Since time doesnt exist in photon nirvana, does it actually exist at all?

Jim Bailey Southampton, UK

No one, as far as I know, has shown that time moves in a series of quanta in the way that electromagnetic radiation does, so it follows that there can be no now, and everything is either in the future or in the past.

Time doesnt stand still; it is a continuum. From this, it follows that nothing can be anywhere either, since to be somewhere requires time to stand still while the being is going on.

Everything is moving and time is merely a way of describing the amount of that movement taking place.

Peter Holness, Hertford, UK

This intriguing question delicately balances perception, physics, psychology and perhaps even religion.

A possible answer is that we sail through space-time on a perceptual spike of space-time, which is a pulse with zero or infinitesimal width. The caveat is whether we accept the existence or convenient fiction of time. All we are reasonably sure of is the existence of change.

John Stevens, Bad Mnstereifel, Germany

It isnt just Buddhists who live in the present moment. We all do.

When I am out walking, my eyes will perhaps focus on a patch of sunlight, which I recognise as such after a few milliseconds. The next moment, the squelching of my wellies may trigger a memory that lasts for a second or two. This perception is then, perhaps, replaced by a pang of hunger, which sets me planning a future meal.

All the while, I am in my perceived present, never in the past or the future. My memory of the past is my momentary present, and the future meal is also my momentary present. In that sense, I am only ever in the present.

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How long is 'now', the gap between the past and future? (continued) - New Scientist

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March 9th, 2021 at 11:48 pm

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