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In Buddhist and meditation circles we hear a lot about “the present moment” or even “the Now Moment”.  “The Power of Now” is a current best-selling spiritual title.  The ease and joy of surrendering to the unconditioned present moment is its message.  Most meditation teachers use similar language, inviting presence and attention to just this moment.

The word ‘Now’ has the virtue of simplicity and poetic power, evoking inspiration and a sense of possibility.  But it is open to misinterpretation, particularly in the context of our culture of consumerism and the championing of the individual.

What is this ‘present moment’?  Is it an entity, a ‘thing’?  Or is the ‘present moment’ itself complex, subtle and dependently arisen?  Let’s take a closer look at the “ecology of now”, the “ecology of the present moment”, and the dangers of a shallow over-emphasis on ‘now’, particularly in the light of our society’s obsession with ‘Now’, with ‘The Moment’.

We live in a culture of busy-ness, of galloping consumption with little thought of future consequences, of information bombardment and short-term gratification of desires.  All this discourages us from paying attention to the bigger picture of ‘Now’ – to the subtleties of its larger spatial and temporal dimensions.

The technologies and economic force unleashed by modern industrial life radically alter our experience of time.  Trapped in an ever-shrinking box, we race on a treadmill.  “How are you?” we ask each other. “Busy, too busy” we answer.  The economy and its technologies depend on decisions made at lightning speed for short-term goals, cut off from nature’s rhythms and from the past and future as well.  Marooned in the present, we become blind to the vastness of time.  The company of our ancestors and the claims of our descendants become less and less real to us.

At the same time the compartmentalisation of consumer culture isolates us from each other and the fabric of meaning and purpose inherent in an interconnected life.  Epidemic depression is one side effect of a shallow ‘now-ness’.

In contrast the fullness, the deep ecology of ‘now’ contains all moments, present, past and future, all dimensions of time and space.  Or, as science tells us, “The time we think we inhabit is neither simple, linear nor objective.  We are immersed in pools of time and timelessness, in a sea of causality…..” (1)

Without awareness of the many layers of continuity that lead to and from this ‘now’ moment, we ‘privatise’ our insights, our awakenings, and settle for a shadow of their fullness.  Their fullness is to awaken to the web of causality in which we inter-exist, to awaken to active compassion, aware of our dynamic inter-existence with all life.

I spent time with a Tibetan Buddhist teacher in Western Australia, Chime Shaw.  He had translated some of the Tibetan chants into English. It was very powerful to be in a group of people rhythmically chanting: “I am a human being – it matters what I do.”  Indeed it does!

Each action begins with intention.  As we continue to practice being present, we become ever more subtly and precisely aware of our ‘sankharas’, our volitional formations: the ways we are shaped by our intentions, our energy, our will. And conversely, of the ways in which our intentions, our energy, our will, our choices in the present, shape who we and the world become.

Our present psycho-physical structure is not that of a continuing self-identical entity, nor is it dis-continuous from our past selves.   This ‘self’ that we quite usefully think we are in daily life, arises again and again dependent on past and present causes, contexts, conditions, and has effects that ripple into the present and the future.  It’s not necessarily a strictly linear process – the processes of dependent arising are subtle and complex, requiring us to pay close, but not overly focused, attention.  It’s more like holding a soft gaze on the present while extending your peripheral vision into the swirling patterns of the past, the present states and contexts, and the future.

The effect of our behaviour – our past behaviour on the present, our present behaviour on the future – is inescapable, because our choices and acts co-determine what we and the world becomes.  But the effects of the past are not cast in concrete, because the sankharas themselves can be altered by present intentions and actions.

A human life is considered to be incomparably precious because intention is so important and choice so consequential.  Of all the billions of other life forms, only humans can alter experience through decision – about how to perceive things, and about how to act.  This is indeed a responsibility worthy of our deep consideration.

We are born amongst the political, social and economic views of our times, and into the political and economic institutions formed by those and past views and actions.  But we are not stuck with those views, or those ways of doing things, those institutions.  Because they depend on our participation, in so many possible ways, they can change.  They can come to mirror our truest intentions.

Since we as a species have no future apart from the health of this whole organism of the earth, her atmosphere, and our fellow creatures, a return to a more organic, ecological experience of time is a matter of survival.

We don’t need to wait until we have created new institutions.  We can begin now – through mindful awareness and the choices that arise from that.  We can know time’s rhythm in the present breathing of our body, the present flow of our thoughts and feelings, sensing how all of this connects us with the past and future. As we reinhabit time, and experience the full ‘ecology of now’

In the flow of present perception and response, choices can be made that open broader vistas to discern and know, wider opportunities to love and act.  We can speak our heart-felt intentions to each other, and join our actions together for the benefit of all beings.


(1)  Michael Shallis (astrophysicist), “On Time”, quoted in Jeremy W. Hayward, “Shifting Worlds, Changing Minds : where the sciences and Buddhism meet”.  (New Science Library, 1987)