Currently, the idea of “being in the here and now” is à la mode. and I find it a truly interesting matter to reflect upon.
Here and now I am sitting in the middle room in my house in France. The walls are white. The wood stove is black. Observations of this kind seem to introduce a simplicity into my existence and this is something to treasure. In the precise moment that I am making such an observation I am not thinking about whether the car insurance bill needs to be paid, whether the cat needs feeding, what work I am going to do later today and so forth. Thus, to focus upon the here and now can provide a welcome distraction from other thoughts that might be relatively more stressful. This is true notwithstanding the fact that I appreciate my car, love the cat and will probably enjoy the work I shall do.
When I call it distraction I am referring to the fact that the mind always has a focus, broad or narrow, and that when we focus on one thing we inevitably exclude other things. This is a strength and a weakness. It enables concentration and introduces a corresponding and complementary blindness. The things that I am not thinking about remain and will draw my focus sooner or later. My here and now will suddenly be filled with the sound of the cat at the door demanding attention. So we can say that being in the here and now does not, of itself, solve problems; it simply gives us a break from them. Such breaks, such moments of stopping to look, are certainly valuable.
Then we can consider what we experience when we do stop and look. To perceive is also to construe. We are programmed to make sense of things. Why do I call this a room and not a cave? Why my home and not a prison? Why in France? I am sure that the lizard on the wall does not think that he is in France, nor that he is in David’s house, nor, probably, is “house” at all a meaningful idea to him. You might say that that is because lizards are differently constructed to us, but this argument does not stand up to much scrutiny. I do not know for sure what goes through the head of the lizard, but we can reliably assume that it is mostly about food, sex, warmth, protection and bodily well-being. How different is that from you or I? The differences arise when we consider experience. The lizard is probably acutely aware of certain contours in the wall surface, certain cavities where more than once it caught a fly, certain spots where the angle of sunshine is most pleasing, and many other details that I do not notice and have no feelings about; or if I do notice, probably have quite different feelings about, such as, “I really should mix up some lime and fill in that hole one day.”
I experience this as “my”, “house”, in “France” because of my history as a member of the human tribe that has created the useful fiction of countries in order to keep large numbers of our kind organised in a moderately civilised manner, that constructs shelters in a certain way and allocate another useful fiction that we call ownership - this one mostly designed to distribute responsibility - and these things that I construe make a huge difference to how I feel about what I perceive. Sitting in my home in a country that is organised and at peace feels very different from sitting in a prison in an anarchic land, but the walls might still be white and the stove black.
We now, perhaps, start to see two important things about here-and-now-ism. The first is that it can be useful, and an important spiritual discipline, to be able, when one is in prison in an anarchic land with no certainty that one will not be executed tomorrow, to be able to stop and look and see that the walls are white and the stove is black and that the concrete realities of this moment are actually no different from when one was sitting at home elsewhere. Such a reflection can save one from panic and is one of the great “consolations of philosophy”. To be able to be as much at home in a cave as a palace and as much at ease in a palace as in a cave is a mark of spiritual maturity. It is a kind of sublime indifference that marks out the more enlightened person.
The second thing is that we can see that what one construes the here and now to be is a function of past experience and an imagined future. The here and now is given meaning by the there and then. It is only because of my past experience that I now experience this as a room in a house and it is only because of an imagined future social stability imparted to me by the concept of “France” that I have particular feelings and emotions at this moment. These feelings, these spontaneously arising thoughts and these emotions are also a highly significant part of my here and now experience, yet they are formed by the there and then. Thus the actual visceral experience of here and now is a function of there and then, just as it is for the lizard on the wall.
Now we might say that the person who is spiritually illuminated is emancipated from this circumstance of being a function of the past and future. He or she is able to be at ease even in the prison cell with death about to be inflicted tomorrow morning. However, this consolation of philosophy is itself also a function of an experienced past and an imagined future - merely a different one from that of the common person. The phrase “consolation of philosophy” (De consolatione philosophiae) comes from Boethius who, in 523CE, wrote a book with this title while he was in prison awaiting eventual execution. The book is one of the most important books of Western philosophy, bridging the classical and medieval ages and laying down a great many principles that are still to this day the foundation of enlightened thought, here using the term “enlightened” in the Western sense.
Boethius was able to express the consolation of philosophy so clearly because he had absorbed the wisdom of Christianity and of Greek philosophy, especially that of Plato. It was these perennial truths that he kept in mind that enabled him to treasure virtue over circumstance and continue to believe in the goodness of God in the midst of corrupt and treacherous human practice. When one has such a stock of wisdom in one’s heart, one is so much better equipped to “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. Hamlet should have read Boethius.
The idea of being in the here and now is currently connected with the fashion for the practice of “mindfulness”, but we should not lose sight of the fact that mindfulness - sati in Pali, smriti in Sanskrit - in its original Buddhist context, was essentially no different to the philosophy of Boethius, that one is protected by what one keep in mind. To have one’s mind or heart full of the right stuff will ensure that when one looks at the white walls and the black stove one will feel the joy of life and not the misery of despair.
So, I am still sitting in the middle room of my house in France. By most people’s standards it is a little chilly as I have not yet lit the big black wood burner. Perhaps I’ll go and do that now. After all, it has remained there patiently all the while that I have been philosophising and deserves to be fed. Of course, I am perfectly aware that such thoughts are all nonsense, but they too are a charming part of my here and now… or is it my there and then?