The Transformation of the Present Moment

Generally we assume that the world just exists – sitting there dead and meaningless – the object of our perceptions. The world doesn’t just exist – it shows up. It presents itself to us through layers of interpretation. William James talked about our experience of the world as being ‘thick’ – thick with layers of meaning, understanding, conceptualization, interpretation, intention, etc.

The world doesn’t just sit there passively being perceived. It is wrapped in an active ever-shifting interpretive blanket. What we perceive as the world is not the thin surface of reality. We always touch the world through the thickness of meaning that has been draped over it.

Each and every moment presents itself in a state of bursting fullness. Our fears, dreams, aspirations, desires, intentions, thoughts, memories, feelings, sensations, beliefs, and understandings all show up as aspects of the immediately percieved present.

Most of us have been trained to imagine that our dreams, aspirations, fears, etc. exist inside of us. They drive us to action as forces that come from our inner being, our mind or our psyche. This is certainly one way to think about it, but another – equally valid – interpretation of our experience is that all of these supposedly ‘internal’ experiences arise as part of the immediately experienced present. They are a part of this and every moment – not a part of us.

The American philosophers William James and George Herbert Mead developed philosophies of the present moment, as did the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. I believe that we would do well to relook at these. In fact, I am passionate about the implications of them – especially for human transformation.

My experience has been that the kind of change that is truly remarkable is the kind that we only see in retrospect. We look back over our shoulders and marvel at who we have become. We are surprised by how we just behaved, what we just did or didn’t do. We realize that in similar situations in the past we have always acted one way and this time, without making any effort, we spontaneously responded differently. When confronted with this experience of change we often interpret it as meaning that we have changed. We believe that we have developed new habits, intentions or preferences, or that we have dropped old fears and limitations.

If we look closely at these moments of realized transformation we will see that there is another – again equally valid – interpretation. What we will see is that what actually happened was that the world showed up for us differently. The ‘thickness’ of the present moment was altered. It now contains different intentions, desires, and beliefs, and is perhaps devoid of old fears and habits. We live in a new experience of the world; a new immediately experienced present moment.

William James, and George Herbert Mead both recognized that there might be a distinct advantage to this ‘present moment’ interpretation of change and so do I. The advantage is that it allows us to let go of the idea that we are a ‘self’ that is changing. An entity called ‘me’ that is acquiring new characteristics or giving up old ones. Neither James nor Mead believed that there really was any such thing as a ‘self’ that exists as a transcendent entity at the source of our being.

Both of these philosophers felt that the process of change is potentially hindered by holding on to some strong notion of a fixed entity that must be altered if we are to be different. They both saw change as something that happens not in some fixed entity, but rather in the complex interaction at the interface of what I experience as me and what I experience as the world outside of me. It is in the dance of this interface of interaction where all the transformation takes place – not in some fictitious entity. This is perhaps only one of several equally valid interpretations of reality – but I believe it is an interpretation that is in some ways more accurate to our experience and that will generate a fluidity of transformation that is not possible if we cling to some notion of being a fixed self. I am looking forward to further developing these ideas in future posts.