Behold This Day

What if tomorrow did not exist?

When we divest ourselves of magical thinking and let go of ideas of supernatural beings, we also release the idea of ourselves as a supernatural being. While recognizing our talents and intelligence as humans, we also realize that we are natural animals within the matrix of the phenomena of life on this planet. If we are to progress in our thinking beyond the illusions of religious myth, we must at some point come to terms with the idea of our own total death.

Although disturbing, this is a necessary and healthy contemplation, as it focuses us very firmly on the immediate process of living our lives with as much energy, creativity, and accomplishment as we can muster.

It is easy to say these things, but I did not truly understand them until I experienced an almost visceral shock while walking past the place where I work not long ago. Training my mind to think in non-magical, limited-life ways seemed fairly easy, and as I came to and fro from my windowless office each day, I would try to consciously “smell the roses” as I passed the nicely landscaped exterior. I would think to myself, “This beauty is real and it is in existence right now, at this moment. Don’t take it for granted.”

It must have been after doing this for a few days that my subconscious mind, that little scared boy inside my cognitive mind, finally “got it” about the importance of the present moment. Immediately, a surprising shock went right through me and I had to stop and wait a moment for it to pass. It was not a shock of fear. Rather, it seemed as though some kind of new concept or true understanding was just about to appear. This happened several times over the next several days, and I began to wonder why I was having this particular jolting reaction. I decided to study the matter and try to pin down the idea that seemed just out of reach.

We’ve all heard the now cliche phrase, “carpe diem” or “seize the day,” and although it is certainly one of the best statements of philosophy to have become a cliche, it only goes so far. It is a simple injunction to do something about our limited time, but it doesn’t go any deeper than the shoe company’s motto of “just do it.” The idea that I was grasping for was richer and more penetrating than just “seize the day.”

I recently read an account of a well-known man of my community who, in his late 80’s and in obviously failing health, still took a daily walk with a young friend. This friend was amazed that the older man did not seem to be interested in trying to squeeze more and more experiences and accomplishments into his limited final days of life. Instead, he was interested in going slower and trying to do fewer things. Each morning he would tell his friend to “Behold this day!” I believe this man had grasped something very important - something we all need to learn if we are to live our lives fully.

What was important was not even the beholding or seizing of the day, as such, but rather the awareness he had of the powerful value and singular importance of each moment as it occurred. He had learned to extract himself from the stream of clock time and look at each moment as it happened as if it were the only moment ever to have happened.

Our natural focus seems always trained a few steps, hours, or minutes ahead of where and when we are. This is logical - a preservation instinct strongly embedded in our animal psyche. “If I am not paranoid about what is coming at me next, I might be harmed.” This is such habit, that it causes an unfortunate side effect. In our forward focus, we tend to minimize the importance of what we are doing in the present moment - even forget about the present moment as we train our minds on the “next step” or the “next thing”. This has the effect of making the present moment seem mundane, something to shrug off as unimportant. After all, we took care of the present moment a moment ago when it was the future next step! That next step seems so important that we forget to purposefully watch ourselves as we take the step right under our feet.

The remarkable thing, however, is that the step under our toes - the present moment - is not only not mundane, it is the only moment that even exists. We all think about the future and the past. Those times and the contemplation of them determine who we are and who we are going to become. I still plan my retirement and next year’s vacation, and I plan to live to be 100, science and nature willing. In discussing the importance and nature of the present moment, I don’t wish to minimize the importance of thinking about the future (in particular). The thing we must realize, however, is that even our planning for the future occurs in the present moment. It is a live activity. Whether we are planning our retirement package or where we are going to have lunch, we do so in the present moment. This moment, then, becomes an eternal moment.

The person I was before this moment no longer exists. After this moment, I do not exist. Each moment is our only moment, and each moment is our last moment. Thus, all the import of our lives is focused on right now. Whenever I truly “get” this, it sends an almost visceral charge or shock through me. This is how the old and dying man could release the need to accomplish and do and get things during his last weeks and days. He could simply and very deeply exclaim, “Behold this day!” and live within that very moment as a complete and accomplished being.

I once saw an animation of a view from space of the Earth that quickly zoomed down through the atmosphere toward a continent and then down through clouds to a terrain, and so down to an individual cityscape and finally down to an individual man laying on the grass of a meadow. In leaving the mythical concepts of Christianity behind me, this is the kind of zoom-in focus I’ve experienced. Leaving the idea of eternal life and vast stretches of time available to me, I have zoomed in to a view that is the scale of my own physical life. At first, I thought this was stark enough and I expected my understanding of time to settle at that scale - one human lifetime.

I think the surprising shock I felt when walking to work was the shock of yet another level of zoom-in. The scale just got reset once again. This time, it was to the present moment itself, and only that moment. Eternity–to one human lifetime–to right now. A breathtaking and shocking ride to be sure, but a healthy one and a resetting of perspective that provided the understanding I needed to replace the solace of an eternal life, a comfort now lost.

In a way, I feel like I have regained eternal life in a philosophical manner. I know that I shall not always live in my physical life, but I also understand that the present moment is always here - is itself eternal. I can behold that moment and all that is in it for as long as I am alive, and I can take great joy and comfort in using the power of the present moment to learn and create and love and serve.

Lest it be said we are playing unfair games with words like eternal, I would say that the important thing here is not definitions, but attitudes and understandings. The dying man knew he was dying. We all must still plan for our future life. We can do all things better, though, if we live in each moment understanding that that is all we really have to grasp. We will live our lives with much more effectiveness and power if we shift our values to the present moment and not allow our instincts to trivialize or ignore it. Religion trains us to focus our eyes and our hearts afar on the eternal life ahead. Rationalism and nature compel us to focus on ourselves in place in time–right now.

I once camped in the desert, unknowingly only a few hundred yards away from a den of coyotes. They were completely silent during the day and night, but just before dawn, a surprisingly loud chorus of howling erupted for a few minutes, then settled back to silence. I think they were acknowledging or even greeting the dawn and declaring their own existence to themselves and their companions. The experience of hearing them so close made a lasting impression, and I often think that we would all be better off if we could focus our attention so completely on our present moment the way the coyotes do. We should all sing out at every moment, “The night has passed. The dawn is here and we are alive!”

The present moment is not mundane. It is, in essence, extraordinary. -DC

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