by Maira Butt
I’m about to turn 25 years old. A segment of time so small, it probably wouldn’t even be an unassuming atom in Mount Everest within the grander scheme of time, which is the existence of the Universe. Adding on the years to complete my projected life expectancy (let’s take it to be 75 years old) doesn’t do much to amplify that infinitesimally small space. It’s still only a drop of ocean water.
Being present in the only moment we are alive isn’t easy. We have memory, and we have imagination. Who we are today isn’t ephemeral and transient; we have scars, nostalgia, and reminiscences to prove it. Things that happened, people we met, pains and disappointments, achievements and celebrations. We set goals, harbour dreams, cultivate the emotions and butterflies that bring purpose and excitement to the years ahead of us. What psychologists call ‘Self Continuity’
Yet, life isn’t a dichotomy between being in the moment OR dragging the thread of existence from the past through the present and into the future.
I was at a wedding recently. I didn’t want to be there. I felt restless, sensory overload. I needed to be preoccupied, distracted somehow. I was disturbed by the intensity of my need to engage my body, or my mind out of the circumstances current to that moment. There was nowhere else to go. I did what I usually do when thoughts race and surroundings are trapping. I turned my attention outward to my surroundings, focusing on the life force of the living, breathing people around me. The vibrancy and vitality of the colour and decorations; the sound of the music – religious devotionals intermixed with bhangra songs laden with innuendo.
Emotionally, I craved the end of the event. I wanted to be in bed with a good book and a cup of hot green tea with honey. I focused in on my Dad meeting and greeting old friends. Saw my brother, grown and mingling with new people, forming acquaintances. The music tumbled over and over itself in the background. I looked at my nails, blue tie-dye pattern similar to distressed denim. I looked over at the bride, heavy with decoration.
It dawned on me then that the event was already over. Everyone was both unborn and passed away. We were all on a boat headed towards the same destination, ‘at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour’.
Partly, the restlessness comes from a desire to do something, to exert some influence, to hold some form of reign over my surroundings. To prove I am worthy of the miracle of life; express my aliveness. As I grow older, I realise what a futile endeavour this is.
It’s an experience I think is most aptly summed up by Aleister Crowley (whatever you think of his philosophy, politics and practices, I think this extract is a relatable summation of the human condition and its repeated yearning for the transcendent):
‘…I was appalled by the idea of the futility of all human endeavour. Suppose, I said to myself, that I make a great success in diplomacy and become ambassador to Paris. There was no good in that – I could not so much as remember the name of the ambassador a hundred years ago. Again, I wanted to be a great poet. Well, here I was in one of the two places in England that made a specialty of poets, yet only an insignificant fraction of the three thousand men in residence knew anything about so great a man as Aeschylus. I was not sufficiently enlightened to understand that the fame of the man had little or nothing to do with his real success, that the proof of his prowess lay in the invisible influence which he had had upon generations of men. My imagination went a step further. Suppose I did more than Caesar or Napoleon in one line, or than Homer and Shakespeare in the other- my work would be automatically cancelled when the globe became uninhabitable for man. I did not go into a definite trance in this meditations; but a spiritual consciousness was born in me corresponding to that which characterizes the Vision of the Universal Sorrow, as I learnt to call it later on. In Buddhist phraseology, I perceived the First Noble Truth- Sabbe Pi Dukkham- everythin is sorrow. But this perception was confined to the planes familiar to the normal human consciousness. The fatuity of any work based upon physical continuity was evident. But I had at this time no reason for supposing that the same criticism applied to any transcendental universe. I formulated my will somewhat as follows: ‘I must find a material in which to work which is immune from the forces of change.’ I suppose that I still accepted Christian metaphysics in some sense or another. I had been satisfied to escape from religion to the world. I now found that there was no satisfaction here. I was not content to be annihilated. Spiritual facts were the only things worthwhile. Brain and body were valueless except as the instruments of the soul.’
Superficially, you can read this as a man who knows he will never be immortal, eternal, as famous or as powerful as he wants to be. You can also read this as a man who has completely unravelled the concept of time in relation to his own existence. If we hold on to time, our lives are indeed meaningless and futile.
But within this world, there is a material within which all things work, live, behave, live and die. This material or existence is immune from the forces of change. It was here before we were born, and it will be here after we die. It was there before the Big Bang, in the potentiality of that explosion and it will be there no matter which cataclysmic or cosmic event hails the destruction or expansion of the Universe as we know it. This Source, holds everything together. We emanated from this Source. And so, the parts of us that are outside of space and time can operate within this material in order to stay true to our timelessness, our exemption from the magnetic pull of the distractive idiosyncrasies, anachronisms, and embellishments of the generation, the time zone or period, that we reside within.
I looked on at the wedding with a rare experience of nostalgia, a memory that I was living and breathing within, a part of the future hope that the family involved had held within their hearts. Without consciously thinking about it, or framing every moment in this narrative, just a realisation is enough to let go of each moment thereafter. As humans, we are forgetful. Nietzsche said ‘When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago.’ No doubt, I’ll find myself visiting this experience again when I am depleted, restless and exhausted with my searches.
Living in the present moment is powerful, revitalizing and energizing. Transcending the present moment, allows us to work within this world, to be in the world, connected to the material Reality of all that surrounds us, but not to be of it.
 Sani, F. (2010). Self continuity: Individual and collective perspectives. Psychology Press.
 Vladimir Nabokov quoted in: Yalom, I. (2008). Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Dread of Death. Britain: Piatkus Books.