Why? What do we have to learn from the present moment?
“Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero”, approximately “Pick the day without worrying about tomorrow”. Where does this quote come from? It is taken from the Latin verses of the poet Horace and its inspiration comes from Epicureanism and Stoicism. Mistakenly translated as “enjoy the present day” and understood as an incitement to hedonism, and therefore to excess – to hybris -, it is in reality an ode to the search for orderly, reasoned pleasure, which reaches its equilibrium point at an equal distance between the absence and excess of pleasure. It is, in short, an Epicurean philosophy that cultivates the art of living with pleasure under the constraint of discipline – finding one’s happiness in spite of constraint, or even in constraint, or even thanks to it – and under the aegis of an absolute certainty that the future is unpredictable and that everything is doomed to disappear – and, in so doing, that the present moment is the only one one that one has at one’s disposal until one’s death.
If the present moment has nothing else to teach us than what it already is, if it can only offer itself without ever promising anything else, can it teach us anything we don’t already know?
Yes, first of all because knowing that the present moment is the only temporality that we are given to live in continuously for the rest of our lives is not the same thing as understanding it metaphysically. Why is this so? Perhaps because accepting the idea of our own finitude and integrating the certainty of our own death to come is a difficult process that generates, in the psychoanalytical conception, an unconscious and specific defense mechanism, designated by the term death anxiety. Tomorrow will not necessarily arrive, and to understand this thought deeply, it is sometimes necessary to have lived, felt in one’s body this possible outcome, this eventuality: my body, as it is able to make me live each day, is also able to stop functioning suddenly. This means that our life is not the result of any necessity, otherwise we would not die; let’s banish from our vocabulary the “it must”, “I must” and other categorical imperatives which, very often, rob us of the present time under cover of promises for the future. On the other hand, if our life is not the result of a necessity, it is that of a choice, our choice to live, which is mathematically translated by the only temporality that we are materially able to “grasp”: the present. Indeed, when we project ourselves into the past or into the future, we are actually projecting ourselves into an imaginary space-time, because our memory evokes what no longer exists and our anticipation invents what does not yet exist. Since we cannot choose what does not exist, we are determined in our human condition, consciously or not, to choose in the present. This brings us to another observation: every moment to come is made up of the multitude of choices made in the present moment, just as every past fact, when it was present, influenced the present moment to come. In short, the only way to give direction to the course of events – if at all possible – is to do so in the present moment.
Once we are certain that only the present exists for a human consciousness, we must then be able to accept the strong constraint that the present moment imposes on us. We could in fact consider it as a demanding discipline, that of a care, a particular attention and a way of being in the world – present. This posture is not as obvious as it seems, which explains why disciplines like yoga and meditation are not always easy to access. What we are trying to achieve when we meditate, for example, is a level of concentration that allows us to relax absolutely: see the contradiction, to concentrate to relax. In other words, to be so receptive to the immediacy of our body, our sensations, our emotions, that we are somehow able to go beyond them through acceptance. What does that mean, exactly? What if this process of acceptance was only a work of awareness of the present time? What if the real path to a culture of inner peace were to pass through a metaphysical understanding of the absolute magic of the gift of life, which is at the same time nothing but constraint and which draws its power from the fact that it is constrained. In one formula: thanks to constraint, life! And thanks to the constraint, therefore, the present moment. What we project into the past or the future serves us most of the time to escape the constraint that the present imposes on us (indeed, in a temporality that does not exist, no constraint). But if constraint is the source of the very power of life, if it is an absolute condition of it, in the same way that death – as constraint – is an absolute condition of life, then what is the point of fleeing? For what purpose? To flee from life and its power in what it has of constraining and very often of magic? But who has never gone from Charybdis to Scylla to finally discover a hidden treasure revealed by a momentary difficulty of existence? As human beings, we have the task, the moral responsibility to take care of the quality of our pleasure, our happiness or our desires, whatever our objectives are, in the moment which is offered to us and no other, because to count on another temporality than the one which is offered to us to see them being carried out, it is to run after a world without life, a realm of the dead from where all constraint would be abolished – and with it all pleasure. The whole contradiction lies in our ability to accept that the present moment is forever ephemeral and yet accessible at every moment.
Let us accept the contradiction and the constraint, impotent mortals that we are, and in doing so, let us move towards the light.
When will it happen?
When to put this lesson of carpe diem into action? It would almost be enough to answer: “in the present moment” to conclude this reflection, but we will elaborate a bit. Whenever possible is a more accurate answer: whenever we feel that we can seize a particular moment, halo it with our joy, our laughter, our emotion or our awareness, let’s apply ourselves to do it, and seriously. It is a very important work that requires rigor and patience. It is necessary to be able to accept the moment that comes, with the harshness or the softness that it contains, in order to connect with what surrounds us, without judgment, at a distance of anticipation and regret. Each moment is unique, so each new pain that arises is not exactly like any other, just as each new happiness is always a little new. When we accept to live in the present moment, to embrace what comes before us, we are secretly obeying a maxim of Nietzsche: “Amor fati”, “love of destiny”, a love of becoming and of the chaos that is reality. In order to learn to love this becoming, whatever it is, and in spite of its promises of misfortune, the one who carries Amor fati in him gets rid of fatalism and a nihilism of “what’s the point?” in order to access the will to power. He widens his field of vision and passes from a rejection of existence by the absurd to the affirmation of a reality that has become his, that he has embraced, including in what it may have of chaotic and horrifying. All of man’s unhappiness is then soluble in Amor fati, which, far from making him a stranger to the world, reconciles him with reality and with its designated agent: the present time.
When we rejoice in difficulty, it is there, perhaps, that we can experience with the most relevance that we are in the world in the surest adequacy with the present.
How do you do it?
Reading philosophy is an excellent way to learn to live in the present. The themes of Time, Fate, Absurdity, Freedom and Death can be great sources of inspiration. Authors such as Nietzsche, Camus, Alain or nowadays Comte-Sponville will guide you in the understanding of these philosophical notions.
Meditation and yoga (meditation in movement) are also very effective remedies against the pain of the present. Going through the body rather than through cerebral rationalization can promote a letting go that is very beneficial for mental health.
A calm life and a daily attention to your well-being in general, through your sleep rhythm, your diet, your physical activity, your relationships, can really improve your ability to center yourself and to feel in phase with events.
Finally, and because learning to live in the present moment as fully as possible is one of the most difficult exercises there is, the exchange and conversation with a health professional – a psychologist, a doctor with whom you get along well, a physiotherapist… -or with a person with whom you have a spiritual or intellectual closeness – a friend, a family member, a religious person, an acquaintance who likes to write, reflect or practice meditation… – or with yourself – through writing, through any form of artistic expression in general and through sports – are strongly encouraged.
“My formula for human greatness is Amor fati. Nothing else should be asked for, neither in the past nor in the future, for all eternity.” Nietzche