Unthinkable: Is ‘living in the now’ such a good idea?

The mindfulness industry tells us to ‘be in the present’ but is that meaningful or desirable, asks philosopher Seán Enda Power

An ever-expanding mindfulness industry tells us to “live in the now” and to “be present” in the moment. But what do these exhortations mean when the notion of time is still up for grabs between scientists and philosophers?

Great minds such as Albert Einstein and Martin Heidegger have grappled with the question of whether time is real or an illusion. There is still no definitive answer but that is not stopping academics such as Seán Enda Power, lecturer in philosophy at UCC, from trying to make sense of it all. Power is researching perceptions of time and whether our conscious experience of it is hallucinatory or illusory. So who better to answer the question of whether "being present" is a meaningful or desirable condition?

Although he doesn’t set himself up in opposition to theories of mindfulness, Power provides today’s idea: “The present is not always the most important time.”

How can one distinguish the real from the illusory?

“An illusion needs an appearance of something. For example, if a shining light – such as a star in the sky – is illusory, it must also be apparent. In contrast, reality doesn’t need appearances. If the light is real it needn’t be apparent at all.


“This doesn’t mean that appearance must be different from reality. It is possible for something to be both apparent and real. In fact, that’s how we naively think of our visual experience in most cases. If we have an experience that is apparently of a shining star in the sky, we also take it that there really is a star shining up there.

“Reality is also relevant to illusions. In an illusion, reality clashes with appearances. If we see a star in the sky which seems to shine, and no star is shining there, then we are under an illusion of its shining.”

Does this mean we can only say something is an illusion if we know the “real” equivalent? Can we say, for example, that someone who thinks they are reaching out their arm and touching Betelgeuse in the night sky is experiencing a hallucination without us knowing precisely how far one needs to travel to touch Betelgeuse?

“The part of reality relevant to illusion needn’t include all the facts, it need only include the facts relevant to appearances. In your example, in order to believe there’s a hallucination, we need only believe this: Betelgeuse is too far to touch. If we’re confident about that, we can be confident that, if it seems to someone that they can touch Betelgeuse, they are hallucinating.

“However, just because we’re confident doesn’t mean we’re right. We might have some facts wrong, our beliefs about reality skewed and our interpretations of some experiences as hallucinatory skewed along with them.

“For example, say the following is apparent to me: a friend reaches up for a star and manages to take it out of the sky. I come to the following conclusion: I’m hallucinating; no one can do that.

“However, I’m missing a fact about what’s really going on: I’m in a planetarium. The ceiling is covered in bulbs to match the constellations. These can be easily touched. As such, my experience is correct; it’s just that my beliefs about what I’m experiencing are wrong. What I believe to be a hallucination is not one.”

There is a fashion for theories of mindfulness, partly inspired by Buddhist teachings, which place an emphasis on “being present”. But is “being present” either meaningful or desirable? 

“Mindfulness is not my area of research but my eastern philosophy colleagues tell me ‘being present’ is not so important in academia, which is more concerned with nonduality and right-thinking. However, it seems to be a different case in practice. And I am a little puzzled to what ‘being present’ refers.

“Where it is mentioned, ‘being present’ seems to refer to the awareness and acceptance of one’s thoughts, body, and environment. One might also call this an awareness and acceptance of one’s own embodiment, as well as the real implications of one’s thoughts. However, I’m not sure how helpful it is to call this ‘being present’. The ‘presence’ seems to me to be epiphenomenal – meaning it is something additional which does no work.

“Given certain ways of thinking about time, ‘being present’ is arbitrary. It is simply being ‘now’ as opposed to ‘then’. The ‘now’ of one event (for example, your reading this) is the ‘then’ of another (for example, my writing this) and vice versa. If you are being present in this sense, it’s quite trivial and not particularly meaningful. It is easy to be present; you just have to be at some time.

“The emphasis on being present could mean that the time you are at ought to be the most important or meaningful time. But I disagree. Sometimes what happens at other times appears more important to us.

"Maybe that appearance is mistaken. Maybe it is an illusion. To quote Bowie's Fill Your Heart: 'Don't play the game of time / things that happened in the past / only happened in your mind / so forget your mind / and you'll be free.'

“But I don’t think the present is always the most important time. Relief and grief, for example, are powerful emotions. They are about other times. Other than the feelings themselves (which can be pleasurable or painful), what is happening at the time they are being experienced is less important than the time that feeling is about.

“As for action, the results of action are only at another time: the future. I cannot act to bring about what has already happened or what is happening now.

“This leads to my final worry: focusing on something ‘being present’ could lead to inaction. This could be an admirable stillness. But it could also be passivity.”

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