Sunday, 14 September 2014

"It is always now" by Sam Harris

Picture of David Innes with a stuffed Valentine Day's puppy
The below transcript is from an interesting and inspiring talk given by Sam Harris back in April, 2012 at the Melbourne Convention Exhibition Centre.

"Sam Harris is a Co-Founder and CEO of Project Reason, a non-profit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. He received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA."

I actually want to talk today about death. Now most of us do our best to not to think about death but there's always part of our minds that knows this can't go on forever. Part of us always knows that we're just a doctor's visit away or a phone call away from being starkly reminded with the fact of our own mortality or of those closest to us.

Now I'm sure many of you in this room have experienced this in some form. You must know how uncanny it is to suddenly be thrown out of the normal course of your life and just be given the full time job of not dying or caring for someone who is. 

But the one thing people tend to realize at moments like this is that they wasted a lot of time when life was normal. And it's not just what they did with their time. It's not just that they spent too much time working or or compulsively checking email. It's that they cared about the wrong things. They regret what they cared about.  Their attention was bound up in petty concerns year after year when life was normal.

And this is a paradox of course because we all know this epiphany is coming. I mean, don't you know this is coming?  Don't you know there's going to come a day when you'll be sick or someone close to you will die and you'll look back at the kinds of things that captured your attention and you'll think, "what, what was I doing?" 

You know this, and yet if you're like most people, you'll spend most of your time in life tacitly presuming you'll live forever. I mean it's like watching a bad movie for the fourth time or bickering with your spouse. These things only makes sense in light of eternity. There better be a heaven if we're gonna waste our time like this. There are ways to really live in the present moment. What's the alternative?

It is always now. However much you feel you may need to plan for the future to anticipate it, to mitigate risks, the reality of your life is now. This may sound trite but it's the truth.

It's not quite true as a matter of physics, in fact there is no now that encompasses the entire universe. You can't talk about an event being simultaneously occurring here and one at the same moment occurring in Andromeda.

The truth is, now is not even well-defined as a matter of neurology. Because we know that inputs to the brain come at different moments and that consciousness is built upon layers of inputs whose timing to have to be different. Our conscious awareness of the present moment is in some relevant sense already a memory. 

But as a matter of conscious experience the reality of your life is always now.

And I think this is a liberating truth about the nature of the human mind. In fact I think there's probably nothing more important to understand about your mind than that if you want to be happy in this world. The past is a memory. It's a thought arising in the present. The future is merely anticipated, it is another thought arising now.

What we truly have is this moment. And this...and this...and we spend most of our lives forgetting this truth repudiating it, fleeing it, overlooking it. And the horror is that we succeed. We managed to never really connect with the present moment and find fulfillment there because we are continually hoping to become happy in the future and the future never arrives.

Now even when we think we're in the present moment we are, in very subtle ways, always looking over its shoulder anticipating what's coming next. We are always solving a problem and it's possible to simply drop your problem if only for a moment and enjoy whatever is true of your life in the present.

This is not a matter of new information or more information, it requires a change in attitude. It requires a change in the attentiveness you pay to your experience in the present moment.

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