Asking “What is the present, past and future” seems like a silly question. Everyone knows that the past is what has happened, the present is what is currently happening, and the future is what will happen, right? Not exactly. To begin with, the present really is the past. “What?” you ask. Let me explain.
What is the Present?
We consider the present to be whatever we are perceiving at the present moment. At this moment, you are reading this sentence, and so you think in the present you are reading this sentence from this page. But, for you to read this sentence light first has to travel from the page to your eye, than the signal must travel to your brain, your brain must perceive the signal, translate and interpret it, and finally, the part of your brain that deals with language compares it to words you have learned and translates the written word into thoughts. By the time your brain has understood the sentence, a small amount of time has passed from when the light actually left the page. By the time you have perceived and understood the sentence the moment that you actually looked at the sentence is in the past.
I will call the “true present” as being the moment that the light left the page. I will call the “perceived present” as being the moment that you perceive the page and its meaning in your mind. The difference in time between the two events is very small; a fraction of a second, but understanding that this difference exists changes everything.
We consider the “perceived present” as being the present, but in reality, by the time we perceive an event has happened using any of our five senses, the event has already occurred and is now in the past. Human beings live in a reality that is a fraction of a second behind the true present. Our brain is wired to deal with the past. Memories can seem to be very real and appear to be just like something that is occurring in the present. Why? Because memories and the perceived present really are the same thing – views of the past. It is hard for our mind to grasp this, as our mind tricks us into thinking that the perceived present is really the true present, but it is not. The entire workings of our mind are the manipulation, storage and interpretation of events that have already occurred.
Our mind perceives events that have already occurred and stores memories of events that have already occurred.
How do our actions occur in the true present?
There is, though, one problem with our mind working this way. While our perception of events is in the past, our actions are always in the true present. When you catch a baseball your hand must be in the exact spot where the ball is for you to be able to catch it. Yet, your brain can only perceive the ball’s location in the past, where the ball was a fraction of a second ago. To make matters worse, there is another fraction of a second delay between when your brain sends the signal to your hand to catch the ball and the time your hand actually gets the signal.
This time delay between perception and action really only matters when motion is involved. When reading this page it makes no difference that you perceive the page a fraction of a second after you actually look at the page. But, when it comes to a baseball moving at 70mph this fraction of a second difference between perception and action can make a large difference on the location of the ball.
So, how is it possible for someone to catch a baseball? One could argue that the brain can be trained to create action that is based on a prediction of the future motion of the ball. The brain knows that everything is a fraction of a second behind so it sends a signal to the hand to be where it calculates the ball to be a few fractions of a second ahead of where it perceives the ball to be. In this explanation, when dealing with motion, whether it is driving a car or hitting or catching the baseball, the brain is always creating action in the predicted future.
The mind is left in an interesting postiion. With information from the five senses always being in the past, the mind is forced to create predictions based on the probable future to create actions that are correct in the true present. One can easily see how this fits in with the concept of the Gunas.
The information from the five senses is in the past, it is rigid and locked, it is tamasic. The mind must create a prediction of the future based on this information, and as the future is fluid, it rajasic. The combination of the tamasic information from the five senses in the past with the rajasic prediction of the mind in the future creates actions that are perfectly balanced and satvic in the true present. Thus, the mind working with the five senses is the ultimate example of the balance of the rajasic and tamasic forces to create a sativc balance.
While we are not aware of the constant struggle that goes on in our mind as it process the information from the five senses, you can see that our normal way of thinking is the same struggle on a larger scale. Whenever you use your mind to make a decision you take information from your memory, from the past, and use it to create a prediction of events in the future to make a decision on what to do now. Whether the decision is about buying a new car, finding a new car, to date someone, or what you are going to eat tonight, the usual way of thinking is to gather information from the past in your memories, make predictions of likely future outcomes, and than make a decision on what you will do at the moment. There is, though, another way our mind determines what actions it should take - patterns.
Why are Patterns of Behavior Important?
With the brain already perceiving activities a split second after they occur, the brain has to speed up its responses. Reflexes, like pulling your hand away from a hot stove, never get to the brain - they go through a loop that does not include the brain and so occur before we realize anything has even happened. For situations that are not life threatening the brain does get involved, but it has its own way of reacting reflexively. The brain compares the present situation to past situations in your memory, and when it finds a memory that is similar to the current situation, it finds the response that was associated with this memory and than uses this response. This process bypasses your conscious thought. I will call responding to a particular situation in a particular way based on learned responses a "pattern".
Patterns of behavior are efficient and quick and only result in a very small amount of time being lost while finding an appropriate response. Patterns also allow us to respond to most situations without any thought, allowing your mind to use conscious thought to focus on other actives and work out more important problems.
The problem with patterns is that we often associate inappropriate responses with situations. Responses that result in angry words to yourself or to others is a common inappropriate response based on patterns. Because the mind is bypassing our consciousness when it responds using patterns, these responses happen before we even realize what has happened. Suddenly, we find ourselves responding in some way without any thought. Like a reflex, we are only aware of the response after it has happened. This leads many people to believe that they have no control over their responses, but that is not true. You can learn new responses to a situation, though it may take time and require patience.
The first step in changing patterns is to realize they exist. Because all of this happens without conscious awareness, we have to search out the patterns. Thus, you begin with first realizing that a certain situation makes you react in a certain inappropriate way. Than, you ask yourself “Why did that situation make me react that way?” Answering the second question make take a great deal of inner searching to bring deeply rooted patterns out of the depths of your mind. Once you find the pattern, than you must try to remove it and than replace it. As you can see, it is a very detailed process, but the first step in the process is to become aware of your actions. The article “Change Patterns” gives a very detailed explanation on what patterns are and how to change them if you would like more information on this.
How Do You Become Aware of Your Actions?
Fortunately, we do have a conscious mind that is capable of analyzing situations and even analyzing our own selves. The mind allows the more important situations that do not need an immediate response to go to the conscious brain for analysis and allows everything else to work off of patterns.
If something is not important but there is no situation in memory matching this current situation, than the decision as what to do in this situation is also passed to the conscious mind.
We can put together all of the above diagrams in one flow chart diagram that would look as follows:
How the Mind Creates Actions Flowchart
Of course, the real purpose of the conscious mind is to allow us to work on problems and find solutions to any task that we direct our conscious mind to. Because the mind can deal with most situations using patterns, we can work on a problem in our conscious mind without having to stop and think about most of the situations occurring around us.
One of the problems of living in the modern world is that there are so many things constantly happening around us that the brain has too much to process. When there is too much to process, the brain just starts responding to everything using patterns. Most people find that they are just running on autopilot doing multiple tasks at once using almost no conscious thought. While this might be quite efficient for multi-tasking and being productive, it forces one of the most important parts of your brain, your consciousness mind, to shut down. Eventually, a person begins to bypass their conscious mind in all situations, always relying on patterns for automated responses. If you have ever felt like you have no control over your behavior than this is likely what has happened to you.
We can regain control of our actions by creating situations that force our mind to use our conscious mind to make decisions. We need to create situations where our brain is comfortable doing this. Since using the conscious mind to respond to a situation is the slowest method of response, we need to create situations that are not threatening and do not require fast responses. We also need situations where there are not a lot of distractions occurring that the brain needs to deal with using patterns.
Doing asana, the postures of Yoga, is the perfect activity for us to do actions with conscious thought. When you practice Yoga postures you should practice where there are few distractions that your mind needs to deal with using patterns. You move into each posture with conscious thought, being aware of your body moving into the posture, feeling the body while in the posture, being aware of the muscles that are contracting, stretching and relaxing, and than being aware as you move out of the posture. In this way, Yoga becomes far more than just a physical activity, it is an activity of the mind and the body and provides ideal conditions for training the mind. Unfortunately, many people move through the postures without any conscious thought, running on autopilot, and they are missing one of the most important parts of doing Asana.
When you begin doing Yoga asana , you work on focusing your mind on only one part of your body. Is my knee bent correctly? Am I using the right muscles in my right leg? Is my back straight? Once you have started to learn how to use your conscious mind to control your body, your awareness spreads out and you start to become conscious of your entire body. You move from focused consciousness on individual parts of your body to a focused conscious awareness of your entire body. In my articles I will often say that the conscious mind can only do one task at a time, but a single task can have many different aspects. Thus, performing a Yoga posture is a single task, but it requires an awareness in your conscious mind of all of the different parts of your body. This type of awareness can become a valuable part of our life. For example, when talking to someone you can hear their words, see their expressions, feel their mood, sense what is underneath and be aware in your conscious mind on many aspects of the task of listening just like in doing a Yoga posture. Instead of spreading your mind over a surface awareness of many tasks you are focusing your conscious mind on the many levels of a single task.
Of course, there are many other activities that you can do that allow you to force the mind to pass the decision making process to the conscious mind. As one begins to train the mind to function using the conscious mind instead of patterns in Yoga or another activity, this will carry over to the rest of your life. In time, you can train your mind to become more focused and you can gain control over what is being sent to the conscious mind for analysis and what is being done automatically.
As your mind is only capable of analyzing one situation at a time in the conscious mind, doing more than one task forces the mind to do some of the tasks on auto pilot using patterns. Multi-tasking pushes the brain out of using the conscious brain and forces the brain to work with patterns. Slowing down, focusing on one task at a time, thinking about what you are doing, allows the brain to easily pass information to the conscious mind. Each action you take will be carefully thought out. Even though it will take longer to respond to situations, your actions will be more productive. For the human mind, often doing less allows you to do more. Doing three tasks at the same time inefficiently will probably take just as long to do each task separately in an efficient manner.
Actions that are created from conscious thought have a very focused, powerful energy to them. Your mind has analyzed the situation, created a response and than controlled the response. Because conscious thought has gone into that response you will also consciously place energy into that action. If your actions are based on love and good intention, than your conscious actions will be filled with an incredible powerful positive energy that can have the most amazing effects.
On the other hand, actions that are created from patterns are feeding off the energy of the pattern. They are like echoes of the original circumstances that led to the creation of the pattern. For example, imagine a child growing up in a household where every time there is a stressful situation the parents respond by yelling and getting angry. The child than learns a pattern that a stressful situation is associated with a response of anger. This is a very powerful negative pattern - it contains the negative energy of every situation where the child's parent's responded to a stress with anger and yelling. Once inside the child, it will grow, not only feeding of the energy of the parents but also feeding of every situation where the child responds to stress with anger. Eventually, this will begin to destroy the child from within as it constantly gets stronger. When the child responds to stress with anger and yelling based on this negative pattern, the negative energy of this pattern is released through this child's actions. As no conscious thought went into this reaction -it is just a mere reflection of the negative reactions stored in the child's memory - the reaction will be unfocused. Still, the reaction will be very powerful, but it will be like an echo spreading out over a canyon. Thus, the negative energy released from a negative pattern will spread out far and wide and affect many people and create a large disturbance. Those who are directly in the path of this negative wave will get the most powerful effect, but many others will also be affected. Clearly, we want to do everything possible to prevent such negative responses.
While it is good to replace negative patterns with positive ones, reacting using positive patterns still results in an unfocused response as there is no conscious thought invovled. As positive patterns tend to not be reinforced very much, their reaction is usually not that powerful. Using conscous thought to create an action allows you to focus and concentrate positive energy into your actions in a way that is many times more powerful than using positive patterns. This is why it is so important to learn to act from conscious thought instead of just reacting from patterns.
Seeing in the True Present - The Sixth Sense and the Purusha
While the brain is very smart and it is likely that it is somehow creating action based on its own calculations of where objects will be in the future, perhaps there is something else available that allows us to respond even faster. The expressions “go with your gut”, “don’t think too much”, “follow your instinct”, “feel the ball” all seem to say that acting in the true present actually involves shutting our mind off and turning something else on. Our mind perceives the world with our five senses in the past, we need something else that can perceive the world in the true present.
For most activities where the difference in perception and action makes no difference, such as any activity you do while sitting without motion, the brain can rely on the five senses. But what if there is a sixth sense that we can use to perceive the world around us in the true present, especially when it is needed? The sixth sense could help us to perceive in the true present and react immediately to what is occurring when motion is involved, such as catching an object, or when you are hunting or being hunted. If a lion is about to pounce on you, it does you little good to perceive it a split second later, as you are already dinner. But, if you feel the lion crouching, felt that it is about to jump, if you sense in a way that is beyond your five senses, you can react before you become dinner. Obviously, having a sixth sense would be an important survival skill when we lived out in the wilderness. It still is an important to our survival to allow us to understand the actions of others and to sense when we are in danger.
The idea of a sixth sense should not be too strange to you. We all have had experiences where we feel things a split second before they happen, a moment before we perceive them, or where we sense someone. How many times have we picked up a phone a second before someone calls? Most of us now have little awareness of this sixth sense because we live in a world that nearly all of our activities are done sitting down under conditions where the difference in perception and activity make no difference. In these situations we are relying on our five senses and use the perceived present. When we are out amongst people we try very hard to block out our connections to them and to isolate ourselves by turning off our sensing abilities. We rarely ever need to use our intuition, our sixth sense, in daily modern life. When we were hunter gathers, constantly on the move, active and always aware of our environment our sixth sense was in almost constant use and was very strong. If a child does not hear any language within the first few years of their life, they cannot learn to speak. Even if we have the capacity for something, if it is not used we can lose it. Thus, in the modern society we so rarely need to rely on the sixth sense that most of us cannot really use it.
Perhaps the sixth sense is nothing more than the mind being capable of sensing the electric and magnetic fields of living and non-living things around us and interpreting these energies just as the mind can interpret the signals from the five senses. This would be a very different type of sensing. Unlike the five senses that provide information in the past, an ability to sense the energy fields by the brain itself would mean that these fields would be sensed in the true present. If this was possible, than the brain could feel the energy fields of the ball as it is coming toward the hand and know exactly how to adjust its calculations of its time delayed visual information to find exactly where the hand needs to be to catch the ball. Our intuition becomes the information our mind is getting in the true present from sensing the energy fields around us. As our physical mind is set up to work in the past, we have trouble seeing and understanding the information the mind is gathering from the energy fields around us - it is almost as if there is something just at the edge of our consciousness, but we just don't know how to see it. It seems that there is another level of consciousness, a higher level, above our physical mind, that has a different awareness of the world around us.
What I am saying is of course nothing new, the idea of shutting the five senses off has been part of meditation and is an integral part of Yoga. Pratyahara, the Control of the Senses, is the fifth limb of the eight limbs of Yoga. Most meditation is about connecting into the energy of universe, connecting into your inner soul allowing you to find true self. Turning of your five senses allows you to connect into your inner self, find and release trapped negative experiences, and rise to a higher level. As you can see from our above discussion, controlling your five senses and shutting them off allows you to switch from thinking in the perceived present and to thinking in the true present. Yoga philosophy describes this entire concept in a very beautiful way that shows how deep their understanding of the human mind really was.
The article on the Purusa talked about how our consciousness is able to function in different vehicles and the higher vehicles allows us to have a higher level of consciousness and awareness. In this view, the moments when we can sense the world around us as if we have a sixth sense are brief glimpses of seeing the world with our consciousness at a higher level. It is through following the eight fold path of Yoga that you can learn how to control the movement of the consciousness into the higher levels giving you the ability to be aware beyond just the five senses.
Allowing the Purusha to operate in the higher vehicles so that the consciousness can become aware of events in the true present. This eliminates the difficulty that is created by information that is coming from the five senses that is in the past and must be balanced with a prediction of the future to create actions in the true present. Actions based on information created from the Purusha operating at higher vehicles can be in the true present. Not only can the Purusha sense events in the true present when the Purusha is in a higher vehicle, the consciousness can also be present within all of our body and create actions before we are even aware of them. This means that when your actions are focused completely on the present moment, not the future and not the past, you are accessing your Purusha, your soul.
The more you learn to focus your mind onto the present moment, to act with intuition and feel the true present, the more you can get in touch with your soul, the Purusha.
Constantly thinking on the past, of past mistakes and past errors, distracts the mind from operating in the true present and pulls you away from your awareness of your soul. Constantly thinking about the future, about possible rewards for your actions or worrying about consequences of your actions, also breaks your connection with your soul. Your past memories are there to guide you, give you information, but they should not control you. When every action is focused with conscious thought on the present moment, every action is based on creating harmony within yourself and the universe, than you have found a way to move your Purusha up to higher vehicles and to allow your consciousness to create actions based on a connection to the universal energy and knowledge. Acting with an awareness of your connection to the world and others around you, sensing what your actions do, and always acting in a way to create positive affects, allows you to move beyond finding present actions by using future predictions based on past memories.
For those who do not want to follow the Yoga path, just meditation alone is a great way to open up your mind, to feel the connections that exist between everything in the universe. If you are not comfortable with meditation, there are other ways to learn to turn on our sensing ability. It is really about opening up and sensing the world around you, to become aware of the energy and vibrations of life that is everywhere. A good place to go is the forest, especially one that is isolated from the noise and sights of mankind. Put your hand on a tree and feel its life force. What do you feel? I always feel the sun when I hold a tree. Walk slowly and quietly, or sit with your eyes closed, and try to feel for animals. Can you feel that an animal is nearby before you actually see or hear the animal? Generally, you can feel an animal the strongest when it makes movement as that creates a strong pulse of energy. Of course, this is just opening yourself up to the spiritual energy around you.
Acting in the True Present
Once we accept that we have a sixth sense, an ability to connect into the world around us and perceive events in the true present, than we can also ask the question “Can we actually act in the true present?” Well, of course, that would be impossible. Actions occur after something has been perceived and after a message has been sent to some part of the body to react, and therefore all action is a few milliseconds behind, right? Maybe. But what if we are able to influence objects around us, including our own body, in such a way that we are creating action in the true present? I believe it was in the film “What the Bleep” they mentioned that experiments have shown that we can act before our brain actually perceives. It is an interesting concept to think about, the possibility to both perceive and act in the true present, instead of the perceived present. Something to think about…
From our discussion of how the human mind perceives the present we have learned that the mind can create actions in three ways:
Using patterns can be thought of as acting in the past because you are using actions that were learnt and memorized at an earlier time. Conscious thought allows us to analyze our actions and base our actions on the current circumstances. Using patterns is quick and requires very little energy, but may result in wrong action because you are using actions based on past circumstances and not actions based on the current circumstances. Using patterns you can do many tasks at once, but the efficiency of these actions may be very low. Conscious thought takes more energy and concentration and requires the mind to work on one task at a time, but the actions created from conscious thought are more efficient, focused, powerful and appropriate to the current situation. All perception involves the viewing of past events. Conscious thought occurs in the true present, but if it is using information from our five senses, than our conscious mind is manipulating information that has already happened in the past. Using our sixth sense - connecting into the higher consciousness, the Purusha, allows us to connect into the universal consciousness and to see beyond the five senses, i.e. to see events as they are occuring in the true present. When we allow ourselves to connect into the universal energy, to connect to the higher consciousness, and to see the world in the true present moment, than our conscious mind can begin to actually create actions using information from the true present and can create actions with the greatest power.