Practical Philosophy

The Hourglass Neck of Now

Time expands out away from us in either direction. In the present moment, right now, there aren’t all that many possibilities you need to consider and worry about; there isn’t really much to do. Now is simple because it’s so close. As we get further away — in either the past or future direction — we get the option to entertain all kinds of possibilities like “What if…?” and “It would be nice if…”.

Time, in this way, works a bit like an hourglass. And the present is the small narrow neck of the hourglass through which everything that was the future travels on its way to becoming the past. But when you really sit and stay and live in that hourglass neck, you realize you don’t have much to worry about or stress. After all, grains of sand will keep coming down the hourglass until they don’t. You just need to rest in that present moment and the sand will go about its business. Where each grain ends up? No need to worry. Where exactly this one came from? Not something you have to know.

The power of “now” is that you really can, if you open fully and accept it, rest comfortably in it forever. We find this very hard to do because we get distracted. We find it hard to stay because all these curious grains of sand are floating by. If we want, we can follow and chain out into an imagined future forever. If we want, we can follow those grains back into their past forever, or in any of a million directions of fantasy.

A common objection we raise to the idea of hanging out in the “now” is that we can’t  strategize there. That it blocks us from learning from the past or projecting and planning about the future. And there is wisdom in the complaint. But it is worth recognizing how little actual time we spend doing those things — learning from the past and planning for the future — and how much time we instead spend idly speculating and entertaining ourselves (or worse yet, getting ourselves worked up and worried) instead of wisely using the past and future for places we journey to for guidance from time to time.

The neck of the hourglass is narrow. But it’s got a beautiful and reassuring simplicity in its narrowness. It can be a great source of confidence and comfort. We can rest there and be safe and secure, knowing that trouble is busy elsewhere. It’s not easy, but when you really are able to stay, many other things become quite clear.

Standard