Past imperfect, future tense: Understanding time and how we are enslaved by it, and steps to live in the Now

By Aditi Raman Shridhar
The watch on your wrist and the clock on the wall mean nothing to Mother Nature. To her, life is one constantly evolving moment – a perpetual cycle of impermanence – like a flower bud which is forever blooming and spreading its fragrance. But we human beings spend our entire lives tap-dancing between ‘past’ and ‘future’ and trying to make sense of the ‘present’. This makes us get stuck in time warps that don’t exist.

If time doesn’t exist for Mother Nature, why does it exist for us? Why do we keep grieving over a hurtful past or pining for an imaginary future? To understand this and stop being a victim of time, we need to define time for what it truly is – that Time is a human concept.

Time is a metric just like weight and a device just like money, car and technology that we human beings created to organize our lives. Time gives us a reference point in life. For example, if you have to call a friend over for dinner you need Time. If you lived in a timeless world, calling that friend over would be impossible because there wouldn’t be a method to indicate when to meet. But when we start getting controlled by Time itself, which is illusionary, it makes us completely delusional.

The actual pace of existence for Mother Nature is unknown but every creature discerns it in their own way. We human beings understand this pace to be like our breath (every inhale and exhale). In fact, every creature can discern Time only as per the speed of their breath. The breath alone can bring us in the ‘Now’. There is no other way.

One may raise a question here that if a hurtful incident has occurred which has become a past but has left its pain to get carried forward in the ‘now’, how do we live happily and truly in the present moment. The answer is to breathe and ‘Let Go’ of the hurt and the incident. If the hurt is unbearable, breathe deeply and center yourself in the ‘now’ and take action to heal it. Don’t dwell on it.


In physics, time is accurately described as “the indefinite continued progress of existence and events that occur in an apparently irreversible succession from a moment in the past through present to the future.” It is defined only by its measurement and what a clock reads. But human beings create their own illusionary clocks in their minds.

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It is easy to debate on how man-made creations such as television, phone and computers have empowered as well as enslaved us. But talking about Time in this manner sounds bizarre because we forget it’s man-made.

Intuitively we all understand the ‘present’ and know that the only true reference of time is the ‘now’ when we can feel our ‘existence’ and feel fully alive. But why doesn’t living in the present come easy to us? Indian yogis say it is because of lack of habit and unawareness. In the famous Indian spiritual book autobiography of a Yogi, Sri Yogananda’s teacher Yukteswar Giri explains to him that there are two parallel timelines that exist in our world simultaneously. “One is the ever-flowing pace of Mother Nature and the other is what humans have created to organize their lives. Instead of keeping them separate in our mind and balancing the two, we forget about the first one and make the illusionary time real.”

This always leads to misery because in the man-made time there is a past and a future which are both imagination and the mind loves to live in imagination. The ‘now’ is not an imagination, but a reality.

Popular spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle says that the mind uses several strategies to deny the present moment. “The mind uses three concepts to deny the present. These are ‘What if’ and ‘Wait for it’ and chronic dissatisfaction,” he adds. The mind’s biggest illusion is that human life is meant to keep constantly evolving, to become more as we are not enough. And it uses Time as its biggest tool to enforce this illusion.


1) Through ‘What If’, the mind projects itself into an imaginary future situation and creates fear. There is no way you can cope with such a situation because it doesn’t exist but it will leave you paralyzed with fear.

Fix: The only way to stop this life-corroding insanity is by bringing your focus on the breath and breathe in and out deeply. When you become aware of the air flowing in and out of your body, you sense your energy field. “It instantly shatters the illusion of past or future created by the mind,” Tolle says.After bringing focus on your breath, he adds, we must ask ourselves what ‘problem’ we have right now. Not next year, not tomorrow and not five minutes later. What is wrong with this moment? This exercise grounds you in the present and takes off the pressure of coping with anything imaginary. The right action usually appears inside us intuitively and we can start living in the present again.

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2) The other weapon that mind uses to enforce the illusion of time is by making you a habitual ‘waiter’. There is small-scale waiting such as the waiting in a traffic jam or a queue. And there is a large-scale waiting, which is waiting for the next vacation, a better job, for the children to grow up, for a truly meaningful relationship, for success, for money, to be important, to become enlightened. Waiting is a state of mind, Tolle says. It makes you draw comparisons to the ‘now’ and imaginary future. You don’t want what you have but want what you don’t have. With every kind of waiting, you unconsciously create inner conflict between your ‘now’, where you don’t want to be, and the projected future where you want to be. This greatly reduces the quality of your life by making you lose the present.

Fix: Be grateful for what you have and where you are in life. Take actions and make better choices for the next ‘Now’. Ask yourself what is it you can do to make your next moment more pleasant. This will instantly draw you back to the present and give you a high energy and happiness to do more for yourself.

3) Chronic dissatisfaction – is deeply embedded in the mind because the very fundamental basis of human life is about evolving and becoming better and expand infinitely.

Fix: Know that you are enough. You are already everything you need to be. The false, unhappy self, based on mind identification thrives on time. It knows that the present moment is its death and so it feels threatened by it.

4) Reliving failures – The mind does its best to hold on to your failures and keeps you locked in the past. It keeps you fearful and creates lower emotions of guilt, anger and shame.

Fix: Accept that the incident cannot be changed but the emotion attached to it can be erased. Also, actions can be taken to improve the area of life that got affected by the incident. Take the lesson from it and leave the event behind.

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5) Immediate satisfaction – The mind wants immediate satisfaction and we live in a world now where this need of the mind is most easily met. When we are seeking immediate satisfaction, it becomes hard to fully appreciate the experience.

Fix: The fix is to allow things to happen at their own pace and remembering that with each passing moment the satisfaction will be greater and will last longer because of the process it took to get there. Slow down, look around and enjoy what is happening while you wait.

Five ways to practice staying in the ‘now’

Practicing being in the present can be frustrating and seem unnecessary at first. But remember that it will only improve the quality of life, so the effort is worth it.

  1. Realize thoughts are not reality – when the mind is on a roller-coaster with ‘what-if scenarios’, breathe and ask if the situations have already happened or are yet to happen. If they have already happened find ways to temper down the damage and take action to rectify it and heal yourself. If the situation is imaginary, be assured it will not happen. Take action to create an alternate ending.
  2. Use breathing to center yourself in the Now – the breath makes you pause for a little while if not for long. Constant practice helps you become centered in now for a longer time and buy time to clearly assess the situation.
  3. Stop comparing now to then – When changes occur it is difficult to not compare and we only want positive changes. But comparisons are only trouble.
  4. Focus on happy moments – In any situation there will be a happy and unhappy dimension. It is impossible for any situation to be entirely unhappy. Focus on the happy when facing obvious difficult situations.
  5. Be grateful – Whether or not a present situation is as per your expectation, be grateful for it and accept it. Every situation, whether happy or unhappy, has the power of bringing some positive change in you and that in itself is a great thing to happen.

Live in the now. Be in the present. As a popular quote reads:

You can’t change the past,

but you can ruin a perfectly good present

by worrying about the future.

Aditi Raman Shridhar is an Indian journalist, therapist and health instructor.

Past imperfect, future tense: Understanding time and how we are enslaved by it, and steps to live in the Now

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1 Comment

  1. Amaresh Raman
    26th Feb 2021 Reply


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