The Knife Edge of Now


Sitting in front of the keyboard, watching fingers fly, perhaps something worthwhile will emerge and perhaps it will not. Writing is almost always a roll of the dice. How will the dice land this time? How was the writing last time? People talk about bearing down on their work or on a task. Perhaps it’s true that we do bear down, lean forward onto the balls of our feet, sit on the edge of the chair, furrow our brow, frown a bit for good measure. And our focus? Where is it at such a time? Despite all the ceremonial symbols of concentration, are we actually being mindfully in the present moment, traveling our chosen path of action within that moment around the task at hand? Often the answer is no. We can do all the things: bear down, lean, sit on the edge, furrow and frown – and still be daydreaming about last year’s vacation or the delivery schedule for our work for the next month or any other idea that might come to us.

Putting our mind into the present moment is like standing on one foot while wearing ice skates: it takes practice. And the idea of a blade to represent that moment is appropriate too, since each and every infinitely small instant of the present truly is a knife’s edge. We watch the future convert itself into the past within the narrowest of time intervals – arguably even no time at all. It’s future; now it’s past. We don’t say it’s future; now it’s present; now it’s past. Because as we’re saying the phrase now it’s present, the word now has become the past even before we arrive at the word it’s. Looking more closely still, even as we make the “n” sound of now, that sound has become past before we arrive at the “ow” sound on the back end of the word. Looking even more closely, at the very front-most end of that initial “n” of the word now, before it’s even a sound, as the tip of our tongue touches the hard palate behind our upper teeth to begin to form the letter, this action has become the past before the air enters our nasal cavity to begin making the vibration that sounds the letter – even the single letter “n” is itself a tiny universe of time. And so it goes, on and on, the present drawing us along infinitely – not on the axis of what we think of as “time,” but perpendicular to it, falling farther and farther into the present moment.

What is down that road, ultimately? It cuts ever deeper into the time that we loosely refer to as now, a temporal Mandelbrot diagram, every moment an infinity of moments; time is at its essence not a “line” oriented, say, north to south, but instead is an ever-receding fractal that bisects that line at a right angle, radiating infinitely in all directions from every present moment to fill the universe, in this way clearly defining the realm of infinite possibility. Perhaps this is why Buddhists and so many others emphasize mindfulness: It is a real-world koan that we have immediate and easy access to. It is always here, right here, challenging and encouraging us. It is a playful leprechaun that lives high up on the edge of a scalpel-sharp mountain ridge, flanked on either side by future and past. To the north lies the vast linear lowland of the future stretching out to the horizon and beyond it to the end of the universe. To the south is the enormous line of the past, made of the effluvium of everything that has ever been, to the beginning of time and beyond. This axis is where we all live our lives, on one side or the other of the sharp mountain ridge of the present.

But when we remember to do so, when we wish to taste the exquisite air of the present moment and experience the thrill of the chase, we accept the leprechaun’s invitation to follow farther along the ridge, chasing it deeper into now, and we immediately begin to reap the rich fulfillment of mindfulness. But more often we eschew the challenge, the pursuit, the reward – we abandon the present moment for the flatlands on either side of the mountain’s knife edge, contenting ourselves with either dutifully pondering the future or residing in the past, sorting out life’s inert detritus. We choose not to chase the elusive leprechaun along the edge of the present moment. Perhaps we think it’s just too much work.