Is Now a Moment in Time?

In his essay “Is Now A Moment In Time?” Michel Bitbol talks about “. . . the pure referring ‘now’ from which everything is referred to.”

“Everything” is this case refers to time as well. That is, in “the pure referring ‘now'” there is no time; time is also referred to, a signification arising in a world signified by the pure referring now.

And yet . . .

These are volunteers – squash plants we did not seed or intend to grow – but nevertheless grow in a manure pile aging in order to be added to the garden. Volunteers have nothing to do with time! But they make me happy, reminding me life goes on without my supervision.

Perhaps a simpler way to think about time this is to differentiate between chronological time (it takes a year to learn to speak passable Greek) and psychological time (I’m too old to learn a new language).

Chronological time is not complicated because it is helpful. It correlates with the seasons, the phases of the moon, menses, childhood and adulthood, birth and death. It’s just a way of organizing a living that is already loosely naturally organized.

But we internalize it and thus become slaves to the clock and the calendar. They were made to be helpful but we have become their servants. Jim Harrison called clocks and calendars “cosmic business machines.” Suddenly we are in a race against failure, death, closing time, Friday . . . None of which exist – nor do we – in Bitbol’s pure referring now.

So an interesting exercise is simply to give attention to this “pure referring now” and see what happens. Can we reach that place in which a) there are no distinctions and – yet, somehow – b) distinctions arise?

Can we find the non-differentiated stillness which generates all differences?

It’s kind of a trick question because if we say “yes,” then we’ve made a distinction – we’ve distinguished the “non-differentiated stillness” from what it is not. We mean well, but we’re kidding ourselves.

On the other hand, if we say “no” then we’re sad and disappointed because we are very much attached to the idea that folks who perceive the “non-differentiated stillness” are a bit more spiritual, a bit more beloved of God, Jesus and the Buddha, et cetera.

But we aren’t talking about a competition here. We are talking about a way of seeing or thinking – or living, really – in which a natural alignment, a natural coherence, of structural and ontological experience appears, dissolving separation, fragmentation, dissociation and sacrifice.

What remains is the gift of Love, which is the Sun around which the gift of attention joyfully revolves.

Humans exist only as a potential to receive,
When this takes place the world is transformed.
For only then, you, the Holy Child of God,
have It, Love, to give.
For sure this is possible.
It is not difficult. We already are “That.”
We need only to put the fear of undoing away.
We will together go into the web of words
with the Light of Love and awaken our Self.

(Tara Singh Remembering God in Everything You See 61)

Tara Singh’s emphasis on reception matters because it shifts the focus from doing – from activity, intention, goals and outcomes – to simply sitting quietly, giving attention, and trusting that God will provide and that Christ will be the light in which we remember that “Nothing real can be threatened” and “Nothing unreal exists.”

Of course, it is hard to be receptive this way. It is hard to sit quietly, just giving attention to whatever arises, just receiving – as a gift – that which arises. We are so hellbent on striving, fixing, improving, amending, doing . . .

Yet it is in this stillness – this deliberate slowing-down, breath by breath, this letting-go-by-letting-be – that we at last catch glimpses of impersonal, unconditional Love. We begin to perceive in a clear gentle and sustainable way that dissociation and separation are not possible, save as a passing form of experiencing our own self.

Ramana Maharshi was asked once why mental bondage – thought patterns, egoic conditioning and habits – was so persistent. His answer was clear and practical.

The nature of bondage is merely the rising, ruinous thought ‘I am different from the reality’. Since one surely cannot remain separate from the reality, reject that thought whenever it rises.

And I would soften that the tiniest bit to say simply let that thought of separation arise and do what it does until it just floats away, which it will certainly do. It’s not a problem (not even when we make it one).

If we do not cling to the concept that we are dissociated from Love – separated from God – different than what is real – then eventually those concepts will lose their stranglehold in and on our mind. They will drift away like rain clouds and what remains will be radiant and luminous, bringing happiness to all, without condition or qualification.

What a blessing to know there is no “other.” We are all one, for Life is one. The power of oneness is in every man, woman and child. It is superior to the power of institutions. Within each one there is the vision of wholeness – a light (Tara Singh The Joseph Plan of A Course in Miracles for the Lean Years 70)

The pure referring now is the stillness from which all life emerges and into which it all falls back. Life is one. God, as such, is not akin t0 patriarch watching over his lambs but more like the generative fertile Earth mothering us all. The referring now is not a time, nor even an experience, but that from which time and experience are differentiated by virtue of reference.

If this sounds complex or mysterious, well yes. It can sound that way. And appear that way. It can feel that way. And yet attention – brought lovingly, gently and generously – to our experience of living, of being the instance of life that we are, will intimate a whole in which there is neither birth nor death, nor beginning nor end, and we will know that we are blessed.


  1. … neither even a here. But I imagined a large aquarium’s dark viewing room and the unending plate glass holding/enabling the viewing of the sea and its life. (“referring now” in kind refers only to other referring frames, “here”!) It was a nice generation! It being a “here” though, like this here (“right now for me”!), there was something missing. And not really, as you lovingly suggest, falling back I then kind of notice the temporary separation that would have you not being at the aquarium with me. But your post inspiring it, the “dark room” Being it, and the strain away from it to make of it a bodily me to make a bodily you to hold hands with, for a moment they’re all swimming together. It was (and is!) a beautiful glimpse

  2. Thanks for reading and sharing, Mike. I’ve been frustrated by this post; your lovely comment allows me to reflect a bit more deeply. Aquariums fascinate me; anything with glass, really.

    My reflections are response to my frustration with the post, not your comment! Or maybe they are responsive to your comment, in the sense that I feel happier having written them.

    Short reflection: I disrespected Bitbol by skimming his essay, which in turn distorts my experience of being attentive, which is painful and incoherent.

    Why did I do this? Of what was I so scared that I was willing to avoid my responsibility for attention (which is love)?

    Answer: possibly math, possibly just laziness.

    {Note that sometimes stuff just happens, including stuff we might not be happy with}

    {Also sometimes: who knows?}

    Solution: Write a longer more thoughtful reflection in which I am responsible! Or try to anyway . . .

    Longer reflection:

    One of the questions I ask myself is what am I excluding?

    Whatever I do, I do by making distinctions and privileging some of those distinctions over others.

    For example, when I put together a semester’s worth of poems to share with students – what writers are not represented? Why are they not represented? What ideas therefore also are not represented? Why?

    Similarly, if I assert “there is no self” or “there is no world,” what am I excluding? What assumptions underlie those assertions that might justify any subsequent exclusion?

    {Is exclusion ever justified? No! Honestly, what is wrong with me lately . . . }

    When we see clearly what is excluded, and the grounds on which we exclude it, then we naturally get a clearer sense of what is included, and being tacitly endorsed as “true” or “right” or “better-than.”

    {True of poems, metaphysical theories, relationships, dessert recipes . . . }

    Related to this is the question of whether it is possible to function at all without making distinctions – or, perhaps, whether it is possible to function with distinctions but without privileging them in any way?

    {Yes! But it’s a practice (see Bitbol/Vörös quote about Varela near end of this comment)

    So when I say something like there is no time, or no “past, present or future,” or no “here” or “there,” what is being excluded? I.e., if I go with Bitbol, follow his thinking, allow it affect my own thinking, what am I excluding?

    Obviously something I don’t want to exclude because I did not “go with Bitbol.” Rather than engage with his ideas (which are integral to schools of thinking that underlie my happiness and inner peace but also are deeply challenging, both intellectually and psychologically) I skimmed them.

    {skim: to touch only the surface, to go quickly without requisite care or tenderness, to avoid depths, to be ever ready to discard entirely, to disregard in a deliberate sustained way, basically}

    That is, I name drop Bitbol then skim on over to ideas about time represented in Krishnamurti’s dialogues with David Bohm, which are easier for me to write about, in part because they are not especially challenging, at least at this juncture.

    Bitbol wonders if “now” is not a moment in time or even a concept related to time but is rather a generative beingness (neither subjective nor objective) in which constructs of time may arise.

    The question I did not ask in this post is: what, if anything, is excluded (denied, subsumed, ignored) by the assertion that “now is not a moment in time?”

    Answering that question matters to me, because in general, Bitbol is able to articulate a groundlessness of being in ways I find helpful. For example, an essay recollecting Francisco Varela (written with Sebastjan Vörös), praises . . .

    . . . cultivating an open, appreciative, and compassionate stance towards the “generative precariousness” of life in all its manifestations: the welcoming of “what bursts forth by itself,” the embracing of the unpredictability and novelty as not something to be feared, but something to marvel at (Varela 2002). In short, it is the radical acceptance of the groundlessness of our existence amidst what Heidegger calls the “calmness of wonder,” of thinking and living the ceaseless interplay of knowing and being.

    This is a practice rather than a stance, a praxis rather than a theory.

    To a certain extent, the ability to do good spontaneously can be considered an in-born gift; but to a much larger extent, it is the fruit of training and education. Just like any other skill, this “ethical know-how” can be cultivated with the help of exemplars and disciplined practice rather than by means of explicitly formulated prescriptions. According to Varela, being good means having a disposition to act skilfully in accordance with the requirements of a specific situation, with no need for moral theorizing.

    {Perhaps that is what I’m afraid of: the practice instead of the theory}

    Well, there is a lot of math in “Is Now A Moment in Time?” Bitbol is responding to J.M.E. McTaggert’s voluminous treatment of time (which I have twice tried and failed to get a purchase on). Perhaps that was what blocked me. Math is hard. And faced with a challenge – possibly insurmountable – it’s natural (if not altogether fructive) to regress to familiar ground and restate it.

    {Yeah but also that whole practice vs. theory thing}

    In any case, I have not precisely responded to your comment, Mike, but I have added something to the post that makes me feel less scared and sad and so thank you, as always, for being so present and thoughtful 🙂


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