Total Presence

When I was a child, I did not understand the passage of time. I would feel a sense of loss, anxiety, and confusion as moments would drift and fade in and out of focus from one to another. Time seemed like this elusive, all-powerful force that would discombobulate my sense of presence in moments and leave me constantly in search of my surroundings, trying to bridge the gap between ‘there’ and ‘here’. I was very concerned with remembering and holding on to moments that I cherished because I understood and feared their transient nature. I was aware, at least in a sense, of my own mortality and the mortality that characterizes the ‘rise’ and ‘fall’ of experiential states. At the same time, I felt inspired by this transience and I devised methods to make my experiences transpire from moment to moment so that I could always look back, always know where I had been, like leaving a breadcrumb trail for my future self.

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I also spent a lot of time as a kid thinking about my future self and trying to ground my present experiences for my future self to remember. My father had told me when I was about seven that when I was older I would not remember my experiences very well and that I should try to write them down. This idea scared me – that somehow my ‘present’ moment was only ‘real’ when it was directly present and that at any moment I would be somewhere else and that I might not have any access to this ‘present’ moment. So I tried really, really hard to keep myself from losing moments, almost as though I was anticipating developing Alzheimer’s by the age of ten.

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The solution that my six-year-old mind conjured to the ambiguous nature of the passage of time was to tell myself, “Capture this moment.” I would stop myself in moments, often freezing mid-stride while walking or running, and repeat the mantra as I starred fixedly in front of me and tried to ‘gather’ as many components of my present experience as possible. I took a mental picture, of course, but spontaneously.

This was around the same time that I started pinching myself incessantly, hoping that it would not hurt so that I could catch myself in a dream. I was convinced at one point that I had done this successfully. I was playing with wooden blocks with my younger cousins and loudly exclaimed, “I am dreaming!” My uncle tried to convince me otherwise, but I remained strong in my convictions. I was pretty sure the dream ended when I fell asleep that night and woke up the next morning.

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The first moment that I recall grounding with this mantra was in Lauren’s backyard. I was staring at the swingset and the slide while standing under two trees that grew almost as if on an island in an otherwise flat grassy knoll. Lauren was running ahead of me and I had stopped myself at the trees to take a breath. I sat down and hid a little bit behind the tree. I thought about my future self and how I would share this moment with someone someday. It was a hot summer day and I remember the feeling of exhilaration and freedom while running around outside. I remember thinking that sometimes I wanted to just sit back and watch the world go by rather than running about in it, but that I still really enjoyed sharing this fun moment with a friend.

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There are moments in junior high, high school, and college where I still did this exercise, but they were relatively rare. I waited for the memorable moments to happen rather than trying to frame any experience as something that would be remembered. And then one day I found myself doing the exercise subconsciously.

I was laying in bed with one of my ex-boyfriends. I had just opened my eyes and the sun was shining through the red and blue sheets he had pinned over the windows to create a soft, warm ambiance. His hand touched my back lightly and it was as though my body took the touch as deep nourishment to mend a deep wound. And to this day when I recall this moment; it is as though the ghost of the touch is incarnate on my skin and a part of me is still there. It makes me wonder…are some experiences more saturated with power to last in this way? I did not make a conscious choice to keep that moment, and yet it stays with me.

Moreover, this mode of capturing a moment is such a curious way to be in a moment and yet be outside of it. In one sense, attuning to experiences in this way heightens my awareness of my present experience, bringing me deeper into that experience. At the same time, however, I am drawn away from my experience in a reflective mode of abstraction, seeing the moment as though from the outside while still living in it. I have not yet decided if this experience is valuable, if more is given in the act than is taken away. It is curious what we end up remembering, what really stays with us over time. As a child, I tried to direct this process. I have almost photographic memories of otherwise entirely insignificant experiences simply because I would randomly generate this mantra that inclined me to pay attention. There were actions and words that I neglected to enact in those moments because I was so focused on my fear them transpiring and fading away forever.

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I wonder if nostalgia would be so strong of an emotional sentiment if we did not once feel ourselves to be so totally immersed in the live experience and real presence of perceptual phenomena. There is something that it is like to be in a moment and there is something that it is like to remember a moment and although similar they are very different. (Although, with online networking technologies I constantly wonder if the line is blurring.) The world is our bodies in the sense that everything we experience is tethered to our embodied mode of being in the world. In that sense, we are not representing or recreating our perceived experience actively as an interchange or transduction into memory. Why would we need to cognitively recreate a world that is already there? That is why I think the question as to the separation between perception and memory is so important. Also, what of the imagination? These are such complex and intricate adaptations of the mind. I disagree, though, that a human being would need memory in order to have a coherent experience or sense of being in the world. Many people think that without memory, we would have no self concept since memory gives us the narrative if of our lives and who we are. I disagree. I think that phenomenological being is ontological and even patients with severe memory disorders still have a sense of themselves as beings with awareness and some are even self-aware of their memory disorder.

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