Sam Harris on Death and the Present Moment

The past is a memory. It’s a thought arising in the present. The future is merely anticipated, it is another thought arising now. What we truly have is this moment.

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Can we know that life is meaningful without a belief in a higher power? Without faith in a material afterlife? Can thinking of death without religion be deeply spiritual? Philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris thinks so.

During a talk about Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Harris explains how death can teach us how to value life. If we do not fear reflecting on death, we can live a good life—and eventually a good death:

Now most of us do our best to not to think about death but there’s always part of our minds that knows this can’t go on forever.

Part of us always knows that we’re just a doctor’s visit away or a phone call away from being starkly reminded with the fact of our own mortality—or of those closest to us. ... You must know how uncanny it is to suddenly be thrown out of the normal course of your life and just be given the full-time job of not dying—or caring for someone who is. But the one thing people tend to realize at moments like this is that they wasted a lot of time when life was normal, and it’s not just what they did with their time, it’s not just that they spent too much time working or compulsively checking email. It’s that they cared about the wrong things. They regret what they cared about. Their attention was bound up in petty concerns year after year when life was normal and this is a paradox of course because we all know this epiphany is coming.

Don’t you know this is coming? Don’t you know there’s going to come a day when you’ll be sick or someone close to you will die and you’ll look back at the kinds of things that captured your attention and you’ll think, ‘What was I doing?’

You know this, and yet if you’re like most people, you’ll spend most of your time in life tacitly presuming you’ll live forever. It’s like watching a bad movie for the fourth time or bickering with your spouse. These things only make sense in light of eternity—there better be a heaven if we’re gonna waste our time like that. There are ways to really live in the present moment.

Harris posits that perhaps it is our very belief in an eternal life that denies us the opportunity to seize the life we already have. Then, without that safety net, we have no choice but to take our lives more seriously. To make better use of our time, to appreciate everything this time around because this time around may be the only time around.

In 23 BC, Roman poet Horace wrote, "carpe diem;" translated, it means "seize the day." We are aware of this, we have been aware of this for quite some time, before the dominant religions of today. What happened? How did we lose sight of what is inevitable? That life is precious? Being present and mindful is nothing new, so why do we see it as a new rising thought? Why is common sense so radical?

Harris continues:

It is always now, however much you feel you may need to plan for the future, to anticipate it, to mitigate the risks, the reality of your life is now.

This may sound trite but it’s the truth. It’s not quite true as a matter of physics ... but as a matter of conscious experience, the reality of your life is always now. And I think this is a liberating truth about the nature of the human mind. In fact, I think there’s probably nothing more important to understand about your mind than that—if you want to be happy.

The past is a memory. It’s a thought arising in the present. The future is merely anticipated, it is another thought arising now.

What we truly have is this moment. And this—and this—and we spend most of our lives forgetting this truth. Repudiating it, fleeing it, overlooking it, and the horror is that we succeed. We’ve managed to never really connect with the present moment and find fulfillment there because we are continually hoping to become happy in the future.

And the future never arrives.

The past, literally, is a fictionalized narrative our brain pieces and edits together. You can't measure or quantify the past because it is already over. The future is abstract predictions and guesses; it does not yet exist and unlike the past, has never existed. What is tangible is now. Yet it is ubiquitous and pervasive to live in the before and after. (A life of Instagram before and after pictures.)

Much of the non-Western world only speak in present tense. We in the West think this is strange, yet it is strange to speak any other way, because only now exists. Anything other than present tense is figurative or imaginative. This is fine, but how often do we fret over something figurative or imaginative, believing it to be real? That it's happening now?

Harris says:

Even when we think we’re in the present moment, we’re in very subtle ways, always looking over its shoulder. Anticipating what’s coming next. We’re always solving a problem and it’s possible to simply drop your problem—if only for a moment—and enjoy whatever is true of your life in the present.

Can we know life is meaningful and worth living independent of anything other than life itself? Yes. We know life is important because life teaches us so. We know life is important because it is rare, death teaches us so. Life is scarce because we know it will run out, and rather than fleeing from this truth, we should use it to live a good life and to die a good death.

Then, what is a good death? We can never appreciate our own death. It's not for us. It is for those around us, to inspire them, to live now, and to live to the fullest.

In between goals is a thing called life, that has to be lived and enjoyed.
— Sid Caesar

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