Yesterday is a memory. Tomorrow is the unknown. Now is the knowing.
The above is a bit of a catchphrase of Ajahn Sumedho, the well known American Buddhist monk, which he’s used on numerous occasions to emphasize the importance of living in this moment. At first, it may seem rather simplistic and obvious, but if reflected on, it can give rise to some revealing insights into the way things are (the Dharma).
Firstly, the words Yesterday is a memory encourage us to see that the past is gone, and is beyond our influence. We cannot go back and change all the mistakes that we’ve made, or retrieve some sporting results and win a fortune betting on them as in the Back to the Future movies. But we must live with the effects of our past thoughts, words and actions; if I’ve been mean to my wife I can expect her to be less than friendly towards me, whereas if I’ve treated her well, chances are she’ll be alright with me. (Although various factors may affect her behavior towards me other than how I’ve been with her – karma, or our own actions, are only one source of our present circumstances according to Buddhist teachings. She may be feeling under the weather and take it out on me; but then such is the bliss of married life!)
Secondly, the venerable monk’s words Tomorrow is the unknown point towards the realization and acceptance that whilst we can make plans for the future, it hasn’t actually arrived yet. Sitting and worrying about every conceivable future scenario is not necessarily the best preparation for a future event, as we may simply wind ourselves up so much that when it comes we’re too uptight to do what we planned in the first place. Alternatively, we may imagine so many different ensuing occurrences that when the time comes we just can’t make up our minds what to do and end up making a hash of things that way! Of equal importance is the fact that that while we spend so much of our time concerned with the future we neglect the present, and in doing so miss opportunities that are currently presenting themselves to us.
Thirdly, we have the heart of Ajahn Sumedho’s wise words: Now is the Knowing. The past exists only as memories, as images or ideas in our minds. The future is a collection of either imaginable or unimaginable possible events, none of which are with us right now. The only moment that we can truly know things as they are is now. The only time that we experience anything is now, including all our mental meanderings about the past and future. I can only know and love my wife now: all else are imperfect memories, or fictitious thoughts of times to come. In focusing on the present moment we will become more alert to the possibilities that present themselves, we will be more aware of the needs of those around us, and we will come to see the reality of this life in all its splendor and tragedy. And we will begin to awaken to the Dharma that can free us from our self-made suffering.
The above post first appeared on the blog 'Forest Wisdom,' which was reborn as this one.