‘the prototype of all conceived times is the specious present, the short duration of which we are immediately and incessantly sensible’ (James 1890)
In our contemplative practice we are instructed to pay attention entirely to the present moment. There is no instruction as to what exactly that means as it would seem to be self-evident. On reflection, however, it can be seen that it is not that simple. What we experience as the present is not an infinitely small point in time. Rather it appears to have duration. It seemingly lasts from briefly in the past to briefly in the future.
We can conceive of the present moment as of fixed duration in which stimuli arise and fall away. It is always the same, but its contents are constantly changing. We are aware of now and what is happening in now is impermanent and in perpetual flux. In other words, time appears to be moving through the now rather than the present moment moving through time.
In today’s Research News article “Moments in Time”
Marc Wittmann asserts that before we can answer that question of how long is now we must first define exactly what we mean by the present moment. He reviews three different ideas of the present moment; functional moment, experienced moment, and mental presence.
The functional moment is defined usually by the threshold for detecting two separate events in time. For example telling that two sounds spaced apart are actually two sounds rather than a singular sound. It is the time when separate events appear to be fused together into a single event. There are various ways to measure this and the estimates vary greatly depending upon the method, but generally the functional moment lasts somewhere between 30 to 300 milliseconds, .03 to .30 seconds.
The experienced moment is the subjective present. It is an experienced now within an ongoing stream of events. For example while listening to music a note does not stand alone in consciousness but is joined by the prior note and the expected future note. In speech, each word is perceived in reference to past and expected words, as in the phrase “how are you”. When we hear “are” we process it recognizing that it’s in reference to a question, “How” and due to our learning we also experience the “are” with the expectation of a following word “you”. This experienced moment has duration of somewhere up to 3 seconds.
Mental Presence is defined as a temporal platform of multiple seconds within which an individual is aware of himself/herself and the environment, where sensory–motor perception, cognition, and emotion are interconnected features of representation leading to phenomenal experience. It is the temporal boundaries of perception that allow us to hold events in present experience. There is no fixed time duration of temporal presence. Rather it appears to continuously change phasing into and out of other mental presences.
What does it matter as to how long is the present moment. It matters to scientists and philosophers who are attempting to understand it within the confines of dualistic language and logic. The present moment for contemplative practices is probably more akin to mental presence.
But to the practitioner of contemplation the present moment is simply experienced. It does not have to be compartmentalized, measured, or described. It just is. And that is enough for our purposes of staying in the present moment.