The Present Moment: Unpredictable Encounters in the Now Are at the Heart of Change

By Stern, Daniel | Psychotherapy Networker, November/December 2003 | Go to article overview

The Present Moment: Unpredictable Encounters in the Now Are at the Heart of Change


Stern, Daniel, Psychotherapy Networker


The Present Moment

Unpredictable encounters in the Now are at the heart of change

by Daniel Stern

It is remarkable how little we know about experience that is happening right now. This relative ignorance is especially strange in light of the following:

First, we are subjectively alive and conscious only now. Now is when we directly live our lives. Everything else is once or twice removed. The only time of raw subjective reality, of phenomenal experience, is the present moment.

Second, most psychotherapies agree that therapeutic work in the "here and now" has the greatest power in bringing about change. That is where and when mutually aware contact between the minds of the therapist and patient takes place. Also, in everyday relationships, the nodal events that change one's course of life usually occur in a moment that is experienced as key, not only after it has happened, but also while it is happening. In spite of this we must still ask the question, what is now?

Third, psychodynamic theories of therapeutic change are based on the idea that the past plays a huge role in determining the present. In a sense the past holds center stage. Accordingly, we know a great deal about how past events influence present experience. But we have not paid the same attention to the nature of present experience as it is being influenced and is happening. How would psychotherapy and therapeutic change look if the present moment held center stage?

The Question of Now

What is now? Does now exist and if so, how long is it? How is now structured? What does it do? How is it related to consciousness, to the past? How does it lead to meanings? Why does it occupy such a special place in psychotherapy? And related to these questions, how is now experienced when it is cocreated and shared with someone? Finally, what role does now play in change? In short, how do we conceive of a present moment?

There is another aspect of the subjective now that is both startling and obvious. The present moment does not whiz by and become observable only after it is gone. Rather, it crosses the mental stage more slowly, taking several seconds to unfold. And during this crossing, the present moment plays out a lived emotional drama. As the drama unfolds it traces a temporal shape like a passing musical phrase.

Time is an invention of our minds. We know nothing about the time of things, if one could even imagine that. In the natural sciences and in managing the daily schedules of life, we use the ancient Greek view of chronos. Chronos is the objective view of time used not only in science but also in most of our psychologies. In the world of chronos, the present instant is a moving point in time headed only toward a future. It does not matter whether its course is viewed as a straight line or a circle or a spiral, the present instant is always moving. As it moves, it eats up the future and leaves the past in its wake. But the present instant itself is very short. It is an almost infinitesimally thin slice of time during which very little could take place without immediately becoming the past. Effectively, there is no present.

So, what is to be done with the now while life is actually being experienced--while the present is still unfolding? The Greek's subjective conception of time, kairos, may be of use here. Kairos is the passing moment in which something happens as the time unfolds. It is the coming into being of a new state of things and it happens in a moment of awareness. It has its own boundaries and escapes or transcends the passage of linear time. Yet it also contains a past. It is a subjective parenthesis set off from chronos.

Kairos is a moment of opportunity, when events demand action or are propitious for action. Events have come together in this moment and the meeting enters awareness such that action must be taken, now, to alter one's destiny--be it for the next minute or a lifetime. …

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