William James and the Importance of Living in the Present Moment

The best life is one that is lived now. This abrupt, forceful mandate is filled with urgency for all the right reasons. It is not a call to satiate your every hedonistic whim or cast aside future consideration for poor decision making in the present, but it is a call to wake the sleeping self so that a life can be lived more fully and richly. Perhaps no one understood this better in the late 19th century than American philosopher and psychologist William James, a man who battled depression all his life and badly needed to know why the present should matter. 

The Role of Consciousness 

Being in part a psychologist, James had a particular interest in consciousness and made it the foundation of why the present matters, but first he had to define how it operated. A product of Emerson and Thoreau’s Transcendentalism, James did not entirely subscribe to prevailing scientific thought of the day that consciousness was something physical occurring in the brain, something you could sit on a lab table and observe. For him, consciousness was something very personal and continuous, always changing, always subjective, in endless movement, and for the person to whom the consciousness belongs, always in the middle of things, inseparable from experience, coining the familiar term “stream of consciousness.”

“Each…[mind]…keeps its own thoughts to itself. There is no giving or bartering between them. No thought ever comes into direct sights of a thought in another personal consciousness than its own.” 

In other words, to use the old cliche, no one sees the world quite like you do. Your thoughts are entirely unique and your own. So the question becomes, if no one sees the world quite like you do, then what is it that you notice?

The State of Affairs

James believed that we observe very little, sleepwalking through much of our lives. By doing so, we limit the fullness that experience affords. Our stream of consciousness, the thing that is uniquely you, is a wide, continuous running river, if only we would just tap into it. So how do we achieve this? We must take notice of the state of affairs. 

When I was younger and faced difficult situations that required a measure of endurance, the people l looked to for guidance would often offer the well known advice, “This too shall pass.” No doubt, many of you received this same wisdom at some point. It is steeped in the nature of reality, that existence is constantly changing, whether we acknowledge it or not.

“No state once gone can recur and be identical with what it was before.” 

This is the case for two reasons. First, any “state of affairs” is simply a state of mind, and any state of mind is temporary. Second, the state of the world in which we inhabit is also always in flux. 

Let us take nature for example. It rained this morning. Though I am looking out the same window into the same yard I have for the past two months, everything has changed. The fence pickets are darker and the oleanders are drooping, both because of the rain, and the sky is grey, diffusing the sunlight. If I were to walk out into the backyard, there would be all kinds of changes such as temperature, color, and smells due to the particular atmospheric conditions, yet we are largely tuned out to these sorts of things. The world around me changed, but without my reflection, it might as well not have happened. This brings to mind the well known quote by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, 

“One cannot step into the same river twice, for new waters are ever flowing.”

There are two important elements at play here. One is the physical river, that which changes every second, every day in small ways. The other is myself, the one stepping into the river; I am constantly changing as well. 

Now let us consider people. We think the people we interact with on a frequent basis are generally the same, mostly because it is easier to believe that they are, yet these same people, who are individual consciousnesses, are constantly in flux. We are so surprised when a person we know acts contrary to what we think we know them to be or how they think. But how can we know what another person thinks? We cannot. Sure, there are consistencies over time regarding another person’s observable beliefs and actions – this is the stuff that trust is built upon – but we must remember that people are as complex and ever changing as we are. And that perhaps is the biggest point; we neglect to remember that we are constantly in flux as well, so the change is two fold, our self and the other person.

This does not mean there cannot, will not, or should not be consistencies in ourselves and others. You cannot avoid certain consistencies over some amount of time, but do make room for change in yourself and others because this is the nature of consciousness and the self

If every moment of every day we and the world around us are changing, then the adage “this too shall pass” is true. Indeed, it already has!

Wake the Sleeping Self

If the nature of experience is that you are the only one perceiving it, making it personal, unique, and subjective, it also means that you are responsible for it, and by extension, for the way you live. So ask yourself, how alive do you feel?

“Most people live, whether physically, intellectually, or morally, in a very restricted circle of their potential being. They make small use of their possible consciousness, and of their soul’s great resources in general, much like a man who, out of his whole bodily organism, should get into a habit of using and moving only his little finger.” 

It is this “very restricted circle” I wish to get out of. I want to live deliberately, attuned to the present so I do not become one of those men who Thoreau describes as living lives of quiet desperation.

My engagement with writing and thought is one method I use. My hope is that the act of writing helps reveal unexpected insights perhaps hidden due to the slumber of my consciousness. But how to achieve wakefulness outside of writing? I try to be passive and open to experience rather than taking experience and forcing it into my predetermined categories and notions that one moment is exactly like the next. But I also try to pay close attention to my everyday surroundings. In that action, I often find some unique aspect I simply would have walked past. 

William James was perfectly aware of the shifting nature of experience and the self. In The Principles of Psychology, he wrote, 

“Experience itself, taken at large, can grow by its edges. That one moment of it proliferates into the next by transitions which, whether conjunctive or disjunctive, continue the experiential tissue, can not, I contend, be denied. Life is in the transitions much as in the terms connected.”

There is a point at which the past and the future meet, a thin line between the two. That is where the present takes place, the present moment, the now. It is here that you meet yourself, the you that is not caught up in thoughts about the past and anxieties of the future. Perhaps this moment does not happen for us very often, but if we never attempt to look for it, it certainly never will.

So the point is to wake up and live now. Approach life with attentiveness and passion. Awaken the sleeping self and jump into that roaring river of consciousness; it is there for the taking but you are the one responsible for taking it. The sheer fullness and originality of reality is out there. To not experience it is to rob yourself from a life more richly lived. 

A great deal of inspiration for this essay came from the excellent book by John Kaag, Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Change Your Life. I highly recommend it. 

Compliment this essay with To Live Is to Live Authentically, or To Live is to Live Passionately , or anything else from the Being and Existence category.

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