only in the present

January 23, 2013

community work

I have a keen interest in Indigenous ways of being, knowing and doing. I think there is a lot we can learn from gaining an understanding of other people’s stories and culture. Hearing these stories, we are sometimes challenged to look outside of our accepted ways and we gain deeper insight into who we are, and what we think and do. We saw a documentary on the television last night called “The Grammar of Happiness”.

It was about the Piraha people in the Amazon and a researcher named Dan Everett. Dr Everett has researched the Pihara language for thirty years and says that the people do not use past or future tense. They also have no language for colours or numbers.  Imagine that you only used present tense for all of your comunications. It would have to change how you think and how you lived your life. Think about an interaction you had with someone recently – if you removed all of the past and future stuff, what would be left?

The Pihara seem to have a ‘here and now’ quality to their life. They live a hunter gatherer lifestyle, with no fixed dwellings and no agriculture. They don’t believe in a God and say that they are only concerned with what is happening on the ground at this moment. Apparently they don’t have any creation myths.I did wonder about a spirit life. Many people living a traditional life have a language around the spirits of the environment they are living in. I didn’t get any answers from the documentary, so I looked online, and they do talk about their experience of spirits. Of course, they have a detailed knowledge of their environment and how to live in it. 

How would you experience life if you lived this way? Not worrying about what happened in the past, especially with those things you have not witnessed yourself. Not worrying about what will happen in the future. Not worrying about how you came to be here and what your life’s purpose is. Just being.

We have a past and future-oriented culture. It seems that there is a growth industry in people earning an income to help others to sort out the sorrows of their past and to map out  their hopes and dreams for the future. There is a saying that goes something like this “if your head is in the past or in the future, you are not living in the present”.

In the documentary I saw some evidence of the people talking about the future but it was very short-term. One woman was talking about her partner going out to catch some fish, and she said that he might come back with nothing. It seemed that she was teasing him. The people certainly could have some concern for their future and their way of life, the modern world creeps up on them and they say they don’t want it, but they don’t seem overly bothered by it because it hasn’t happened yet.

I’m not sure if they reminisce, talk about their children when they were babies as we do. I’m not sure if having no language about the past means that you don’t bear a grudge. Does having no future tense eliminate fear? It wasn’t mentioned if they have language for emotional states, but I would be interested to find out. Dr Everett says he has never seen any mental illness amongst the people. I love the work I do, but I would happily give it up to see every child living a life free of anguish, a world with no need for my skills.

The Pihara’s lack of language for numbers means that they have either none, a few, or a lot. That’s it. If you asked a Pihara woman how many children she has she would name them. That’s nice isn’t it?

The documentary has lots of lovely visuals of mothers caring for babies, older children caring for younger children, monkeys and dogs living with the families (although they catch and eat monkeys living in the trees), and toddlers practicing their archery skils. Dr Everett said that boys have all the survival skills they need by the age of 9 or 10 years of age.

Of course, this is a simplistic view. A short documentary cannot convey the complexities of a language and culture that has developed over thousands of years. This documentary has affected me in ways that I will continue to reflect upon. Today, I’m going to experiment with not using present and future tense and see what comes of it.

“Having spent the better part of my life trying either to relive the past or experience the future before it arrives, I have come to believe that in between these two extremes is peace.” ~Author Unknown


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About hakea

groupworker, parent educator, therapist, mother of three boys.

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11 Comments on “only in the present”

  1. Artful abuela Says:

    very interesting. so much so that i checked to see if the video was available on you tube. it is, and i am going to watch the documentary. also interesting at this very juncture because i am reading a small book about writing, in which emerson is heavily quoted. his ideas about reading depend on how we bring our past experiences to everything we read and use them to interpret what we read at a very personal level. just thinking about how it fits together; if at all. i always enjoy your posts and the questions you pose.


    • hakea Says:

      Hi AA

      Nice to have your comments. I’d be interested in your conclusions if you have any. I’d also be interested in what you think about the documentary.

      I didn’t mention that the documentary also talks about the politics in the world of linguistics academia. All so interesting.

      Blessings to you and yours.


      • Artful abuela Says:

        just finished watching the documentary. extremely interesting… some observations:
        1) chomky’s attitude is defensive and closed-minded. no science is sacrosanct, in my opinion…
        2) i was deeply saddened at the end of the documentary to discover the changes brought to the pirahá culture
        3) the subtitles might have been misleading, in that often past tense structures were used
        4) my understanding of past includes the experiences that have enabled transmission of knowledge about flora and fauna from one generation to the next, so in that sense the past and future exist in the conscientiousness of the people.
        5) the desire of the pirahá for daniel to return implies understanding of the future and the concept of possible disappointment.
        6) the theory of language as a response to culture seems entirely plausible to me… but then, i am no scientist and i tend to be very open to new ideas that are convincing… example… the information presented in this documentary.
        thank you for sharing this most interesting post!

      • hakea Says:

        Thanks so much AA for your perspective.

        One of the academics in Brazil said it so beautifully I think – when does a theory (like Chomsky’s) become fixed? If it’s fixed and inflexible then it becomes a religion, it’s no longer science. I’m not a scientist, but I’m going to offer my opinion anyway – how can grammatical structure be part of the DNA? My husband suspects there’s a hidden agenda here – creationism versus evolution. Culture and language are inseparable – does it matter which comes first (chicken and egg argument)? More open-mindedness required.

        There is a bit of past and present there for sure. I can’t imagine how there can’t be. It certainly doesn’t seem to be a dominant feature in their culture as it is in ours.

        Did you notice at the end when the villager was talking about whether Dr Everett would return, he didn’t say “the women also want him to return” (implying past), he said “the women speak also” (present). But as you say we are relying on the subtitles for interpretation.

        I’m so glad the documentary is available on Youtube for everyone to see. Thank you!

  2. hakea Says:

    Michelle sent me a message on Facebook…

    Thanks Narelle, my husband and I watched it online this afternoon – fascinating on many levels. I enjoyed your blog post about it too. I also picked up on the conversation surrounding the fisherman couple about future references ie “She will be angry” but as you say it’s only short term and probably exists the same way for the past. Even when you live in the present there has to be a little context for the interactions of daily life I imagine. You are right with what you say about the money making industry. I guess we are all at different places in our journeys and respond to different things depending on where we are and there are always people willing to capitalise on that. I listened to Hiro Boga being interviewed last year by Bec Robbins and being a more mature woman Hiro responded to Bec’s question around what practices do you have that support your happiness by saying that she doesn’t really have any anymore, she’s become good at being in the now and it has become second nature to her so life itself is her practice – I find myself there sometimes and pulled in the other direction at others – the great paradox hey? Does it have to be either/or or can it be both/and. Danielle La Porte articulates a good summary of paradox for me with “You are capable of holding two states of consciousness at once: presence and longing, gratitude and desire,contentment and hunger. This is what it means to become whole.” As you say Narelle there is certainly lots here to reflect upon!


  3. InsideJourneys (@InsideJourneys) Says:

    We pay good money to have experts tell us to live in the present. The Pihara had it right all along.


  4. Hazel M. Wheeler Says:

    Thanks for this post. I have been working to be mindful, lately, of allowing space for Kiddo and I to be immersed in one activity at a time, without the shadow of the next task falling onto what is happening in the present. It’s so hard to do this, to create that ‘timeless space’ for us, and it challenges me as a parent to remember this is what our young children need after a busy day–long chunks of time to just lose themselves in.

    There is a kind of wisdom in the Piraha way of language in that only the present is important. I think a lot of marriage counselors would do well to teach their clients this, esp. in relation to conversations during conflict! Keep it present– don’t drag the past or future fears into the moment. Thanks!


    • hakea Says:

      Hi Hazel

      It is an interesting concept. We all talk about mindfulness and being zen. But when you remove the language for past and present that changes everything. It seems inconceivable in our culture.

      I was reminded of this too yesterday when my youngest son wanted to play board games with me. And so we did.

      Only having the present – it’s the ultimate freedom I think.


  5. tricia Says:

    Living in the moment is something I’m trying to do more often – its so easy to be lost in the past and future. I bet the Piraha people are a lot more content and happier than us. Thanks for sharing and thank you for leaving a comment on my blog – because it meant I found your space. T


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