What does ‘living in the moment’ really mean?
I remember I used to have a JV partner who would give me the craps.
She just used to get on my nerves. In hindsight, I could see that she was triggering stuff in me that I was wrestling within myself. But at the time, I just thought she was a royal pain in the arse.
It was a shame because we made sense as a partnership on a lot of levels. We had complementary skills, and I had knowledge, she had capital.
All the ingredients were there.
But a few months in, it was just clear that it wasn’t going to work. (It was probably about the time that I chewed her head off in a café.)
It was a funny situation. I can’t even quite remember why I snapped. I think it was the way she reached over and took some sugar. She had a way of moving that seemed passive aggressive.
But we were talking about a deal or something, and then a little disagreement spun out of control into a bit of a slanging match.
“I just don’t get why you’re making a big deal about this.”
And she was right. I just made no sense. But I wasn’t reacting to what was being said in that particular moment. It was several months of minor niggles erupting in concentrated pimple of frustration.
(No, I’m not particularly proud).
But the interesting insight for me was that I was not “a being of the moment.”
None of us are.
I think this is one of the areas where western pop culture has totally misunderstood what zen was about.
(I know, weird right? Who would have known that catchy quotes taken out of context and laid over posters of mist-covered mountains wasn’t a substitute for a structured spiritual education?)
But “living in the moment” has become one of the catch-cries of our age. It’s a slogan used to sell us everything from cosmetics to cars. And my Instagram guru is all about it, and she drinks kale smoothies and has clearly defined ab muscles, so she must know what she’s on about.
It’s what everyone is on about.
But then we think that ‘live in the moment’ means entering into some contorted mental yoga pose where the past is completely irrelevant, and the future is not a concern.
It’s just ridiculous.
We can’t live in the moment in this sense because we are not a product of the moment. We are a product of our past. Everything that has ever happened to us, every hurt, every joy, every time she made that totally unnecessary slurping with that ridiculous ‘frappuccino’ – all of that lives through us into each moment.
Time is thick and humans are deep. To think about a human at a particular point in time is an abstraction. It’s not true. We are not static entities.
We are dynamic. We breathe in cycles, our blood courses loops around our body, our emotional heart is a well that is constantly being filled and emptied out.
You can’t really think about a human at a single point in time. The human is an expression of cycles – some of which are centuries in the making.
And so if you try to ‘live in the moment’ in the Instagram guru sense, you are trying to cut yourself off from all of these cycles, and live as a shallow expression of a single momentary impulse.
I’m no expert on Zen philosophy, and you probably shouldn’t take spiritual advice from me, no more than you should take it from a woman who’s Instagram account includes “47 things to do with quinoa”. But I really don’t think this is what, “living in the moment” means.
So what does it mean?
I think it actually probably means the opposite. I think it probably means, allowing all of your history to find its place in the here and now.
If you can do that, then you are not resisting your past. You are not fighting it. You are not living to justify, excuse or atone for your past. If it lives freely within you, then you are free to respond to the moment and only the moment.
Living in the moment is, therefore, a profoundly deep way to live. It’s to feel yourself spread thick across time and to feel the moment as an expression of everything that has ever been.
It is therefore not a process of cleaving yourself off from time, but living deeply within it.
And it’s about knowing that everything that comes through you is not just a response to whatever’s happening in the here and now, but can come from deeper and more ancient places.
Facing up to your past and making friends with it isn’t necessarily easy.
But with depth, comes power.
As the African proverb goes, “If you want to jump far, you need a long run-up.”