What does it mean when people talk about ‘living in the moment?’ And why should it be preferable to any other style of living? Eckhart Tolle has made a pretty good niche espousing living in the moment as the cure for all ills. Panacea thinking? Maybe.
When we are totally involved, not thinking about future or past, then we’re living in the moment. This is a so called ‘flow’ state and, in as much as it is experienced (because often you are so involved you are not even observing yourself being involved) this state is far preferable to one of worry, indecision and vacillation. Of course, anyone who has experienced ‘flow’ states during any sort of activity- be it fishing, running, fixing cars- will know what I am talking about.
But to be able to consciously turn on a ‘living in the moment’ head whenever you want is different from indulging in a flow state activity such as fishing or rock climbing. One might use those activities to calm down and ‘happy up’ but you can’t fish 16 hours a day- and its flow inducing possibilities would be reduced anyhow. Going from writing as a hobby to writing for money is another way to reduce the flow feeling- especially if it involves long hours. So, to be able to turn on an instant feeling of ‘living in the moment’ would be very nice.
What we are talking about here is detachment. Not detachment in the sense of not caring, but detachment in the sense of focusing only on the present moment and when you sense that moment is passing, refocusing on whatever is at hand and anchoring to that moment. It’s not hard and fast. It’s kind of like watching a series of balls being hit out of stadium. Normal life is watching the ball, following as long as possible (because you are for some reason attached to that particular ball) and then staring at where you think it landed imagining all kinds of fates for that ball. Living in the moment is watching the ball leave the stadium and then immediately switching back to watch another ball and another ball.
Doesn’t that mean you become a kind of grasshopper, flitting all day from the most obvious forms of stimulation? Yes, I suppose, if you are totally reactive. But most of us are pro-active. We have stuff we want to do. So we get stuck in- say in writing an article- and we cut out distractions- er- hold on isn’t this just another flow situation? Yes, it is. OK, living in the moment capability is something you turn on when you feel yourself ‘drifting off’ ie. getting stuck in a worry pattern, a pointless day dream, intertia, a desultory conversation going nowhere. Living in the moment is a strategy for dealing with downtime.
Think about Zen monks. All their time is scripted from waking up until going to sleep. That doesn’t mean they can’t change their routine if something crops up- but it does mean whenever they have ‘downtime’ they have something to do- usually meditating while sitting down. Similarly if you find yourself stuck in a maundering sluggish frame of mind it would be great to be able to get out of that. A lot of life can go past musing on past insults and future problems- all of which have either happened or won’t happen and are therefore unreal, at least a lot more unreal than the living breathing state of being here right now.
The technique of switching may require previous experience in becoming ‘detached’. It may also require a sense that ‘ultimate reality’ or ‘truth’ is what surrounds us all the time if only we could perceive it better- though we do get glimpses all the time. Maybe it only requires acceptance of the idea of becoming detached. The classic exercise is to close your eyes and every thought or sound that you experience you simply take note of and then ‘let go’ ie. you focus briefly on the next one, take note by saying to yourself “another thought about how hungry I feel’ ‘the sound of a dog barking’ etc so that you get used to the feeling of simply observing the mental contents of your brain flitting past, rather than ‘taking seriously’ and pondering on everything you think and perceive.
Having become thus acclimatised one is probably in a situation to try switching on a ‘living in the moment’ head whenever you need it. The knack is to be light hearted- every attempt at 'being present' worth it’s salt emphasises humour- why- because it brings you right into the here and now, encourages flexibility of mind- the kind of ‘breakage’ with the enfolding tentacles of past and present. What I mean is that as you go through life the present moment can get sort of hijacked by the past (regret, musing on what might have been, dreary self analysis) or the future (what accident might happen, how to get more money) and these tentacles can be very strong. So you have to mentally see yourself slashing at them maybe, or at least snipping them away. Then you focus on the sensations of the present, breathing, your physicality, what is humorous, and then the biggest part of it: not hanging on to the moment as it passes. You know the thing- a topic is raised, you prolong it overmuch. A conversation starts- you like it so you try and make it extend beyond its useful lifetime. One thing I like in Egypt is the organic nature of group meetings. Talk can be formal and a bit stilted or even silent for an hour of more. People don’t try to force it though. Then when it catches alight everyone participates. No one feels guilty that conversation isn’t happening, and no one holds back when it does begin.
The new fun is constantly breaking off and refocusing and breaking off- kind of looking for the next ball to get out of the stadium. When you’re up and running and in a ‘flow’ state you don’t need this trick but when you have downtime that seems dead or lacking spark, try it- you'll feel energised as you break those slimy tentacles of past and future.