Live In the Moment, Not For the Moment

One of the great benefits of martial arts practice, and especially internal arts such as tai chi, is the underlying theme of being present to oneself – of being in the moment. The idea of being in the moment is sometimes conflated (usually by those least inclined to be in the moment) with the idea of living for the moment. These are two very different perspectives and ought not to be confused.

Before I write more about the distinction between being in the moment versus living for the moment I'd like to clarify several considerations as to what being in the moment does not mean. Being in the moment does not mean you never take time to think about or learn from the past. The past, by which I mean both your own personal past and the generic historical past, i.e. everything that has already transpired, has much to teach us. Reflecting on the past is a highly effective way to continually learn and draw useful lessons and important meanings from anything and everything that has already happened. Learning from experience, both yours and that of others, frees you from needing to continually reinvent the wheel. Choosing to use your 'now moment' to be present to selected moments from the past can be a good thing. There is, however, little value in being stuck in the past.

Think About the Future

Being in the moment does not mean you avoid thinking about the future. Thinking about and planning for your future is eminently sensible. In fact, thinking about the future is the best way to ensure that you actually create the future you want. Failure to think about and plan for your future is a poor strategy for living well and living responsibly. For sure, you don't want to be stuck stressing over what hasn't happened yet. You also don't want to be so focused on the future that you miss out on the now. Yet the future is very much what we all live for. The future gives us a reason to sleep tonight and to wake up tomorrow morning.

Your future reveals itself in an unfolding fashion, right here, right now as you read these very words. If you are reading this article you are already learning from the past (mine) in preparation for your future. Choosing to use the moment you are in to anticipate and prepare for future moments can be a good thing. Consider also that if your future stopped now you'd miss the rest of this article, and that would be very unsatisfying.

Being in the moment doesn't necessarily mean residing in the moment. You no more want to be stuck in the moment than you want to be stuck in the past or the future. If you are perpetually in the movement you might as well forget about your memories as they link you to your past. Meanwhile, incentive for anything in the future becomes a moot issue.

Now, as to the idea of living "for the moment," as some people are wont to do, this is itself a misnomer. People who live only for the moment are usually stuck somehow in a past they seek to escape. For adults, barring debilitative neuropathology, living for the moment is likely an unconscious behavior stemming from unresolved personal trauma.

Living for the moment really only provides a temporary reprieve from being stuck in the past. It is a compensatory coping mechanism at best and not a long-term solution. To be clear, the kind of stuckness I'm referring to here is different from the risky living-only-for-the-moment limbic-driven behavior so typical of young adults and teenagers. Shortsighted teenage behavior is generally more due to immature (but age-appropriate) brain development than to patterns of out and out psychological stuckness. Ironically, living only for the moment actually prevents you from living in the moment.

Reflecting on the past, acting on the present, and planning for the future are each special in their own way. All are important to your wellbeing. The unfortunate truth is that many people spend an inordinate amount of time and energy ruminating on the past and worrying about the future, often at the same time, thereby depriving themselves of any real opportunity to fully experience the moment at hand—the present. They are in effect stuck out of the moment. It is only in the moment at hand—this moment right now as you are reading this, as well as every moment that follows—that you can exercise genuine control over and implement change for yourself.

These disqualifiers aside, what does it mean to be in the moment? Being in the moment implies your ability to be electively present to yourself – present in a way that affords you clarity of thought, intention, and action, without the unhelpful distraction of emotional attachment to past or future events. It is not so much your being in the moment itself that is so important as it is your ability to shift into the moment electively and on demand. In fact, it is in your ability to electively orient yourself to any moment of the past, present, or future that you can most effectively manage your life as of this moment.

Tai Chi Mind/Body Discipline

Herein lies the value and popularity of martial arts, and tai chi in particular, as these are integrative mind/body disciplines. For example, daily correct practice of tai chi simultaneously addresses the wellness and fitness needs of your mind and your body. Being stuck out of the moment (while lacking awareness of same) can become a default state when your life is dictated according to a mindless and momentum based cadence. However, it is nearly impossible to practice tai chi mindlessly. The slowness of tai chi more or less compels an enhanced awareness of the moment at hand. Tai chi requires you to be attentive to and aware of what you are doing at all times.

By drawing you into the moment at hand tai chi creates a model that enables you to more easily manage elective shifts between your own past, present and future. In this sense tai chi becomes not just a personal practice but also the basis for an effective living philosophy.

By virtue of this enhanced attention and awareness you will find yourself becoming more present to yourself and better able to access your full range of personal resources, and less inclined to be stuck out of the now, or out of any moment. You'll become more effective and more deliberate as the director of your own life, to make the best use of all the moments you have at your disposal. Your life will feel and be more intentional, more deliberate, and more meaningful.

This is an original article authored by John Loupos, M.S., H.S.E. which appeared in the March 2018 issue of the Jade Forest Newsletter.