Two Wildly Different Ways to “Live in the Moment”

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When religious folks hear about mindfulness for the first time, their initial response is often to big stereotypes…“hmmm, live in the moment?  I’ve heard that before.”

In opposition to the Christian life is a world that calls on people to ‘do what you want’…’have as much fun as you can’…’give yourself what you need’…’obey your thirst’…’stop worrying so much about future consequences’…and otherwise ‘enjoy the moment’ and ‘live in the 192c65deef03706c6c132e4d925d4cc0.500x123x1moment!’

Isn’t that the same thing the contemplative tradition and mindfulness community are inviting us to consider?  Hardly.

In response to the ‘obey your thirst’ message, Siddartha Guatama and Jesus Christ would have seen themselves as strong allies, at the very least.  While the Christians are often the ones portrayed as carrying around a heavy cross of commands, the Buddha was no push-over. Among the Four Noble Truths the Buddha taught his whole life about Right Action.  Right Language.  Right Livelihood.  Right Speech.  Right Thought.

“Whosoever looketh on a women to lust after her hath committed adultery in his heart,” Jesus says.  Buddha likewise teaches “craving is one of the central causes of suffering.”

Both Buddhists and Christians, then, strongly hold to there being a right and wrong way to ‘be in the moment.’  To attempt to collapse these ways – or pretend that “living in the moment” means the same thing everywhere would be to ignore fundamental and interesting differences.

For the sake of clarifying this point, I’ve had some fun laying out two fundamentally different ways of being in the moment – broken down by 4 different questions:

Living in the Moment:  Key Issues Around which Divergence Happens. 

1. How Broad is the Inner Presence? On the most basic level, the precise scope of attention brought to the presence differs in significant ways. On one hand, people are mostly present to the impulses of the physical body, as well as to  personal emotional needs: Hungry? Thirsty?  Bored?  Sleepy?  Horny?  In this first kind of ‘living in the moment’ – these inner impulses reign supreme in influencing and guiding action.

In comparison, people may approach the moment largely present not only to inner physical and emotional impulses – but also to other aspects of self:  inner senses, awareness, intuition, spirit, etc.  In this second kind of ‘living in the moment,’ there is a dialogue between inner impulses and the other aspects of self.  While importance is still given to the body and emotion, they are not supreme rulers – and can be checked in a balance of powers with other aspects of self.

 2. How Does Action Arise? Dramatic differences also exist as far as where the power and control mostly resides. On one hand, there is a sense of drivenness to the moment’s absorption – a controlling level of reactivity to  various surrounding forces and inner impulses.

In comparison, the moment’s absorption involves an inherent increase in internal power and control – and a lessening of drivenness and reactivity.

3. What about the Future or the Past? While being in the moment typically means de-emphasizing both past and future, how exactly to do that varies widely. On one hand, the enjoyable part of ‘living in the present’ is cutting oneself off from both undesirable memories of the past and worrisome consequences in the future. In other words, the tendency in this approach is to only focus on the NOW.

In comparison, the present moment can be understood to be intimately and seamlessly connected to both past and presence in a way that is important to remember and consider.  The focus on the NOW, from this vantage point, is not exclusive or blinding to the wisdom of the past or the considerations of the future.

4. How is the ‘Outside’ World Seen? As a final difference, these contrasting approaches to ‘living in the moment’ relate to the outside world in a very different way. On one hand, we are hardly present to anything external. When attention is given to these outside entities, they are most commonly framed as an object for our own use.  If push comes to shove, and you need to sacrifice something – you more likely to opt out. Life ‘in the moment,’ in this sense is primarily focused on pursing the well-being of self.

On the other hand, we are very much present to external needs – with a strong interest in the needs and well-being of something outside oneself.  To the point that the ‘outside’ world is not actually outside in the sense of separable.  Life ‘in the moment,’ in this sense, is primarily focused on primarily pursuing the well-being of others.

The first set of answers correspond to what is most commonly seen as “living in the moment:  Driven, prioritizing physical/emotional aspects of self, as well as one’s own well-being and hardly present to anything external, let alone the future or the past. For those who adopt this approach, the entire focus goes towards the experience of pleasure – my pleasure – in this moment occupies the whole of attention.  “I want to feel good!!”

The second set of answers correspond to what Buddhist and Christian thinkers would see as “living in the moment”:  In charge, fully present to all aspects of self and equally attentive to the well-being of others and external obligations – not to mention the  as well as to contingencies of past and future.  For those who adopt this approach, the entire focus goes on the entirety of the moment – whatever it is – not limiting oneself to only the body or emotions, only oneself, or only this moment.

Obviously, these approaches are seen and evaluated in dramatically different ways.  As many point out and even more have to discover for themselves, there is a narrowness to the first approach, not often acknowledged in its slick marketing campaigns.  Indeed, the first approach to ‘living in the moment’ is touted in its highly superior marketing budget as the uniform key to happiness, joy and peace:  Want to enjoy life?  Do whatever you want, whenever you want it – no matter what others say or what might go wrong:  Live in the moment!  Live the Vida Loca!  From this perspective, even the driven aspect of life is welcomed and romanticized as exciting and ‘sexy.’

The second approach is celebrated in sacred text – and the life of believers – as a pathway to happiness.  For me, at least, this same contrast is reflected in the scriptural duel between being “carnally-minded” and “spiritually-minded” (Romans 8:62 Nephi 9:39) – both present and engaged…but in very different ways, with very different pathways ahead.

The purpose here is simply to point out that there are two very different kinds of “being in the moment”- acknowledging these differences – so a choice between them is more distinct.

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