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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

In the moment

Some years ago, during a particularly difficult period I began journaling at the suggestion of a friend. I was not especially invested at first but found that over time writing, albeit for an audience of one, was therapeutic offering an outlet for the thoughts and feelings that occupied my mind. I rarely revisited early entries, only occasionally reflecting on what I had written. But recently I came across a part of one journal and reading it proved instructive.

Some entries had the power to transport me back to a time and place, energizing emotions and memories some of which were perhaps best left in the past, but there were bittersweet memories as well as others that frankly surprised me, feeling almost alien in nature. I did not recall the events or my reactions to them as described. I wondered why I felt so disassociated from these notes and looked for a point of connection that would help me make sense of them, but there was no obvious pattern. Gradually, I came to recognize that we, or at least I, do not always live in the moment. Sometimes life goes by without conscious participation.

Mindfulness teaches us to be truly aware all of the time; and to understand the emotional undercurrents that occupy our thoughts and those with whom we are interacting. Of course, achieving that level of awareness requires enormous discipline and focus. To experience life and stand outside it at the same time, acting as an impartial observer takes training and patience. Most of us, it turns out, spend the majority of our time only semi-conscious. By that I mean we act and feel in pre-conditioned response, habit and reflex and only occasionally out of objective perception.

With this in mind, I have been experimenting, trying to overcome my self-imposed attention deficit and the habits of distraction learned over a lifetime. I have found it tremendously difficult and enlightening. It is easy to get lost in looping questions about why I or another person is saying or doing something at the moment and so avoid actually being in that moment. It took a while to teach my conscious self to file most of those questions for later examination and to restrain my reactions. Not surprisingly I learned that there was a difference in how I perceived things in the moment and later, how I felt about them when I had time to look back objectively.

I am not suggesting my observations are universal, however, after talking with several acquaintances I was struck by the differences in our perceptions of events we had commonly experienced. I can hardly claim that my recollections were the authoritative version—after all we have lots of anecdotal evidence that witnesses to a catastrophe or a particularly historic moment take away selective and highly subjective memories. Even trained observers used to making fast, perhaps life or death decisions, fighter pilots, police frequently recite impressions that are vastly different than images captured by gunsight or body cameras.

So, what does all this mean? Undoubtedly there are deep insights to be had about what constitutes consciousness and I am not about to venture into that scholarly discussion with some glib observations. I am more interested in learning how to live in the moment as a matter of everyday practice—mediating my very human tendency to either reflect on the past or project into the future.

Most of us have been taught that we should not spend our energies on the past or the future. At best the past holds only sketchy lessons that inform the present to the degree we actually paid any attention to the consequences—and the future, well we were all born with our personal crystal balls, but sadly the instructions for their use were not included.

In Tolstoy’s short story, The Three Questions, a prince seeking to find the wisest man in his kingdom poses three questions as a test: when is the most important moment to begin anything; who are the most important people to listen to; and what's the most important thing we should be doing at any given moment? An elderly peasant turns out to be the one with the answers. Now, the present, he says is all that matters. The past cannot be recaptured or changed—the future may or may not come. It follows that the most important person to listen to are those you are with. And the most important thing to do? Give the person you are with your full attention. A simple but precise way to sum up what it means to live in the moment.

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