One of the most popular teachings in meditation and mindfulness circles, now widely adopted by our culture, is the recommendation to live in the moment. When we are able to do that, most of our mental and emotional pain disappears—we are not anxious about the future, nor re-living past pains. We also enjoy our sensory experiences more; we get to smell the roses.
Practicing living in the moment definitely leads to a more peaceful, relaxed, and pleasurable life. But does it lead to a more fulfilling life? Does it lead to our maximum growth and the fulfillment of our inherent potential—our aspirations?
It doesn’t. Whether you look at it from the spiritual point of view or the personal development point of view, living in the moment is only half of the story. And yes, I know that this might be a surprising thing to hear from a meditation teacher.
Planning for the Future Is a Sign of Evolution
Our ability to reflect on the past and plan the future is an evolutionary upgrade in our brain. It is something that animals cannot do.
In Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength, Roy Baumeister, PhD, relates that we are the only known species that can actually plan for the future, and thus work toward a vision to shape our reality. The smartest nonhuman primates can only mentally project twenty minutes into the future; while our ability to plan into the future knows no limits. Likewise, animals do not reflect on their past experiences the same way that we do.
Wanting to renounce our ability to think about the future and reflect about our past, then, would be a limitation—not liberation. It would make us closer to the animal kingdom, not to the Buddhas or Yogis.
Our reptilian brain—the most primitive part of us—is always “in the moment”. It only cares about avoiding pain in the moment, and seeking pleasure here and now. It’s the least enlightened part of us, despite being perfectly in the moment.
It’s our neocortex (so called the “human brain”) that is capable of having a vision for the future, and molding our present actions, efforts, and environments based on that vision. It’s this part of our brain that is responsible for self-awareness, willpower, self-discipline, and long-term goals. It’s part of what makes us human.
Animals are just living in the moment—because they are incapable of planning for the future. People with addiction are also living in the moment, and making decisions based on what feels good for them in the moment. Your teenage son/daughter likely lives too much in the moment as well!
When you decide to procrastinate on your important goals, get distracted with social media, or follow a destructive impulse, you are “living in the moment”—you are prioritizing a feeling in your present moment experience instead of taking action that affirms your values and supports your goals. All sorts of bad decisions are taken due to an impulse felt “in the moment”.
So being in the moment is not the answer to everything.
If you want to be 100% in the moment, and always just in the moment, then we just need to prune out some areas of your brain. Is this what we are seeking as a proxy for a happy life, or for spiritual awakening?
It took millions of years for nature to perfect this instrument called the human brain, with its faculties of reflecting on the past and future. It is unlikely that the next step in our evolution is to stop using these faculties.
The Mystical Allure of the Present Moment
Why, then, do we get attracted to the idea of living in the moment, as if it’s a panacea of all suffering? Because we haven’t learned how to properly use these faculties. We haven’t developed the wisdom, awareness, and self-mastery needed to make good use of them.
Instead, we are suffering them. We get stuck in unhelpful ways of thinking about the past (depression, resentment, regret) and unhelpful ways of thinking about the future (anxiety, worry, fear). The solution to this challenge is not to simply stop using these faculties and just “stay in the moment”, but to learn how to use these mental powers effectively.
The idea to leave it all behind and just be in the moment is an attractive proposition, especially when seen through mystical lenses. Quotes from Buddhism and Yoga are often evoked to emphasize the power of now, yet if you look at the original teachings in these traditions, you will see that all the emphasis is on self-transformation. Those practitioners have a very clear vision about who they want to be, and are actively molding the flow of their present moment to support that vision.
Being only in the moment can be a form of escapism. A way of not dealing with a traumatizing past, or of closing your eyes to impending future trouble. It is a way of staying within your comfort zone. So we like it!
Think about any addictive behavior. The person who chooses to drink one cup of alcohol after another, until he loses consciousness, is doing what feels good in the moment. He is following the impulses in the moment, unconcerned about any future consequences. He lives like he has no future—and as a result, he will have no future.
A Wiser Way to Live in the Moment
Living in the moment is both a powerful tool, and a trap. It can be an asset, or a liability. It depends on the intention and wisdom behind it.
I believe most of us can benefit from living more in the moment. Yet we need to do that in a wise manner. We need to live in the moment, but not for the moment.
When you only live in the moment, you don’t build strength or resilience. You don’t prepare for the challenges the future will certainly bring. You don’t save for the rainy day—because it’s not raining right now.
There is nothing glorious about only living in the moment. Nothing particularly spiritual about it. Being a full-fledged human being, with the ability to navigate the past, present, and future without losing yourself—that is an achievement!
Here is a better ideal for us to aim for:
- Learn from your past
- Enjoy your present
- Build your future
This is more complex than just saying, “live in the moment”, and so it’s unlikely that it will become as popular. Yet it gives you a more balanced model for growth.
In practical terms, it means that while we actively cultivate the ability to switch off unhelpful thought patterns around past and future, we also consciously strive to live in the present in a way that is in harmony with our vision.
We don’t just follow the flow, we guide the flow. We manifest a new flow. We become creators, rather than followers.
This requires that we know our aspirations—that we have a vision for ourselves, and our lives. It requires that we organize our lives around that vision, and that the way we live each moment is guided by that vision. It requires that we sometimes say “not now”.
Living in the moment should be a choice that you have; not a compulsion, nor escapism, nor an excuse to live a narrower life.
- If you want peace, live in the moment.
- If you want power, live in your vision.
- If you want empowered peace—the anthem of my work—then find the right balance.
Are you living in the moment in a wise way?
Or are you doing it to escape unprocessed past pains, or the lack of a compelling vision for yourself?
In your day-to-day life, is your vision bending your reality, or is reality bending your vision?
When you find yourself being carried away, in the moment, by impulses, distractions, or excuses, try the Shift Your Focus technique. You can learn more about it in chapter 18 of the book, or try the guided meditation in the Mindful Self-Discipline app.