We often hear this phrase touted in our culture: live in the moment! To some, living in the moment connotes adventure, risk-taking and passionate endeavors. To others, living in the moment means peace, quiet and serenity. Both of these connotations have one thing in common: discipline. It takes discipline to live in the moment.
Living in the moment means being awake to the present. Not pining over the past or setting your mind in future events. It means being open to considering the options that life presents you at any given point. In order to truly be awake to each moment, you have to be present and available. Often we are neither present nor available to that which is in right in front of us.
For example, I can tell when I am not practicing the discipline of living in the moment because my mind becomes frenetic. If I allow myself a season of constant busyness of the mind, fretting, looking backward and forward at the same time, my frenzied thought life begins to manifest itself in my words and actions. During these times I have a difficult time prioritizing my day. I will begin one project and then quickly move on to another before the first is complete: even a project as simple as showering and getting dressed. The rhythm of my thought life becomes the rhythm of my physical life. I rush around trying to maintain my routine of getting ready for the day but interrupting my own momentum with side projects—folding clothes, starting breakfast, writing an email—until I realize that my hair is still wet and I need to get back to the business of getting ready. My movement becomes like the electricity you see in those clear round globes at the science museum. It begins at one point but flies out in all directions in excited and sporadic motion.
This kind of movement begins in the mind. A peaceful mind produces peaceful actions, even in the midst of activity and busy daily tasks. A mind that moves quickly between last week and next month and then back to last year can produce clipped, impatient, absent action. In order to live in the moment, we must be able to discipline our minds to stay in the current moment, at the current time.
Another way in which living in the moment is dependent upon discipline is that we must have the clarity of direction that comes with making strong decisions about who we are and what our boundaries are in life. The word boundary sounds a little stifling. It can create a mental image of walls built in the middle of life’s possibilities that are meant to hem in, close off and isolate. However, quite the opposite is true. Our boundaries are guideposts that we set up in order to peacefully live within the construct of our own morality and free will. If we set up boundaries for ourselves today, we can live spontaneously tomorrow.
Let me take, as an example, a cultural boundary on which we can all agree: traffic laws. As a citizen of the United States I know that I can drive on the right side of the road, I cannot drive on the sidewalk, I can choose to follow the posted speed limits and I cannot swerve into oncoming traffic. As long as I understand those boundaries, I am free to roam about the country. The boundaries that have been established in the past give me freedom in the present: the freedom to travel and the freedom to road trip! It is my responsibility to follow the constructs our society has established and when I decide to follow these rules I can stop focusing on them and, instead, focus on the beauty of the scenery flying by my window, and/or the music streaming through my speakers.
For the purpose of further making the connection between boundaries and living in the moment I will share a personal example. One of my personal boundaries is that I will not speak in anger. Lest you think that sounds awfully pious and perfect of me, please note that the boundary has been put into place for a reason: I am apt to speak in anger and when I have done so in the past it has always resulted in destruction. I have learned that my tongue can be used as an instrument of crushing carnage so my boundary is to shut up when I can feel I am about to unleash the beast, if you will. This is an emotional boundary, meaning I have learned that I have to take responsibility for my negative emotion of anger. If I feel anger rising up in me, I make the choice (usually) to hold my tongue. If my anger rises in a face-to-face conversation I will often say, “This is making me angry. I respect you and our relationship so I am going to stop talking for now, calm down and then we can continue this conversation. I need to stop now.” If my anger flares up as a result of something I read online I simply have to turn off my device and do something productive like take a walk, pray or choose to consider the good qualities of the person who just made me angry.
So, what does this boundary have to do with living in the moment? If I know I will not speak in anger I am free to have a conversation with anyone about anything, even if we disagree on the topic, and from this freedom I am open to listening, learning and entering into the sometimes tense territory of diverging opinions. It is important for me to remain open-minded and to be a good listener. So, for me, setting the boundary of not speaking in anger allows me to engage in difficult conversations without the fear of losing relationship with the other person.
Living in the moment means being available, present and, as we say in the acting profession, “taking the first thing.”
Taking the first thing refers to a concept taught by famed acting teacher, Sanford Meisner. This concept introduces the basics of the Repeat Exercise, which is the foundation of the Meisner Technique.
The Repeat Exercise works like this: Two actors A and B sit opposite each other. Actor A turns away from B and when instructed turns to face B saying “the first thing” they notice about that actor. Actor B listens and instantly repeats what she hears, actor A listens and instantly repeats back, B then listens and repeats and so on . . .
Throughout the process this develops into improvisations encouraging open, honest and instinctive interaction between two characters.
It is important at this stage that the actor does not come up with an opinion about that other person, like commenting on what her partner may be thinking or feeling, but sticks to physical observations. For example: “green shirt,” “brown hair,” “hands on lap,” or “you have a big nose.”
The reason for this is to encourage the actors to develop their ability to listen to the other person using their eyes as well as their ears. They also are encouraged to stay out of their head (not to over-analyze their observations) and not to censor their responses.
Working instinctively like this allows the actors to experience various emotions. For example, the actors may experience boredom from doing four minutes of the repeat, they may find something their partner said amusing so feel the urge to laugh, frustration or anger because of what has been said and sometimes fear of the exercise itself.
During my tenure in graduate school this exercise taught me to live in the moment. To bring all of my senses into one place at one time without judging how my senses are reacting to any given stimulus.
In my own life this training has been invaluable: not only in the rehearsal hall or on stage but also in every day life. When I know I am all in one place at one time, listening, observing and paying attention, my work and relationships are strengthened. Even today, I was on my way to drop off some important paperwork at the university campus in the town where I live. My objective was to get to the office quickly and then to return home. Along the way, however, I met a former student of mine. When we saw one another I could tell instantly that she wanted to stop and talk with me. Seeing that—the look on her face, the posture of her stance and hearing the excited tone in her voice—I knew that my presence was important to her in that moment so I stopped my own objective and stood with her. This might seem like a simple example but if you consider this moment to be a microcosm of our everyday lives you might find some more subtle details in the story: if I was not living in the moment, remaining open and available to the stimulus and people around me, I could have easily seen the student, not taken note of any of the physical or vocal cues through which she was communicating the desire to talk, and I could have walked right past her. I could have been living in the future where I wanted to drop off that paperwork and missed the opportunity to hear the stories she wanted to share from her summer vacation. What a lovely moment of connection I would have missed!
So, living in the moment does not only connote big adventures, huge risks and thoughtless endeavors. Living for the next thrill can lead to a fairly vapid and careless life.
Consider, instead, that living in the moment is a discipline of the mind that connects you to the rest of the world in a way that is meaningful, honest and whole.
–Jill Szoo Wilson