These are the kinds of statements the wise ones have been making since the beginning of time. The sentiments are even reflected in the very first of Patanjali’s sutras “atha yoga anushasanam” which is loosely translated to mean “you can only begin your practice of yoga at the point where you are right now.” The sutras are believed to have been written at least 1700 years ago so this is not new advice. In fact, people have been saying these kinds of things for so long that we no longer question their veracity. The value of being present is seen as a universal truth. To be in the moment is better than … well … to not be in the moment. (Do you have any idea how many people have the Serenity Prayer tattooed on some part of their bodies? It is one of the most popular of script tattoos of all time. True story.)
Live in the present. Be in the moment. It is the kind of advice that is doled out regularly in our fast-paced, ADD, instant gratification seeking world. It hits the preamble of almost every single self-help book ever published. Facebook and Instagram are full of inspirational quotes reminding us to focus on being here and now. I just opened IG and read a quote from yoga_girl that says “don’t worry about the next step … stay present.” (PS for the record I happen to ❤ yoga_girl … not taking a shot at her … she just happened to be at the top of my newsfeed with a post that helped illustrate my point.) However, this is the kind of advice that was even given in galaxies a long time ago and far, far away. In the Empire Strikes Back, Yoda assesses Luke as being unready to begin training because he never seems to be in the moment. Yoda says, “A jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph. Adventure. Heh. Excitement. Heh. A jedi craves not these things. You are reckless.” Luke didn’t have a good comeback. He just pouted and whined as Yoda sighed a righteous sigh and Ben looked mildly embarrassed about the apparent failure of his protege.
But what if Luke was actually balls deep in the middle of the in the moment all along? What if Yoda had it wrong? What if he just couldn’t see where Luke’s moment began and where his moment ended? (Ben really should have defended Luke and told Yoda that he needed to get out of Dagobah more often so that he could understand that time is a fluid and personal construct.)
We talk about being in the moment all the time but … what the fuck is a moment anyway? Seriously. Has anybody stopped to define exactly what we are talking about when we tell people to be in this somewhat mythological (and obviously desirable) thing called the “moment”. Google tells me it is a noun that means “a very brief period of time”. Hmmmm helpful. (BTW … I do enjoy when we use a qualifier like “very” to define a relative term like “brief”). It’s not that I don’t understand why it’s important to work towards this way of being. It brings us peace and allows us to enjoy the gifts and opportunities that are in front of us that we might otherwise overlook. I am being somewhat argumentative here for the sake of provocation. However, I do believe we have over-simplified the concept and have ignored the subtext that often accompanies this advice … a subtext that suggests you are failing if your heart and mind circle backwards and forwards in time instead of anchoring to a very narrowly defined present moment.
My point is that a “moment” is pretty sketchy as a unit of measurement. It has no exact definition. It’s not like a moment is precisely 1.7734 seconds or 2.5 minutes. Here’s an example. A few months ago, I fell and broke my hand. That was a moment in my life. However, when did that moment truly begin and when did it end? Is that moment defined as the nanosecond it took for one of the peripheral metacarpals on my right hand to snap? Or did the moment begin earlier than that? Maybe it began when I woke up and started getting ready for work completely preoccupied by what to wear because I was going to be seeing one of my fave guys? Or when I left the house and realized my car wasn’t where I parked it? Or when I became even more distracted than I already was while I tried to walk my dog and look up the number for the towing company on my phone? Or when my boot slipped on the curb and I tried to toss my iPhone to the grass so it wouldn’t break as I fell? And did it end with the bone fracture, the tearful cab ride to the impound lot, arriving at or finishing the important meeting I sat through with a hand that was turning black and blue before my eyes, the visit to the walk-in clinic, the two separate xrays, or the casting of my poor little hand?
The answer to the question of the moment’s beginning and end rests partially with the story being told and the person telling the story (the metanarrative). Most of my friends would begin the story of my broken hand with me looking at my phone as I was walking because that gives credence to their argument that I am way too attached to my phone. However, I have one friend who would probably begin the tale with my original distraction about what to wear. She isn’t 100% supportive of my wardrobe choices at the best of times and definitely would not have approved of what I had chosen to wear to work that day. So she would choose a beginning that supports her narrative (one that centres around the theme of me needing to be more conservative). I would probably choose to begin the story even further back … maybe back to the point in time that the fabric of our society and sense of community started to unravel so badly that a neighbour would call the city on me for parking a few inches too close to a fire hydrant for less than 12 hours.
So point #1 is that the beginning and end of a moment is highly subjective. Point #2 is that moments are not necessarily discreet and sequential. We talk about them as if one ends and another one begins … as if they don’t overlap … as if we can’t be in more than one moment at any given time. However, we could theoretically be in the middle of a thousand moments at any given time. In my silly broken hand example I was minimally playing the part of dog-owner (walking my beautiful PBX), single stepmom (distracted by all the things that need to be done), manager at a provincial crown corporation (preoccupied by an important meeting that was going to happen that day), and caffeine junky (who had only had a few sips of coffee after an awful night’s sleep).
Even a simple moment like breaking my hand has nebulous and subjective parameters. Imagine how tricky it gets when we are trying to define moments that are more complex. Moments coloured by love, fear, grief, ecstasy, and loneliness … moments in which we are playing multiple roles simultaneously. If we are dealing with things like the ending of a relationship, anxiety at work, starting a new career, concerns for our children’s well-being, or becoming a jedi (like Luke) … know that these moments will probably be longer than 1.7734 seconds. They are the kind of moments that are not discreet and sequential. They are the kinds of moments that may span a lifetime.
Live in the present? Be in the moment? Fair enough. Just allow me to define the “moment” for myself.