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  • James Tam

Living in the (unwanted) moment



To live in the moment made perfect sense before I gave it further thought. When I did, it became more complicated than intuition had suggested.


Physically, all living things can only live in the moment. Obviously, the zen adage refers to spiritual rather than biological presence. In other words, to live in the moment is to focus on the here and now and stop looking back and forth for shadows to jump at, thereby calming our involuntarily twitchy nature. Does that mean I shouldn’t examine the past and plan for the future in order to fully embrace the present? What about unwanted moments? When in distress, should I try to escape according to instinct, or do the opposite and plunge in?


In trying to answer these questions, I’ve come to realise that living the moment takes more than focus. It’s essential that we also learn to detach, let go, and accept.


Learning from the past and planning for the future are generally regarded sensible for valid reasons. But the past is often haunted by regrets, and distorted by delusional glories which may not even have existed. Looking down the other end of the time line, the future is eternally uncertain, fraught with phantom worries. Experience and foresight are only worthwhile if studied objectively with a sense of detachment. In that case, the past and the future are merely extensions of the present.


Live in the moment sounds sardonically pointless when one’s going through hell. However, hellish moments are inevitable in life, and there’s no real escape. Take sickness for example. Pain killers don’t cure; masking the problem could even worsen it in the long run. There’s nowhere to run to. But directing full attention to the illness risks accentuating the torment. This is when detachment comes in. Objectification and acceptance could help alleviate the pain. Watching myself suffer from an imaginary distance helps put the ailment into perspective and remind me that however fierce it appears right now, it will go away or be gotten used to eventually, unless I die in the process — something which never happens from past experience.


I also discovered during a sleepless phase that when I stop resisting the frustrating moment, my perspective may shift, causing the situation to change, even disappear.


I’m rarely insomniac. A few years ago, out of the blue, I tossed and turned and sighed in bed for hours every night before sleep would take over. One night, with eyes on the ceiling, I analysed my agitation as if I were a counsellor to myself: I sleep to rest my mind and body, right? But according to research, the brain only rests one to two hours max in a solid eight-hour slumber. The rest of the time it indulges in a mindless absurdity called dreams. In the light of this scientific conjecture, spending a few hours to fall asleep isn’t a big deal. There’s no hurry. Instead of sweating over some nightmarishly bizarre functions of a non-existent software in dreamland, I can use this precious moment to consider things I don’t have time for during the day. That would be bonus conscious hours — qualitative longevity! The bones and muscles do need longer rests. But that can be easily achieved if I would just chill and refrain from restless tossing and turning.


Convinced, I decided to embrace this private and quiet overtime of the day and use it productively. Ironically, soon after I accepted insomnia, I fell asleep.


Talking about irony, a common example of not living in the moment happens mostly to lucky people. When everything is going smoothly, too good to be true, many would look for ways to reinforce and extend the favourable circumstance. In doing so, they see potential threats lurking everywhere, requiring preemptive efforts. One move triggers another, one worry gives rise to two, troubles multiply and propagate at the speed of invented fear. A simple cure for compulsive insecurity and unaware greed would be to let go, accept, live, and hopefully enjoy.


However, to focus and detach is easier said than done. It takes practice. Meditation is perhaps a relatively direct means to cultivate these abilities for the moment.


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James Tam 6.2023

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