This makes a great deal of sense to me. Oftentimes, I find myself distracted by thought about the future. Or, I replay past experiences in my mind, often unproductively.
Being in the moment frees us to experience life more fully, which is a good thing. But might this edict have a shadow side? Like any rule or declaration, it has limitations and is prone to misunderstanding.
Discursive thinking — going around in circles with our thoughts — does not get us far. We often haphazardly stray from one thought to another; the chain of association may keep us spinning our wheels without gaining traction.
Self-critical thoughts are also common ways that we stray from the present moment. We may be operating from core beliefs that we’re not good enough, smart enough, or attractive enough. We may notice self-talk such as, “What’s wrong with me?” or “That comment was dumb,” or “When will I ever find a good relationship?”
Meditation and mindfulness practices may offers instructions to simply notice our thoughts. The practice of “mental noting,” perhaps saying quietly to ourselves, “thinking, thinking,” may guide our attention away from unhelpful thoughts and back to the breath, our body, and the present moment.
Rather than being plagued by self-critical thoughts, we might labor under a pall of shame — a sense of feeling defective or unworthy. Unhealed shame keeps us lost in a haze, preventing us from being present with people and life.
Honoring Our Thoughts and Feelings
Being distracted by our thoughts doesn’t mean they’re always unproductive. There may be times when we need to think something through — perhaps a business decision, retirement planning, or how to communicate our feelings and desires to our partner. Meditation teacher Jason Siff offers this refreshing take on meditation:
I see clinging to experiences and elaborating on them, or thinking about them, as being quite natural and nothing to be alarmed about. . . . I have heard many reports of meditation sittings where someone has written an article, composed a piece of music, planned an art project, or redecorated her house, and it was actually very productive and efficient to be doing this in meditation.
Sometimes we need to allow some spaciousness around our feelings so that they have a chance to settle. Rather than hurl an angry or blaming remark and thinking we are living in the moment, we benefit from reflecting on our deeper, truer feelings. There may be sadness, fear, or shame beneath our initial anger. Can we allow ourselves to be in the moment in a way where we allow our deeper feelings to emerge? Noticing and sharing our authentic feelings connects us with ourselves in a way that can connect more intimately with others.
Spiritually-inclined people often overlook the importance of being with feelings that are arising in the moment. If we think that being in the moment means regarding feelings as distractions, then we’re no longer in the moment. Trying to be somewhere we’re not takes us away from the moment. Mindfulness is the practice of being present with what is, not trying to be in a different moment.
For some people, the edict to be in the present moment may be a subtle way to avoid uncomfortable feelings. As soon as an unpleasant emotion arises, they may try to yank their attention back to their breath in an attempt to be in the moment. But then they never get to the root of their feelings, which will keep recurring.
Just as a hurting child will clamor for attention until heard, our feelings need attention. When welcomed and listened to in a gentle, caring way, they tend to pass. We are then freed to be in a new moment, now freed of the subtle pull of unattended and troubling emotions.
“Being in the moment” can be a helpful reminder if we understand it in a more expansive way. It can remind us to be more mindful of wherever we happen to be. When emotions, thoughts, or desires are arising within, we can notice them, be gentle with them, and allow them to be just as they are. We live with more inner peace as we make room for the full range of our human experience.