Being in the Moment- a reality check

Being in the Moment- a reality check

I started writing something about being in the moment a week or so ago and circumstances made sure I never finished the article. I was trying to explore how I feel about the people I call Bright-siders (from Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Bright-sided”, “Smile or die” in the UK ) who always seem to find a good side to everything. Ms Ehrenreich was herself suitably appalled, not by solely by her breast cancer, but also by the movement that seems to exist that declares that far from being a catastrophe, breast cancer might just be the very best thing that has ever happened to you. 

I’ve heard this sort of thing before and it’s never ceased to amaze me how people can do this. Forgive my cynicism but hold on one moment…Cancer is good? While I am willing to accept and understand that after a serious event in one’s own life, it is possible to see collateral benefits of that devastating illness, that heartache, that bereavement, that job loss or that destructive divorce, I must stress that this can surely only be afterwards and only apply to your own acceptance of the outcome.  

The other train of thought that has been thundering through my mind lately has been that I simply do not understand how those who speak of the Bright-side also speak about being in the moment. Now being in the moment is a buzz word, an “IN” concept. I have heard of it first via Zen Buddhist practices and subsequently in almost every self help manual I’ve ever come across. Basically the practise consists of seeking to maintain the mind(and therefore the self) entirely in the present moment, without looking either ahead at the future or back at the past. Forgive me if I have oversimplified or misunderstood this but this is how I have understood it. In self help manuals it then stresses that doing this somehow magically transforms everything. I’ve read and heard comments to the effect that when a person started to live more in the moment, their life was transformed. I don’t understand this. I understand that a detachment from either the future or the past can be very liberating but it is the same people who preach this who also tend to be Brightsiders. The two are incompatible.  

Imagine the scenario. Life is going very badly for whatever reason. To try and improve it one tries to seek the good within the bad. This automatically pulls you out of the present moment and into the future, of seeing where this experience will benefit you or where it may take you. 

Pain is probably the most effective teacher of being in the moment. Serious chronic pain, or sudden acute pain catapult you into the moment by moment endurance of life. I don’t recommend either form of pain. Grief too, is another effective teacher of being in the moment, though most of us seek any sort of comfort we can to escape the unendurable agony of losing someone. In both these cases, this is where the Brightsiders have the most difficulty in coping. Pain and grief make you exist moment by moment and it’s then for me, the futility of trying to find a good in bad becomes most evident. What’s good in the death of someone I love? Nothing. That they were loved and that they are beyond pain now is besides the point. Those are tattered rags of comfort that flutter in the roaring gale of pain.

 Later, perhaps, comes philosophy and acceptance. Later comes the realisation that the void their loss brought has been filled by something else that could never have come before. But these are things one can see(truly see, not imagine in an orgy of denial) later. At the time, these are not just irrelevant but inconceivable to someone who has truly lived through the moment by moment, inch by inch of pain and grief. 

There are times when people offer words of comfort that seem to proceed from a need to relieve our pain. These words, sincerely meant, can be poorly received. A parent who has lost a baby does not want to hear their baby is safe in the arms of Jesus; she wants that baby in her arms.

 I have no answers. I walked to work today, fighting tears. I wanted to escape into my mental landscape where the sorrow I face does not exist. I did not; I found I could not. I realised also that joy is the dark sister of sorrow. No, I make no mistake here. Joy is what balances the sorrows of our life, but joy makes us complacent. Joy makes us believe we are beloved and chosen by God for special care and favours. So when sorrow comes, we believe ourselves to be cursed, or abandoned or that the joy we once felt was an illusion because how can something be that bright and that beautiful and that fleeting? Sorrow is as much a gift from God as joy is. For every birth there is a death, for every day, a night. You cannot have one without the other and while we crave the light, we demonise the dark. Dark and light are two sides of the same thing, just as joy and sorrow are twins joined at the heart. Ever noticed that the place we are said to feel both emotions is the heart? 

I do not wish to be in the moment now but I seem to have little choice but to take one day, one hour, one moment at a time and live as the day takes me. And my God, it hurts.

29 thoughts on “Being in the Moment- a reality check

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Being in the Moment- a reality check « Zen and the art of tightrope walking --

  2. I found your post very touching and poignant. I, too, have problems always “living in the moment”. I try. Sometimes it works, sometimes, not so much. I even have a blog dedicated to searching for mindfulness, trying to be more aware of things going on around me, not just within. (It’s called Brea’s Spirit, if you’re interested *shrug*)

    One of the things I believe that people forget (I know I do), is that in order to be “in the moment”, you have to find a constantly shifting balance between past and future; and sometimes that can be almost insanely impossible. It’s not really about forgetting past, and not thinking about the future, it’s more about not being SO focused on either one of those that you lose sight of what is right in front of you, now.

    It is a very delicate balance, and one I will seek my whole life.


    • Hi Brea,
      thank you for visiting. It is indeed a delicate balance and you never get “there”.
      I shall visit your blog later tonight but I am very pleased to see you here. It feels lonely right now. We have decided that tomorrow is the day that our beloved dog needs to go “home” as her quality of life is very low and she is bordering on suffering now. It is breaking out hearts and yet, not to do it is worse.
      be well and be peaceful,


  3. You’re right. Living in the moment means living with what ever is happening in the moment, and experiencing what healthy people would normally do. Sometimes, it calls for crying or shouting or wetting your pants. (Talk about a warm moment.)

    Being positive and up beat is one thing. A bright-sider would be a “downer” in my book.

    Hope your moments get lighter as the day progresses.

    michael j


    • warm moment indeed…!
      I had a strange and rather powerful conversation on Facebook chat with a former student which has moved me rather a lot and made me think that so often we do not know the effect our lives have on others.
      thanks Michael J.


  4. I have nearly finished Smile or Die and will send it to you along with Changeling.

    This whole concept of living in the moment has been turned into a massive case of chinese whispers through the endless self help books that refers to the concept.

    I would argue that aiming to live life “in the moment” would cause more disaster than enlightenment and in my warped mind must be very similar to a severe case of amnesia.

    As is often the case with self help books, it’s all or nothing thinking in the endless quest for total enlightenment, whatever that is. Feel free to enlighten me on this!!!

    To give you an example from “The Power of Now” in which Mr T describes waking up to his aha moment and subsequently spending the next 2 years (or whatever time frame he mentioned) watching life go by on a park bench while chatting to birds etc, sounds all good and well! My first thought, when I read this was “How did you fund this?”.
    I mean sitting on a park bench for any period of time without the need to bring in an income to put food on the table and keep a roof over your head must be some form of enlightenment in its own right!!! It might have been helpful, at least to people in desperate situations, for him to have been a little more specific on how he was able to do this, instead of just carrying on as if there should be no need for anyone to raise such a question!!!

    This is just one of thousands of examples I could come up with…

    I think that striving to always live in the moment is as bad a strategy as always living in the past or the future.

    I totally agree with Brea above that it is about getting the balance right…

    As for H…I feel your pain and my love, thoughts and prayers are with all of you.



    • I never understood that whole sitting on a park bench thing Eckhard Tolle did; was he down and out when it happened? I have the book somewhere(it’s N’s) and haven’t read it.
      Sometimes, like when I am in the severe pain I suffer regularly, the only place I can be in is In that moment. I wish I were anywhere else. Passing out helps but doesn’t come to order.
      see-saw is the way, I guess.


  5. I think the Brightsider ends up suffering more. We have this idea that if we think positively we can somehow escape pain, but in the end it becomes a constant struggle to deny the obvious.

    I don’t really understand the concept of living in the moment. I understand mindfulness, which would allow you to realize when your thoughts are of the past or the future and so avoid getting snared in them to the extent that you neglect to take action now. But like so many techniques these days, we are sure there’s a key to mastery that will somehow relieve us of pain and distress. And it becomes a sort of competition. Competitive mindfulness.

    One of the best discussions I’ve read about mindfulness said that you have to approach it with the understanding that it will not get rid of your anxieties, your depression, your anger, or your pain, but it can help you accept whatever you feel or are going through while you keep acting on what you value.


  6. After reading through the replies and comments again, here, I just had to add that – when I’m really at a low point, or the anxiety is riding hard, a friend of mine and I have a saying:

    “This is not my moment.”

    With those 5 words, the other person knows that you’ve gone down into the screaming abyss, and need them to be the light above, or a warm body standing next to them, or the sound of breath on the other end of the phone line.

    And as you said above, living in the “moment” isn’t always about the pleasant feelings, it’s about the painful ones, too.

    Something about your post today, very moving. Thank you.


    • I like that. I have code words and phrases that others who know me well then realise what is going on.
      I am not much given to so-called “bad language” and most of my colleagues have never heard me swear, but yesterday I used the F word in the staff room and I got a shocked(and slightly amused but sympathetic) reaction because of the scarcity of such words. they knew i was truly upset.
      thank you.


  7. There seems a lot of confusion here between “living in the moment” and “being in the moment”. The latter being the Buddhist visiparana teaching of those like Thích Nhất Hạnh and taken up by John Kabat Zinn originally when trying to relieve the suffering of those in constant pain. I also detect a confusion between brightsiders and Positive psychology as wrtten by Seligman. We need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The bathwater is where the brightsiders live, taking a well thought out observation and turning it into a medicine that one can just pick up and use when we have a symptom. They also confuse cause and correlation. I am not, in this comment, advocating any view, merely pointing out that by shifting the meaning of words, we can argue for or against anything.


    • Eternal Sage,

      Hear, hear!

      I agree.

      Or I agreed.

      Or I will agree.

      Can’t seem to figure out when I’m actually “in the moment.” I like to think that when I let my self go while writing, I become more in the moment over an extended period of moments that may make up a “moment in time” along glacier lines. I get to “. . . s t r e t c h o u t . . . ” the moment, thereby making many tiny moments into one continuous creation of a moment. Einstein Relativity-like!

      And then there manifests a second “moment” as someone reads these tiny moments, bringing them into another ” existence” apart from when they were simply a bunch of random letters appearing moment by moment on a monitor screen. . .

      Does that make sense? Or have I been awashed by some LSD flashback from the days of Timothy Leary and the Sgt. Pepper’s Beatles?

      Give me a moment to think about it.

      michael j


    • Somewhat beyond me at the minute Ian, the only bit I got was about turning something into a medicine was can just pick up and use. magic pill anyone?


  8. “Later,perhaps ,comes….” – that is good Viv.

    Romans 12:15-16
    Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

    Sometimes those brightsiders seem a little….conceited. 🙂




    • I go back to the book of Ecclesiastes, There is a time to mourn, and a time to rejoice.
      she passed today.
      will write more; something strange and rather wonderful happened.


  9. “Somewhat beyond me at the minute Ian, the only bit I got was about turning something into a medicine was can just pick up and use. magic pill anyone?”

    I think, rereading it, it still makes sense so I cannot help. Perhaps I was suggesting that if you want to be anti something, you can chose to use a definition of it that suits your argument. All that is, is setting up a straw man. If however, you go back “to the original document” you will be able to see where the brightsiders screwed it up but, also, whether the insight has some application, however restricted. As you said yourself, your original post loses it’s impact by oversimplifying and using too broad categories to suit your purpose. If you judge the original insight by the 3rd hand actions of the brightsiders, you are not giving a fair hearing to, and missing the possible benefit of, the original findings.
    The “medicine” bit was an observation on modern culture which wants the quick fix, and also wants an insight or a strategy, that can be picked up when you need it, requires no effort, produces quick results and can then be left in the medicine cupboard and forgotten until the next time i.e. a pill. None of the writings I have come across suggest anything but that it is possibly too late when the full catastrophe strikes (or, at least, hard and difficult work, and that it might be sensible to be prepared.


    • Sense is not something i can quite get right now, Ian.
      I am not aiming to be anti-anything; just cataloging my reactions. I have no insight, I have no answers, i simply have emotions.


  10. Something a friend once sent me:

    2000 B.C. – Here, eat this root.
    1000 A.D. – That root is heathen. Here, say this prayer.
    1850 A.D. – That prayer is superstition. Here, drink this potion.
    1940 A.D. – That potion is snake oil. Here, swallow this pill.
    1985 A.D. – That pill is ineffective. Here, take this antibiotic.
    2000 A.D. – That antibiotic is artificial. Here, eat this root

    Everything is cyclical. Seasons, Tides, Moon phases, life changes, emotional shifts, relationships, you name it.

    Balancing on that little ball, while juggling knives, and having flames lick your toes and a good stiff wind blowing in your eyes, is challenging. Sometimes you stand tall, and can handle it all. Other times you fall. Sorry, didn’t mean for the rhyming thing. The point is, ONLY YOU can choose the path you take, and how you want to travel. Your choice.


  11. Hi Viv,

    I think I need to read up on “Living in the moment” and “Bright-siding/siders.”

    I’d say only this – there’s no way another person can feel about your sorrow or happiness or any other emotion – as strongly as you do…but we humans have built up a support-system where others try to share the pain or the happiness – sometime clumsily, sometimes with some dexterity…but of course, it’s a learned behavior. To feel another person’s pain, you need to be really close to that person – everything else is a play of words.

    That’s all.


  12. Shafali, As a result of chronic back pain due to nerve damage, I startd to look at alternatives/complemets to physical medical interventions. One of the better books (although I listened to it as an audiobook) is “Full Catastrophe Living” by John Kabat Zinn. This book gives a fair amount of detail of the MBSR Clininc in New York and their effectiveness using “mindfulness meditation”. A slimmed down version is called “Wherever you go, there you are” but, being academically trained, I found this to lack evidence – although it is the same system and the same author, just me I guess! These books avoid the spiritual side of mindfulness and other books can provide this. I have been an irregular and infrequent user of buddhism, yoga and meditation as part of my spiritual search, and I found it fairly easy to get into the swing of the idea. I started to follow the system more seriously only a week ago because I found the passive “patient” role to disempowering as the sole intervention.


  13. This ‘being in the moment’ concept is an interesting one. I think it starts when you take notice of what you are thinking. Most of the time our minds are on a hamster wheel in auto-run mode. Following some reading and suggestions, I began to take notice a few times a day of what I was thinking about. Many times I would be thinking furiously about someone I thought had wronged me, or something similar. I read a sign that said ‘holding a grudge is like giving someone rent-free use of your brain’ and I discovered that was true. It took time, and I still work at it, but I’ve found that I spend much less time giving others rent-free use of my brain. When I find myself in those situations where I realize I’m not “here” I try to just focus on my breathing for a while and that helps to center me again. It may never become second nature to always simply “be” however I think it’s worth the effort to do the best we can – simply by stopping as often as we can throughout the day, and asking ourselves – “what am I thinking and why am I thinking about that?” It might not be a good idea to write that and post it in a prominent place. If there isn’t a good reason for what you’re thinking then stop thinking about it. You can begin to do that by just taking notice of your breath until you’re back to “being” whatever it is you are “doing.” Seems to help me. Maybe it will help someone else….


  14. this post is one that fits into issues I’m having at the moment and a path I am following.
    first having non terminal breast cancer was the best thing that could have happened to my Ma, she is the sort that works until she drops, twice this has been almost to point of death. But I have also watch someone die at home of cancer and all the happy stuff about cancer all the beautiful death stuff was like a pile of fish bones lodged in my throat. There has been a lot recently on the pink breast cancer stuff…this and linking on from this

    I have looked at buddhism on and off for decades. I have raged at Eckhard Tolle [on his bench – yes a nice private income might help me deal with life if I could sit on a bench]. Since february when I nearly broke into small pieces I have been listening to a talk from each day and trying 15-20 minutes of breathing relaxing guided meditation. It has been a life saver. For the first time I have understood a lot of the teachings – I think I had finally reached some conclusions of my own that matched the teachings. I have had a listen to a few other people recommended to me and they just make me angry. Gil & Andrea at audiodharma have something so earthy about them, something practical, pragmatic, it’s real life. And Andrea talks of self judgement & hatred because she has been there. It has been very practical.

    The cbt book of coming to terms with depression recommended by therapist has a lot on mindfulness but it didn’t work for me in the way that they approach it – made me worse.
    It is difficult and there are days when it is nearly impossible to keep up the practice, I had a very black dangerous day on monday.
    I did watch this video from John Kabat Zinn [he is mentioned above by someone]. I think I recieved it better than I would have a couple of months ago.

    I understand that my thinking is very skewed, I also understand when people are asking me to be impossibly positive, it is pointless. I am already good at a smiling mask. So the audio dharma & mindfulness and tiny tiny bits of cbt are helping me through. I also like the overlap of some of the dharma teachings and my Quaker path


  15. ps – pain has been one of the best teachers I’ve had until now on the subject of being present in the moment.
    The dharma talks recognise the difference between meditation practice and the practice of mindfulness in everyday life, where we do need to think, plan, organise etc [because there is more to do than sit on a bench all day]


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