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What it really means to ‘live in the moment’

The phrase ‘live in the moment’ feels a bit intimidating to many people, as if it was referring to some vaguely mystical state. In fact, it is something very concrete.

living in the momentImagine you’re playing tennis, and you have been doing badly with your serves. Or, for that matter, imagine you’re playing golf, or baseball, and having a bad streak. Chances are you would be getting more and more tense, more and more flustered.

If it was possible to totally live in the moment, you would be able to treat each serve as if it was the only one. Your mind would not be preoccupied with the increasing background noise about the preceding moves, and all the internal pressure that is mounting as a result.

In practice, of course, it is very difficult to do so. Even people who are trained to perform under pressure have a hard time with this. Witness the temper tantrums of tennis players.

Our nervous system is highly reactive. We are wired to respond to danger. As soon as we perceive what might be danger, we automatically get into fight-or-flight mode. Which means, we’re flooded with a lot of energy. We also have decreased blood flow to the brain (i.e. we are less smart), and we have decreased peripheral vision. All of this is perfect to single-mindedly do what it takes to survive, e.g. strike an opponent or run away. But not that great for playing golf or tennis, or for most other post-paleo activities.

By the way, that fight-or-flight reactivity is very much ‘in the moment’. In fact, what could be more ‘in the moment’ than the ability to do what it takes to survive?

So the problem is not so much: ‘how to be in the moment’. It is: ‘how to be in the appropriate moment’.

There are times when it is appropriate to have hair-trigger reactivity (maybe not so many in our modern lives). And moments when it is much more appropriate to tame that reactivity in order to have better access to our other resources.

The apparently mystical goal of ‘living in the moment’ can be restated in a more down-to-earth way. The goal is to proactively manage our reactivity, so that we can respond to situations as they are, unencumbered by our baggage and projections.

In a nutshell:
- There are plenty of times in our modern life (vs paleo times) when reactivity is not appropriate.
- To override reactivity, thoughts and willpower alone are not going to be enough: Reactivity is hard-wired in us, as it has been useful for survival through millions of years of evolution. What it takes is training the nervous system.
- We do this the same way we improve our athletic or musical or other skills - through practice.

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