Skip to content
Photo by Zachary Keimig / Unsplash

But it’s good existential advice

Do you want a piece of advice that I’ve seen recommended by sages in virtually every spiritual tradition?

Live in the present moment.

I don’t care if it’s a Muslim Sufi or a Christian mystic or an Indian yogi or a crystal-clutching New Age spiritualist. The advice is there: Embrace the now. Live in the present moment.

Heck, it’s not even for spiritual or mindful people. It’s part of the accepted canon for living well. Will Rogers was once asked what he would do if he had only five days left to live. He replied, “Just continue my present approach to life: Take one day at a time.”

My Advice in Youth Sports

When my sons were in youth sports, I’d try to help them, but my knowledge was pretty limited and I knew it, so I’d offer humorous pointers like,

“Make the ball go inside the hoop.” “Run faster!”

It was sound advice, but for one thing: it wasn’t helpful.

Such advice states the goal but tells you nothing about how to reach the goal.

That’s the way it is with admonitions to live in the present moment. That should be the goal, yes, but it tells us nothing about how to get there.

“Live in the present moment!” “Run faster!”

Now put your forehead in your hands.

The Present Moment Conflicts with Life

Let’s be frank: Living in the present moment conflicts with life. It’s that simple.

We learn from our mistakes only if we remember the past. We are prepared for the future only if we think about it. Our minds are as naturally pulled away from the present moment as our lungs are pulled toward breathing.

Maybe the End is the Means

I’m not going to tell you how to live in the present moment. Heck, if I knew that, I doubt I’d be working on this article. Instead, I’d probably be outside right now, serenely looking at trees or pursuing a quiet craft like woodworking, maybe reading a poem.

What I’m curious about here is: Why do the spiritual masters unanimously seem to insist on that lame piece of advice: “Live in the present moment!”

“Get the ball to go inside the hoop!”


Shift back to what I said at the beginning of this section: If I were a master of living in the present moment, I’d probably be serenely looking at trees or reading a poem.

When I wrote that, I pictured myself at the end of a process, which is where the spiritual masters’ advice to live in the present moment is: at the end, leaving us at the befuddled beginning.

But maybe that’s the point: we have to get to the end so we can start at the beginning. We picture the end (serene tree watching) or verbalize it (live in the present moment), then work backward. A scientist forms a hypothesis then conducts experiments. The spiritual master gives you more than a mere hypothesis. He or she gives you a theory that is proven by, in the phrase used by Aldous Huxley, “empirical theology” (The Perennial Philosophy). Now you just have to conduct the experiments in your life to figure out how to get there.

You, in other words, now have a goal that you can trust, which is huge. Sure, it’s an even greater blessing if you can find a spiritual director who can help you get there in your personal life, but it helps enormously just to know what the goal is.

It Sets Off an Existential Chain Reaction

At one level, it’s merely a case of not making progress if you don’t know where you’re going, but I think it’s more than that. It’s also visualization. We put an image in our head of how we should be, then we can start making progress in getting to that image in real life.

I’ve been taking Dr. Kevin Majeres’ Optimal Work master course. It incorporates a lot of meditation. One of the meditation “techniques” tells the listener to picture the ideal state of performing a task, then picture oneself doing the task in that state. It’s a recurring theme in the master course.

A good friend coaches youth sports. He tells his players to use visualization when they’re away from practice. “Pick a quiet place in your house, sit quietly, and just picture the ball leaving your hands and going through the hoop.” He says it’s standard advice in sports visualization.

We are a complicated jumble of stuff. Body, brain, mind, soul, spirit, ideas, imagination, neurons, nerves, memory, fears, hopes, etc.

The operative word here is “jumble.”

It’s all mashed together, sometimes cooperatively and sometimes conflictingly. One part of us pushes, another part pulls. One ebbs, one flows. One ducks, one weaves.

I have no idea how it all works.

Heck, I’m not even sure the whole mess “works” at all.

But I do know it’s all tied (wrapped . . . jumbled) together somehow, and it’s all together in one person: yourself. All those parts serve the whole (you).

It’s not remotely surprising that the act of imagining yourself in one state can set off a chain reaction in the rest of your existence that then actually leads to you achieving that state of existence.

When you think about it, it’s kind of hard to think how it could be any other way. If everything is jumbled together, one part will affect the others. Your imagination will affect your body, which might strike us as absurd . . . until we let our imagination run away and we suddenly notice our hearts beating faster.

When one part moves, the other parts move.

So when all of the spiritual masters counsel us to live in the present moment, it’s solid advice. Sure, they’re only giving you the end game, but with that end game in mind, the rest of you is more likely to reach it.

Photo by Elina Fairytale on