Living in the moment versus living for the moment: The beauty of smallness
There is a difference. I think I’ve worked it out. It’s important.
How often do you hear your most carefree, chilled friends or family (or maybe yourself?!) refer to “living in the moment”?
Or have someone bandy the term around if they want you or someone else to be a little bit more impetuous or spontaneous?
And, there are others again who use the term to justify actions that might be considered by those living more “mainstream” lives as foolish or reckless.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea over the past couple of years and even more so during a 2020 overshadowed by a global pandemic. This is because as people around me seem to be mostly maneuvering into a more settled, serious part of their lives due to kids and mortgages and career goals (which happens once you pass into your fourth and fifth decades), I seem to be moving the other way.
The question is, does this mean I’m choosing to live “in” the moment or “for” the moment?
It’s an important distinction. Here’s why.
The idea of living in the moment is effectively practising mindfulness. Psychology Today offers a great definition of it:
a state of active, open, intentional attention on the present
So, essentially, focussing on what’s in front of you rather than what’s ahead.
Or, as the other oft-used phrase coins it, living for the journey, not the destination.
This concept won’t be new or a revelation to most people. And whether we’ve ever thought about it or not, we have all lived like this at some point. The most obvious is as a child when all that matters is what is right in front of you.
The hug of your parent.
The food in your belly.
The cot or bed you sleep in.
It’s only as a child grows older that they begin to see beyond the moment. That they are taught they must makes plans and organise and schedule to both manage the moment and consider the future. That expectation creeps in and becomes the dangling carrot of bigger and better.
Nothing overly wrong with any of that. The reality is that most of us will live relatively long lives and so must have to have some kind of eye on the future to ensure we can live our best lives beyond the moment we’re in.
Except for some, planning and worrying about the future becomes an overarching obsession, meaning they forget about the simple joys of the present.
The opposite of this is no better…maybe even worse.
Living for the moment or “mindlessness”
Unfortunately, the concept of living in the moment has been hijacked by those “living for the moment”.
Isn’t it the same thing?
Most definitely not.
I’m not playing semantics. There is a key difference.
Living for the moment is actually the opposite of mindfulness.
If anything, it’s mindlessness.
People who live for the moment are sensationalists who focus on satisfying themselves as much as possible right now. While they put it out there that they are risk-takers and edgy and a bit cray, they are the complete opposite. They are living in almost complete fear of the future, and of themselves and their capabilities, so all they can do is satisfy their most urgent needs.
Those who live in the moment revel in the now because they have no fear of the future at all. The things they are doing by living in the now amount to small building blocks of present happiness that inevitably take them forward to the future.
Which in turn becomes their now.
This doesn’t mean those living in the now don’t make mistakes. In fact, they make a lot of mistakes…but they aren’t frozen by this.
They realise these mistakes are crucial for learning.
They don’t get caught up in the culture of success that drives people into either living for the moment (because they are so strung out they want to bury themselves in immediate pleasures) or for the future (because it’s all about being proving you are the best).
Which isn’t to say living in the moment is all carefree and happy days.
However, I’ll warrant that those who do try to be more mindful — who do find a way to live more in the moment — inevitably get enjoyment from less consequential things because in the moment they can see the beauty of the smallness of the world.
And that smallness brings with it less expectation but still plenty of scope to dream and hope.