Living in the Moment Is Overrated

A native New Yorker and author of 'An Abbreviated Life' searches for the type of mindfulness that doesn't require her to slow down.
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The first thing you learn about people who live in the moment is that they live in the moment. Because when it comes to the moment, either you’re in or you’re out.

I’d like to live in the moment but I can’t commit. I wake up thinking about what I’ll eat for dinner. To truly live in the moment would be to enjoy and appreciate breakfast because I might not make it to dinner.

Shortly after my memoir, An Abbreviated Life, was published, in June 2016, the disturbing subject matter prompted a woman and artist named Amit Janco, to get in touch. In tranquil Bali, amid the majestic beauty of the rice paddies at a silent retreat, she had created a labyrinth and she recommended I walk it.

Labyrinths have been around since ancient times. Unlike a maze which is designed to confuse and disorient with trick turns, dead ends and Byzantine challenges, a labyrinth is designed to be a cathartic experience of visual symmetry; there’s one way in, one way out. It is a circle (12 circuits or 7 circuits) and you follow a path that leads to the center, then back out again.

“There is,” Amit said, “No wrong path.”

In case you haven’t heard, being present is where it’s at. It is the sought after place to be. It distinguishes you as a person who moves through the world in a way that is more desirable. Maybe like me, you aren’t trading in the currency of mindfulness. You dwell on the past or skip to the future. You might even be wondering right now: where is this going? Poor unmindful you.

Recently, a silent auction in Hollywood took place where a visit to the Bali silent retreat was auctioned off. It’s all very silent so one can only imagine who went. Clearly someone with meditative restraint on Instagram.

I’d never walked a labyrinth before, unless you count New York’s West Village. And I’m not known for my sense of direction.

So if there is a wrong path, I’ll find it. Still, I was open to the idea of a meditative activity that didn’t involve emptying the brain.

Bali has become a mecca for spiritual seekers, a destination for people on a journey with no destination. I spoke to the owner of the retreat, Patricia, and arranged to visit the ashram located near Tabanan in central Bali. She suggested I stay for a few days. I suggested a few hours. We agreed I would stay overnight.

The silent retreat was indeed silent, other than the thundering rain, and my timid request for an umbrella. I was cut off from wi-fi, caffeine and talking. In hushed tones the receptionist informed me that I could speak with Patricia in a separate area and we sat, surrounded by emerald rice fields with the towering peak of Mt Batukaru in the distance, as she cheerfully explained the spiritual lay of the land.

Being in the moment, as it turns out, takes practice. She smiled and said, “Go with the flow.”  

I’m a New Yorker. We don’t go with the flow. I schedule coffee with someone 15 months in advance because there will be 35 e-mails with multiple cc’s that eventually end with someone declaring, “Let’s play it by ear.”  That’s my version of placid acceptance.  

I pretended she said, “On with the show.”

At 6:30 that evening, I stood before the labyrinth. It was dusk, the sky was varying shades of purple. Expectations were high. I had big questions that needed answers. The sooner the better.

On the periphery of the labyrinth were hedges of Cat’s Whispers. I’d been told the leaves on these plants are therapeutic. Could I chew them as a snack for the walk? I decided better not in case they were poisonous. I slipped off my flip-flops and exhaled.

I began walking the path outlined by stones. The grass was wet. The air was humid. I recalled Patricia telling me the average time to get to the center was 20 minutes. I slowed down.

Here I am walking the labyrinth! Exciting. I’m turning left, then right. I’m intrigued.

Am I healed? Am I healed yet? Be in the moment, I scold myself.

But can you be in the moment if you’re telling yourself to be in the moment?

I get to the center and pause. And then, just as I am drawing a deep breath it hits me: an invasion of mosquitoes. The foremost question in my mind is, “How could I forget insect repellant at dusk after a downpour?” I bend over in what looks like an advanced yoga pose but is actually a position to better scratch my ankles. Then I rise, quickly, and power-walk out of there cursing my stupidity, filled not with acceptance but self-loathing and covered in mosquito bites.

I climb the wooden steps two at a time back to my bungalow – steps that have the words breathe, smile, and joy written on them – thinking about how I’ll probably get Dengue Fever. Then I spend the rest of the evening alone scratching in silence.

Walk number one is an epic fail.

The guided walk with Lars is the following day. I lie in bed awake at 5:30 a.m., counting the minutes until I can head to the lodge for breakfast. People are mindfully eating and concentrating on chewing while reading Eckhart Tolle. Is it terrible to say the most transcendent part about the experience so far was the food?

I wondered if I could pass off a “Yum” as an “Ohm.”

Walk number two was a group walk where Lars instructed 12 of us ahead of time to feel Mother Earth beneath our feet. We lined up and began following him as he led the way.  

A snapshot of my internal monologue: Am I as healed as that woman with the ankle tattoo of a scorpion? Don’t think about how hot it is. Go back to the moment. But what about lunch? You’re not healed enough for lunch. Why is he walking so slow?

Imagine taking one step and counting to five. Then another. That’s how slow we were moving. I am calculating how long, at this pace it will take for Lars and our group to get to the center. I can’t be in the blistering sun another 30 minutes. I look around—everyone else appears so relaxed. What’s wrong with people?

Eventually Lars reached the center, put his hands together in the prayer gesture of gratitude, and just as I nearly passed out from heat stroke, something miraculous happened. Instead of retracing his steps and walking the swirling path back around, he stepped out, over the stones, in a straight line and exited. My spirits instantly lifted.

A short-cut! That’s my kind of healing.

I emerged from the silent structured retreat into the apocalyptic reality of our not-so-real world and swiftly discovered that there were no answers, only more questions. So many questions. There must be relief somewhere and I’m prepared to keep searching. Because these are trying times, and trying times call for trying.

To live for today means to accept that tomorrow might not arrive. When I think of it this way, it’s far more appealing.

 

Ariel Leve is an award-winning journalist, author and former columnist. Her memoir "An Abbreviated Life" is out now from HarperCollins. Follow her: @Arielleve
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