Alienation, Alienation From Self, Boredom, Cultural Traits, Culture, Emotions, Free Spirit, Fun, Goals, Happiness, Human Nature, Impermance, Life, Living, Love, Meaning, Nature, Passion, Play, Purpose, Quality of Life, Spiritual Alienation, Spirituality, Television, Vacilando, Values, Work

The Passionate Life: Living in the Moment vs. Living for the Moment

(About an 8 minute read)

“Don’t cry over things that were or things that aren’t. Enjoy what you have now to the fullest.” — Barbara Bush

“Your passions cannot soar unless you release them from the hands of time — the left hand of the past, and the right hand of the future.”  — Some ditz or another of no importance.


She looked to be about 15 in her red shorts and white T-shirt.  She was sitting on a boulder at least four times her size, bouncing a tennis ball on a racket.  Her face said she was bored.

Her father had left her there, promising to be back in just a few minutes.  He wanted to “try a few casts in the lake”.  Then off he went down the shore, pausing only now and then to dip his line, before disappearing out of sight around a bend in the water.

It had been much more than a few minutes when she looked up and around.  “Daddy?” she said in a small, timid voice that seemed to me already resigned to his not being there for her. After a few minutes she sighed, and then returned to bouncing her tennis ball.

I couldn’t tell whether she was living in the moment — bouncing that ball with no thought to the future or the past.  Nor could I tell how often her father left her like that on the days they had together.  Certainly, though, this was not “quality time” with one’s kid.

But I had my reasons to believe that her father in thinking about what he could do with his daughter that day, had never considered merely wandering through the hours with her, sniffing whatever roses they might find.  I suspected he’d thought only in terms of achieving some goal or purpose with her.

The lake was a favorite place of mine in those days.  I had been enjoying it almost daily for a few months now.  Yet in all that time, I had noticed only two people who seemed, like me, to be living in the moment.

Everyone else appeared to have a purpose, a goal to achieve in being there.

One of the two was a young woman, perhaps in her early twenties, who I noticed had been sitting for quite an unusually long time watching the sunset.  I thought I was the only one who spent so much time watching the day surrender into the night.  When I drove past her, she looked up and smiled at me.  Such a beautiful smile!  Was she as fully enjoying the moment — enjoying her life — as it seemed?

The other was an old man — so old he most likely didn’t have many more years to live.  He was standing besides the road into the lake, gazing at the water in the drainage ditch that ran next to the road.  I watched him for some minutes.  His gaze never wavered until he looked up at me, smiled, and nodded his head slightly.  Some kind of communication more than a mere “hello” seemed to pass between us. I felt a kinship with him.

Only fools and sages gaze at drainage ditches.  The former because they’re fools, the latter because they’re sages.

Nearly every one of us has spent a few years living in the moment.   We did it as small children, often before the age of seven or so.  So long ago that many of us no longer have more than vague memories of what it involved.

I think it is also true for most of us that those years will be the only sustained time in our life we live in the moment.  The simple joy of spending hours in a sandbox with a friend playing “let’s pretend that mound is a castle and we’re knights” — playing without a thought given to the hour that just passed or to the hour to come — is about all we recall of those years.

The practical demand that we almost constantly anticipate the future based on our knowledge of the past gets the better of nearly everyone.  Add to that the fact so many of us organize our days according to things we want to accomplish, while setting aside almost no time at all to wander through the hours — to “vacilando”, as John Steinbeck called it — and we would be fools to suppose we’ll live in the moment tomorrow — just as soon as we finish meeting the demands of today.

Of course, it would be pure folly for almost anyone living outside a monastery to attempt to return to early childhood and live day after day in the moment again.  How could you possibly do it without being rendered dysfunctional?  You’d not only be as incapable of fully taking care of yourself as the child you once were, you’d also be just as vulnerable to accidents and evils as you were as a child.

Yet, I believe many more of us could improve the quality of our lives if we learned to set aside time to vacilando whenever we reasonably could.  And that means setting aside time that our habits would decry as “too much!”.

Of course, the main obstacle would be boredom.  It would, I think, be a much greater obstacle than the perhaps more-likely-to-be-given-objection that “we just don’t have the time”.  I think that objection is hogwash.  We typically waste more time each day than we would actually need to vacilando enough to improve the quality of our lives.

Boredom is a more likely issue.  When I first began spending considerable time merely observing nature — without purpose or goal — my mind would not allow me to cease thinking about what I was doing there, what I should or should not be trying to accomplish with watching the ducks or the sunlight on the water.

Then again, there was the expectation that things should be as fast paced as a television show or an action/adventure movie.  The rhythms of my daily existence were at first more adjusted to the pace of a pop song than to a classical symphony.

Boredom. Boredom and more boredom.  It took me days, maybe weeks to realize how much was going on around me that I was missing primarily for two reasons.  My nearly unconscious goal of achieving something by observing nature (e.g. peace of mind, serenity, insight), and my expectation or standard for what was “interesting”.

Like nearly everyone else in this world, I have been acculturated to think of dramas and the dramatic as the standards by which to judge what is interesting.  In short, I expected entertainment, not interest.  But once I got beyond that expectation, and beyond having a goal to my observations, nature began to unfold like a constantly changing pageant to me.

When you have become so attuned to natural events that the swirling flight of a nearby insect can interest you, then a storm moving in becomes thrilling even at a great distance.  You begin to experience nature somewhat as wild animals must experience it.  And you might even find that peace of mind that both fools and sages talk about — the former idealistically, the latter knowledgeably.

In sharp contrast to living in the moment, living for the moment is essentially hedonistic.  That is, when we live for the moment, we primarily seek pleasures and to avoid pains.  And while there seems to be nothing wrong with living for the moment in small measures, it appears to be a largely dysfunctional and unfulfilling strategy in the long term.

Living for the moment is — unlike living in the moment — bound to time, bound to the past and to the future, for it is almost always to some degree an attempt to escape from either or both.

Perhaps ironically, the two groups in our societies that are most prone to living for the moment are the very poor and the very rich.  The poor find in it consolation for their otherwise insecure and troubling lives.  The rich find in it consolation for their lacking any real needs to motivate them to purposeful actions.  And both find consolation in it when they feel no meaning in their lives.

Living for the moment is as shallow as living in the moment is profound.  Put differently, living for the moment is a barren womb that can produce no offspring, but living in the moment is abundantly fertile.

What, after all, is the offspring of merely seeking pleasures?  Not even more and greater pleasures are children of it — they are merely its appetites.  But living in the moment would be worth it — entirely worth — if had but one child alone.  Passion.

So many people complain their lives lack passion, but fail to see why.  They naively believe that it’s all a matter of finding something to be passionate about — that they have been unlucky enough to have found nothing.

I tell you that’s not so!  Too many of us are like someone who has been given a beautiful falcon, but who for one reason or another refuses to allow it to fly.

Yet, your passions cannot soar unless you release them from the hands of time — the left hand of the past, and the right hand of the future.  It is perhaps only by living in the moment that we can give full reign to our passions in life.

And of what use or value is living a passionless life?

Questions? Comments?

8 thoughts on “The Passionate Life: Living in the Moment vs. Living for the Moment”

  1. I love the distinction you make here between living in the moment or for the moment. It is a sublety most miss, but they are, indeed, profoundly different. Unfortunately, living in the moment doesn’t pay the bills, or keep the cogs of our machine like society moving forward, no matter how passionately pursued. Perhaps that is why it is a luxury of the very young and the very old…

    But I believe you made that point, as well. Lol!

    I can say, from my stolen forays into the moment, that boredom has never truly occurred to me. There is simply so much to fascinate and delight outside the cold progression of daily norms…


    1. I think most of us could steal away for a Saturday or Sunday now and then of living mostly in the moment. But we tend to pack our weekends with purposeful activities even when they are not actually necessary — like the man who went fishing “with” his daughter.

      As for boredom, that interests me greatly. My own experiences have mainly been in nature and it takes me awhile to get beyond being bored with it. I’m glad you don’t find the same thing.


      1. Well, boredom may not be an issue for me, but silencing the “demands” for attention from my physical body often is. At first, all I can focus on is the random aches and pains that rise up into conscious awareness as soon as my thoughts are stilled. Then it’s the random tickles and touches of insects and such. Eventually, if I can remain still, the fascination takes over, and all the rest fades away in importance…


  2. Paul, this is a very fine piece of writing! Quite thoughtful. My family and I are packing up, getting ready to drive to our cabin for the weekend. It’s always nice to leave the city and relax in a more natural setting. With your article in mind, I’ll be doing my best to remind myself to live in the moment, whatever that moment may be. Also, I thought those lines about the fools and sages gazing at drainage ditches was pretty good!


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