Mindfulness and Being in the Moment
Being in the moment implies that in an action, the mind is totally involved and not divided. A way of understanding this concept is to view the mind as divided into two parts—the conscious and subconscious. The conscious mind is capable of keeping track of only a small number of things. Even when people think that they are multi-tasking, their conscious minds are actually alternating between two or more tasks rather than encompassing all of them simultaneously. On the other hand, the subconscious mind is able to deal with myriad tasks simultaneously. When you do a physical activity such as walking or driving a car, many parts of your body can perform complex actions without your awareness. I know from my own experience that I do not even have to be conscious of what I am doing while playing a piece on my harpsichord that I have played many times before.
Because the subconscious mind only starts to take over tasks that have been repeated many times, one of the reasons that elderly people are so forgetful may be that they have done so many tasks so many times that conscious thought has become unnecessary. That is precisely the trap; whenever we fail to use a faculty, that faculty tends to atrophy—and that includes the conscious mind. A symptom of such atrophy is the frequent uttering of statements as, “I know that I put my keys down somewhere, but I have no idea where.” Or, “I have no recollection of having turned off the stove—we have to go back.”
Practicing T’ai Chi (Taiji) and Ch’i Kung (Qigong) provides an excellent opportunity to cultivate mindfulness. In fact, being in the moment is one of the basic principles of both of these arts. Ideally, during T’ai Chi practice, both the conscious and subconscious minds are each appropriately involved. Of course, at the beginning of one’s training, the conscious mind is disproportionately involved, but after one learns the movements and practices them repeatedly, it is possible for the subconscious mind to do everything, with the conscious mind “out to lunch.” That is the point when it is easy to be on “automatic pilot,” and recognizing that pitfall is of utmost importance.
My view is that once T’ai-Chi or Ch’i-Kung movements have been practiced to the point of their becoming automatic, ideal practice should involve maintaining a conscious awareness of such things as alignment, release of unnecessary tension, continuity, flow of ch’i, breathing, circularity, gravity, momentum, ebb and flow of the movements, stepping, and coordination of the movement of the extremities and pelvis (body unification). The criterion is that the conscious mind must be involved in what is happening at that moment—not taking excursions into the past or future or shifting the awareness to something unrelated. In my T’ai-Chi and Ch’i-Kung practice, when I become aware that my mind has drifted away from what is going on, I endeavor to gently guide it back. I then try to follow that same model in my daily life.
Being in the moment is different from concentration, which is fixating the mind on a preconceived idea or thought. Being in the moment means that the mind can naturally shift, as appropriate, to whatever is pertinent to the present conditions.