Non-Intention and Being-in-the-Moment

©Copyright 2013 by Robert Chuckrow

There are two T’ai-Chi (Taiji) principles that can be quite perplexing, namely, non-intention and being-in-the-moment. Non-intention implies that while doing an action, there is no conscious thought of the goal of that action and no conscious determination to accomplish that goal. Being-in-the-moment implies that in any action, the mind is appropriately and totally involved in that action, with no excursions into the past or future. Note that these two principles are similar and complementary even though they might seem to be contradictory.

Questions arise such as how can one accomplish anything without a goal, a desire to accomplish that goal, or looking into the past or future? It would seem that in a self-defense situation, it would be necessary to have the intention to win out, act with the right timing and skill resulting from one’s training, be aware of future possibilities, and weigh those possibilities against what has happened before.

Conscious and Subconscious Minds

Resolving these apparent contradictions is facilitated by viewing the mind as divided into two parts—the conscious and subconscious. The conscious mind is capable of focusing on only one thing at a time. Even when you think that you are multi-tasking, at any moment, your conscious mind is actually directing and observing only one of a number of tasks rather than encompassing all of them simultaneously. By contrast, the subconscious mind routinely deals with myriad things simultaneously. When doing 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.

When you do such things as walk, drive a car, ride a bicycle, or eat, your subconscious mind is sending complex nerve impulses to the muscles involved, receiving nerve impulses from the muscles, processing those nerve impulses, and sending revised nerve impulses to the muscles. Thus there is a complex, continually changing dialogue between the nervous system and the muscles. You need not even be consciously aware of these complex actions and probably aren’t. Your subconscious mind stores in your “reference library” your moment-by-moment perceptions of events, your reactions to them, and whether or not such actions were fruitful.

Seeing action as guided mainly by the subconscious mind is the key to understanding non-intention and being in the moment. That is, with correct training and repeated practice, we need not have conscious intention or be conscious of the past or future—the subconscious mind takes care of that. When the conscious mind attempts to deal with, for example, what comes next, it is usurping the subconscious mind’s role, and it is incapable of fulfilling that role in a timely fashion because that role involves too many actions and references to the past and future. So non-intention and being in the moment can be interpreted to mean that the conscious mind is appropriately involved, that is, involved in overseeing events as they unfold. As soon as the conscious mind moves into the future, the present passes by, and the mind is then in the past, where it is useless, thereby sacrificing success.

Moreover, when we have a conscious intention to do something, we are not in the moment. When intention pervades the emotional system and conscious awareness in a physical confrontation, an opponent can easily pick up that intention and use it to advantage. Also, when the conscious mind momentarily shifts from the present, a trained opponent can pick that up too and utilize it.

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 the same 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 being in the moment. 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, of necessity, 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 appropriately 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 conscious mind can naturally shift, as appropriate, to whatever is pertinent to the present conditions.

Being in the moment is different from mindfulness, which from my understanding involves consciously and purposefully focusing the mind on pain, emotions, breathing, thoughts, etc. Whereas mindfulness may have value as a tool and for reducing emotional stress and physical pain, once the mind purposefully focuses on anything, it is captured and is no longer in the moment.

Consider the following definitions of mindfulness (key words are in red to facilitate subsequent reference to them):

Mindfulness is a way of paying attention that originated in Eastern meditation practices. It has been described as "bringing one's complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis" (Marlatt & Kristeller, 1999, p. 68) and as "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally" (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 4). The ability to direct one's attention in this way can be developed through the practice of meditation, which is defined as the intentional self-regulation of attention from moment to moment (Goleman & Schwartz, 1976;Kabat-Zinn, 1982).

Some of the the above descriptions of mindfulness do not appear to be consistent with being in the moment. They involve the characterizations bringing one’s attention, paying attention on purpose, directing one’s attention, and intentional self-regulation of attention. Such characterizations are more descriptive of concentration, which is antithetical to being in the moment. Being in the moment implies perceiving, connecting, and processing without intention, using all senses (some of which may not yet have names), with everything applicable to the current situation as it evolves moment-by-moment. On the other hand, intentionally focusing on anything immediately brings you out of the moment and then into the past because many of the moment-to-moment events then pass by without being processed.

An example of the difference between mindfulness and being-in-the-moment. A while back, I found myself not remembering where I parked my car after doing some shopping. I decided to become aware of signs, landmarks, and relationships of the surroundings as I parked and walked to the store, emblazoning this information on my mind. I even turned around while walking to the store to view my parked car as I would see it when leaving the store. After a few weeks of such puposeful conscious awareness (mindfulness), things reached a different level. Now, as I drive into the parking lot and park my car, my mind naturally encompasses all of the things about which I had purposely trained myself to emblazon on my mind. This mental activity occurrs without any determination or intention on my part. The result is that now, after shopping, I walk straight to my car because I was in the moment while parking. Moreover, being in the moment for that situation has carried over in general.

Mindfulness is a purposeful tool; being-in-the-moment is a natural, effortless state.

Report on Study Suggesting That T’ai Chi Boosts Brain Functioning.”

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