Be here…when?

…by Matt Robert, with Marc Lewis…

In this guest post, Matt, a regular contributor to this blog, takes a close look at the paradox of being in the moment. Is that a good thing — as meditation teachers counsel us? Or is it a sink-hole in time — a stagnant swamp where addiction can take root and grow? Matt’s fascinating exploration of the relation between addiction and time triggered my authorial outpourings…so I couldn’t resist adding a few sentences.


snowboarding“Being in the present moment” is nowadays touted as the goal of our attitude as well as our behavior. And in fact, it’s often a very motivating state of being for people — to be fully engaged, maybe in the “flow” of being creative, active, kind, or compassionate. There is nothing there but one’s focus and the activity itself. It can take us beyond the difficulties of life to a better place — as long as it lasts — for ourselves and everyone else.

head in galleryBut here’s the problem with addiction. It keeps us in the present moment alright. Frozen in the present moment, locked in. We choose that route to go beyond our difficulties and move on with life, and yet we end up stuck…chained to the present moment. It’s like a funnel winnowing down our awareness to a single point, to the exclusion of everything else, and then everything else eventually falls away like chaff. And all that’s left is the next hit, the next drink, the next high…

So what is different between these two ways of being “in the moment”? In the first case, the flow of the activity connects me to the past and the future versions of myself — who I was, who I am, and who I’m striving to be. As I engage in some social or creative activity, I am connected to my different selves. This doesn’t mean that I’m thinking about the past and future at any given moment. Rather, it means there are no barriers between past, present and future. The sense of flow is a sense of being in the present but also a larger sense of moving through life, in a continuous or seamless way. In my past, there is this little person trying to please his mother, and the teenager striving to be different, and all the other persona making up my life. And in the present there is this addictions worker, facilitating recovery meetings. But there is also the person in the future, perhaps running his own program, or sailing a boat in the Carribean. This makes me a person with an impetus to go forward, even if for the moment that means getting and staying sober.

stoned driverBut in the other kind of “in the moment” — the ball and chain variety — there is no connection to our future self. The present is just recycling, never changing, concerned only with the immediate goal — which is to get more of whatever it is we seem to need. Whirlpools continue to “flow” in a sense. But they never get anywhere.

In the authentic kind of “in the moment,” our engagement is linked to who we are now and also who we could be. There is a continuity of experience. We might actually develop a talent for the activity we’re enjoying just now. It can move from being a hobby to being a commitment. We may become accomplished musicians, or social workers, or gardeners. This idea (which Marc also discusses) helps me incorporate my experience with my evaluation of that experience. I can become objective without losing the feeling of being subjective, in the moment. And I can do that however my process of recovery — of living my life — continues to unfold. It helps make sense of it all.

When people say “Be in the present moment” they mean that the present moment is all we have, and we need to cherish it as such. But in active addiction, it’s all we’re ever gonna have. A land of vanishing opportunity. At one point, I wanted it that way, and it was a comfort, a relief. Not to look at or worry about the future.

But that’s not me anymore, because I’ve accepted the fact that change is inevitable — and resistance is futile.


37 thoughts on “Be here…when?

  1. Adriana April 21, 2015 at 4:19 am #

    Love it, thank you Matt! The second last paragraph gave me goose bumps – so true!

  2. Gary April 21, 2015 at 6:55 am #

    I think, for me, being in the moment means being out-of-my-mind kind of a mindless moment. Now I have to admit, certain drugs did allow for me to experience a sense of mindlessness and that wasn’t always a negative thing. I do believe that specific drugs can transend one to another realm or dimension, however, that was years ago now. As human being I think we desire and/or have a longing for transcendance. Especially addicts, in many cases, want release, escape, perhaps from the mundane, though this may not always be tha case.

    However, maybe the moment, which, tends to be gone in less than the blink of an eye, is a numinous experience where thinking ceases to exist and a knowing encompasses your whole being. “Thinking” can either free us or hold us prisoner but in the moment problems cannot not exist until or unless we let thought in!~

    • Matt April 21, 2015 at 10:50 am #

      This is interesting Gary.
      Yes the moment is gone in the blink of an eye, but then always returns.
      And it’s true that thinking can free us— or hold us prisoner. It’s freeing when it flows seamlessly into action, as mentioned in the post.

      The way you juxtapose “mindlessness” states with the human desire for transcendence, always looking for something more I think helps drive addiction, at least in the beginning. There’s a seminal book called “Mindfulness” by Ellen Langer where she does a great job of differentiating “mindfulness” from “mindlessness” and describing mindfulness in general.

    • Ania April 24, 2015 at 12:23 pm #

      Oh my god, yes. In my experience I remember when I first began using alcohol and or drugs, just using a bit to “get going”, which results in that full attention, focus, euphoria, and creativity? BUT it is possible to gain this “transcendence” without using drugs/alcohol, which is just the most fascinating thing. How much our body/mind is really capable of as long as we pay attention and constantly adapt, no??? Diet, nutrition/supplementing, exercise, and not just physical but mental exercises, kind of like “brain yoga”. Making every single thing you experience kind of like a “game” in order to turn it into a positive and deepen your understanding and get to the goal/ positive results in order to keep moving forward.

      • Gary April 27, 2015 at 6:51 am #

        Hi Ania,
        Perhaps we are all transcendent to begin with and spark an awareness or notion to “what is” via drug use and/or sitting by the ocean, jogging, listening to music etc…There is nothing to strive for other than the awareness of our true nature. To awaken, fully, to a new dawn, a new day, a new me, in a new way. Why is it we believe “moving forward” setting goals etc…is a positive method and that perhaps this is the only manner in which to reach an understanding. This perception might create a belief that if I’m not doing it right I can never possibly attain enlightenment as though it was some ind of test. As one wise person once said; “There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way” and even more important than happiness is, for me, awareness. This quote from A Return To Love …by Marianne Williamson sums it up for me…

  3. William Abbott April 21, 2015 at 8:12 am #

    Matt , I’m afraid I dont agree. In the presence of any mind altering external substance you are in the epitome of a mindless state– there is no way to see reality as it is in the present moment .No way to be in touch with sensations, emotions, mind states and the rest .

    One of the 5 precepts of the Buddha is to avoid intoxicating substances

    • Matt April 21, 2015 at 9:20 am #

      Thanks, Bill

      I’d have to agree with you about the habitual use of substances. But that’s not what this is about. It’s about human experience relative to any addictive behavior and the problems moving forward in one’s life that can arise.

      The Buddha also told his students not to take his word for it, but to go find out for themselves.

  4. Levi April 21, 2015 at 8:12 am #

    Interesting post,
    Thank you!

    I feel that the main distinction between the two modes of present-moment awareness outlined in this post is one of comfortability (or the relative depth of it). This reminds me of Alzheimer’s patients. Alzheimer’s patients (in severe cases) lose their sense of past and future and are consequently bought into the present. But they are not aware of the ‘present’ in the meditative sense. Namely because with the concepts of past and future went their sense of self.
    It can indeed be said that all we have is the present moment, however what typifies the experience of the present moment for the addict is one of intolerable discomfort –such that the addict attempts to avoid contact with the present through self-soothing behaviours.
    Interestingly enough, the addiction can force many (I would argue all, given the right direction) individuals to face the present moment with an understanding that that really is all there ever has been. From this perspective (be it spiritual or otherwise), we can see addiction as part of a healing process that guides the human –whose sense of self is evidently skewed– back to his/herself. A paradoxical gift! The masterful writer and Psychiatrist Thomas Hora once wrote that “all problems are psychological but all solutions are spiritual”.


    Many thanks,

    • Matt April 21, 2015 at 11:11 am #

      Thanks for these thoughts, Levi!

      What a wonderful quote, in which I heartily believe, in the global, secular sense of spirituality. I felt like I experienced your description of addiction, of finding relief for an intolerable discomfort. And my journey into recovery, was a process of healing and rediscovery of my true self. I felt whole again and not scattered and buffeted about by circumstance. As I’ve said before on this blog it felt like a re-integration, a reconciliation of my tortured selves into a consolidated whole. It took a long time and arduous, painful work but was well worth it. And it was all necessitated by my addiction. I either had to do it or die….

      • Mark P. July 3, 2015 at 12:20 pm #


        That is the best one paragraph summary of what I went through that I have ever seen. I can describe it, but far less eloquently than how you described it. Thank you for posting that.


        • matt July 3, 2015 at 1:24 pm #

          I’m glad it resonated. I think there are a lot of people who feel similarly, and it is helpful to look at it as a growth experience. But the problem with experience, especially a developmental process like this— it’s ineffable. Impossible to describe. It’d be interesting to have a challenge for people to describe their experience in a paragraph…:)
          It’s always good to check in with yourself periodically

  5. Gary April 21, 2015 at 11:17 am #

    Hi Matt…

    It is literally impossible to “Be” in the “Moment” as the moment, where time is concerned, isn’t static and moves continually. However, the past and/or the future is really a bunch of now moments some that have occurred while others yet to occur. So! in reality, in my own opinion, all you ever have is “now”. Its a waking up process to the fact of one’s own state, awareness with clarity, that allows for a sense of wholeness and discovery to occur. It has been deem a “process” and not and “event”, however, I beg to differ, in that it can happen all at once like a sudden rupture in ones’ reality!~ I wonder if there is a realm beyond time and measure, perhaps where we came from originally?

    • Matt April 21, 2015 at 12:07 pm #

      Hi Gary
      That’s a good question. I guess it depends on one’s own cultural, cosmological and ontological viewpoint and upbringing. There are many cultures with different views on time. Some believe that everything is happening all at once. Or that the universe isn’t expanding, it’s just an infinite expanse, all at once. The way I think about it matters in the same way my own take on my addiction matters. I’m the only one who knows whether I have a problem or not. And I’m the one who has to decide what to do about it, once I do. If how you think about being “in the moment” helps motivate you in your recovery, then that’s the important thing.

      • Gary April 22, 2015 at 6:31 am #

        Hi Matt…
        I’m not sure if I can state that “I” was the only person who knew I had a problem, however, I may have been the last person to admit i had a problem 😀 . The great thing about this kind of dialogue is that nobody is right and nobody is wrong. It does allow for one to perhaps think a bit more but ultimately there is no evidence-based data that support many of the ideas. The beauty of life is that there are as many perspectives as there are people, one life seen through so many eyes. Sometimes the brain gets in the way because it tends to want to put things in order, like a box. In the long run we are all part of the human story either expressing the story of our lives or perhaps the life of our story!~

    • Kevin Cody April 21, 2015 at 4:24 pm #

      I can agree with the idea of probably being impossible, but there is some science t refute this position with regard to deep meditation and delta patterns.

      It is more in the realm of Tibetan idea of spaciousness, non-duality and learning to go with the flow of time/space in deep meditation-Christians I have been able to better understand it call it the space in between thoughts.

      I do not think it is spiritual e.g. supernatural at all, btw.

  6. Cheryl April 21, 2015 at 11:26 am #

    Being in the moment is the feeling of being engaged in a good book, noticing its time to make dinner and easily switching gears to do so knowing you can and will return to that book when other things are attended to. When one is in a dark place switching gears is not an option or at least not an easily attainable option.

    • Matt April 21, 2015 at 12:11 pm #

      So true, Cheryl.
      I’ve had the feeling before that the stick shift fell out of the console and I was just staring at the gears scattered all over the floor not knowing the first thing to do about it….

      • Kevin Cody April 21, 2015 at 4:27 pm #

        Matt-excellent analogy…LOL…I have come to visualize it in a cartoon fashion of my wheels passing me the instant before all the horrid loud noises.

        Maybe we are just old car guys…

        • Matt April 24, 2015 at 7:19 am #

          …maybe that’s why I love listening to “Car Talk” on NPR. What Tom and Ray have to say is analogous to life in many ways… 🙂

  7. Jeff Skinner April 21, 2015 at 12:05 pm #

    Very nice observation. These two states are mostly one. Ever wondered why so many great jazz musicians (Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Billy Holiday, etc, etc, etc) were also prone to addiction? The trance state of deep improvisation is about transcendence and so is being a junkie. Two ways to rise above the pain and boredom of human existence. The route through creativity is a better path, but it is not open to everyone.

    “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”

    Samuel Johnson

    • Matt April 21, 2015 at 12:45 pm #

      Interesting you should mention jazz musicians. A lot of those guys boozed, but not on the bandstand. Once you tolerated heroin okay, your motor skills weren’t impaired like with alcohol, and you could just shut out the rest of the world, focus and blow. It made some people feel like their chops, their creativity were all there. The trance state of getting “straight” on dope wasn’t like the trance-like transcendent state of deep improvisation– it enhanced that state by causing relaxation and hyper focus on just the music. The problem is, like with other drugs, that feeling only lasts for a while, and then the brain futilely tries to recreate that experience, chase that first high, that first experience of expressive intensity— or what felt like it. And that’s an illusion, and not possible anymore.

      That first state authentic state of being in the moment was what they were experiencing early on, but it soon shifted to the second once the addiction took hold. They had to get back to their path of creativity to save themselves, or do something completely different. Some made it back, as you know, but many didn’t.

      • Jeffrey W Skinner April 21, 2015 at 3:33 pm #

        All agreed. One thing extra: you can’t live in a transcendent state all the time. Transcendence is a peak experience and much of the day to day is mundane. Is it possible that neither jazz musicians nor junkies have much tolerance for the unavoidable ordinariness of most of adult life?

        That’s a question. I honestly am not sure.

        Marc, are you following this?

        • Matt April 21, 2015 at 4:51 pm #

          Hey Jeffrey.

          Yes, transcendance denotes peak experience. which most of us don’t get to on a daily basis. There are a whole host of other things involved on the musician side of it, too much to say for sure what is influencing their tolerability of the mundane… But I think you can make an argument for the junkies’ reduced tolerance for the mundanity of everyday life. They’ve overloaded the pleasure centers of the brain, which throws the whole system out of balance. Simple pleasures and long range rewards don’t hold the attraction they once did. So for the intersection of the set of jazz musicians and junkies? It’s possible they have a reduced tolerance for the routines of everyday life…
          I’m curious what you’re getting at with this question?

          • Jeffrey Skinner April 21, 2015 at 5:17 pm #

            I have no agenda, being neither a jazzer nor a junkie, just a garden variety pot head who likes booze sometimes too. I’m blessed with a high tolerance for the mundane.

      • Jeffrey W Skinner April 21, 2015 at 3:36 pm #

        Also, a lot of great jazzers were heavy drinkers, on and off the stand. Bird, Lady Day and a holy host of others come to mind.

        • Matt April 21, 2015 at 5:09 pm #

          Absolutely. Many did, and they got a lot of practice doing it while they were drinking, so they could pull it off…most of the time. Sort of like the way some people get better at driving under the influence when they drink a lot. But if you ask any musician, there is a ceiling put on rhythm, playing in tune, technical acumen, monitoring loudness— and awareness of all these, that gets reached pretty quickly if a person keeps drinking. Much faster and encompassing than with opiates. I have some musician friends who recently got sober and one of the things that shocked them was how one drink would effect a fellow bandmate in the above areas. It was a motivation for them to maintain their early sobriety, even though they were miserable!

          • Jeffrey Skinner April 21, 2015 at 5:19 pm #

            True dat. Even Lester Young couldn’t play shit in his later days.

  8. Suzy April 21, 2015 at 12:16 pm #

    Matt, this reminds me of what Joe Gerstein has said, and I paraphrase: I know the secret to continuing to use your drug of choice. Pay no mind to the consequences!

    Using does keep you locked into the present. It doesn’t have the quality of mindfulness but it does have the quality of forgetting what happened in the past when you used and disregarding what will likely happen in the future. You may be out of it, but you are out of it in the now.

    • Matt April 21, 2015 at 1:23 pm #

      …and how!!

  9. Kevin Cody April 21, 2015 at 4:19 pm #

    My abuse/addiction I feel was a bit different, it may have froze me in the moment emotionally and euphorically, but it was almost always going back to a first high. A choice at first to expand awareness and grow in that respect quickly, but in the long term it was about trying to cling to the past.

    After only a fairly short term of sobriety I finally did realize I still did have a choice. This is the critical piece for me which this place and others have helped me with.

    Thanks and best regards all,

    • Matt April 22, 2015 at 5:53 am #

      Lovely and succinctly put. It seems like we’re always chasing that first high, the one that left a mark on our midbrain, to the point where we lose track of why we’re even doing it in the first place. But at some point you have to let go and move on, and realize— even if it may not seem like it at the time— you always have a choice.

      Thanks, Kevin

  10. Fred April 22, 2015 at 7:57 am #

    The notion of trance seems relevant. I like the idea of discerning whether or not the trance state is connected to past and future or is disconnected in time. It’s a rich paradox. Present, yes, and also connected in time. This makes intuitive sense.

    However, I’m not sure if it’s the clearest way for me to discern a “healthy” trance (flow, absorption in a fulfilling activity) from an “unhealthy” trance (immersion in addiction). The easier distinction for me may be less about time sense and more about purpose and consequences. Addictive trance is marked for me by a desire to escape reality, and is typically associated with secrecy and shame. There are usually negative consequences that accumulate when I go in to in addictive trance. Flow trance occurs when I’m pursuing a healthy goal, or engaging in an activity for pleasure’s sake, but I’m not purposefully avoiding difficult situations or feelings. I don’t feel any need to keep my flow trances secret – there’s nothing to be ashamed of – and there are rarely negative consequences.

    • Matt April 23, 2015 at 7:16 am #

      Hi Fred

      I really like your characteriazation of this, but I don’t really see it as a “trance” state. The more authentic “in-the-moment” state is one of enhanced, maybe even hyper-awareness and focus, and to me a trance state is more hypnotic and dissociative–like. ITM is also a feature of ordinary consciousness, not extaordinary, even though it can seem that way if we’ve been stuck in the same thought patterns and subsequent routines for so long.

      The perception of time can be lost in authentic ITM experience. When we lose track of it, aren’t paying attention to it, it is because we are so immersed in the activity, time isn’t important. In the addictive behavior, we become hyperaware of time passing to the exclusion of everything else, until the addictive drive is slaked. Then we lose track because we are altered and just don’t care anymore.

      As you say, it all comes down to the purpose and the consequences. In authentic ITM we have a conscious purpose to achieve the consequences, and accept responsibility for any others that result. In the other, our purpose may be to escape— in spite of the consequences, not because of them.

      • Fred April 23, 2015 at 8:18 am #

        I realize now that you did not introduce the concept of “trance” – that came from commenter Jeff above. But yes, I think you’re right about the difference between trance as it’s usually considered and “in-the-moment” states.

        Stephen Wolinsky wrote an interesting book called “Trances People Live” that sees trance states in a broader way. Quoting from an elegant review on Amazon: “As an example, he speaks of a day in the life of someone flowing through various trance states: the “playing with the kitty trance,” the “walking on the beach trance,” the “fighting with the spouse” trance, the “making up with the spouse” trance, etc. In each of these states, the narrowed focus of attention induces a trance state in which only that particular reality is experienced.”

        Trance in this conception isn’t necessarily that different from daily life – it’s rather a part of everyone’s daily life. One can think about it as being in a certain familiar “mode”. So why is that useful, if it’s “normal” and often adaptive? By shining the light of intentional awareness on a given trance state, in becomes possible to use conscious attention and intention to alter patterns of behavior (trances) that aren’t serving us well. Becoming aware of the “trance” helps us to alter the trance.

        • Matt April 23, 2015 at 3:33 pm #

          Yes…the trance of going through the motions of everyday life. I find myself in that trance often— familiar, over-learned, automatic mode. That intentional awareness to use conscious attention to alter habitual patterns of behavior…that’s the authentic flow type of in the present moment I was thinking about. It’s what some traditions refer to as “beginner’s mind”…to treat all experience as unique, full of potential, like you are seeing it for the first time…

  11. Valeria April 24, 2015 at 3:08 am #

    Hi Matt,
    in my opinion being in the moment means “being present, aware”, that is completely different from what Marc calls “the default mode” a sort of astraction from the reality, fantasizing, that I think is not just the first stage of addiction but the only mode addicts can live the present, too much painful to be lived in more concious way!

  12. Gary April 27, 2015 at 1:43 pm #

    I’ve been wondering if by sharing thoughts, ideas and anologies if this is just a way to caress our own egos. Intellectual bending of stories that seem to have a sense of uniqueness and even at the end there lies quietness. (Be still and know) Thougths, ideas, perceptions in and of itself might possibly be utter distractions from that which is nameless. To know, or to think I know, creates a desire to know more and more. However, to know without the need to know or without naming what I think I know etc provides a kind of freedom from the known, a real release. The mind can go on and on, endlessly, with questions, conclusions, ideas, continually feeding itself much the same as an addiction. The “intellectual mind’ gets stimulated by being able to say interesting things, figuring out problems and perhaps feeling “absolutely right” in how they perceive the world. Life, in my opinion, isn’t a problem to be resolved or even figured out but a place where we can “be” together acknowledging how we are connected to it all. Perhaps it might be wise to unlearn many of the things we were which have conditioned our minds and thus we see the world through this preconditioned lens.

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