Recovery programs are replete with catchy little quotes and sage-like sayings, but perhaps none of them are used more often than the time-honored phrase: "One day at a time." Have you ever wondered why people struggling with addictive behaviors find it necessary to remind each other to take recovery one day at a time? (Some go as far as saying: "One moment at time." Wouldn't it make more sense to actually use our highly evolved neocortex to construct a comprehensive, future-oriented plan for recovery and healing? After all, how can a person reach a desired destination or accomplish a goal without considering several days, weeks, or even years at a time?
As it turns out, people recovering from addiction aren't the only ones who need to be reminded to take life one moment at a time. By in large, modern humans are addicted to "future-tripping" (one of those catchy little terms used in our recovery program). Most of us spend large swaths of our days, stuck in our thoughts, trying to plan, control, and manage our lives. The human brain naturally fixates on what is wrong, both in ourselves and others, and then ruminates and perseverates on how to avoid the unpleasant what-ifs that haven't yet materialized. This unrelenting mental chatter is often coupled with a pervasive sense of discontent, as if we are waiting for something else to happen so that we can finally be fulfilled. We habitually lean into the future, hoping that the next moment will contain what this moment does not.
This is not to say that we should all get lobotomies and retreat to the nearest cave to live in solitary present-momentness. After all, critical thinking and future planning are important survival skills in this complex, fast-paced world. Our rational, thinking mind is not the enemy, but if left untrained, it can be a demanding taskmaster instead of a loyal servant. Through various contemplative practices, we discover that the brain is also capable of deep, non-conceptual awareness of the mind and body, other living creatures (including people), and the natural world around us. Many have found that this present-moment awareness can bring a profound sense of contentment and joy.
Here are 3 suggestions for living in the present moment:
1. Intention Cultivate a sincere intention to wake-up from the hypnotic hum of our racing minds and to rest in the natural reality of the present moment. Consider making this intention part of a daily meditation, prayer, mantra, affirmation, shower routine, morning commute, etc. The strong conditioning to mentally trip into the future requires that we bring a sincere intention to live one moment at a time.
2. Pause: Like a wheel in the wind, the mind will spin and spin if we don't help it to pause. Take a deep breath... pause... and drop into the present moment. At times, our lives can seem like an unpunctuated page of words, all jumbled together in a meaningless run-on sentence. Pausing allows us to punctuate our experience, put some clear space around our thoughts and emotions, and make sense of the life that is right here.
3. Stay: Like a good retriever, the mind can be trained to stay. There is a habitual tendency to move away from the here-and-now, often because we are uneasy with what we find in the now and/or we desire something different than what is right here. However, if we can learn to stay with the raw reality of the present moment, we tap into an ocean of awareness that can allow for the various waves of our moment-to-moment experience.
Living one day or one moment at a time is an important part of recovery, and life more generally, because the fullness of this impermanent life unfolds dynamically in the present moment. Tripping into a future that we can't control means that we miss out on the authentic, singular experience of our own life. Fostering awareness of our moment-to-moment experience enriches our emotional understanding, deepens intimacy with others, and connects us to something bigger than our best thought-out plans for the future. Whenever we can free ourselves of the incessant urge to plan and manage our lives, we open to the mystery and wonder of living in the present moment.
All that we yearn for is already here.
Right now, right here.
In the unconditional awareness of what is,
we find a deep blue ocean
into which all rivers flow.
Endlessly reaching downstream,
eyes fixed to the hazy horizon,
we miss the wonder and mystery
of life's currents all around us.
Insatiable desire for something more,
grasping at fading twilight,
our hands remain empty,
our hearts closed.
Look inside, we are already here.
-poem by Jon G. Caldwell