We can all tell the story of our past experiences and wrap them up in a big red bow. We can highlight the lessons we've learned and the ups and downs, that usually end on a triumphant "up." But when we are in the thick of things, without any sort of happy ending, how can we stay present to our circumstances? How do we live with unresolved problems, unfixable dilemmas, fear and uncertainty? In the absence of hindsight, how can we embrace the ever-unfolding story of our lives?
The answer is: One sentence at a time.
12-Step programs have given us some incredible tools for living, but I think one of the best is, "one day at a time." This is because most of us are future trippers and fear dwellers. This one phrase reminds us to break our circumstance down into manageable, bite-sized pieces. I'm a big fan of chopping the day into even smaller units of time. How about one hour, or even one minute? We can all do something for one minute! Being mindful of this precise minute makes it difficult to worry about the future or regret the past. We just have to do what is right in front of us, not forever, just for right now.
Being mindful in the moment is a great way to get grounded and feel like we aren't on the verge of catastrophe. However, most of us can't sustain that sort of attention all the time. We wander back to autopilot, just like we wander to our grocery list when trying to meditate. This is where our previous experience of happy endings comes in handy: it reminds us that things might not be falling apart; they just might be falling together. We can look back on our lives and see that things have worked out just fine. We rarely got exactly what we wanted, but we made it through. We landed exactly where we never knew we were supposed to, and can see the value in the journey that brought us there. Can we use these experiences as a reminder to have some faith that this time will be no different?
One of my favorite stories about faith and mindfulness comes from a woman in recovery from heroin addiction. She had some pretty compelling evidence of faith working in her life long before she got clean and sober. Her addiction brought her to homelessness and she could rarely afford her habit without experiencing terrible withdrawals in between fixes. The physical symptoms were excruciating, which propelled her desire to use even more fiercely. One day, she was in a lot of pain. Her stomach was aching, her nose was running, she was an uncomfortable mess. Then her dealer placed the drugs in her hand.
Suddenly, she noticed that without ingesting anything, her withdrawal symptoms had ceased. In that moment, she realized that it was her faith that the drugs would make her feel better that actually took away her pain. Her experience of taking heroin for so many years eventually trained her mind to feel relief when she knew that she was going to be able to get high. It wasn't the high itself; it was her belief!
This seed of faith enabled her to believe that she might be able to tolerate life without drugs or alcohol. It eventually carried her through, one minute at a time, to long-term recovery. This experience continues to serve as a reminder of the power of faith and in seeing how even her painful withdrawal symptoms were leading her to a happier place of recovery.
Wherever you are in your own story, no matter what challenges you are facing, see if you can break them down to just what is in front of you. Don't worry about the next chapter, or even the next sentence. Just immerse yourself in this one moment. Notice how it might relieve some anxiety and provide the ability to show up when you previously thought it was impossible. If the feelings of overwhelm start to creep in once again, think of a time that you felt this way in the past. What did you do to ease your suffering then? What happened with that storyline and what is your relationship to it now? Use the tools of mindfulness and faith to carry you through, knowing that this will eventually make a great story that ends on a triumphant "up."
Ingrid Mathieu, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist and author of Recovering Spirituality: Achieving Emotional Sobriety in Your Spiritual Practice.
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Copyright by Ingrid Mathieu, Ph.D., 2011. All rights reserved. Any excerpts reproduced from this article should include links to the original on Psychology Today.