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Being Here Now: The Art of Precious Present-Centeredness

What if I told you that you can train your mind to promote health and healing?

CC0 Public Domain / FAQ
Source: CC0 Public Domain / FAQ

As twelve-step programs suggest, recovery happens “one day at a time.” This aphorism is a reminder that no one needs to spend time worrying about not using alcohol or other drugs for the rest of his or her life. The idea of “never using again” tends to be so big that for many people it can be overwhelming. Those new to recovery can easily become discouraged, anxious, fearful, angry, or resentful when they think in terms of not using forever more. It’s natural to think “There’s no way I’m never going to use again . . . the rest of my life . . . it’s just not possible!”

In actuality, thinking about not using for the rest of one’s life is a waste of time and energy. Even when people are fully committed to remaining abstinent for the duration of their time here on Earth, the reality is they need only focus on not using today. As it relates to alcohol and other drugs (or problematic involvement with gambling, sex, shopping, etc.) even thinking about tomorrow makes little sense insofar as it is impossible to use tomorrow until it arrives. And when tomorrow arrives, it will be today.

Though it is not necessarily easy, especially for those new to recovery from addiction to substances or activities, not using “just for today” is realistic and entirely possible. The idea of it is much less intimidating and much more attainable. The most effective way to accomplish any large goal or project is to break it down into smaller, more manageable parts. This is also a clinical technique known as partializing. By not using just for today, one day at a time many people put together many years of recovery, and many of these don’t use for the rest of their lives.

Yes, recovery, and indeed life, occurs one day at a time. But really, they happen one moment at a time. Life unfolds in this very moment: right here and right now. And the vast majority of people are missing it. They are caught up in thinking about what happened in the past—a minute ago, an hour ago, yesterday, last week, two months ago, last year, years ago—or what may happen in the future—in a few minutes, an hour from now, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, in five years, etc. This is so common and so normal that often we don’t even realize we’re engaged in it. It happens automatically and unconsciously.

Thoughts about what has happened or might happen pop into our heads and we reflexively run with them, often to cognitive and emotional places that have nothing whatsoever to do with this moment. We are somewhere other than here and now. This phenomenon occurs with such stunning regularity that for many, if not most people, it’s standard operating procedure. And it disconnects us from life in the present.

Our minds continuously produce thoughts and images, while seemingly pulling us from one thought to the next in rapid-fire fashion. This unremitting mental activity often takes the form of stories our heads tell us, seductively drawing our attention away from what we intend to focus on and from what we are doing. Most often these stories are compelling tales that pull us back into the past or propel us forward into the future. They are invariably distracting and detract from our ability to pay conscious attention and respond skillfully to whatever is occurring in the present—whether holding a conversation, driving, interacting with one’s child(ren), attending to work, or writing a blog post.

However, with awareness and practice, it is possible to train our mind and develop the ability to consciously direct our attention where we would like and maintain it. And, the more our attention is anchored in the present, tuned in to the realities of our current circumstances, the more opportunities we have to make wise choices and engage in intentional and skillful responses. The value of conscious present-centered awareness, also known as mindfulness, is ancient wisdom, deriving from the spiritual traditions of Taoism in China dating from 600 BCE and Buddhism in India dating from 500 BCE.

There are many ways in which staying in the moment promotes health and healing. Staying in the moment provides freedom from the prisons of the past and fantasies of the future. It bestows respite from being trapped in the emotions associated with past events, such as resentment, guilt, shame, and regret, as well as those feelings linked with the future, primarily anxiety and fear.

Everyone has a past, and it’s okay and even healthy to visit it from time to time in order to better understand it, put it in perspective, and learn from it. And obviously, looking at and planning for the future is important and positive. It’s when so much time is spent in the past or the future that our conscious focus is diverted from the here and now that it becomes problematic. Besides, until someone learns how to change the past, it’s as good as it’s ever going to get. It’s impossible to change what happened yesterday or know with any certainty what will happen tomorrow.

When we aren’t paying conscious attention to the present moment, we are effectively sleepwalking, even when we are wide-awake. When we’re focused on the past or the future, we are cut off from the possibilities inherent in this moment—unable to see it and experience it for what it is; separated from the opportunities it presents. We may be with someone physically, but somewhere else and perhaps with someone else mentally and emotionally.

How many times have you been driving and missed your intended turn or exit, or came close to missing it, because you weren’t paying enough attention to the here and now? How many fender benders and other more serious traffic accidents occur because drivers are mentally somewhere else, not focused on the present moment? This is instructive of how not being present-centered can interfere with attention and performance to the point where it becomes a form of impairment.

Fortunately, the potential for learning, growing, and healing exists in each and every moment. Even though we may have spent the last few minutes somewhere else—in the past or the future—as soon as we become aware of it, we can make a conscious choice to shift our focus to be present-centered in the here and now.

Practicing the following simple mindfulness exercise will help you to begin to develop the skills to train your mind to come back to the present moment and focus on what you intend.

Focus your attention on your breath. Consciously observe the natural flow of your breathing. Follow your breath as it comes in on your inhale and goes out on your exhale. If your mind starts to wander, gently bring it back to your breathing.

  1. Look around, and notice three things you can see.
  2. Listen carefully, and notice three things you can hear.
  3. Notice three things you can feel in contact with your body (for example, your feet on the floor, your clothing on certain parts of your body, the sun on your face, the air against your skin, your back against the chair, etc.)

Remaining present-centered is an ongoing challenge. Even people with years of practice, frequently stray, however briefly, into the past or the future. In fact, because the ongoing parade of thoughts our minds produce is so hypnotic, it’s almost impossible to “stay” in the moment constantly. Rather, the training of the mind involves consciously recognizing when we have strayed from this moment—here and now—and using that awareness to return to it. Consequently, the work lies not so much in staying in the present moment as in returning to it—over and over and over again. In this case, the journey is the destination.

Copyright 2015 Dan Mager, MSW

Author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain

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