One Day at a Time with Mindfulness
While the phrase "live one day at a time" has its origins in Alcoholics Anonymous, it certainly can hold meaning for any of us, particularly in this shit-show we call 2020. Whether your goal is to commit to the next 24 hours of sobriety/clean living or to cope with stress and anxiety from daily life, living with gratitude for the present is a great goal for all of us.
Why Just One Day at a Time?
Living just one day at a day makes the reality of sobriety or clean living seem manageable, allowing a person in recovery to feel confident in his goals without the guilt and shame he might feel about his past and without fear or worry about the future. There is a responsibility to the self each new day to remain clean and sober, just one day...not forever all at once.
Living one day at a time allows all of us to actively stay in the present, focusing less on what’s going on in our mind and more on what’s going on around us. And I don't know about you, but I am not a fan of the current pandemic-infused social chaos. I could definitely stand to focus on gratitude for the moment.
When we start to focus on our regrettable past, the overwhelming present, or the unknown future, we just need to breathe and figure out the next right thing. Not every right thing for forever...just the next right thing. What's the healthy thing to do right now, just for today?
I am not typically an anxious person. I'd say I live with a healthy amount of stress and anxiety that drives me to do my best and keep up with the many demands of life. I experience normal worry and fear, but it does not overwhelm me or keep me awake at night.
Lately, however, I have been spending too much time fretting about things that are out of my control, both past and future. Recently, I really wanted something to happen...but it didn't. I had a super hard time letting it go; I could not stop thinking about all the things I wanted to go back and change, to do differently. But I can't change the past. It's out of my control. And the future? It's easy to start sinking in a sea of what-ifs: what if my kids have to go to school online, what if they don't open the library for my job, what if that guy wins the election, what if he doesn't, what if our society keeps dividing, what if our economy tanks, what if we get sick? Ugh!
I knew I had to do something to calm my anxious mind. I discovered mindfulness. I admit that I was initially put off by the term mindfulness; it sounded a bit New Age-y for my taste. But after some research, I understood that mindfulness is not sitting cross-legged in silence while wearing a tunic and chanting about crystals.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a way of living fully present and fully engaged in any moment--without distraction or judgement, without becoming overly reactive. The goal of mindfulness is to balance our thoughts with attention to and awareness of the outer world and its relationship to our mind, heart, and body. This is exactly what I need to help me live with more patience, compassion, empathy, and gratitude.
In training the mind to embrace the present, we train ourselves to be grateful, to accept the great fullness of life--our entire experience. Mindfulness allows us to receive every lesson and opportunity life offers through both challenges and triumphs.
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the research-backed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, explains that we typically run a "selfing" narrative: we fixate on our own thoughts, ignoring the world around us and the experiences it can offer. The present is the only time we can experience anything, the only time we can express love, the only time we can learn anything. But the present keeps getting squeezed out by our pre-occupation with the past and the future.
Obviously, we need great thinkers. But, according to Kabat-Zinn, our society trains people in thought with no training in awareness, resulting in a population that is overwhelmed by self-focused thought to the point of anxiety and depression. Yes, we all need to spend some time planning, problem-solving, and daydreaming. But we need to balance that time with mindfulness to re-direct our attention and engage with the world around us, allowing space to breathe and experience life instead of only reacting to it.
Benefits of Mindfulness
Both science and experience demonstrate the positive benefits of mindfulness for our health, happiness, work, and relationships.
Mindfulness can help us experience thoughts and emotions with greater balance and acceptance. As a result, according to Mayo Clinic, mindfulness can help reduce stress, anxiety, pain, depression, insomnia, and high blood pressure. Mindfulness has also been shown to improve attention and sleep patterns and to decrease job burnout.
Decrease job burnout? Sign me up!
Another benefit for me was finally being able to let go of so much negativity I was holding toward my sister, who is in long-term recovery. There isn't much room to hold onto the past when you intentionally make space for gratitude.
How to be Mindful
Whether your desire to practice mindfulness is based on a goal of sober or clean living or on general well-being, there are some simple ways to get started. And remember that you are committing to being mindful just one day at a time...do not overwhelm yourself by thinking about a massive, life-long change. Even a little mindfulness makes a difference.
Start your day with a purpose. When you wake, sit in a comfortable position and take three slow, full, deep breaths, while thinking about your mind-heart-body connection. Then set an intention for your day. Today, I will be patient with others. Today, I will have fun with my kids. Today, I will give generously of my time. Today, I will persevere through the challenge I know awaits me. Choose just one, and focus on what you can do today, just one day at a time.
Experience life through your senses, not through your phone. Make a conscious effort to experience your environment with all of your senses — touch, sound, sight, smell and taste. Fully experience that concert instead of recording it to show someone else later: enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells in the present moment. Stop watching a glorious sky full of exploding fireworks through a 3" screen; you know you won't look at those pictures again. Enjoy that amazing meal by experiencing every delicious bite and acknowledging how it makes your body feel; stop worrying about Instagramming it. Even if it's just a bowl of Cheerios, pay attention to the act of eating so that you aware of nourishing your body and filling your belly instead of mindlessly eating while scrolling through your phone with no actual interest. Turn off auto-pilot and make intentional decisions to actually experience your drive to work: notice that beautiful tree, acknowledge the people walking down the street, roll down the window and feel the breeze.
Pause and breathe. When you have negative thoughts or feel overwhelmed, take a breath and consciously pause before reacting. Take a slow, deep breath to fill your chest and hold it for a couple seconds; then exhale slowly and fully. Repeat this a few times, if the situation allows. You do not have to sit in a silent room and close your eyes to do this. In reality, you'll need to do this while you are dealing with a situation--like, at school or work--where you can't leave or sit down. The goal is to focus on your breath and the moment, while giving yourself time to be aware and attend to your reaction. Allow yourself time to experience your feelings without judgement and accept the great fullness of life.
Journal. Think of journaling as a way to become aware of life and to express appreciation and gratitude for life. Write about something you noticed that day, something new you tried, a moment of peace you experienced, an activity that brought you joy, the day's intention, anything!
Listen. Start your day by listening to the sounds of life around you: your own deep breathing, nature or life outside your window, water hitting your body in the shower, your coffee brewing. Turn on some music and notice the feeling it inspires in your body. To fully listen to other people, be aware and attentive with a calm and receptive mind, without aim to control or judge. Put your phone down when someone is talking to you (literally, set it down and don't touch it), and listen with interest.
Take care of your mind. Be conscious of what your body needs to support a healthy mind. Drink lots of water, get plenty of sleep, make nutritious choices, and move that body!
So here we go. Join me. Let's try to experience life instead of just thinking about life.
Written by Laura B. Demers, © 2020 Reclamation Sisters