By Sean P. Egen
If you or someone you love is involved in the recovery process, you understand that one of the biggest challenges can be picturing a life free of the abused substance(s) or behavior. Not wrapping your mind around the concept of a simpler, more fulfilling life lived unburdened by the negative effects of drugs or alcohol or gambling or other compulsive behaviors, but envisioning a life with no role for the very substance(s) or behavior that previously played such an enormous part – and focusing on the seemingly insurmountable task of getting there.
Change is never easy, even when it’s for the better. But concentrating on the present instead of the known past or the unknown future can help make change, and your journey on the road to recovery, a bit more manageable. Primarily because, when you get right down to it, the present is really all there ever is. And all there ever was or ever will be.
The Past Is Gone, The Future Never Arrives
In his New York Times Bestseller The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, Eckhart Tolle writes, “Nothing ever happened in the past; it happened in the Now. Nothing will ever happen in the future; it will happen in the Now.”
While this Buddhist-influenced philosophy of focusing one’s awareness on the present may seem like semantics at first glance, it’s actually quite profound – and can be quite liberating – particularly if you’re hung up or overly focused on what once was or what might be. Yes, those who ignore the past might be condemned to repeat it, but learning from your past is not the same as focusing or obsessing on it. And while envisioning a bright future is healthy, living in and for the future while ignoring the present isn’t likely to net you the future you’d like to show up…when it finally arrives as the present.
There’s a plethora of famous quotations about living in the present from the learned, the enlightened, and even the funny. Mother Theresa said, “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” Bill Cosby advised, “The past is a ghost, the future a dream, and all we ever have is now.” But no matter how or by whom it’s stated, the message is pretty much the same: All you have any control over is the here and now, because that’s all there is.
One Step at a Time
In terms of recovery, understanding that the present is all you really have can be a real blessing, because the “right now” is, at the very least, a manageable, digestible unit of time. If during your recovery process you’re focused on how you’ve been unable to get sober in the past, your energies are being zapped by something you no longer have any control over. And if you’re concentrating on how you’re going to make it years, months, days, or even hours without getting high, you’re again diverting valuable energy away from what really matters – what you’re going to do now. The past is gone, and the future is down the road. All you can control is what you’ll do here and now in the moment. Not two months from now. Not what you did an hour ago.
Think in terms of facing a physical challenge, say, running a marathon – maybe even one you previously failed to complete. Dwelling on your previous failure and everything that went wrong during your race is only useful insofar as using it to motivate you to train harder than you did before or possibly to run the race differently, if you think the way you ran it before contributed to your failure to finish. But the first race is gone, and you can never re-run it.
Likewise, focusing on your upcoming race and what could go wrong is not of much use either – unless it motivates you to train harder or prepare more thoroughly. The only thing that truly matters in achieving your objective of finishing that marathon is what you’re doing in the present: what you’re eating, how hard and smart you’re training, how well you’re taking care of your body, etc. Luckily, these are the very things you can control, because you’re right there in the present moment with them.
When you actually run your race, obsessing on the 26 miles that lie ahead of you after the starter’s pistol fires only serves to make your task seem nearly impossible. But concentrating on your stride, paying attention to your environment, staying hydrated, and focusing on every other aspect of your race that’s happening in the moment, these are the things that will help get you across the finish line.
The good news is that you don’t need to do anything special to be in the present because it’s the only place you are or will ever be, and you’re already there. Getting your focus there, however, is another story altogether. It’s seemingly the most natural thing on the planet, to be in the moment, yet most of us struggle desperately with it. And it appears to be a uniquely human condition, unless the birds chirping in the trees are actually fretting about past woes or what they’re going to do next month instead of living in the moment.
One technique that’s been used for centuries to concentrate on the now is meditation. There are dozens if not hundreds of mediation techniques, but most involve quieting the mind and focusing inward, typically on your breathing.
Another method is to audit and pay attention to your thoughts. While this may seem like a daunting task, it’s really about recognizing when your thoughts are wandering back to the past or into the future and bringing them back to the present moment.
Yet another method includes practicing mindfulness by focusing on the thing you’re actually doing at the moment instead of mindlessly doing something while thinking about something else. When you think about it, this is the real attraction of action and extreme sports. When you hear an extreme athlete talk about being in “the zone,” she means she was totally immersed in the moment, namely because she didn’t have time to think about past failures or future tribulations when she was trying to land a triple backflip in the half-pipe.
How you concentrate on the now is ultimately up to you. But in doing so, seemingly insurmountable tasks like running a marathon, climbing a mountain, and even living a life of sobriety become a series of moments that you can manage.
There’s a particularly poignant scene from a favorite old film of mine, Out of Africa (1984), that’s an excellent example of focusing on the now to get through tough times. In the scene, Meryl Streep, whose character has just lost her coffee plantation, all of her money, and has had to sell off her remaining belongings to survive explains to Robert Redford’s character how she manages to cope with her setbacks.
“When I’m certain that I can’t stand it,” she says to him, “I go one moment more, and then I know I can bear anything.”