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Being Present

Posted by on in Alcoholism
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We stood at the turning point
– From Chapter 5 of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous 

Staying sober requires we develop skills that further long-term abstinence. While there are many ways to achieve recovery, I would like to discuss an idea which has been invaluable to me and a host of clients I’ve worked with over the last 32 years.

Being Present is related to the practice of focusing your attention and awareness based on the concept of mindfulness in Buddhist meditation. While Being Present is a relatively new approach to addiction recovery I have found this concept to have merit. I quit using alcohol and drugs over 36 years ago and have found success by incorporating this idea into my recovery and my life. 

In 1985 I read a book entitled Chop Wood, Carry Water. The book bills itself as a spiritual treatise, a guide for dealing with the distress and chaos of daily life. I didn’t resonate with the spiritual aspects of the book, however, the title has remained with me and has reminded me of a simple truth: if you can’t chop wood, carry water. It’s the notion of playing to your strengths. Playing to your strengths is one of the keys to developing resilience and a major component in Being Present. 

Contrary to popular belief, human beings cannot multitask. Rather, we are capable of handling a number of tasks in rapid succession. It’s akin to mixing automatic and conscious tasks and being mindful we can only do one thing at a time, no matter how much we wish for this to be different. 

How do we remain present? 

We remember some simple facts: most of our time is spent in the past or the future. By focusing on either of these we certainly miss the here and now. Perhaps you can consider that the past and the future do not belong to you. You are merely a witness for the present moment. 

There are certainly distractions to the present moment. There are bills to pay, doctor appointments, books to read, kids to attend to, and all kinds of other things which vie for your attention. When we are distracted by everything else that has our attention it’s not difficult to understand why being present is so difficult. 

When I am feeling distressed and wish to be present I simply close my eyes and think about why I am feeling uncomfortable. I run through my day and mentally hold each event in my hand. When a thought or event feels “charged” I can get a sense of what is taking me out of the present moment. When I have a sense of what is distressing to me I can problem solve and find solutions to take me back to the present moment.

Many years ago when I started my practice of the martial arts I had a teacher who introduced me to a concept I would like to share with you. My teacher encouraged me to think about what was distressing to me, envision the thought on the floor and gently sweep it away. If sweeping them away didn’t work for me I could see the thoughts on a cloud floating away from me, or I could visualize the thought in the back of a car saying goodbye, much like you see a child in the back seat of a car waving goodbye as you drive past. 

When you start this practice you’ll notice you have all sorts of intrusive thoughts which compete for your attention. It’s easy to get frustrated and feel like this won’t work. Getting frustrated and focusing on what isn’t working is the opposite of this skill. Simply redirect your attention to your distress and gently try to sweep away your distress. Over time I suspect you will find success with this approach.

Being present isn’t denial, it isn’t being dismissive of your present situation, nor is it the practice of convincing yourself everything is okay. Rather, it is the awareness that humans have developed complex ways of interacting with the world and at times these adaptations don’t serve us well. While we cannot control what happens to us, we have a choice in how we behave when we are distressed and want to return to a present moment of peace and calm.

Whatever you decide to do, good luck on your path.

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