Learning To Live Sober ‘One Day at a Time’

It sounds like a paradox: How will you reach long-term sobriety if you're focused "only" on today? A little perspective from the Buddha will clarify things …

January 18, 2023
Buddhist monk climbing stairs toward statue of the Buddha

“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” That’s what the Buddha tells us, in a popular translation of one teaching. He says this because there is no reality other than the present moment. Whatever the Buddha may or may not have known about addiction recovery, you’d do well to think on his words when taking on a sober life.

The idea of “one day at a time” in sobriety can be confusing; it feels paradoxical. When you’re first getting sober, you’re probably dwelling on the past and worrying about the future. The feeling that you must “fix” your life as soon as possible can weigh on your mind. So can the fear that you’ll never make it a month, let alone a lifetime.

But the truth is that for a sober lifestyle with longevity, you need to stay grounded in the present moment.

Recovery can be an overwhelming process. So many changes are occurring, and you’re likely adjusting to all kinds of new behaviors and ways of thinking. Sometimes your whole life can feel turned upside down, so how do you figure out which way is up? Ah. Perhaps the best way is to step back and learn to live one day at a time.

Wrapping Your Mind Around ‘One Day at a Time’

Many people credit 12-step programs with inventing the concept of “one day at a time.” It has currency in these programs because, especially in early recovery, it’s frankly overwhelming to think about never using alcohol or substances again. It might even seem impossible.

However, when sobriety is broken down into the much more manageable practice of avoiding alcohol or substances just for today, it feels much easier.

Of course, the paradox of “one day at a time” is how staying sober for one day leads to reaching long-term recovery. Ultimately, it comes down to the layered idea that staying on the right path for 24 hours at a time will slowly but surely rewire your addictive thinking into positive and healthy trains of thought. And of course, those “one days” add up, also slowly, but also surely.

It may be helpful to think about how you lived before taking the first step toward recovery (or what it’s like now, if you’re thinking about taking that first step). For many, active addiction feels like the same grueling process day in and day out. Every day is spent trying to satisfy your addiction. It is a constant cycle of rinse-and-repeat toxicity, captivity and inertia.

So when you’re trying to wrap your head around a “one day at a time” mentality, remember that you’ve lived day to day before. Only before, every 24 hours felt like hell on earth, or at least grimness and grind. Now, every 24 hours is an opportunity to live a life you may have never thought possible.

Putting ‘One Day at a Time’ Into Practice in Sober Life

Accountability is one of the most important aspects of implementing a “one day at a time” program. When you keep yourself accountable every day — and focus only on each day — the ability to make it through the next 24 hours without relapse increases exponentially.

There are online resources that can help you establish a daily practice of accountability. Some of these resources may lead you to 12-step programs, recovery facilities or treatment centers, holistic wellness schools, or even sobriety-tracking apps that can help you build your daily recovery practice.

Regardless of the program, community or tool that you use for accountability, it is generally recommended that you connect with other people in the process who have gone through or are going through the same struggles you are. It’s often said that only someone who has experienced addiction can fully relate to another in that position.

Finding a friend, peer, sponsor or accountability partner in recovery can also help keep you out of your own head (or at least give you some breaks). When you’re helping someone else with their sober life struggles, you can stop fretting about your own for a bit. It is a special relationship to have with someone when you are keeping each other sober, a bond that may last a lifetime.

Maintaining Sobriety Through ‘One Day at a Time’

As you find yourself adopting a new “one day at a time” mindset toward sobriety, you will also find yourself picking up more tools that will help you flourish in your sober life. Eventually, you’ll see how one day at a time can turn into a lifetime — of unbelievably positive sobriety.

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.” That is how the paradox of “one day at a time” comes to bear fruit.

By living in the now, we show ourselves that this new sober life is possible. One day at a time, hope comes back into our lives. One day at a time, we learn to help others. One day at a time, we learn to help ourselves. One day, you may notice that many of the things you barely dared to hope for have come to pass.

More Help & Information

Auguste Rodin, The Thinker

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