In AA the concept “one day at a time” means much more than “I won’t take a drink for the next 24 hours.” Gradually the intention to live one day at a time evolves into the intention to live as if you only have this one day. Behind all our attempts to change lies one fundamental truth—if we live one day at a time, if we are fully present, our habitual reactions to the world can no longer play out automatically.
The following example shows how greater self-awareness can move us from hearing only what we’re used to hearing within our fixation:
Jane, a widow, is in love with Bob, who’s sweet to her and helpful with her son and daughter. He supports Jane’s parenting approach and also engages her two teenagers in activities that take the burden of full responsibility from her shoulders.
Bob has been single for some time and his sisters in a large family have come to depend on him for help with repairs and other problems. One weekend, Jane and Bob carve out two hours alone together. Just as they’re starting out on a long walk, Bob’s cell phone rings with a desperate call from his sister Maggie that her heat is off and she’s freezing.
- Although Jane agrees to go with Bob to help Maggie, she thinks, This was supposed to be our time together. He has all these other demands on him. There will never be enough time for me.
- Her Observer notes the habitual thought and she stays open, asking Bob for more details. He describes Maggie’s desperate financial straits and says he’d like to check in quickly, have Jane meet Maggie, and then he and Jane can continue their walk.
- They reach his sister’s small house and, while Bob checks on the heating problem, Jane talks with Maggie, still aware of What about me? thoughts but continuing to stay open. She notices how affectionately Bob and his sister treat each other, finds herself empathizing with both of them, and realizes Bob’s behavior with Maggie comes from the same fountain of compassion he shows Jane and her children.
- She shifts to a different sense of identity–I am not my pattern–and its hold on her is released.
Mindfulness in everyday life strengthens the Observer and continues to build our awareness of habitual thoughts. One approach to staying open (and gradually releasing a fixation) is explained in Otto Scharmer’s Theory U, which differentiates among four levels of listening:
Listening 1 (from habits)—habits of judgment that lead to reconfirming old opinions and judgments;
Listening 2 (from outside)—factual listening and noticing differences that lead to new data;
Listening 3 (from within)—empathic listening that leads to seeing through another’s eyes and emotional connection;
Listening 4 (from Source)—generative listening that connects us with an emerging future and shifts our identity/self.
Jane wasn’t thinking of theory in her interaction with Bob and Maggie; she was simply observing without judgment where her habitual thoughts were leading her and stayed open:
- Listening from habit: “This was supposed to be our time together. He has all these other demands on him. There will never be enough time for me.”
- Listening from outside (her Observer): She sees the habitual thought and stays open, asking Bob for more details. (He describes Maggie’s desperate financial straits and says he’d like to check in quickly, have Jane meet Maggie, and then he and Jane can continue their walk.)
- Listening from within: Jane continues to stay open. She experiences Bob’s affection with his sister as the same quality of compassion he shows her and her children.
- Listening from Source: Jane sees that her initial, habitual reaction came from a patterned belief, "There will never be enough for me." Its hold on her is released for this moment.
When we practice mindfulness this way, there will be many repetitions because our habits of thinking are deeply rooted. As with meditation, each time we become aware that our focus has shifted back to a little “I”, we release judgment (Ah, still there. . . hello. . . goodbye again. . .) and stay open.