Mindfulness In Recovery

Mindfulness is an Eastern practice with roots in Buddhism that dates back 2500 years ago. It has become popular globally over the last decade. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn (1994), mindfulness is a way of paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.

My personal experience with mindfulness meditation practice started four years ago when I attended mindfulness-based relapse prevention training at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. This practice has deepened my sense of awareness and overall well-being. Mindfulness-based relapse prevention is the work of Bowen, Chawla, and G. Alan Marlatt. The program integrates mindfulness meditation practice with traditional relapse prevention skills. It is increasingly used in addiction treatment today, including at Crossroads Centre in Antigua.

Mindfulness includes skills based on the principles of self-compassion and acceptance of all experiences, including stress, cravings, and urges to use substances. Its emphasis is on acknowledging feelings and accepting discomfort when they arise. We learn to understand our experiences with acceptance, rather than trying to change them. Mindfulness allows us to be present in our experience with pain and suffering intimately.

In early sobriety, individuals in addiction dwell on past mistakes, failures, or regrets. The feelings of shame, guilt, and low self-esteem can be experienced with great intensity, triggering urges to fix how we feel. Mindfulness Sober Meditation creates a meta-cognitive space. It allows us to stop and step back from the automatic mode of reactivity and observe thoughts, perceptions, physical sensations, and emotions. With awareness, we can use our breath to ride the intensity of these challenging emotions like a wave, then respond skillfully in the space with loving-kindness and self-acceptance, where we can make wiser choices aligned with our values of what is important in our lives without relapsing. This is known as Urge Surfing.

Learning how to be mindful in recovery is not difficult. Being present in awareness, like AA-NA 12-Step Principles, requires daily practice. Introspective awareness is our sixth sense, which we all possess but often ignore. How often do we wake up in automatic mode, just to jump out of bed, our thoughts on what is ahead of us for the day? How do we stop and pay attention with the intention to our thoughts, then gently bring our mind back to the present moment?

Try starting the day with a simple meditation or prayer, sitting with a posture of dignity, feet planted firmly on the floor, greeting the day with a half-smile and an attitude of gratitude, giving thanks to our higher power for breath and the gift of a new day, the present. This is where I practice Steps 1, 2, and 3 with my honesty and acceptance of my disease of addiction, and my willingness to surrender my will and life over to the care of the God of my understanding. While getting ready for work, my mind can already be on the route and in my office. However, once I stay in awareness, mindfulness is in everything I do, showering, dressing, drinking coffee. How often do we drive or walk automatically, not being mindful of what we see, hear, touch, feel, or smell on our path?

Mastery of our five senses is a valuable emotion-regulating skill in mindfulness. I can feel anxiety in my body as my thoughts speed into the future. By paying attention to my breath, I can have a relationship with thoughts by simply witnessing them like passing clouds in the sky. After all, thoughts are just events in the field of our awareness. We don’t have to get overwhelmed or carried away by them.
For a newcomer or old timer, relapse happens with the way we think, our beliefs, perceptions, interpretation of experiences, and our defects of character (Step 6). Ego, grandiosity, selfishness, self-centeredness, control, perfectionism, judgement, blame, anger and resentment are like poison to the spirit of recovery. Once mindful of these character flaws, we become willing and humbly ask God or higher power to remove our shortcomings in Step 7. This is crucial to staying sober. Our defects will not all disappear, but we have awareness of old behaviors that get in our way, and we make the change. Remember, be gentle with yourself, “easy does it”.

As an addiction therapist I often hear the same story of relapse: became complacent, stopped going to meetings, stopped calling my sponsor, stopped working my program, thought I was different and took my power back, started isolating and being around people, places and things high risk to staying sober. Mindfulness in recovery keeps us in check to whether we are involved in AA or NA or just around it. In awareness, “the quieter we become, the more we are able to hear” (Rumi). It is important to practice listening with a deeper sense of awareness. How do we hear good orderly direction? This is practiced with Step 11 through conscious contact with God as we understood Him. No matter how busy my day feels, I can stop, pause, observe my thoughts and emotions, and breathe. The serenity prayer comes into focus: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” We must also pay attention to our spiritual condition.

Spirituality needs service in the same way a vehicle requires it to stay running. As stated in the AA Big Book: “We are not cured of alcoholism. What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.” This includes personal inventory of our actions and willingness to make amends to others when necessary. I am mindful that this program teaches spiritual progress, not spiritual perfection. Without spirituality, life can feel out of balance and lead to relapse. In practicing mindfulness, I stay in the moment and am grateful for my recovery. After all, sobriety is a gift that I get to give away by carrying the message. Whether in sobriety or not, I encourage you to incorporate mindfulness or other meditations into your lifestyle. There is no right or wrong mindfulness, but the experience of being awake and present with a beginner’s mind. Through mindfulness, one can find a sense of stability, growth, freedom and happiness in recovery. We learn how to accept life on life’s terms. No matter the challenges or stressors, we stay grounded. Just for today I stay in mindful awareness of my journey in recovery and keep it simple one day at a time.

E. Colin Hodge, M-RAS

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