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Mindfulness and the Addictive Mind

Mindfulness is getting a lot of attention these days, and rightly so. As a way to cultivate balance, sanity and contentment, it’s been well-tested since its development 2600 years ago. Consider its longevity, in comparison to the relatively infantile field of psychotherapy, which it’s generally agreed developed in the late 1800s in Vienna with Freud, Jung and their cohort.

Mindfulness originates in the teachings of the Buddha, who taught that if we pay attention closely, we can better understand how the mind works, and prevent unnecessary suffering in the mind. His teachings focus on seeing how that suffering gets created, and shifting our mental perspective to dodge the suffering bullet. Mindfulness is the stripping down of those ideas into a simple, westernized, secular message.

These days we’re seeing Mindfulness applied in areas as diverse as pro sports teams, corporations, and elementary school classrooms, among many others. I myself just published a book on Mindful Walking: Five-Minute Mindfulness: Walking

Another area in which Mindfulness has great relevance is addiction and recovery. From one perspective, the 12-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous (and the program many believe we need asap, I-Phone-Addicts Anonymous) owe a great deal to Eastern and Buddhist ideas, and Mindfulness in particular. Let’s take a look.

One of the key ideas in the 12-step programs is ‘One Day at a Time’- meaning, keeping one’s focus on what addictive challenges can arise today, and working with them ‘just for today’. It’s based in the idea that problems like addiction can feel very intimidating from the view of trying to avoid a substance or behavior for the rest of one’s life. Overwhelming! But the goal of staying sober for just the rest of today very often feels far more possible. Mindfulness, of course, guides us to stay in today, in the moment, recognizing that the mind gets easily frazzled when we get lost in thoughts of past and future. Even though tomorrow may indeed bring new challenges, we only actually live in today. The practice of Mindfulness is keeping attention in the now time frame. When people do this, they tend to notice that they have less stress, worry and regret in those moments. Although it’s not easy to stay just with the present, when we do, it’s really good medicine for the mind and nervous system.

Another key recovery concept is expressed in the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It essentially teaches to focus on what we can control, rather than struggling with things we can’t, which just generates fruitless stress and suffering. The Buddha taught this fundamental idea many times, including in what are called the Four Noble Truths. These can be summed up as the understanding that trying to control or avoid things we can’t control creates suffering. The teaching describes the ‘path out of suffering’, which is based on learning to allow pleasant and unpleasant experiences to come and go, without struggling with them.

Another piece of recovery wisdom also relates to the question of time, like One Day at a Time. This one states simply, “This too shall pass”, which means that even our worst feelings and struggles are temporary. We can help ourselves get through them by remembering that they aren’t permanent- they’ll pass. Recovery teaches people to sit tight, and allow the wave of anger, sadness, craving or loneliness to come, and then go. There’s a similar idea in the Mindfulness world, which is sometimes called the Law of Impermanence. It states that all things are temporary, and holding that fact in mind can be very helpful. This helps meditation students to investigate how this mistaken idea of permanence- sometimes wanting something pleasurable to keep going, or forgetting that something painful will eventually end -can create a lot of unnecessary stress and misery. When we understand and accept impermanence, things are easier to bear. It helps us live with more resilience- tolerating what’s uncomfortable, and accepting the losses and endings that inevitably happen.

Addiction involves using something outside ourselves to change how we feel. We drink when anxious, or eat when sad. It’s a pattern of avoiding, enhancing or changing our inner state to something we find more pleasant. It creates a pattern of the inability to sit with things as they are- which is exactly what we do in the practice of Mindfulness. This deceptively simple practice of ‘sitting with things’ begins to set in motion a different way of living and being present. Mindfulness, then, can be thought of as the ‘opposite’ or antidote to addiction.

There are many other overlaps between the Mindfulness and recovery traditions. In fact, I find the 12 step programs are more based in eastern spiritual principles, rather than Christian traditions, even though the AA literature strongly stresses “God” as an aid to recovery. I believe the God language reflects in part the cultural moment in which the original AA program developed- 1920s and 1930s middle America, in which talk of God was the largely the norm. If we dig beneath the surface, the program is more based in the eastern ideas of the paradox of effort and letting go, the power of acceptance, and an abiding serenity that comes when we can allow things to be as they are.

Almost everyone struggles with some form of addiction or compulsion. We all have our special vulnerabilities- perhaps the chocolate chip cookie, the smartphone, Facebook, alcohol or an addictive relationship. No matter the object of the addictive behavior and energy, Mindfulness is a strong resource to access in cultivating recovery, balance and wellness.

If you’d like more resources on Mindfulness and recovery, email me, or check out the work of Kevin Griffin, who wrote a book called One Breath at a Time.

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