When it was first suggested to me that I might try mindfulness practices to support my recovery, I was skeptical. A friend told me that my recovery would be improved if I learn to focus my attention and be acutely aware of my inner and outer surroundings.
The only reason I considered trying mindfulness is because my mind was so overwhelmed all the time and I felt this inner state of chaos in my body. It felt like a volcano was rumbling around inside of me getting ready to erupt.
AA meetings were providing me with community and I was no longer isolating. I had even gotten a sponsor and begun to do the 12-step work. None of this seemed to help with my mind being unable to settle. I had no ease in my mind or my body. That uncomfortable edgy feeling was really the only constant I felt.
Not unlike many other aspects of my sobriety, I became willing to try mindfulness practices as a support to my recovery out of sheer desperation. I was willing to try anything to quiet the critical voices that had a megaphone inside my head. Anything to settle the nervous energy that I felt like was on steroids inside of me every waking moment.
Through books, YouTube, various websites, attending a nearby meditation center, and talking to people who actually practice mindfulness, I gained enough confidence to give it a try. The app Insight Timer helped me to set a timer with the chimes of my choosing and the time intervals that were manageable for me. Prana Recovery Centers has a group on Insight Timer that connects mindfulness and recovery. The group posts are very helpful.
I started learning and practicing mindfulness very slowly and learned that I had to persevere. Like with my recovery, when I am struggling, I just stay with it. It is so important to keep trying – everyday.
These are the practices that I find most helpful:
Mindfulness of the Breath
Mindfulness of the breath is a common practice because the breath is accessible. After all, we are all breathing. Training the spotlight of my attention on to my breath is a great way to quiet my mind.
It takes practice and my mind still wonders but that is okay. I just keep bringing my attention back to my breath again and again. It does not matter how many times I have to do this in one practice.
I have been told it is like building a muscle. Every time I redirect my attention back to my breath, I make those neural connections stronger.
I find that the first ten minutes of observing my breath coming in and out my mind wanders a lot. After ten minutes, I can usually find a still quiet place where my mind settles down and is less active.
This skill of being able to direct my attention to my breath has been very helpful in moments when I am very anxious. It takes the edge of enough so I feel like I will get through the difficulty of the moment.
Mindfulness of the Body
I had no idea my body has useful information to tell me. Through mindfulness I have learned how to tune in to my body to gain valuable intel for living clean and sober.
That gut feeling that I am in the wrong place or with the wrong people is now an evident message that I listen to. That clutching of my throat or quickening of my breath are now clues that I pay attention to and act upon.
The practice of mindfulness of the body has taught me to tune in to my body and befriend it as a source of valuable information to help me live happily clean and sober.
This mindfulness practice is a huge support to my recovery. I was so shut down to the helpful language of my body. Being open-minded enough to try this practice and then sticking with it has paid huge dividends for relapse prevention.
I now feel like an integrated person out in the World trying to stay sober and do good rather than just a nervous wreck walking around with an overwhelming feeling of dread.
This mindfulness practice has been an enormous support to my recovery because I have learned to communicate more effectively. What a huge help!
It was suggested to me that I look at my most difficult relationships and become aware of how I communicate. I saw that in these difficult relationships I usually entered a conversation or dialogue with defensiveness. I could see this just was not effective. I felt disconnected from the very people I care the most about.
So I started trying different things. Like remaining silent and listening to the other person or being curious and asking questions. My intention shifted from one of being heard to actually wanting to really hear the other person. Slowly, my defensive nature began to subside.
I started to feel a deeper connection with people. It was subtle at first and then seemed to build on itself.
Learning a new tool for communicating with those I love has been the biggest support to my recovery. I do not always get it right but I always keep trying.
Being bored, wandering mind, and sleepiness all come and visit when I am practicing mindfulness. Anxiety and self-doubt usually make an appearance too.
I am very grateful for the instruction I have received that taught me these fluctuations of the mind and body are totally natural.
The more I practice the less they visit and they don’t stay as long when they do visit.
My only job is to just stick with it. No matter what – the next day, I do another practice.
In this way, mindfulness is a support to my recovery and has proven to be an amazing relapse prevention superpower!
Photo by: Keegan Houser on Unsplash
Mindfulness Practices To Support Recovery
Mind over Matter & The Relation to Sobriety
“You can’t fix a broken mind with a broken mind.”
I will always remember the time I heard someone say at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, “You can’t fix a broken mind with a broken mind.” I had never considered that my mind and my sobriety were entrenched. That the condition of one deeply depends on the condition of the other was new information to me.
Through a regular (and bumpy) meditation practice, I have learned that the state of my mind does impact my ability to stay sober and, conversely, the state of my sobriety deeply influences the condition of my mind.
When I began to notice the relationship between my mind and my sobriety I was surprised at how interconnected they really are. My thoughts affect my mood and my emotions, which in turn, impact my ability to stay clean and sober.
In the Chapter titled “There is a Solution,” the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous confirms that my mind and my sobriety are deeply connected. On page 23 it reads “Therefore, the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body.” Many of the concepts in the Big Book are predicated on the fact that I cannot trust my own thinking. I have often said that my biggest problem is that I tell myself something and I believe me. Then I act in accordance to my own thoughts which are not reliable.
I became curious as to what it is exactly that my own mind thinks that has the power to put my sobriety in jeopardy. So I began to watch it. Learning to silently observe my own thinking was a bit awkward at first. It took some practice and getting used to; it is the practice of making mental notes on what I am thinking.
After some time, I noticed four distinct patterns that impacted my mind and my sobriety:
1. Reliving the past
2. Controlling the future
3. Playing the victim
Reliving the Past
One of the patterns I noticed when I was observing my thinking was that my thoughts were often focused on the past. I would relive and replay conversations, “if only” events, past injustices, and times when I was not who I wanted to be.
Things that happened decades ago were frequently visualized again and again. People from years ago were still taking up space in my head. It seemed as though every hurt I ever experienced never moved on. They just got stored in an archive in my mind for me to replay. And replay them I did!
This orientation toward the past absolutely had an impact on my mind and my sobriety. I noticed that while living in the past I was often sad, angry, hurt, or discouraged. I never replayed the joyful or loving moments, just the ugly ones.
I could see that living in the past was a recipe for consuming large doses of regret on a daily basis. This observation gave me tremendous motivation to change my thinking pattern.
Controlling the Future
Another repetitive mental habit I noticed was trying to control the future. I observed that my thinking was very addicted to trying to control what is going to happen, when it is going to happen, and who is going to do it. My thoughts constantly tried to plan for events and conversations in which there was absolutely no way to influence those outcomes.
This futuristic thinking kept me in a chronic state of worry and feeling overwhelmed. There was this low-grade anxiety that was created. I could quickly see that trying to control the future was having a negative effect on my mind and my sobriety.
This thinking pattern kept me in a constant state of fear. It was as if I was living life just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Once I was aware that my mind had this habitual pattern, I became willing to find a way out of this type of suffering.
Playing the Victim
This one hit me HARD. Realizing that I played the victim in most circumstances was a real wake-up call. By silently watching my thinking I saw thoughts that consistently made me play small, give over my power, and act and sound like a victim.
This habitual thinking pattern was so entrenched in my thinking that I needed a lot of support to begin to turn it around. Therapy helped. Doing the twelve steps as instructed in the first one hundred and three pages of the Big Book with a Big Book sponsor helped too.
I gradually saw that by playing the victim I avoided taking responsibility. As long as I was a helpless bystander then I did not have to see my part and take responsibility for my actions.
When I was able to clearly see that playing the victim only served to keep me stuck in thinking that jeopardized my sobriety, I became willing to change.
The fourth pattern of habitual thinking I observed that was that of negativity. This too was difficult to acknowledge yet very liberating when I become free from it. What I noticed was that my automatic reaction, the one that came out first, was almost always negative. The glass was always half empty.
When had I become so negative? mind over matter
mind over matter
Noticing these four habitual ways of thinking really helped me to become willing to overcome them. Some are deep-rooted conditioning that never really go away completely but merely lay dormant. I have an internal watcher that is on the look-out for these states of mind to reawaken and try to take center stage.
I have used many tools to work with the thinking mind in order to improve my sobriety (and increase my chances of not relapsing) including meditation practice, therapy, and the twelve steps.
Perhaps the greatest asset in combating old patterns of thinking has been being in the present moment and acceptance that moment as it is.
Being in the present moment means I am not in the past or in the future. This is the complete antidote for my first two habitual thinking patterns that threatens my sobriety.
For the third and fourth way of thinking, Playing the Victim and Negativity, acceptance has been my greatest asset. Accepting the current moment exactly as it is takes practice, perseverance, and patience. The pay off of being free from suffering is the reward. Totally worth it!
My mind and my sobriety are inherently intertwined in ways I can only work with if at first I observe my thinking. Being the silent watcher of my thoughts has proven to be a very helpful tool in working with my mind to benefit my sobriety.
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My Mind and My Sobriety, mind over matter, matters of sobriety and the mind
Mindfulness in Recovery Helps
Somedays it feels impossible to calm my mind. Synapsis firing and exploding all at once. Ideas crashing into one another and decisions I just can’t make. Other days I find myself depressed, hormonal, raging, confused and outright ready for a nap. It sounds manic in nature and some of us in recovery just might be diagnostically manic, but in general this can be the simple reality of being alive and sober. Our feelings have feelings of their own it seems; at times the prickly sensation of living becomes overwhelming without alcohol or drugs to drown them out. This is where I know that practicing mindfulness in recovery helps me stay in recovery.
What is needed to calm the nerves, center the brain and develop our sense of selves isn’t always obvious. During early recovery, those first 12-18 months having a meditation practice wasn’t exactly in my daily repertoire. In fact, my brain itself couldn’t actually comprehend the idea of stillness. It wasn’t ready. The 11th step of Alcoholics Anonymous outlines that prayer and meditation keeps us connected to our higher power. It wasn’t a step I put into much action. I didn’t understand that with practice, sitting still and quiet could center me and also teach me how to interact in the world with others.
I thought that if I just helped others through sponsorship or doing “things” for them it would sustain my recovery. Yet it became noisier and noisier in my brain. What was missing was that I wasn’t looking at my behaviors, my thoughts, actions, and interactions.
Mindfulness in Recovery as a Practice
This is where mindfulness in recovery as a practice complements the daily program of recovery. Mindfulness has its beginning over 2600 years ago when in the eastern world, the Buddha presented to the world the philosophy that if we follow a path of loving-kindness, wise actions and intentions, speech and the tenets of the Four-Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path1, we can live free of suffering. It isn’t just the origin of some of these concepts that can be applied for one to be mindful but starting with meditation practice in the simplest of forms that can help attach awareness of a moment to start calming the tired or crazy brain. Some examples are as follows:
When I am anxious, I will tell myself ‘May I be at ease.’ If I am at work and commonly getting stirred up, the simple phrase or intention is “be at ease, breathing in, breathing out.” I am actually meditating and walking.
When I am angry with my son or my husband, do I continue to rage or do I pause and reflect? Writing a spot check inventory (via AA) will work for sure but how do I bring a mindful practice into place to create inner grace and open up a safer space for my family to approach me? If I meditate angry it might not be a good meditation. My speech isn’t always going to be kind so I hold compassion for myself. We say, “May I forgive myself for any intentional or non-intentional harm I may have caused others” and when quieted I can make amends with right and/or wise speech and meditate with a guided meditation on forgiveness.
This works for those who we have a hard time forgiving as well. “I forgive you for any intentional or non-intentional harm you have caused me. I forgive you.” Saying these three times or many, many more times might ease a hidden pain.
When I feel happy and peaceful, I can be more aware and free to let my thoughts wander and be expressed. It becomes noticeable that through this mindfulness and awareness, I can begin to practice an attitude of loving-kindness. We meditate or “pray” to ourselves, “May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be safe, may I be at ease” and then we guide our thoughts to others. “May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be safe, may you be at ease.”
These are examples of practice. I cannot walk through existence in a meditative state because then I’d not be part of the world and would likely bump into walls. So, I look at mindfulness as a moment-by-moment experience and it ties neatly to meditation as I have outlined above. I am not always moment by moment being mindful – hence – I need to practice. So, let’s say my body hurts because I have a tendency to overdo it at the gym. Many times, I have said out loud to anyone who will listen “my body hates me.” Hate is a strong word. Through an “awareness” of the pain, I can acknowledge it. Instead of naming my body as an angry agent of evil trying to put me out. I can lovingly say to it, “I see you, I feel you and what can we do to make you feel better?” I now hold more compassion for this body of mine. I am generating loving-kindness to all things, feelings and beings rather than being sucked down by contempt, anger and resultant suffering.
Suffering in Recovery
On suffering. I could create a lot of suffering around me. If I am not mindful of my sober life, I am unable to alleviate the suffering that life can cause and I can manifest. Once I begin to create suffering out of others’ actions or my own actions, then the sneaky drink devil is likely to try and get in. If I let my broken down sore body dictate my minds’ thoughts it would be easy to say “a drink will ease my pain faster than a few days of Advil and rest.” Now just that thought is enough to create suffering. I start thinking of drinking again. Then I get irritable. Then I cause others to suffer. Then a drink or a drug looks good again.
As I practice mindfulness, it gets easier to stop that thought spiral. I am loading up on new positive thoughts and feelings. Replacement thoughts of contentment and awareness remind me that the pain is impermanent and the suffering is long-term.
Today my meditation practice is gaining strength. I no longer look at it as some place I don’t belong. I am able to associate my mind to the meaning within the meditation. I am doing daily inventory. I can see where my daily demons appear and forgiveness comes quickly. My favorite saying as it relates to this practice is “Right now, it is like this.” 2
1. For more details on how the Buddha eight-fold path and Dharma teachings can aide in your recovery look at www.refugerecovery.org
2. Ajahn Sumedho
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Mindfulness in Recovery Helps, Mindfulness in Recovery for life, Mindfulness in Recovery strategies, Mindfulness in Recovery Centers