I recently spent several weeks in a rehab facility (read nursing home) because I broke my knee. I live alone, and the medical professionals did not trust me to be safe at home while I was recovering. I met several people in that facility who were facing alcoholism’s end. Alcoholism is a fatal disease that can be arrested and treated but not cured. The people in the rehab were beyond treatment. They were waiting to die a slow, horrible, painful death. For these people, there were no meetings, no treatment programs, no sober houses, and no more chances. At the end of this disease, there is only pain, insanity, loneliness, and a slow disintegration of the body and the soul from the inside out.
I have watched two of my family members literally drink themselves to death. There are several other family members who drank heavily and probably died before they should have as a result. In the cases of my mother and my grandfather, watching them drink themselves to death for years and years continues to be among my most painful memories. What is even more tragic is knowing that it did not have to be the way it was for either one of them.
During times of meditation, I wonder why I was spared and my family members were not. During those times, I thank God for my gift of sobriety and for my life, and I ask for the strength to use this gift to be helpful to others. If one person attempts to get or stay sober because of my actions or words, then I have had a successful life.
Meditation is part of Step 11 in AA and in other 12-Step programs. The steps are meant to be taken in order. If you are thinking about taking the Steps, my suggestion is to find someone to take you through them as they are laid out in the basic text, Alcoholics Anonymous. With that said, I don’t think a person needs to wait until he or she has completed the previous steps to start meditation. In fact, meditating on powerlessness over alcohol, or whatever one’s substance is, may enhance a person’s experience with all the steps and especially Step One.
Like most drunks, I initially balked at meditation. I must admit that I sometimes like it when my head goes a thousand miles an hour. I sometimes think it is where I get my best ideas. I was once afraid I would lose those ideas if I attempted to calm the constant chatter in my head. I have since learned that there is a significant amount of power in the pause gained as a result of meditating.
The pause gives me perspective. The pause helps me find solutions to problems that seem overwhelming. The pause enables me to appreciate beauty in simple things, like beautiful baby photography, a textbook page well-constructed, bills paid, my three cats sleeping on my bed, a roof over my head, and food in the fridge. The pause helps me see that most of the things I fear are not real. The pause allows me to see the thoughts in my head as I might see images on a TV screen. From that perspective, I can choose which thoughts to ignore and which thoughts to follow.
Today, I will not leave my apartment or start work until I have meditated for thirty minutes during the week and for one hour on the weekends. I do not have a special place in my apartment for meditating. Some people choose to build altars for this purpose. Some people choose to sit in a certain way, burn incense, play music or listen to guided meditation tapes. These are all optional and very beneficial, but they are not required. Neither is it necessary to meditate for as long as I do.
On most days, I meditate while sitting on my couch and playing a YouTube video of some nature scene, which I usually match to whatever weather is happening outside. I personally find that I need some sound going on because my head will follow the sound rather than whatever thoughts my mind has churned up. I usually close my eyes, but that is not required either. I occasionally fall asleep. My sponsor tells me that is okay.
AA and other 12-Step programs call themselves spiritual, not religious. When pressed to identify my own religion, I self-identify as a very bad Buddhist. I am a very bad Buddhist because I desire much, and I sometimes suffer because of those desires. In Buddhism, God is optional. One can be a Buddhist and believe in God…or not…as one sees fit.
Every religion on Earth has a meditation practice. You can meditate whether you are a born again Christian, an Orthodox Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist, or anything else, without worrying about it going against whatever faith you follow. Meditating does not require that you follow a particular practice or use a particular technique. There are a million books about meditation out there. I would suggest not reading about it and just doing it. In early sobriety, I tried to avoid doing the Steps by reading about them ad infinitum. It didn’t work. I almost ran into the same problem with meditation. Just do it. It helps to find a teacher online or in person if you can.
When I first started meditating, I found it very hard to sit still. It was even harder for me to get my head to sit still. I started with five minutes. It took me a while to work up to ten minutes. Now I find that the half hour I do on weekdays and the hour I do on weekends is not always enough. If I have time to do more than that, I take it. I also accept that I got sober to live life, not to hide from it; like having to work, pay bills, exercise, and so on. I don’t always have time to spend extra time meditating. And that is ok.
What are the benefits of meditation? I have found that problems that once seemed insurmountable are manageable. I have found that I am not as reactive when people do or say things I don’t like. I find it easier to take appropriate action when I must. I find that my introversion is not a problem but an asset. I find that I don’t get as overwhelmed as I once did with large crowds, loud noise, and busy-ness. I find that I can tune out people who annoy me.
AA has not turned me into a bliss ninny. It has turned me into someone who can accept who I am most of the time with all my imperfections. It has turned me into a person who can take advantage of my assets and work to make my liabilities less problematic.
In early sobriety, I pooh-poohed the idea of meditation. Today, it is one of the most important tools in my recovery toolbox.
I work in an office building that has multiple tenants. One of those tenants regularly does work for the federal government, and some of those projects require special clearance, including the frequently dramatized “top secret” clearance. Among other precautions, this means they have implemented security protocols to control physical access to their office space, including electronic badges to be used to open locked door and identify persons at all times.
As you might expect, while they have invested heavily in electronic security measures like cameras and electronic doors, this organization does not rely exclusively on such precautions. They also have taken measures to raise the awareness of their employees to the importance of physical security in their offices.
I know this because I’ve taken note of a sign they placed in the common lobby area that I walk through on the way to my own office. It has a picture of two business-type looking persons, one opening a door and walking through it. As the first person walks through the door, a second person is RIGHT behind her, keeping up with the first person. And the second person looks like he’s about to follow her right on in through the door that’s still open, defeating any expensive electronic lock the door might have installed in it. No one is checking the second person’s identity, as the first person looks like they’re assuming the second person belongs there. It’s a potentially serious breach of physical security protocols.
And the sign says, “Be aware of your surroundings.”
Being aware of my surroundings is at the core of what “mindfulness” means to me. Except my surroundings aren’t just what’s going on around me. My surroundings include both the external landscape, things that are literally outside of my experience, and the things that are internal, those that are completely hidden from me.
But before I go further in that direction, I’m compelled to qualify… why is an article on “mindfulness” even relevant to sobriety in the first place?
According to Hazelden, “mindfulness comes from the oldest practice of Buddhist meditation–Vipassana, usually translated in English as ‘insight meditation.’ This practice combines mindfulness (nonjudgmental observation) with concentration (focused attention).” Okay, you might think, but what does that have to do with sobriety?
Mindfulness & the 12 Steps
The sobriety that I’ve discovered – indeed the only recovery from alcoholism that has had any lasting effect on my daily life – is the recovery that was offered to me by others who had been taken through the actions and work described in the book Alcoholics Anonymous. The program of action described in that book has several core tenets which can be broken down into:
- surrender to the hopelessness of addiction
- finding the willingness to seek a spiritual solution to remedy the problem
- becoming honest with oneself
- making amends
- helping others, and
- continuing to seek spiritual growth
That’s by no means is a comprehensive or an official synopsis, but it’s simple enough for me. Core to those tenets is the idea of honesty – with oneself, and with others. Alcoholics Anonymous describes the kind of honesty required to practice these principles as “rigorous” and “thorough”. The Twelve Steps are designed to help anyone who is interested in having a spiritual experience to overcome the basic selfishness and self-centeredness that can lead to self-destructive behaviors… namely addiction and alcoholism.
There are multiple practices in A.A. that are designed to help one strip away the stories – the lies – that can distort reality and put us in a position to be harmed by others… and subsequently retaliate. The premise here is that without the willingness to see things objectively – as they are – I’m at risk of living inside a lie… a lie that I can use to justify my selfish behaviors, and to wreak havoc in the lives of those around me. By this logic, the idea of finding the willingness to observe things not as I want to, or as I see necessary to fit the circumstances of the world around me to my own personal narrative, but as they actually are.
It’s amazing how different life can seem when I stop trying to manipulate and manage every detail and interpretation, and instead become committed to the idea of seeing things as they actually are. (And to be clear – I regularly fail at this endeavor. Like every day. The freedom I’ve begun to experience has not occurred as a result of me suddenly finding the ability to see and accept things as they are… but rather from the willingness to make a daily, hourly, moment-to-moment effort to do so.)
A particularly relevant passage from the text of Alcoholics Anonymous was first published in the third edition of the book, in 1976.
“And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation—some fact of my life —unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world by mistake. Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes.”
Okay – so back to mindfulness. Elsewhere online, you can find attempts to distinguish the Buddhist practice of the Vipassana meditation from the mind-set of “mindfulness”.
… let’s just over-simplify the rationale (of Vipassana) in three steps:
- If you spend your life wishing the world be different than how it is, you’ll be miserable all the time
- So you have to learn to accept things as they are and act wisely as a result
- And so the first step is to actually see things as they are
Herm… sounds pretty compatible, if you ask me. The ancient practices found in Buddhism sure sound simpatico with the ideas of acceptance available to anyone attending an A.A. meeting in your town later this evening.
(BTW, for those interested, there are many great books available that attempt to draw out further the compatibility of Buddhism with the modern Twelve Step movement. It’s consistently amazing to me how they seem to complement one another.)
So what about mindfulness, then? That article discussing Vipassana meditation continues:
The recent interest in the West in meditation relies a lot on “mindfulness”.
At a conceptual level, “mindfulness” only asks you to pay attention to what is going on in a non-judgmental way and without over-reacting. You see the close relationship with the “See things as they are” theme above.
In a way, “mindfulness” is the overall mindset one should adopt to pay attention all the time to everything — some kind of an extension into everyday life of the formal meditation practice.
Mindfulness & Serenity
So, if I combine these two ideas, meditation (generally) and Vipassana meditation (specifically) are formal practices designed to help me pay attention to what is going on around me in a non-judgmental way, and to adopt a mindset where I’m open to seeing things as they are. In essence, this mindfulness is a practice designed to help me gain closer alignment to the intentions of the serenity prayer:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
It sounds super simple and obvious when I write those words. My experience is this endeavor is the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do in my life, ever. Finding the willingness – and yes, even the courage – to see things as they are is sometimes terrifying, occasionally mortifying, and nearly always the opposite of how my mind wants to process things. My mind processes things from a specific point of view – my own. And when I let it, it can sure make a great case for me being at the center of the perceptual and imagined universe.
But my experience further informs me that perspective is not only flawed, but deeply dangerous. Dangerous to my health and well-being, and that of those around me. Including – and especially – those I love.
So – how does this all tie back to the top secret facility with super fancy cameras and doors and the reminder not to let people you don’t know inside by holding the door open for them?
For me, the Twelve Steps represent the basis of my recovery. They provide the basis for my “protection”, if you will, against my addiction. They are the cameras, the electronic doors, the “mechanics” of how I try to stay safe and secure.
Mindfulness allows me to attempt to stay “aware of my surroundings” – both internal and external. They provide a basis for witnessing what is coming and going, in and out of my mind.
And central to all of it is the confidence born of an experience with the spirit. Ultimately, all of these are practices designed to help me have a spiritual experience in order to help protect me from myself.
A lot is being written and talked about around mindfulness these days. Companies like Google have begun offering courses to help teach mindfulness practice. There is a natural inclination, I believe, for individuals to pursue the effort to see things as they are, in order to be unburdened from fear, anxiety, and other side effects that occur too often from modern life. What I have found, and what has perhaps always been true, is that mindfulness can have a special purpose in the lives of those seeking recovery.
ENDNOTE: I chose to use the original version of the serenity prayer, as it invites one to change the things which should be changed. The more common modern version fails to include this important distinction. To me, it is a reminder that just because I can change something doesn’t mean I should.
As someone who was introduced to the Twelve Steps as a means of overcoming some extremely destructive behaviors, I have to admit that many of the concepts captured in those simple Twelve Steps were not – at first – principles and actions that would have naturally occurred to me. Okay, the truth is, almost NOTHING in the Twelve Steps were actions that I was inclined to practice without having come to a point where I believed that (1.) the kind of drinking I was doing was going to kill me, and (2.) the efforts I had taken to stop drinking (including therapy, doctors, medication, etc.) were entirely ineffective. Getting to the point where I believed that both of these were true for me was necessary for me to be open to the rather specific and (seemingly) unattractive actions associated with the Twelve Steps.
But, having reached the critical crossroads where my willingness met someone with an actual answer based in their experience, I began little by little to attempt to see what these Steps could mean for me. And what it has meant for me has meant the world. Literally. I don’t believe I would be alive today without them, and even if this belief were to have been proven wrong, I’m quite certain that I would be a lonely, miserable, useless wreck – because what I’ve come to learn through these Steps is that this is my default condition. Isolation, self-pity, self-destruction – these define my way of looking at the world. Only by making connection with others, and – importantly – by gaining an experience with a world outside my own self-conceived mind, do I begin to find a satisfying means of looking at the world.
Perhaps the actions described in the Steps that are most counter to my default condition are those contained in the Step Eleven, which reads:
“Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”
Now, there are plenty of reasons for a doubter like me to begin pulling this step apart. Just the idea that somehow, someone like me is going to find some means of practicing prayer and meditation in order to begin to experience a conscious sense of “God” (prior to this step), let alone improve that experience (as this Step states) sounds so overwhelming as to make someone like me give up before I’ve even tried. Thankfully, there are ten Steps preceding these one, all meant to elicit the beginnings of a spiritual experience. This Step begins to suggest additional actions that are directly intended to further that experience. And the great news is, whatever I thought about prayer, and especially about meditation has been proven so deeply, absurdly wrong. And I’m so grateful for that truth, because only by surrendering (most) of my pre-conceived ideas have I begun to have some kind of experience with meditation.
To be clear, here are some of the ideas I’ve come to realize about meditation since being introduced to it through the Twelve Steps, and attempting to practice it for myself.
- Meditation does not require a specific position, special breathing or chanting – Although I’ve found that sitting on a cushion and counting my breath is very helpful to help me to become focused, it is NOT a requirement. These are techniques that help me personally, but the amazing thing about meditation is that it can be practiced nearly at any time, nearly anywhere… which is a relief, because if I forget my meditation cushion on a trip, I can still sit in a chair and allow myself to be still and quiet.
- Meditation does not require me to go a mountain top, or cloister myself in a temple – Again, huge relief for someone like me, who has lots of ideas about what meditation should look like. If I really had to go find a bunch of monks, or journey to a mountain top in order to meditate, I would never begin. I’d always worry about finding the right mountain, or the right monks. Otherwise, I’m obviously “doing it wrong”.
- Meditation does not mean I have a “quiet mind” free of distracting and sometimes terrifying thoughts – Quite the contrary, when I meditate, I begin to become aware of exactly how nuts the inside of my head is. It’s a cacophony of ideas, fears, noises, and voices, all busy fighting for attention. When I practice meditation, it allows me to become present to that noise, and to somehow begin to find a way of accepting that all that noise is part of who I am.
- Meditation is not an end point that I reach and fulfill my own enlightenment – Again, huge relief to know that meditation is a means to an end, not an end unto itself. If I could “finish” meditating, I’d likely start looking for shortcuts and checklists to reach the end more quickly.
- Meditation is not dogma – Dogma implies an authoritative and incontrovertible set of practices and beliefs. In my experience, one of the things that allows meditation to remain fully compatible with the Twelve Steps is the broad means of practicing it. I’ve met many different practitioners of meditation who were part of Twelve Step Fellowships – Buddhists, Christians, atheists, Hindu and many who don’t identify with any religious tradition at all. Each of them had their own way of reconciling their beliefs with the practice of meditation.
- Meditation is not easy – There are some days when I try and meditate, and I’m so tired, I start to fall asleep. (Sleeping is not meditation.) Some days, I try and meditate, and every… single… second… lasts… FOREVER. Some days, I never really feel like I’m really settled into my meditation. I can get distracted by the noises in the room around me. The car horns outside. The stupid birds! And WHY WON’T MY PHONE STOP ALERTING ME? All of these make for practices within meditation sessions. Meditation isn’t easy. But I do find if I keep at it, it does get easier. Over time, I’m more and more okay with the noises, and the beeping, and all the stuff outside of me (never mind all the stuff INSIDE of me).
- There is no “right” or “wrong” way to formally meditate – Okay, this one is probably the one that someone could debate if they really wanted to. There are many things you could try and call meditation that probably aren’t. Reading a book probably isn’t formal practice. Watching a made for TV movie probably isn’t meditation. Staring out the window procrastinating while you’re supposed to be doing your taxes probably isn’t meditation. But from what I’ve experienced, meditation is a good deal about INTENTION and ATTENTION. And, if you sit down with the intention of meditating, and you allow yourself to be quiet, without a lot of other ideas about why you’re sitting there other than to meditate, and so you pay attention you’re probably doing what someone objectively could call formal meditation. And that is a HUGE relief to me. It means that meditation is immensely approachable, and available to pretty much anyone who wants to try and do it.
Here are three of the simple things I’ve discovered that meditation is, beyond my expectations or preconceived notions.
- Meditation has always been a part of practicing the Twelve Steps – For the earliest practitioners of the Twelve Steps in the 1930s, even before there were Twelve Steps, meditation was a part of recovery along a spiritual path. The predecessor of Alcoholics Anonymous, the Oxford Group, practiced a type of meditation they called “quiet time”. While this specific process of meditation isn’t what I practice, it’s a relief for me to know that I share practices in my recovery that tie directly to the practices many hopeless drunks in early A.A. also practiced. And many of them were able to recover. This gives me hope, and allows me to experience a connection with very early practitioners in A.A.
- Meditation is “like coming home” – With respects to the great American psychologist, Lawrence LeShan, this phrase is lifted directly from his wonderful and practical guidebook, “How to Meditate” – and it’s still the one that sums up my experience with meditation most simply. There is a measure of comfort I get, just by making a decision to sit and meditate. There is comfort that I’ve been able to realize, just by becoming aware of my own body. There is a comfort, just from closing my eyes and allowing myself to listen, and feel, and breathe – without any expectation of what I need to do next, or what else I’m missing out on. The presence and awareness that is available to me right now is immensely comforting, and does, indeed, feel to my like coming home.
This brings me to the final and most important conclusion I’ve reached about meditation so far: meditation isn’t what I think. When I say, “meditation isn’t what I think”, I mean that in two important ways.
First, I mean that any ideas and pre-conceived notions I have about what meditation is, or (more importantly) what it can mean to me, that really doesn’t matter. This is because all of those ideas and pre-conceived notions are a way of me labelling meditation, it’s a way of me trying to define something that is actually quite difficult to define. By labeling meditation, I already begin to try and sort it and put it into a box, and leave it there, allowing me to be satisfied that I somehow “know” what that thing is about. Meditation is first and foremost about experiencing something. Something that is part of me, but also, something that is much, much larger than I am. Something that much more universal, something that is available – I believe – to all of us.
Second, “meditation isn’t what I think” points to a very basic truth at the heart of what is so meaningful to me about meditation. When I sit to meditate, I intend to be quiet and still, frequently what I experience is a mind full of racing thoughts and ideas… thoughts and ideas that quite often, I seem to have no ability to control or stop. And yet, they still come! During meditation, I begin to become very, very present to the reality that my thoughts arise and happen even without me wanting them to – in fact, often when I don’t want them to! If the “I” that I identify with is sitting to meditate, and I’m able to observe all these seemingly random thoughts and ideas and fears, then that points to the reality that I am not my thoughts. The idea that “I” can meditate and somehow begin to exist separate from my thoughts, then meditation clearly isn’t the same as my thoughts – it isn’t what I think.
I know meditation is a difficult topic to try and discuss. Often, in trying to describe the elusive nature of meditation, I fear I risk explaining the best parts away. But if you’ve read through this article to this point, and you haven’t sat and attempted to intentionally meditate today – I hope now you’ll give it a go. You may also find for yourself, it isn’t what you think.