I entered into the world of recovery in September of 1982, 34 years ago. Although I have had a few life-changing experiences, none have transformed me as much as the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Not only did I surrender many substances and behaviors, but I finally got the instruction book on how to do life! The Twelve Steps rocked my world. Since then, the journey has been long and winding – definitely not linear.
Even before being in recovery, I knew something wasn’t quite right with me. Growing up, my life felt so out of control. As a result, I was anxious most of the time and tried to manage and control everything. Substances and compulsive behaviors helped me cope with life until these same substances turned on me and added to my anxiety.
While in college, and before entering into recovery, it occurred to me that meditation might help my runaway train of a mind and subsequent anxiety. I had learned Transcendental Meditation in the early ‘70s when it was quite popular. It was a nice relaxing practice, but my mind still raced. I hadn’t found tools to help me deal with the complexities of life.
After being in recovery for about ten years, I began teaching yoga and was introduced to Vipassana Meditation. Vipassana Meditation, known in this country as mindfulness meditation, comes from the Buddhist way of treasuring each moment because, well, it’s really all we have. The past is just a memory and the future is a fantasy. Although mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist practices, it has successfully been used and adapted to western psychology in the treatment of anxiety disorders, addictions, post-traumatic stress syndrome and depression.
As an addict, I wasn’t much interested in the present moment, thank you very much. But, as I walked the road of recovery, I learned that I had to make friends with the present if I wanted to be free of my addictions.
The word Vipassana means to be with things as they are, not as I want them to be, not as I’m trying to make them be, but as they are! This was certainly not the way I approached my life. Even in recovery, I continued to struggle with the idea of surrender. Still managing and controlling much in my life, I was fighting a losing battle that could lead me back to my addictions.
Buddhists believe pain in life is inevitable. However, they also believe that the suffering around that pain is optional. Our mental chatter creates our pain and suffering because we believe our thoughts and our stories.
For example, you are stuck in traffic and late for a job interview. Your mind starts running with all kinds of thoughts: What if they think I’m always late? I should have allowed more time. I probably won’t get the job. If I don’t get this job, I won’t have medical insurance for my family! And on it goes. Soon your mind is racing, your emotions are escalated, your body is tense, and you are basically stressed out. That’s the suffering! You began with the pain of being late and ended with the additional suffering around all your thoughts that were not based in the reality of that moment.
With mindfulness meditation, we learn to pay attention to the moment in a particular way – without judgment or criticism, but instead with a sense of curiosity and observation. We’re invited to come alongside the moment and just be with it. When I pay attention to the moment with a sense of noticing and openness, I can begin to let go of my attachment to my thoughts and feelings, and become an observer of them instead of mindlessly letting my thoughts control me.
This practice is not about changing anything or anyone. Through observation I begin to see the reality of the moment. I notice my resistance if I am struggling to surrender to it. If I’m in a situation I can do nothing about (e.g. sitting in traffic), I do have a choice about how I respond. What can I do to take care of myself in this moment? I can breathe deeply, relax my body, put on some soothing music, or perhaps call a friend for support. I can put the moment, just as it is, into perspective and surrender to it.
If I am in a situation that is toxic for me, through awareness, I may find I need to remove myself or perhaps speak up about my thoughts or feelings. I’m not trying to change anyone or change the situation; rather, I am being more authentic in it. When I do this, my anxiety subsides and I find peace. I don’t have to escape the moment by using or otherwise distracting myself. I don’t have to fix it. The best news is that I am not alone in this process! In Twelve Step recovery I have a Higher Power.
Mindfulness mediation helped me with Step Eleven: “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.” That’s the power I need. Not the power I was trying to manifest on my own. I have direct access to my Higher Power’s power and will for me.
This practice works well with addicts because we can use the tools of our mindfulness practice not only when we are meditating in a “formal” practice or “sit”, but anytime, anywhere. If we’re having a conversation with a friend and our mind wanders, we bring our attention back. Facing a stressful situation, we can return to the reality of the moment instead of allowing our mind to run away with our fears. Even if we are in a joyful situation and feeling sad that it will end, we can let go of our attachment, be thankful for this moment and trust we will have more joyful moments.
Modern Day Stress
People are stressed by this competitive and very busy world in which we live. Electronics have made our lives busier, not simpler. As a result, we have become more skilled at multitasking rather than giving our attention to just one activity. It has almost become a “sin” to do just one thing at a time. Unfortunately, multitasking is simply dividing your attention. You only have so much attention to bring to the present moment. If you are driving your car, eating lunch and talking on the phone, well, I hope I’m not on the same road as you!
I have witnessed a wave of interest in yoga over the last twenty years, and am beginning to see a similar movement emerge with mindfulness. Nowadays, it’s a “buzz word” we often encounter.
Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio, a longtime practitioner of meditation, wrote a book called A Mindful Nation. He organized a group of senators who meditate together before going into session. In some schools, teachers and children are meditating at the beginning of the day. Other schools even have “mindful rooms” where students and teachers can go for quiet time to be reflective and responsive to their circumstances instead of reactive. Mindfulness meditation is a practice whose time has come.
I know what you may be thinking. I don’t have the time to meditate. I’ve tried it in the past and it just didn’t work. I don’t really get what mediation is. It’s boring. Put it into perspective, it’s only 5-20 minutes out of your day.
If you haven’t tried mindfulness meditation, please do. It’s the best technique I have experienced in close to 40 years of learning and studying meditation. Jon Kabat-Zinn, author and professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, states the following in his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are:
“There is nothing weird or out of the ordinary about meditating or meditation. It is just about paying attention in your life as if it really mattered. And it might help to keep in mind that, while it is really nothing out of the ordinary, nothing particularly special, mindfulness is at the same time extraordinarily special and utterly transformative.”
You and your life are worth it!
Susan M. Rubio, a yoga and meditation instructor since 1993, has taught in Oregon, Washington, California and Arizona. She attended retreats and completed numerous courses in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the Susan Samueli Center, University of California, Irvine. Rubio uses mindfulness meditation to help her students deal with addictions, stress, anxiety and depression and has taught mindfulness eating workshops. http://amindfulyou.com/