Mindfulness in Recovery Revisited
Back in 2009 I published an article with Counselor titled “Mindfulness in Recovery.” At this point I would like to revisit this concept, drawing on my own experience in attempting to integrate mindfulness in recovery over the past eight years. I will begin by highlighting some key points from the earlier article.
From the Buddhist perspective mindfulness is synonymous with awakening—awakening to the true nature of ourselves and the world around us. Truly awakening in mindfulness entails becoming fully present in the immediate moment, with heartfelt compassion for both ourselves and others. Mindfulness also entails a commitment to experiencing our immediate reality as it really is, not as we wish it were or fear it might become. Very importantly, mindfulness involves learning to step outside our usual frame of reference and dispassionately observe our thoughts and feeling, letting them go without attachment if we choose to do so.
In his classic book Relapse Prevention, Marlatt expounds on potential applications of the acquired quality of mindfulness in maintaining one’s recovery from alcoholism, drug addiction, and other addictions (Marlatt & Donovan, 2005). He observes that regular practice of meditation is instrumental in cultivating mindfulness, which he defines as the capacity to observe the ongoing process of an experience while letting go of one’s sense of attachment to the content of each thought, feeling or image.
Extending this concept to relapse prevention, Marlatt discusses his experience in teaching alcoholics and addicts to mindfully “step aside” and simply observe the progression of a momentary craving for their drug of choice to a peak level of intensity, before gradually beginning to diminish on its own (1994). Using the analogy of dispassionately observing the rise and fall of waves in the ocean, he states that through continued application of mindfulness at the onset of an addictive craving, addicts gradually learn to step aside and simply notice this internal process as it arises, and then consciously choose to let it go.
In a somewhat analogous manner, the relapse prevention model pioneered by Terrence Gorski entails coaching clients to become increasingly mindful of personal warning cues associated with imminent threat of relapse, and learn to use this increased awareness to defuse potential relapse triggers (Gorski & Miller, 1982). Mel Ash, author of The Zen of Recovery emphasizes how mindfulness can help clients avoid relapse through smoothing out life’s “bumps along the road.” In his words, “With mindfulness, the out-of-control roller coaster of your life will assume milder curves and gentler hills” (1993).
A Continuing Experience in Application of Mindfulness
Since moving to the beautiful Sonoran desert close to six years ago I have uncovered exciting new dimensions of mindfulness in my own life. In my morning walks along the desert trails I assume a child’s mind-set as I joyfully experience the presence of incredibly beautiful trees and various forms of cacti against the backdrop of the Pusch Ridge Mountains. This heightened awareness of experiencing the now moment has brought a whole new dimension of richness and enjoyment to my morning walks. Being far removed from the “buzz” of Southern California I find it so much easier to fully commune with my natural surroundings. Not too long ago I began communing with the trees I encounter by consciously letting go of all thoughts as I gaze upon them, experiencing our shared sensation of intimate connection.
Likewise, I enjoy communing with the rabbits, roadrunners, lizards, and other birds and animals I encounter on these walks. I’ve discovered that if you truly greet a bird or animal with a heartfelt sense of admiration, they will almost invariably stop to linger for a moment. In these encounters I believe they sense our common presence and choose to hang out with us.
Two years ago my wife and I went down to the pound and adopted an extremely playful Chihuahua mix named Jack. His hilarious, nonstop antics and constant outpouring of love to both of us have immeasurably deepened our appreciation of the term “man’s best friend.” One morning while the three of us were walking in the park I said to Ann, “Hey, someone should write a book about this guy! Why don’t you take this on?” Her immediate response was, “You know John, I think you should write that book. You’re always writing these ‘save the world’ books, I’d love to see you write a ‘fun book’ for a change!”
Well I accepted the challenge, invited Jack into my office when we got home, and we began cranking our joint literary project, The World According to Jack: A Dog’s-Eye View with Self-Help Advice for Other Dogs. Technically Jack is the author and I’m the senior assistant, author, and business manager (we had a tug-of-war and I lost).
I can’t begin to tell you what a totally joyful and enlightening experience it’s been to get inside that little guy’s heart and head everyday as our book progresses. We’re currently doing the finishing touches, have lined up a publisher, and anticipate the book’s release early next year.
Some Personal Thoughts
Before bringing this column to a close, I will briefly discuss a few points of departure from traditional trainings in mindfulness I have chosen to take over the years. Of course these are only my own opinions and observations; if whatever you are currently doing works for you, by all means stick with it!
A basic tenet of mindfulness training in the Zen tradition emphasizes a rigorous regimen of meditation training designed to develop and hone one’s skills in one-pointed concentration. While I definitely attempt to employ one-pointed concentration in many aspects of my life, I also believe it’s healthy to occasionally let go and slack off a bit.
I believe this particularly applies to overly compulsive types like yours truly, who become overly obsessed with virtually everything we focus our attention on. For this reason I tend to rebel against whatever comes across to me as an overemphasis on ritual and technique. In regard to meditation, for example, I believe that some instructors tend to overemphasize the mechanics entailed in right posture, right sitting, staring at a blank wall throughout the sitting, and so on. Personally I am very comfortable with sitting in a comfortable chair with a straight back, maintaining a reasonably upright posture with both eyes closed, while continuously focusing on repeating my mantra throughout the sitting. While I generally let go of any thoughts or emotions as I notice them, if an interesting insight pops up as part of this process I allow myself to spend some time reflecting on that concept rather than immediately returning to the mantra.
One aspect of traditional Zen meditation that is a definite turn-off is the classic exercise of walking meditation. At least in trainings I have attended, in walking meditation we are instructed to fully focus our attention on the act of walking very slowly, while consciously focusing strict attention on the sensations in our feet as they touch and leave the ground. Maybe it’s me, but this exercise invariably leaves me feeling both stifled and bored as I perceive myself as consciously overfocusing on an automatic movement I have never had to think about before. As I described earlier, I find that the experience of briskly and joyfully walking in a natural environment while fully taking in the scenery and other sensations associated with being fully immersed in my surroundings—viewing the world around me through the eyes of a child—provides an infinitely richer experience than anything I have ever encountered in classic walking meditation training.
Not wanting to close on a negative note, I truly believe that cultivating the quality of mindfulness has profound applications in recovery from addictions, as well as in our daily lives. As a recovering obsessive-compulsive, however, I find it healthy to occasionally let go and step outside the box. When I choose to do this I often find myself swept away into an incredibly rich and awe-inspiring experience of spontaneous mindfulness!
As always, feel free to share this column with clients and others who might benefit from the message. Until next time—to your health!
Ash, M. (1993). The zen of recovery. New York, NY: TarcherPerigee.
Gorski, T. T., & Miller, M. (1982). Counseling for relapse prevention. Independence, MO: Herald House.
Marlatt, G. A. (1994). Addiction, mindfulness, and acceptance. In S. C. Hayes, N. S. Jacobson, V. M. Follette, & M. J. Dougher (Eds.), Acceptance and change: Content and context in psychotherapy. Reno, NV: Context Press.
Marlatt, G. A., & Donovan, D. M. (2005). Relapse prevention: Maintenance strategies in the treatment of addictive behaviors (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.