Mindfulness has become quite the buzz word in recent years, especially in the addiction treatment industry in which we work. Although we do believe it’s greatly beneficial to teach those struggling with addiction some meditation practices, we often see the groups offering some concentration practices and not really diving into different mindfulness practices. One of the places we have seen meditation practice be extremely beneficial with clients in our own holistic addiction treatment program is in learning to simply observe the mind. This of course takes time and dedicated effort, but the growth in our own lives and those around us is beautiful.
When we begin meditation practice, we’re often presented with a few insights into how our minds are operating. There are many pieces in which to tune in, but this is perhaps one of the most pervasive. The mind and body go into autopilot, reacting to experience without us really having a say in the matter. It’s not your fault. My mind does it too.
We’ve evolved to have incredibly efficient brains that help us survive. The mind processes information quickly, and we don’t even have time to jump in and think. When we feel something unpleasant, the mind and body react by trying to survive. We pull away from or push away the unpleasant experiences. When something’s pleasant, we move toward it. This is a natural instinct, and one that helps us in many ways.
However, this same instinct can also cause us great harm. Addiction is certainly a dramatic example of this, but perhaps one of the easiest ways to see this process. When an addict uses drugs or alcohol, it relieves some pain and feels pleasant in the moment. The mind continues to crave more, even though we may consciously understand the harm being caused. This happens to all of us, addicts or not. We snap at someone, get stressed because of work deadlines, or are overwhelmed with family. We grieve when something pleasurable comes to an end, attach to the idea that we’ll be happy when we get ______, and become close-minded when we get stuck on something we want.
Mindfulness practice offers us the opportunity to view these experiences with some clarity. As we begin to see these processes unfolding in our own minds, we gain a deeper understanding of how the mind works. One of the pieces of experience we begin to see is the way in which the mind craves and clings to pleasant experiences and averts from the unpleasant ones. We can see it in meditation when we have a pain in the body or a loud noise scares us. The mind and body respond with some tension or judgement.
Simply observing the mind and experience at the sense-doors like this can help us immensely. We may have a desire to jump in and change the mental reaction, but we really can try to just observe. What we find when we observe the mind in formal practice is that we no longer believe each thought that arises without question. In my own practice, I’ve found that this recognizing of experience helps me to not take everything so personally. The thoughts that arise in response to experience make sense to me. They’re just thoughts, and they are arising for a reason. What is in my control is awareness and non-reactivity.
We teach this to those early in recovery from addiction and their families. You can notice that when somebody behaves in a certain way or says something specific, it irks you. Perhaps there’s a tightness in the chest or judgemental thoughts arise. Whatever it is, observe it and familiarize yourself with it. As you get to know it better, you’ll be able to recognize it more easily in the future. As you recognize it more easily, you’ll be able to detach from the experience without averting from in.
This is one of the things we hear a lot from people about their meditation practice… Meditation allows us to put some space between experience and reaction. As we observe what’s happening in the mind and body, we are able to just let it happen. I’ve found this to be true with anger in my own life. When I see anger arising, I can watch the experience and how it feels, rather than immediately lashing out in some way. It’s similar with anxiety. When I notice that something is stressing me out or creating some sense of anxiety, I can notice its presence.
The Buddha taught that we all have the seed of nobility within us. This teaching was radical in his time, and still radical today. We often doubt ourselves, think we’re different, or struggle to find the wholesome qualities we have. Although meditation practice is dependent largely on our own experience, there’s also an element of faith or trust at play. Believe in your ability to meet experience and not react so quickly or strongly. You’ve been reacting your whole life, so it may be a hard habit to break. It’s time to try something different. See what it does for you by looking at your own experience!
About the Author
This post was written by Changing Tides Treatment, a holistic addiction treatment facility in Ventura, California. Run by Stephanie and Berkeley Dains, Changing Tides offers a unique blend of traditional treatment techniques such as therapy and twelve-step, while also treating the individual as a whole by offering nutritional counseling, meditation and yoga, and regular exercise including surfing right outside their back door. Visit Changing Tides at www.ChangingTidesAddictionTreatment.com.