As my life morphed into fast-paced executive management, the idea of taking the time to practice a technique that could calm and still the mind became an obsolete desire. I was a double-A battery and good at what I did. Becoming like a well-oiled machine, I was the problem-solver, I made things happen, on time, moving through logistical complexities with the end satisfaction of a job well done. The only drawback, though, and I’m sure a lot of recovering individuals that immersed themselves in this kind of environment would attest, I was becoming unhinged, experiencing a dis-easement within. I increasingly turned to drinking to soothe the nerves, not really knowing any other way to handle my stress. I was very good for the company, but very bad for myself and my family. Happy hours, meeting the guys after work (work-hard, play-hard), followed by another few drinks at home began to define a life-style for me. I was such a highly functioning drinker, I always showed up at work on time and ready to commit to the ‘job at hand.’ Sound familiar? Well, the rest of the story is that life got worse and I hit that proverbial rock bottom – a very dark night of my soul. Yet, here I am now in my fifth year of complete sobriety, writing this article regarding one of the most valuable techniques I learned early on in my recovery that I now recommend for others – the practice of mindfulness and deep breathing.
There is abundant, compelling evidence that, with continued practice, the exercise of mindfulness techniques can provide an essential adjunct in recovery, facilitating a person’s ability to remain clean and sober. Better yet, applying mindfulness to one’s daily life has been shown to have wonderful, long-lasting benefits for our mind, physical health, emotions and spirit. To fully understand the way mindfulness and breathing can be accepted as this powerful component to healing from addiction, we must first include a quick overview of the nature of ‘thoughts’ and their relationship to our ability to recover. Simply put, positive, constructive thoughts contribute to specific, beneficial outcomes during our healing process. Whereas, negative thinking can result in derailing a person’s recovery.
The influence of thought can never be underestimated or casually tossed to the side as being insignificant in anyone’s life, whether coping with an addiction issue or not. Positive thinking, whether in business, family and home, school, athletics, pursuing one’s aspiration, or simply managing a given day, is not only vital, but shapes a person’s overall mental and emotional posture towards approaching life itself. A pattern of negative thinking can have disastrous effects on an individual, molding an adverse, negative mindset that can lead to an actual inferiority complex.
Candidly stated, if I think I can free myself from the scourge of alcohol or drugs, I can. It certainly establishes a good beginning to recovery, plants a positive mindset, even if we are struggling during our initial detoxification and first few weeks. Conversely, if I begin a path of sobriety and inwardly have a nagging, pronounced belief that I cannot become sober or clean, such a thought pattern can sabotage a recovery attempt, often leading to a hasty relapse. Nothing is written in stone of course. The fact of the matter is then when anyone begins their personal healing journey, gradually distancing themselves from their addiction, they may be overwhelmed with persistent, doubting thoughts. This is why professional counselors and therapists are so essential at this phase. And, just as importantly, the sensitive and inspiring people we meet during recovery meetings allows us to share our deepest drug and alcohol related experiences, and to honesty express our mutual trials, tribulations, guilt and pain – forming a true network of fellowship and support.
We acknowledge that thoughts influence behavior. Without question there are certain kinds of thought patterns that accompany alcoholism and addiction. Many of us may have dabbled with an initial recovery attempt at some point in our lives. And, I use the word dabble because our heart and soul may not have really been behind our endeavor. We might have tried to ‘recover’ for a few days while surreptitiously seeking to somehow obtain that good old feeling again, just one more time, through indulging in our substance of choice. And in doing so, we got only a temporary relief from anxiety or stress. We can imbibe a drink or swallow a pill, or sniff or shoot a given substance, and finally must admit that our recovery efforts are once again placed on hold.
With addiction we simply cannot hang on that proverbial fence with part of us ‘trying’ to recover and the other part desiring to use again. Such a mindset will most likely give us permission to drink or use again, and we quickly find ourselves descending deeper into a real chamber of emotional discord, filled with anguish. Our thoughts become ‘addicted’ to shame, despair, self-loathing, the inability to quit, and finally, for some, our despair leads us to believe life is simply not worth living. This is an all too familiar pattern in the painful world of addiction.
So, how can the practice of mindfulness assist with our thinking during recovery? One of the main issues people may experience in life is the inability to manage or guide their thoughts. Remember, each thought that we have, no matter how quickly it passes through our mind, has a correlative physical, neurological, chemical and feeling response. If a specific thought or chain of thoughts continue to pass through our minds habitually, they can gain strength and become a habit. Thought threads can become like energized orbs, fueled by our own minds, often unconsciously. For instance, if I wake up in the morning and have a sense of worry or anxiety regarding a pending work assignment and if I continually ‘tag’ that thought with a quality of anxiousness, suffice it to say, that thought builds a force within, affecting mood and feelings. Often, it is easy to become attached to such orbs of thinking, especially if the thoughts are continually practiced and accepted as the ‘truth’ by our inner self. They can percolate underneath in our subconscious minds, shaping our mood and outlook.
I have heard many people in recovery meetings state that they were unable to ‘control’ their thoughts, they just seem to happen. In fact many of us drank alcohol or consumed drugs to attempt to ‘quiet’ our mind – obviously a practice that does not work or help. Being incapable of diminishing or restraining certain thought patterns that produce anxiety and stress, we can feel helpless. The irony is that we may feel doomed to live under the dictates of thoughts that our own minds produce. We arrive at the end of any given day, with a cacophony of random, often stressful thoughts, some more dynamically charged than others, and end up suffering physical and emotional dis-ease. Perhaps we have a headache, or stiff neck and shoulders, our jaw may hurt from tension, blood pressure may be high - and the list goes on. Attempting to ‘control’ anything in our life is often overrated, and can be a disempowering action that often fails us. Mindfulness is not about control, but about a gentle releasing. Most of us have learned quite well how to think, but few of us may know very little about how ‘not’ to think. Moreover, we may be completely deficient in being able to voluntarily choose our thoughts, shift thoughts or discard those nagging and persistent thoughts that cause stress.
A breakthrough occurred for me during my early recovery when I reflected upon first starting to play a musical instrument. I was barely able to make a recognizable sound during my first days and weeks. It took considerable practice before I was capable of adjoining a string of notes that others could tolerate without grimacing. In a powerful way, this recall of my experience learning how to play the trumpet, urged me to look into the true ‘art’ of mindfulness and breathing. After studying additional material, I realized my attitude and approach was flawed. All I really had to do was sit in a comfortable chair, in a quiet room. I lit a candle (not mandatory), I made sure I was free from outside distractions like my cell phone. Then, I started simply by inhaling slowly, and exhaling, in rhythm. I allowed myself to feel my body and hear my thoughts. I noticed my feet on the floor, my arms and hands relaxed in my lap. I gave myself a few moments of perceiving how tense my neck and shoulders felt. I continued to breathe slowly, taking deeper breaths, holding the breath for a few seconds, and then slowly exhaling. My thoughts slowed and I became more aware of what I was feeling and what kinds of thoughts I possessed. I was listening to my inner self. I did not have to produce a result, nor think about an expected outcome. I allowed myself to just sit in my quiet room, gaze at the burning candle, breathe, become aware of my physical being and my emotional self. Finally, I closed my eyes, and just listened to my breathing, noticing the rhythm of the inhalation and exhalation. The key to the gentle art of mindfulness is in the word ‘gentle’ – allowing our own awareness to calmly return to simply thinking and feeling the rhythm of our breathing, in and out. Or we can focus (gently) on perceiving the lit candle, noticing the flickering and dancing of the flame. We can certainly summon another image we would enjoy bringing into our awareness. Occasionally I would encourage myself, especially in the early days of practicing mindfulness, and affirm it is okay for me to take these few minutes just for myself. I asserted a positive, caring thought – for me, for my own health and well-being.
After around 15-20 minutes of this session (no rules here – shorter or longer time is just fine), I opened my eyes, looked at the lit candle, and noticed how beautiful the glow of its light was in my room. Surprisingly, I felt noticeably better. My body was more relaxed. That discord that often runs repeatedly through my awareness had lessened. I honestly felt a sense of calm and rejuvenation I had never experienced before. All I needed was the air I breathed, the chair I sat in, a quiet room, a lit candle and allowing my mind to relax. How simple it was and those beginning, early effects were wonderful and restorative.
It is important to realize that our brains have been thoroughly conditioned by the daily stresses we all encounter, to keep on going, despite fatigue. We become accustomed to not allowing ourselves to focus on one, singular thought for a reasonable amount of time. We usually are endeavoring to progress rapidly from one function to the next, often overlapping assignments, remembering what we have not completed and what we need to address – all in hurried succession. We often experience real stress when we are not focused on the job in the moment because we are thinking and feeling everything we still need to do. This may be good in some ways for the company you may be working for, but it is not good for you. Besides, it has been proven that when an individual is able to focus their mind on one given task, completing job at hand, we tend to actually become more efficient and our actual work improves – less mistakes and less tension. It is a wonderful revelation to finally give yourself the opportunity to perceive the congestion in your mind at the end of a day. This early accomplishment when practicing mindfulness is a powerful wake-up call. You can finally see for yourself just how unmanaged our minds can become and have been, and that we may in fact not be the director of our own thoughts.
Of course, practicing is essential and is easy. There are simply no expectations or evaluations being made – no rules. This time belongs to you. If you want to apply mindfulness, take a bubble bath. If sitting under a tree suits you – by all means, enjoy. You can practice mindfulness while stirring a pot of soup – seriously, get lost in the rhythmic swirl of the spoon in your hand as your gently stir the pot – a mini-meditation. Mindfulness promotes our inner ability to select the thoughts we want, to abandon thoughts, to shift our thoughts, to calm the succession of thoughts. It is in fact so much easier and quicker than becoming adept on a musical instrument. Don’t give up after your first couple of sessions – give it some time. Remember, our addiction was about immediate gratification whereas mindfulness is about giving you long-lasting effects and a new sense of calm. I have embraced this term, the gentle art of mindfulness, and consider it one of the most important tools supporting my continued recovery. I can avow, based on my own experience, as I journey successfully along the path of recovery, that the ‘gentle art’ of mindfulness possesses a dynamic healing power. It is simple, peaceful, soothing and fulfilling. The life benefits are enormous. It just takes practice and it works if you work it, one day at a time.