Meditation and Addiction Recovery
In an earlier blog from last year, called Be Still – Mindfulness in Lockdown, we talked about how lockdown was an opportunity to stop racing around and burdening ourselves with often self-imposed pressure to stay busy. Alcoholics and others suffering from addiction are not very comfortable sitting still.
In this blog, we consider meditation in a bit more detail. Meditation is a practise to train and discipline the mind. It may prove helpful to some people in recovery.
Some people have asked me, “do you meditate”? I'm almost surprised by the question. That's because I’ve always regarded meditation as playing an important role in my overall physical and mental health. I find it easy to meditate. It's a part of living and breathing whether regarded as a spiritual practice or not.
As usual, I preface my remarks by saying that I’m not a certified meditation therapist. I’m just an alcoholic in recovery, wanting to share my experience with those who might find it helpful.
I was first taught meditation techniques while undergoing psychotherapy. I suffered excruciating panic attacks because of my abuse of alcohol. When I entered treatment, one of the first things I was taught was how to cope with the panic attacks rather than to tackle any deep-seated issues to do with drinking. This was “one step at a time”, as we say.
The first lesson was how to breathe deeply and properly. It's a better way of coping with a panic attack then sticking your head in a paper bag! Fellow sufferers will know what I mean by reference to the latter. There was a time when I wouldn’t leave the house without a paper bag in my pocket. From memory, it was never used but it was there as reassurance.
I was taught to breathe in deeply through the nose while pushing out my diaphragm (pushing out the belly, basically). This seems a bit like a strange coordination but I was told to watch the body of a baby when it’s sleeping deeply. It’s a natural rhythm of deep relaxed breathing. Hold the breath briefly then breathe out again slowly through the mouth while feeling the stomach move inward.
The purpose here, of course, is to avoid the short gasping associated with panic attacks. In my first full-blown panic attack this led to hyperventilation and tetany – contraction and cramping of the muscles, including around the mouth and throat, frighteningly, with an experience of pins and needles. I felt my hands turn into claws.
The second lesson was to learn muscle relaxation techniques These involved clenching and then relaxing muscles, starting from the feet, moving up from the legs to the middle body, the shoulders and then to the mouth, the eyes and so on.
This was done against the background of soothing music. The choice of music was optional. I chose the sound of waves breaking on the seashore. This practise was carried out for about 30 minutes per day, while lying flat on my back with pillow support under the lower back and knees. It was a discipline. Now I can recollect and apply the technique almost anywhere and at any time – in the office, on the train, sat in the garden, on the beach, or wherever.
What does this have to do with meditation? Relaxation and calming of both body and mind is part of the preparation for meditation. In the first instance, meditation is about ridding the mind of externals. It's about emptying and calming the mind. When I started the aim, of course, was to rid my mind of running away with itself in panic attacks. Sessions were finished with a sensation of floating. Quite commonly, practitioners will fall asleep but awaken refreshed.
Later, with more practise, meditation is used to train and focus the mind. Again, the objective is to let go of all other distractions and to focus on the problem or task at hand. Sports people and Special Forces use meditation techniques as a way to prepare. This is to empty the mind of distractions, stay calm, lose fear, and focus in preparation.
Subsequently, I studied Buddhism as an undergraduate and learned a bit more about what was going on when we use meditation as a spiritual practise. Buddhists believe that, at risk of oversimplifying, suffering results from craving because of attachment to false notions about the self and the world around us. Meditation is about training the mind.
Let's examine some common misconceptions about meditation. First, you don't have to sit in the lotus position staring at the wall. Second, you don't have to do it for hours on end, although Zen meditation does this. Third, you don't have to learn chanting, although this may be helpful to provide focus and rid the mind of external distractions. Fourth, it doesn't have to be religious.
Some people consider meditation to be like prayer. But as already said it doesn't have to be religious. Even here, there is a fundamental misunderstanding, in my humble opinion. I've often said to people that prayer is about listening, not asking. People seem surprised by this. I don't know why. Fundamentally, both meditation and prayer are about letting go of self-concern and self-will – what theologians call kenosis or self-emptying.
There is, of course, a difference between meditation to calm and empty the mind of all but the present moment and a training of the rational mind. The famous Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations as a series of rational arguments rather than spiritual practise. Training the mind to think through situations in a calm rational manner is a technique used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
How does all of this apply to recovery from addiction? It's about learning methods to cope and aid recovery. It's about giving up attachments to false ways of thinking about the world and others around us. It's about giving up on things we can't control. It's about losing fears, resentment and other emotional responses to stress. It's about anticipating and coping with triggers to relapse.
Sit quietly, breathe deeply, close your eyes and focus on your recovery.