First, Julien, tell us what you mean by mindfulness.
Mindfulness is bringing your complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis. It’s being fully aware of your feelings, thoughts, cravings and urges and how they affect your behavior.
Why is mindfulness important in recovery?
When we have a negative experience or feeling, our autopilot instinct is to escape via our addiction. Through mindfulness, we learn to interrupt ourselves, take a pause. When an urge or craving comes, we can mindfully sit and observe it and recognize it for what it is– momentary and transient. We don’t have to act on it. We can know it will pass. Urges or cravings always do.
Cravings generally occur when something goes wrong. Through mindfulness, we learn to be with the negative feelings, to accept that suffering is a natural part of life. Mindfulness teaches us not to be too attached to happiness because it, like the negative feelings, is transient.
When we are mindfully attuned to our bodies and minds, we receive signals about what’s out of balance. Mindfulness teaches us to respect these signals and welcome them instead of pushing them away. Our body tells what we need if we are only able to pay attention.
Why is meditation important in mindfulness?
Meditation develops mindfulness. It’s how we learn to be in the present and observe our thoughts and feelings. We have to be aware of thoughts and feelings that trigger behavior so we can change it. Through meditation, the addict begins to resist escape and look for reasons he or she is suffering. With practice they extend the time they can live with suffering without turning to drugs or alcohol. Over time, regular meditation can actually alter the brain, creating healthier associations in the brain’s reward centers.
How does yoga help in recovery?
Addicts are out-of-control internally. The ancient Indian practice of yoga helps us create a peaceful union of body, mind and spirit. It increases physical and mental stamina. As we feel better, we’re less susceptible to the stresses of every day life and better able to resist the urges to escape into addiction.
Often when addicts first come to New Life, they’ve lived so far out of the present that meditation is hard, if not impossible. Yoga is a good tool to help learn to focus their awareness on breathing and then their bodies. It prepares them to move into true meditation.
Do recovering addicts need to practice meditation for hours every day?
No. When I was a monk at the monastery, we meditated four or five hours a day. But at New Life, our meditations are short. After our morning community meeting, we begin the workday with only five minutes of guided meditation and we in the evening maybe ten or fifteen minutes. We believe short meditations throughout the day are the best way to check in with yourself and refocus your mind and energy.
What type of meditation do you recommend?
Whatever works for you. At New Life, we have many types of meditation–breathing, sitting, listening, walking, shaking, forgiveness, compassion. Try them all.
Isn’t mindful recovery based on Buddhist philosophy?
Certainly we’ve borrowed Buddhist tools – mindfulness, yoga and meditation. And, at New Life, we do embrace the Buddhist view each of us has everything we need inside of us. All we have to do to solve our problems is look inward – know ourselves.
Do you have to be a Buddhist to practice mindful recovery?
Absolutely not. Mindful recovery has nothing to do with the practice of any specific religion. You can worship any deity you choose or none and still enjoy the benefits of mindfulness.
Many addicts new to recovery are overwhelmed by shame and guilt. Can mindfulness help?
An important part of mindfulness is learning to treat ourselves with kindness and acceptance and opposed to staying stuck in fear and self-loathing. As our mind becomes clear and balanced there will be more space for positive thinking and feeling. And we learn to observe the negative and let it go. To someone new in recovery, that probably sounds like so much hocus pocus. It did to me. But I know from my own experience that it works. And I’ve seen it work for many others.
You’ve got addicts making mud bricks and walls as part of their recovery. Want to explain that?
Our residents are making mud bricks, building bamboo trellises, planting vines, growing an organic vegetable garden. At New Life, we believe outdoor work is an opportunity to practice mindfulness. And, by working with volunteers in beautiful nature, the recovering addict can reconnect with community, the environment and ultimately his/her purpose in life.
Do you have a theory for successful recovery?
Theory? I don’t know. But I do believe we already have everything inside us that we need to recovery from addiction and lead purposeful lives. At New Life, we don’t treat or cure anybody. We simply help our residents discover the self-knowledge and strength innate in all of us. Yoga, meditation, mindfulness and compassionate sharing are tools we use to guide addicts in their adventure of self-discovery.