I have noticed recently whether I am watching television, reading a magazine or looking at social media the current buzz word is “mindfulness”. When looking at changing behavior and/or the recovery process of addiction how can mindfulness help support a new path?
Why are we addicted?
Our brains are wired for seeking out pleasurable experiences and avoiding painful and/or unpleasant experiences. It is not a mystery to me that Americans are addicted. We are addicted to alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, sex and the list goes on. The trouble is, these addictions all seem to serve the same purpose. They are an attempt to change what is on the inside, with something on the outside. This process can work in the short term but typically has long term negative consequences. As a result it can be easy to get stuck in a feedback loop that seems impossible to escape. If drinking, eating, gambling or drugs are so effective at taking away your discomfort, what else is there?
Mindfulness can help interrupt this pattern and lead you to a new path of better long term results. We aren’t often taught at an early age or in adulthood how to sit in/ tolerate discomfort or how to observe and be curious about our experiences without judgement. The observation and curiosity used in mindfulness helps us separate out what we are actually feeling at a given moment and create a space for feeling without the false belief we have to run from it. I touch on this in Yoga For a Better Mood and Better Body.
What is mindfulness and why is it useful?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, founding director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, defines mindfulness in his book Full Catastrophe Living as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.” When looking at the process of changing behavior and/or the recovery process of addiction it can be helpful in a number of ways, including:
- Begins the practice of non-judgement. By being an observer of cravings or substance use it allows you to release a pattern of feeling an unpleasant emotion associated with cravings or substance use. Judgments such as “I am bad,” “I am unworthy,” “I am stupid” only serve to perpetuate a cycle of feeling something unpleasant and avoiding or numbing it. Observing without judgement allows for more clarity and the ability to approach experiences with curiosity.
- Allows us to appreciate and live in the present moment. By staying grounded in what is happening now and what you are feeling increases the ability to tolerate discomfort knowing it will pass.
- Encourages compassion for self and others. If you can bring in compassion to yourself and remove judgement it makes relating to other people easier. Labels and judgement separate us from ourselves and from other people because they are a barrier to connection.
- Increases self-awareness. By observing your “self” with curiosity you can learn your patterns and triggers that will create a space for change.
Some simple steps to practicing mindfulness are:
- Take a deep breath and allow for some expansiveness to fill your chest and body making room for an emotion. You can try breathing in for a count of four through your nose and out for a count of four through your nose.
- Notice what you are feeling and name it. Be specific in your description. Rather than defaulting to common feeling words such as mad, sad, good, happy, guilty, look deeper such as disregarded, vulnerable, shamed, fulfilled, confident, important etc. For more ideas for feeling words you can look at Lifehacker feeling wheel.
- Identify where you feel the emotion in your body. For example, “I am feeling disregarded and I am noticing it feels like a tightness in my throat.” Learning where you carry emotions in your body will help increase your overall awareness and is a tool to connect the mind and body.
- Identify where the feeling is coming from without judgement. Did something recently happen? Did a current situation bring up an old emotion?
- Imagine sending the breath to the part of your body where the emotion lives. If you feel tightness in your throat imagine the breath going to your throat and allowing the area to soften.
Taking in joy
After completing this exercise for the amount of time you have designated (1 minute, 15 minutes etc.) come back to the present. Once you have made space by moving out unpleasant emotions, you can practice taking in positive experiences throughout your day.
I often talk about looking at these positive experiences as marbles and your job is to fill up your marble jar with positive experiences. Positive experiences can be as varied and abundant as you allow. For example, a phone call from a friend, someone holding the door for you, the smell of coffee, sunshine, a hug, music, a bath etc. Take the time to notice these things throughout your day and let the feeling resonate. You can also write the positive experiences down on pieces of paper, roll them up and put them in a jar for later.
Through the practice of mindfulness you will notice things may start to shift for you. When you fill up the inside with positive experiences and gratitude you will start to attract more positive experiences and people into your life. This change I believe occurs because your attention will shift and you will naturally start to gravitate to people and experiences more in line with your internal world.
Don’t get discouraged if the change doesn’t happen overnight or if you have trouble initially observing and being curious about your emotions. You didn’t get to this point in your life overnight, and developing new habits takes practice. The keywords to remember with mindfulness is practice and possibility. It is a practice and something you will use daily. Some days will be easier than others. Start by simply being open to the idea that change and feeling better is possible. Not the idea that you will or must or have to, but simply that it is possible.
Anything is possible…