The mindfulness movement has its roots in Eastern philosophies and meditation techniques such as those found in Tibetan Buddhism, Indian yoga and Chinese Taoism. The common thread connecting these philosophies is the idea of slowing down, focusing on the breath, the present moment, and directing one’s attention to the immediate experience of life. The goal of a mindful approach to living is to free oneself from excessively ruminating about the past and unnecessarily fretting about the future. Mindfulness practices attempt to teach us how to embrace the life we are given without judgment. In the words of the old Buddhist proverb, mindfulness leads us to “The joyful participation in the sorrows of existence.”
Mindfulness and Recovery
Anyone who is on the path to recovery from alcohol, substance abuse, or addictive behavior patterns can understand what the Buddhists mean by the phrase quoted above without getting depressed by it. We end up in recovery because something in our lives has taken us in a direction that is not working and that has made our lives unmanageable. If we’re in a 12-step program, we’ve admitted we’re powerless before our addiction, and we’ve started working our steps. We understand that in order to recover, grow and move forward, we need to learn to deal with challenging things (i.e., “the sorrows of existence”) without losing our perspective, our gratefulness or our enthusiasm for life (i.e., our “joyful participation” in life). We also know that working through the steps means a close examination of our innermost thoughts and feelings, and to do that, we need to cultivate skillful self-reflection, which is virtually synonymous with mindfulness.
The Mindful Path
For those interested in taking a mindful approach to recovery, the following four principles, which are adapted from “the eightfold path” of Buddhism, are helpful and practical guides for incorporating mindfulness philosophies into daily life.
- Mindful Thought: Practicing mindful thinking means that our attention is focused on the immediate tasks at hand, and that we’re not wasting our energy thinking about things we can’t change or control. It also means that we have perspective on our lives, and understand that our thoughts, though they are not material in and of themselves, have consequences in the real world. We regulate our thoughts about ourselves and others, and attempt to guide our thoughts to kindness, compassion and understanding.
- Mindful Intention: Mindful intention stems from mindful thought. We examine our intentions toward ourselves and others and make sure they do not originate in anger, bitterness or resentment. We adopt an approach that is the same as the oath that doctors take when they finish their training: do no harm. We check our intentions to make sure that they are aligned with this fundamental philosophy, and if they are not, we take a closer look at ourselves to find out why.
- Mindful Speech: Mindful speech follows from mindful thought and mindful intention. Before we speak, we examine our motives and make sure that they are positive. We do not speak to harm or to criticize. We are especially careful when talking about other people, and even more careful when talking about ourselves. We avoid the urge to gossip, and understand that negative self-talk ultimately reinforces negative patterns of behavior. Taking a mindful approach to speech recognizes the power of words: we want our words to be positive, to help, and to be rooted in kindness and compassion, both for ourselves and others.
- Mindful Action: Mindful action is the culmination of mindfulness. It’s the manifestation of mindful thought, mindful intention and mindful speech. We examine our actions to make sure they are aligned with our thoughts and intentions, with the idea that what we do is actually reflective of what we think and how we promise ourselves we’re going to act. Mindful action is where the rubber meets the road: it can be easy to think, plan, and talk a good game, but what we really need, especially in our recovery, is to act in ways that we know are healthy, positive and productive.
Connecting the Dots
The similarity between a mindful approach to living and the process of recovery from alcohol, substance abuse or addictive behavior patterns is remarkable—that’s why mindfulness can be such a useful recovery tool, especially for people in 12-step programs. The steps ask us to put our thoughts, intentions and actions under a microscope, and urge us to understand what makes us tick and to fully come to grips with why we do what we do. Mindful living is really no different—mindfulness asks us to slow down and pay attention to our thoughts, intentions, speech and actions. At the core of both of these philosophies are compassion, kindness and understanding, and the belief that in order to make the most of our time on Earth, we’re at our best when we learn to appreciate the simple things in life, and when we cultivate an attitude of gratefulness for each new day. By Angus Whyte