As time goes on, more and more studies are indicating that mindfulness is an important part of recovery. Even in 12-step, mindfulness plays a role in the correct interpretation of step 10. In the cognitive therapies, mindfulness is an important component.
How do we go about ‘cultivating’ mindfulness? Do we have to begin a formal Zen practice? Must we become a Buddhist, and if so, what particular sect? Should we resign our present religion, if any, give away all our possessions, and go into a monastery? Fortunately, the answer to all those questions is a resounding no!
Mindfulness is nothing other than being there, present to our lives, and in the moment. What does it mean to be “in the moment?” it means nothing more than chopping wood when you are chopping wood, washing dishes when you are washing dishes, and talking with a friend when you are talking with a friend. It means that when you are doing those things, you are doing those things, and you are not mentally “somewhere else.”
I mentioned in Chapter 3 how mindfulness could enhance learning. In the last chapter, I introduced cognitive techniques that require you to pay attention to what is going on in your own head. You should be aware of what you are thinking, and how you are responding to events in the real world. How will it be possible for you to dispute irrational beliefs if you are not aware of them in the first place?
Does this mean that you must be constantly aware and focused on the present in order to recover? I do not believe there is a human being on the planet who can say they are present to their lives and in the moment all of the time. Our brains just do not work that way. What we can do, with a little bit of effort, is train our minds not to wander quite so much, at least when we’re trying to focus on the present.
There are several means of doing this, but I am only going to present one, the one that I have found is the simplest and the most easily accomplished. It is a modification of a Zen technique I have used for many years. For those of you familiar with 12-step, this exact technique was presented in an article in the “Grapevine” many years ago, and was included in a Grapevine audio tape, so it’s conference-approved. Take what you need and leave the rest.
The technique is quite straightforward, and requires no special equipment or knowledge. All you need is a relatively quiet place, a chair or couch, and your mind. I have done what I am about to describe while driving a semi, sitting in an airline terminal, and in my own living room. When you first start, I suggest you seek out a place where you will not be disturbed for a few minutes, where you can sit comfortably, and that is as quiet as possible.
It does not matter what you sit in (or on). It can be a favorite chair or a couch, with or without arms. It only matters that you are comfortable. This is not an endurance test; it’s a practice designed to help you focus your mind.
Sit comfortably, with your back as straight as possible. You can fold your hands in your lap, dangle them, leave them on the arms of the chair, or anywhere that’s comfortable. I find that folding them in my lap works best for me, but you are free to experiment. Close your eyes or focus them on a spot in front of you.
Focus your attention for a moment on your feet. Let them relax; make sure they are in a comfortable position. Move up to your knees and do the same thing. Feel all of your body parts relax and get comfortable. When you get to your head, move it from side to side slowly, let it go forward and back, and feel the muscles in your neck relax.
Breathe in and out normally. Observe your breathing. Notice your chest expanding and contracting as the breath comes and goes. Listen to the sounds in your nose, throat, and chest. Feel your whole body relax.
Start counting your breaths. In and out equals “one.” Count to ten, then go back to one again and start over. Keep counting. Thoughts will intrude, and your mind will drift. If it’s a busy day for you and you have a lot going on, many thoughts will intrude and take you away from the breath. This is normal.
When you realize you are not focused upon your breath, acknowledge the thought, and bring yourself gently back to the count. Start over with one. Bring yourself gently back; do not admonish yourself in any way for drifting off the count. This will happen many times when you are first starting to meditate; it is completely normal. Be gentle with yourself. That is one of the most important parts of this exercise.
Sensations will also take you away from the count. You might feel cold, a body part might start to tingle, or a fly might land on your arm. Acknowledge it, but do not go with it. Bring yourself gently back to the breath.
What do I mean by acknowledge the thoughts and sensory inputs? They are valid thoughts and inputs. You don’t want to discourage or ignore them, just notice their presence, acknowledge that they’re real, and gently put them away, saving them for later. When they return and take you from the breath, as they will, put them away again.
The object here is nothing more than to begin training your mind to focus in a particular manner. There is no goal other than that. You probably will not become enlightened, move to a higher plane, became a guru, or start a cult. What it will do, besides completely relax you for a time, is make it easier for you to stay focused upon what’s going on in your own life. It might surprise you, when you start noticing how your thought patterns jump around, seemingly at random. Meditation will also, over time, make it easier for you to “quell the disturbance” when you are in the middle of an emotional upset.
How long should you do this at each sitting? Good question, and the answer depends upon you. When you are first starting, five minutes will be plenty. Even if you only make it three minutes, you will start getting in the habit. The trick is to keep at it, even if it’s hard and seemingly unrewarding at first. Keep at it. After you start seeing a difference, keep at it. Just keep at it.
Pete is an author, blogger, and podcaster who makes his home in Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico. His primary interest is in helping others recover from self-defeating behaviors.