Secrets of Effective Meditation - Page 2

By Jenna Hollenstein 01/04/12

How meditation led one writer to a long bout of contented sobriety. Many scientists believe that the two are profoundly linked.

It's hard not to be distracted by your thoughts to begin with. Thinkstock

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Many other AA meetings incorporate meditation. I recently went to one with a friend, even though AA hasn’t been a regular part of my own recovery. After the reading of passages from the Big Book, the lights were dimmed for a ten-minute meditation. The remaining time was for sharing. It was striking how grateful the participants were for ten minutes to just sit quietly and be present in a supportive environment.

The benefits of meditation may seem like a “no-brainer” to many people in recovery. But can they be satisfactorily demonstrated beyond anecdote?

I asked this to Dr. Petros Levounis, Director of the Addiction Institute of New York and Chief of the Division of Addiction Psychiatry at St. Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospitals. He finds that individuals are most successful in recovery when they make it a way of life: “Millions of people around the world have done that through AA. For some of my patients, meditation assumes an all-consuming role that shifts the focus from something as powerful as alcohol or drugs to something with a quality of a higher power.”

On an individual level, we don’t need to be as cautious as the scientists. Meditation has profound effects, both on and off the cushion.

A flurry of recent research examines the effects of meditation on the brain, but few studies specifically examine its effects on recovery. “Without such evidence,” Levounis says, “it’s difficult to propose meditation as a bona fide addiction treatment. But there is enough evidence to show that something is there. Someone just needs to do the studies.”

Promising work in this area is being done at the University of Washington’s Addictive Behaviors Research Center, where Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention was developed. MBRP incorporates meditation and mindful awareness into the recovery process, seeking to free individuals of habitual actions—like reaching for a drink—by developing the ability to pause, observe and bring awareness to the moment.

MBRP also seeks to change how people relate to and respond to discomfort. The process involves being non-judgmental and compassionate towards yourself and your experiences, and creating a lifestyle that supports mindfulness and recovery.

A 2009 study conducted by the Addictive Behaviors Research Center compared the effects of MBRP with treatment as usual (TAU) among those who’d just completed intensive inpatient or outpatient addiction treatment. People who received MBRP training showed lower rates of substance abuse and cravings than those who received TAU. A 2010 study of depressed individuals, who are at greater risk for substance abuse, again found lower rates of substance abuse and cravings among those who received MBRP, as opposed to TAU.

Evidence is preliminary, but highly suggestive of the potential benefits of incorporating meditation and mindfulness training into relapse prevention programs. And the increasing awareness of the link between meditation, mindfulness and recovery in the scientific community opens the way to more research.

On an individual level, we don’t need to be as cautious as the scientists. Meditation has profound effects, both on and off the cushion, through the practice of staying in the moment. Cultivating the ability to observe the mind and to be less reactive helps you to tolerate discomfort, to be aware of options, and to make decisions well. Meditation has greatly benefited my recovery and many other people’s, too. The process isn’t easy; it requires day-to-day and indeed moment-to-moment effort. But it also provides infinite opportunities to begin again. One day, and one breath, at a time.


Jenna Hollenstein is a medical writer, registered dietitian and author of Understanding Dietary Supplements. She blogs at and her work has featured on and She previously wrote about finding it hard to identify as an alcoholic for The Fix.

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