Secrets of Effective Meditation

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.

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

For years after I quit drinking, I dreaded coming home to my empty apartment. Without the company of a bottle of wine, I faced loneliness, restlessness and uncertainty. My impulse to anesthetize myself, to drink to avoid my feelings, stayed strong and troubling.

Many turn to the 12 Steps to help them cope. Instead, like a lot of “dry” alcoholics, I repressed my cravings through shopping, eating, exercising, sleeping and dating jerks. This got me through hard times in much the same way drinking had.

After enduring two and a half years like this, I read The Wisdom of A Broken Heart by Susan Piver. I didn’t have a broken heart exactly. But I constantly felt the vulnerability and rawness common after a breakup—even while I found myself falling in love sober, for the first time since high school.

I was distracted by thoughts, ranging from the trivial—what am I going to eat for breakfast?—to the existential—am I on the right path?

We all have impulses to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. But Piver suggests that heartbreak—experiencing pain without repressing or denying it—can lead to your deepest tenderness, wisdom and strength. She writes that it’s possible to stabilize your heart in the “open” state, so that love and life can be experienced without fear, or losing yourself, or having a nervous breakdown.

And the basis of this transformation? Meditation.

Piver is a Buddhist in the Shambhala lineage. She teaches a type of meditation called Shamatha, or “peacefully abiding.” Instruction focuses on body, breath and mind. Although I’m not authorized to teach meditation in the Shambhala lineage or any other, this is an approximation of the expert instruction I received:

  • Body: Sit on a cushion with legs crossed in front of you, or in a chair with both feet flat on the floor. The back is straight, the chin slightly tucked to elongate the top of the spine. The hands are placed on the tops of the thighs. The eyes remain open with a soft gaze.
  • Breath: The breath is natural, in and out through the nose. 
  • Mind: Awareness is placed lightly on the breath. When thoughts inevitably arise and remove awareness from the breath, label them “thinking,” and gently return awareness to the breath.

I began meditating for 10 minutes a day. Each time I sat on my cushion, I intended to maintain awareness on the breath. But just seconds in, I was distracted by thoughts, ranging from the trivial—what am I going to eat for breakfast?—to the existential—am I on the right path? I’d relive past situations, or construct detailed fantasies. At times, it seemed nine out of ten minutes were spent off in the recesses of my mind.

It took a while. But eventually I saw what made meditation worthwhile for me: not maintaining perfect breath awareness, but developing the ability to notice thoughts when they arose, and the willingness to bring awareness back to the breath, again and again.

I'd practice staying in the moment. The power of this is that you develop on-the-spot awareness: the capacity to recognize thoughts and feelings without reaction or avoidance. Pema Chodron describes this concept as “the middle ground between acting out and repressing” in her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty.

I began noticing changes, on and off the meditation cushion. Put simply, meditation made me react less. Situations that would have provoked anger, defensiveness, or impatience now provided opportunities to step back and observe my own thoughts and feelings. I’d watch them rise, abide and dissolve. They always did. Then I could decide whether any action was needed.

After a couple of months, I realized that my increased awareness extended to my lingering urge to drink. Situations that would have triggered it, uncomfortable moments I would have preferred to avoid, led instead to curiosity about what was behind my urge. What was I feeling? What story was I telling myself? And what would happen if I didn’t react? Before I stopped drinking, I didn’t truly realize that the cravings—and the feelings behind them—never lasted.

Clearly there’s something about the ability to stay in the present moment that’s vital to recovery. Addiction literature contains many examples of where meditation and recovery meet. Books like Mindfulness and the 12 Steps: Living Recovery in the Present Moment; The 12 Step Buddhist and One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the 12 Steps encourage readers to examine the thoughts and feelings behind addictive behaviors.

Some meditation centers cater specifically to people in recovery. The Shambhala Meditation Center of New York’s program, “The Heart of Recovery,” integrates meditation practice into a 12 Step meeting. It begins with a half hour of meditation, with instruction if needed. A traditional 12 Step meeting follows, including readings from meditation and recovery literature and open sharing. An added benefit of the meeting of sobriety and Buddhist meditation is the sangha, or community of practitioners. As with AA, individuals may benefit immeasurably from surrounding themselves with others with similar goals, practices, and language.

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 www.drinkingtodistraction.com and her work has featured on www.mindful.org and www.drinkingdiaries.com. She previously wrote about finding it hard to identify as an alcoholic for The Fix.

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