The Way of Mindfulness and Recovery

by Kevin Griffin

Join Kevin Griffin on Saturday and Sunday, May 2nd-3rd, 2020 for an online weekend retreat practicing mindfulness meditation and exploring recovery and the Twelve Steps through a Buddhist lens. Click here for more info and registration.

What is mindfulness? As this practice and Buddhist teachings have attracted more and more attention, the simple definitions once offered have been challenged by Buddhist scholars and dharma teachers, creating a bit of confusion about something that seems quite simple: the application of our attention to our mental and physical experience, moment by moment. I’m not qualified to enter into an academic debate on the topic, so I will give you my sense of the meaning of the word, and then encourage you to explore other sources if you’d like to understand more.

Mindfulness starts with being present, being aware of what we are experiencing through our five physical senses and what’s happening in our mind. Our natural tendency is to get caught up worrying about or planning the future or remembering the past. The first thing we try to do with mindfulness is notice these tendencies and start to train ourselves to bring our attention back to what is happening right now. This alone is a huge task because of our deep conditioning. Planning the future based on our experiences in the past is a survival strategy developed eons ago by our ancestors. Our capacity to do this is what sets us apart from other living things, and so our instincts resist any effort to act otherwise. Nonetheless, these habits take us away from a direct experience of life and obscure a whole range of truths, from the psychological conditioning that drives our behavior to the elemental realities that Buddhists call “the Dharma,” Truth or Natural Law.

With mindfulness we not only observe what’s happening in the body and mind, but how we react to things, how a sound triggers a thought and a thought triggers an emotion and an emotion triggers a physical response. We begin to see the bigger picture, the process by which we construct our understanding of our world and who we are. This deconstruction of our experience is vitally important for addicts in or trying to get into recovery because it allows them to see how their addiction works and that there is a way out, that it’s not inevitable or unstoppable. The process by which we become addicted is a mind/body process that can be reversed, and awareness is the first stepping-stone in that process. That’s why Step One of the 12 Steps starts with the words “We admitted,” because that admission is the bringing into our awareness the truth of our condition. Until we are aware of our condition, until we come out of denial, no recovery is possible. Step One is, essentially, an act of mindfulness, a clear seeing.

One of the things that’s always struck me as unique about the Buddhist teachings is that the Buddha started out by talking about the difficulties in life, the suffering. This doesn’t seem like the best marketing technique. If you want to sell a product, you shouldn’t start out by being such a downer. And maybe that’s one reason Buddhism seems to take hold slowly in a culture: it doesn’t start out by promising paradise.

The practice of mindfulness then has a role in building from this recognition of suffering. The Buddha asks us to sit down (literally) and start to watch our experience unfold. If you sit still for a little while what you’ll discover is that your mind is restless and filled with plans and memories that are agitating; your body doesn’t want to sit still and often will begin to hurt or at least get itchy or tense; you start to fall asleep when you’re trying to pay attention to the breath; sitting still becomes boring and tedious, not to mention frustrating as you try to follow the meditation instructions but fail repeatedly.

So, the first effect of mindfulness is to see the truth of the first Noble Truth—the Buddha was right, it’s hard to be a human being. If we keep watching carefully, tracking the process moment-by-moment as we notice the mind wandering and gently come back to the breath, we see that when we let go of our obsessive thinking, we get moments of relief. Thus, we see the truth of the second and third Noble Truths: our discomfort is caused by our clinging and ends when we stop clinging. We also see, as Step One says, that we are powerless, in this case over the arising of thoughts, feelings, and sense experiences—not that we can’t do anything about them, but that, just as with our addiction, they are going to keep coming up and if we are not going to suffer as they arise, we are going to have to change our relationship to them.

When an addict sees this meditative process clearly—and usually it helps if a teacher or guide clarifies what’s happening—the logic of letting go becomes indisputable. We see in microcosm the process of addiction and recovery.

I know a couple of people who say that seeing this was enough for them to get clean and sober. They didn’t have to go to rehab or AA or any other recovery program; all they needed was to see their addiction with mindfulness, and they were able to quit. But this is the rare exception. Before I got sober I seemed to be engaged in a pretty serious mindfulness meditation practice, even going on extended silent retreats, but still didn’t make the connection between the microcosm of moment-to-moment letting go and the habitual patterns of drinking and using that persisted between retreats. The power of addiction and denial was just too great for my mindfulness practice alone to penetrate. There simply wasn’t the willingness to go that far, and there wasn’t the clarity to understand the problem and the potential that sobriety might bring.

Nonetheless, today I regularly teach mindfulness in treatment centers and to newcomers who attend my workshops and retreats. And I find that, if people are willing to learn and are engaged in trying to deal with their addiction, the mindfulness practices are a powerful support to the process of recovery. I think it helps that I guide them to understand what they are experiencing. Sometimes the non-verbal meditation experience is difficult to interpret at first, and this is one of the main jobs of the meditation teacher, to illuminate what is already happening, to understand the felt experience.

When I’m introducing mindfulness at a treatment center, I feel the need to explain why we’re doing it. After all, when someone forks out money for rehab, it’s not with the desire to learn to meditate. They might wonder, “What does this have to do with recovery?” I tell them that mindfulness meditation has two key values for the recovering addict: one, it helps them to de-stress. Recovery is stressful, in the beginning especially, and having a method by which you can, on a daily basis, get some quiet, calm, and peace, is invaluable. Two, mindfulness practice helps us to become aware of our mental habits so we can start to catch thoughts like, “I need to have a drink,” or “What’s the point of this, I might as well get loaded.” Getting in the habit of watching and questioning our own thoughts is vital to maintaining recovery because the addict’s habitual thoughts are so often self-destructive, or just simply destructive.

Mindfulness isn’t magic or religious. Developing and applying mindfulness takes determination and effort. Nonetheless, it can have a powerful, liberating effect on our lives. All change starts with awareness, and when we cultivate mindfulness our awareness deepens far beyond our common way of experiencing life.

This post is excerpted from Kevin Griffin’s book Buddhism & The Twelve Steps Workbook.