This guest post by friend, colleague, and contributor, Matt Robert has a five-star rating. Check it out…..
A meditation “practice” isn’t called a practice just because it’s something you’re supposed to do every day, like brush your teeth. It’s practice for a performance, like that of a concert pianist or a pro basketball player. What’s the performance? It’s that moment that occurs in the real world when you’re not meditating— the moment after a stressful encounter at work when you start to visualize hitting the liquor store on your way home. The performance is making a choice, a decision under stress: will you be able to not react reflexively out of fear or anger? Mindfulness practice is training to be more open to all the possibilities a given situation presents—not just those possibilities we see from our own habitual frame of reference, with our own personal blinders on. It’s practice to take a look at what we’re telling ourselves. It’s practice to act mindfully in real life.
In the beginning, meditation is useful just to relax the mind and body. In a busy world, we seldom spend time just sitting quietly. We’re always on the go. In meditation we bring the physical activity down, and consequently let the mind rest more in its natural state—closer to being free of judgment, opinion and the restless activity of the stories we constantly tell ourselves. This can come about just by focusing the mind on an object of attention, like the breath or a mantra, or a point in space. It’s simple, but not easy.
The more time one spends doing it, the more thoughts and emotions become recognizable as discrete objects instead of part of an amorphous blob of cognitive gobbledygook. In CBT-based recovery approaches, one technique is to name your “addictive voice” or disturbing urge. It becomes a thing, a person, a tangible adversary—the thing that gets triggered in you and seemingly drives your car to the liquor store without your permission. Mindfulness practice helps us recognize that adversary at the early stages of its waking up and entering the room.
People in recovery meetings who engage in some kind of meditation or mindfulness practice frequently report examples of becoming more mindful of problematic behaviors and being able to sidestep them. One person got into a terrible fight with his wife that involved throwing dishes. His anger got to a level where he just put on his coat and headed for the door knowing full well where he was going. But this time his practice paid off. At this “performance” time, he just paused for a moment and looked at what he was doing, noted his feelings, and realized it was not what he wanted to do in the long run. He took off his coat and sat back down.
Another person was experiencing alternating episodes of fear, anger and resignation whenever she had to use her sober-lock device to start the car. Every time she had to blow into it, it reminded her how badly she had screwed up. Every now and then the device also gave her a false positive, which led to tremendous anxiety. Her anger and fear caused her to imagine going down the road to relapse on the F-it express, with a string of false positives as the catalyst. So she began meditating a few minutes before she had to start the car, took some deep breaths, and this fearful, resentful reaction began to dissipate.
Every time people can maneuver through one of these episodes, whether it is spawned by high emotion or a passing thought, another brick is laid in the foundation of their recovery.
Addendum by Marc: The neuroscientific research on meditation is a bit of a hodge-podge, but two brain changes keep showing up. There is a network of brain regions called the default mode network, which includes some posterior regions not involved in paying attention. We spend our time lazing about these regions when we are day-dreaming, fantasizing, wondering or worrying about the past or the future, imagining ourselves in different scenarios, but not paying attention to the present moment. When people meditate, and especially when they start to get good at it, the default mode network turns off more readily, and regions of the prefrontal cortex (especially the left) turn on. The left prefrontal cortex is where we go when we are paying attention. But the brain changes in another way. With meditation, there is increased communication between the prefrontal cortex and many other regions. That means that our increased focus on “now” can alter our habits, redirect our memories, and clarify perception and action — seeing and doing.
Most important to people fighting addictions, meditation increases self-control. The perspective and insight provided by the left prefrontal cortex organizes thoughts and actions, so that we can act in our own best interests because we see things more clearly. Behaviors that get us in trouble show up on the larger map of possibilities as trouble spots. That doesn’t fit! Going to that party in this mood is a recipe for disaster. Hanging out with Dave does not fit with an overall game plan to stay clean. Your left prefrontal cortex knows all this. With meditation, it develops the skills to bring that information to bear whenever you need it. We learn to bring focus together with experience and action — and that’s a powerful arsenal for people who are trying to remain safe from their demons.