From mindless mess to mindfulness: Meditation practice in recovery

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 liquorstoreyou 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 sayingNObehaviors 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.

breathalizerAnother 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.





34 thoughts on “From mindless mess to mindfulness: Meditation practice in recovery

  1. Marie-Anne Haeck June 9, 2014 at 6:55 am #

    Dear Marc, already some time ago, as a reaction on your trip to the Dalai Lama I wrote to you about the beautiful results I saw while teaching Mindfulness to a small group in rehab. My heart just made a little jump reading this last post! Only recent Sarah Bowen sent me the results of her investigation on the effects of Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention, which are really encouraging! In 2012 I attended her teacher training in California and since then I’m very determined to spread her message here in The Netherlands. Unfortunately I had some delay because of my treatment for breastcancer, but still very much alive and kicking an determined to continue my mission. In september I am planning to start a pilot training MBRP for people in (early )recovery with no entrance fee at all. As of all the cut back actions on aftercare-programs I think this is the right time to introduce mindfulness as at least a very supporting and alternative method to help people with addiction to stay sober. Would it be possible to spread my message here together with the information on how to register for this pilot or receive more information on the details of this training. I’m a professional trained mindfulness trainer with a longtime experience in the mental health training field. But teaching mindfulness is my passion and I’m very eager to share my knowledge with people struggling with addiction and the ongoing fight against relapse. Looking forward to your or perhaps someone elses’ reaction.
    May you all be safe and happy, Marie-Anne Haeck

    • Matt June 9, 2014 at 8:28 am #


      I completely share your enthusiasm for MBRP. Of particular help is Sarah Bowen’s notion of the Individual Relapse Signature (IRS). As people move through recovery mindfully, they begin to see the patterns of their use: when they are slipping and/or relapsing, etc. Consequently, they become more aware of their patterns of urges and danger zones, and can better recognize and manage them. You can’t change something if you don’t know what it is. Becoming mindful of these things can make the slip useful as a tool to learn from, to be accepted not condemned. (nor encouraged!!)

    • Marc June 9, 2014 at 9:09 am #

      Dear Marie-Anne. Your enthusiasm and strength of heart are really inspiring to me. I am very much on board. Not only can you use this blog/website to advertise your program but we can think of other web-based avenues. Also, we’re probably both in touch with different but overlapping groups involved in addiction treatment here. We can put our heads together and figure out how to get the message out in the most effective ways.

      I am going to be in California on sabbatical from Sept. 1 to about Jan. 1. The good news: I didn’t know there was a MBRP training program there. I definitely want to try to attend and become accredited or whatever. I like Sarah Bowen very much and got to know her a bit in Dharamsala. Even though I’ve used M/M in therapy, I’ve had zero formal training in how to teach it. The bad news is that I won’t be in the Netherlands when you’re starting up. But I think we should try to hook up before I leave. I’ll be in the Netherlands from now until about July 15 and from July 30 through Aug. 7. Let’s try!

      Please contact me by email for further dialogue, if not of interest to the blog community. I’m really glad that you’re in one piece after that ordeal, and I very much look forward to meeting you.

    • Richard Henry June 10, 2014 at 7:20 pm #

      Hi Marie-Anne Haeck I too i’m inspired by the challenges people have in using mindful awareness in their recovery. I wrote a book called “Life in the Game of Addictions” and becoming more aware of the influence the mind has over my emotions and actions has played a big part in my recovery. I often write notes on my facebook web page under my name and under a site I set up on facebook called life in the game of addictions. Please email me or contact me through facebook any information you you have to share. many of my Notes i write at the end Happy Thoughts, Happy Heart, Happy Life… and many of my readers have pick up on my saying…
      Regards Richard Henry

      • Matt June 11, 2014 at 6:17 am #

        Hi Richard—

        The power of positive thinking can go a long way toward retraining the mind and restraining our afflictions. Thanks, for the helpful link!

  2. Gary Goodwin June 9, 2014 at 7:38 am #

    Just a Comment!~

    For me! recovery was the “discovery” that if I thought it through, “The Whole Scenario” it was then that I realized I could make a conscious choice with respect to my actions. However, the first thought (Drink or not drink) was extremely stimulating depending upon the motivating factor that got me there in the first place. Perhaps people with impluse control disorder have much more difficulty seeing the whole picture and feel they have but one choice and that is to react to their first thought.

    It appears, in the past couple of years, or so, that “Mindfullness” is the new fad, or way of doing things. With all due respect, real freedom from addictions is where a person has no patterns whatsoever. There in fact is no outside authority and “enlightenment” is where you are a “Light unto yourself” as stated by Jiddu Krishnamurti. You might even say real freedom is “Mindlessness” where there is no attachment to a process, a focus, or even a way of doing things.

    Life, as I know it, is a real paradox in that it is only when you “Let Go” that you can know the numinous field within you. However, in trying to let go I’m still caught in the pattern. To me this is a phenomenon that happens, thorough out our lives, at different times when you somehow awaken to just knowing you are connected to the whole. The less debris and baggage a person has the more they are able to awaken to this life of abundance yet they don’t know that they know it.

    So! perhaps its the realization that I need to know less, not more, in order to allow my mind to be free without thought. “Thought”m in fact was the problem from the very beginning, for me!~

    • Matt June 9, 2014 at 8:48 am #

      Yes, I see your point. But as I read through your wonderful comment, many of your arguments for “mindlessness” are the same observations made of mindfulness. For example:
      “…real freedom is “Mindlessness” where there is no attachment to a process, a focus, or even a way of doing things.”

      In that sense mindfulness and mindlessness are the same thing. No attachment, open to possibilities…

      All labels and definitions aside, you make a powerful point about the difficulties of overcoming obstacles and complexities of the mind to further one’s personal growth— not to mention freeing oneself from the shackles of addiction.

      • Gary June 9, 2014 at 9:47 am #

        Hi Matt…in man respects, you’re probably correct in your observation in comparing mindlessness and mindfulness in the modality-sense but in my attempt to correctly convey my statement, ultimately my hope was to simply say that “there is no path” or even “a way”. Searching, for me, was actually part of the problem. Hoping to find an answer, a solution or perhaps resolution.

        Again, only my own opinion, but somehow it seems to me that if I create a pattern or indeed a discipline, if you will, it is more of the same. One example was when went for my very first run a number of years ago the tapes came on in my mind. “Am I doing it right?”, “Am I breathing correctly?” I mean it was a bit crazy and then I just allowed to be what was and then it went away.

        If we have all been conditioned to believe certain things everything we do is probably shaped by that belief. How is it that one can say they have an original thought or idea when in fact it has been filtered and/or altered by previous beliefs.

        A painter who paints on a canvas a beatiful picture chooses a new canvas for the next painting. Is it possible to “Clean the slate” and not be altered by previous thoughts or beliefs etc… There are times when I wonder if belief can be a thief. The mind or at least thought is looking to be stimulated rather it be a drug of choice, a new idea, model or method. The intellect has its own complexities and at times makes things more complicated. The ego is also involved if I think I know something and someone else doesn’t.

        Just for clarification purposes, its not that I stand for or against mindfulness or mindlessness because in the attempt to take a stand i’m still caught in the trap.

        Great conversation in that it further allows me to “self-examine” the clutter I’ve carried for far too long!~

        In order to see we open our eyes in order to understand perhaps we close them!~

        • Matt June 9, 2014 at 11:03 am #

          Thanks for the clarification and keen observations. And I see what you’re saying: searching and the expectations associated with it can become a problem in itself. So, it sounds like letting go was the way for you (if I may humbly impose my opinion once again. Discussing the ineffable with language is another problem unto itself!)

          I have often got bogged down in a similar way (I think) with regard to the “witness mind” or “observing ego”— the mind that watches the mind— or whatever else you want to call it. It’s hard to know who is minding the store.

          It’s so true that experience builds on experience with belief coloring it all. In that respect, we are never the same person that we were a moment ago. Change is constantly at work even if we can’t see it within the context of our own temporality. Is belief our friend or our enemy?

          Thanks so much for your trenchant observations! They are stimulating the conversation in an area that is so very slippery

          And you’re right. I think “thought” is the problem from the very beginning for all of us.

          • Cheryl June 9, 2014 at 1:52 pm #

            Conscious meditation has never been my thing but I recognize the meditative qualities of getting lost in time when single mindedly focused in certain activities. I don’t “practice” meditating but since I love the refreshing feel of single minded focus I engage in those activities often. I came to define those activities through a mindfulness that was focused on me and discovering what activities were life giving to me. This intentional habit had me spending more time in joy and less time in fear to a point of allowing me to address and relieve some of the fears. Mindfulness for me is living more intentionally than by default,

            • Matt June 9, 2014 at 2:17 pm #

              Thank you, Cheryl for such a personal description of mindfulness. Some people call it “flow” or being totally engaged, where you feel energized by the intense focus and lose track of time. I’m happy you’ve found such activities, and recognize them as self-nurturing and rewarding. The self-directedness and intentionality are key. Being consciously aware of your intention gives a sense of control that erodes fear. Is that how you feel?

              • Cheryl June 9, 2014 at 2:34 pm #

                Yes because the awareness also gives be the choice to take my focus elsewhere if feelings of fear are threatening to spin out. If I don’t catch it and the fear does spin out I try to observe it rather than act on it. Changing my focus or being the observer are habits now that I practice when the “opportunity” arises…….and it does arise 😉

  3. Conor O'Dea June 9, 2014 at 8:17 am #

    Yes, mindfulness…the “new” fad that’s been kicking around since Dogen.

  4. Lovinglife52 June 9, 2014 at 8:40 am #

    I can certainly say that a few years of meditation has made a big difference to me in the way that is described here. I was introduced to mindfulness through a pain management course and it produced good results in a few weeks. I read more about the subject including how it can help addiction. I have been concentrating more on metta or” loving kindness ” meditation after reading ideas presented in Stanton Peele and Ilse Thompson’s book recover, which uses mindfulness as a key component for their program.
    It is certainly something worth trying if you want to learn to be more accepting in life. I think it would possibly be of use to people in early recovery, although I was a few years down the line when I started. It is not a solution to everything that you will face in recovery but can certainly help as part of a healthy lifestyle. If you join a group it can also introduce you to some positive thinking people.

  5. William Abbott June 9, 2014 at 9:32 am #

    Three cheers and huzzah to Marc and Matt for this posting.!!!
    I have been mightily struggling to get Mindful Awareness Practices ( what I call it) into the Smart Recovery program – as yet not officially .
    Yet both he and I ( we are both in New England) do this regularly at meetings locally with great success and I very recently in on-line meetings.

    It is a powerful recovery ” tool” — all in line with the self- empowerment approach we use .. and Im sure we will succeed in due time .

    The neuroscience is fascinating and Im a great fan of Richie Davidson’s seminal work in this – someone that Marc knows personally from his visit to the Dalai Lama . And Marc’s reference to the ” default mode network ” may be what those in ACT- Acceptance and Committment Therapy call the ” struggle switch” ..Fascinating stuff for sure

    And Marie- kudos to you for your efforts .. have you maybe thought of looking into the Smart REcovery approach for your patients . This is a CBT-based ( REBT) approach with lots of mindfulness elements – to which folks like Matt and I and others are trying to include more formally ( as noted above) .

    Again thanks again for this you guys !!

  6. Robin Roger June 9, 2014 at 12:52 pm #

    I want to point out that the term “performance” has a charged meaning as well as a neutral one. It can mean simply to do something, as in “perform a daily task” but it can also mean to present oneself for scrutiny and evaluation, as in “piano performance”. So perhaps it’s worth emphasizing here that the performance is personal and even private. I have always liked the concept of “personal best”as a way to validate performance. Applying a skill, executing it well, and enhancing ability all for the purpose of personal benefit and self-validation seems healthy. There is nothing wrong with learning to perform for the public either, but I find it much more complicated to figure out how to do it in a productive way. I speak as a person who just played her first piano recital in over 40 years and am still pondering the experience.

    • Marc June 9, 2014 at 3:33 pm #

      Well one question you might ask: were you waiting for applause? Or was it over and done with as far as you were concerned? One thing I’ve found about mindfulness/meditation is how private it is. I find parts of myself that I rarely acknowledge to myself, never mind let out in public!

      Still, I can say something vague like “I had a good meditation”….and if someone I know/trust indicates that they got what I meant……that adds a sense of connection to the sense of connection.

      • Robin Roger June 9, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

        I was going to add that mindfulness is a private experience, even when practiced in a group. Piano can be played privately, but that seems like less of a performance. The goal might actually be the same–to play the piece as well as it can be played–but there is an extra goal with public performance. It seems to me that one part of meditation is *not* to judge performance, especially during it, but to be aware of the mind without judging it. Whereas with piano playing, in private or otherwise, there is a constant process of assessment, which can be accepting and not harsh, but is still intent on improving performance.

        • Matt June 10, 2014 at 7:40 am #

          Hi Robin

          Thanks for bringing up this important point, and putting it in perspective so eloquently. It’s true that an aspect of meditation is not to judge or form any opinions. My question would be is the “assessment” you describe really judging, or is it using your experience to hone your technical expertise in service of making you a better musician? (akin to the engaged focus Cheryl described so well above) One is practical, objective, the other subjective interwoven with emotion and opinion. Of course, these are both occurring simultaneously so are hard to separate out. The ultimate goal of meditation is to help us separate out the subject/object intermingling, in service of making us a better human being. (meaning the best version of who we are)

          This is all subject to the limitations of language to describe this, I know. Your point about the word “performance” is well-taken. But in the personal sense, it is always a performance. It is always “game time.”

    • Matt June 9, 2014 at 6:41 pm #

      I agree that it is self-evaluative. In fact, I’m gonna stick my neck out and say it’s always that way— be the best “Robin” or the best “Marc” we can be, and not controlled by our habitual, emotionally reactive patterns to situations. It’s not having your performance evaluated by others, but how you respond to said evaluation. Have you ever wanted to not get pissed off or scared by a situation you run across everyday? That can be a performance, too. Can you play the phrase differently? It’s just the degree to which we assign importance to it…

      So what comes up for you as you ponder your first recital in 40 years?

    • Marc June 10, 2014 at 5:12 am #

      Hi Linda. Great to hear from you! Noah Levine is a very famous dude. He started taking drugs at a VERY young age, early teens, and got into vast amounts of trouble, and began to meditate also at a young age — I think before he even reached 20. His work in addiction is well respected, very inspired. I watched an hour-long interview with him on that series, Recovery 2.0. He was delightful and child-like on the one hand, but very serious about personal commitment and effort to get past one’s addictions on the other hand. Thanks for the link.

      I hope you’re doing well. Perhaps we can connect when I’m in Toronto in mid-August.

  7. Denise June 9, 2014 at 7:14 pm #

    Hi Matt/Marc, Funny I just read this blog posting now when earlier today I thought about how mindfulness has helped me in daily life. I had a father who was an alcoholic and (I’d say they’re related) he used to get very angry at stuff that I couldn’t believe. For example, if he’d see a very short person driving a car, he’d get angry. If he saw a man with effeminate mannerisms he’d get angry (that’s an obvious one!); he wouldn’t just not like or disapprove of people’s differences: he’d get angry at them. Well, guess who tends to do the same thing. So today in Costco’s I found myself reacting to people, other shoppers, that way, i.e., with anger, but I’m happy to say that each time it happened I watched and observed myself and was able to talk myself down and think about why I felt that way. Being mindful is a wonderful place to be… Thanks for your posting!

    • Matt June 10, 2014 at 7:44 am #

      Thanks, Denise

      Great anecdote and example of mindfulness in action!

      • Matt June 10, 2014 at 7:53 am #

        Has anybody else noticed how hard this is to describe, except by example?

  8. Gary June 10, 2014 at 7:52 am #


    I wonder if perhaps “life itself” is it’s own form of what we interpret as meditation. What I tend to struggle with is the naming of it because somehow in the naming it loses it real meaning. One example might be where two people are watching a sunset though they both have witnessed the same thing, in trying to describe to each other thier experience really isn’t possible to fully capture the event.

    In other words, is it when I take a thing, experience or event and make it personal that the it’s real true essence thus vanishes.

    It has been my observation that many people struggling with addictions have real powerful examples of what the mind and thiought can do. When a person is in need and/or desires a “fix” first the thought enters the mind and is held unto until it is manifested in the here and now. I’ve shown clients in the past just how powerful their minds are when they are focused on a particular goal.

    However, if their goal is to discover new ways of seeing and being that too would manifest itself as a reality. In fact, to the level and/or degree a person desires change will also become the measure in thier ability to achieve awareness to change as well as discover that in defining who they thought they were is extremely limited.

    Is there really a “path” to enlightenment or can there be a spontaneous rupture in one’s reality and it happens all-at-once?

    My other observation is that when I determine that “my life”, “my experience”, “my problems” etc… are uniquely mine i’ve thus separated myself from the world. Whatever there is, I am it and “it” is me no separation at all.

  9. Matt June 10, 2014 at 9:11 am #

    Hi Gary

    All excellent points and another great example how simple experience can become so convoluted once we try to describe it with language. Our experience is very personal, and it is also what connects us to the world and others. The most important thing about mindfulness practices in recovery is that they help remind us of our intention to change more clearly, and thus bolster our resolve amidst all the confusion within us and around us.

    • Marc June 11, 2014 at 2:21 am #

      Yes, that’s it exactly. They provide the reminder, that is, the weather-vane, but also the method. Quite a powerful combination.

  10. Margot Tesch June 10, 2014 at 6:15 pm #

    Thanks for this post Marc. I’ve recently done mindfulness training but not thought to use it in this way. You have given me much to think about.

  11. Stephen Creagh Uys June 11, 2014 at 2:53 pm #

    Dear Marc, As always I get something from this. I have never really made the connection between meditation and cognitive therapies, but this makes it clearer. As an artist I was especially intrigued by the thoughts on the mind being ‘elsewhere’. In the creative process, I find, while one is fully vested in the project at hand, thhe mind freely wanders the ephemeral aspects pertinent to it. I find that when working the interruptions of using thoughts are often dismissed by the practice of mentally preparing to create. This post hints at how I can add this unconscious technique towards my daily life. I don’t picture myself as a Zen devotee, but rather as someone who can use their techniques to raise my personal awareness. Thanks.

  12. Linda Stitt June 14, 2014 at 1:47 am #

    We’d love to get together with you, Marc.
    Please call when you get to town.

  13. Aimee July 28, 2014 at 5:03 am #

    This is a really interesting post, thank you. I believe that MBRP can help alongside ways of recovery. Some individuals find that through MBRP they begin to learn more about their addiction. They can often begin to tell trigger signs and when things are starting to get tough. I think that it can help people manage their recovery more efficiently and they feel as though they are really dealing with their addictions through their own power.

  14. Laura Judge September 2, 2014 at 10:54 am #

    This is an excellent and very informative post to anybody who is in recovery or who has a loved one in recovery. Meditation definitely leads to self-control and that is what we as addicts try to accomplish every day. Thank you for your words and your support. Don’t ever give up, and remember knowledge is power. Learn as much as you can and continue to work the steps with your sponsor!

    -Laura Judge

  15. Mark October 4, 2014 at 9:08 am #

    An interesting perspective on addiction as primarily a developmental disorder by the co-author of Bruce Perry’s *The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog* …

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