Meditation isn’t something that comes up right away in addiction recovery, but it comes up eventually. Even the 12 Steps have it right there as Step 11: “[We] sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”
Outside of the 12 Steps, meditation is still put out there by therapists and spiritual advisers as one of the practices that has benefits for addiction recovery.
But why, exactly?
Maybe, in your head, you’re picturing someone sitting in a lotus position for hours. Maybe people like that have developed such serenity and self-control that they are no longer controlled by the urge to act out.
Well, maybe there are people like that, but the good news for the rest of us is that even very basic meditation for short periods of time can be a powerful tool in addiction recovery.
At one point in my own recovery, I assumed meditation was just one of those optional add-on kinds of practices. It took me a while to get motivated enough to try it. But once I did, it made such a difference in the success of my addiction recovery that I’m not sure where I’d be, today, without it.
Maybe you’re like I was, and you believe meditation might be a good thing to try, but you just aren’t that motivated to get around to it. I get that; I was in the same place. But I’m going to share with you how meditation will help you in your recovery, and I hope it’ll get you more interested in it.
If you want to skip all the “why” and go straight to the “what,” I’ve got a list of recommendations of meditation resources to get you up and running.
Meditation Trains You to Be in the Present
When I was first learning to meditate, I tried centering prayer. In this way of meditating, you are basically still and quiet, and when stray thoughts come up in your head, you just allow them to pass by. If you find yourself following one of those thoughts, you use a word to remind yourself to let that thought go and come back to center.
Although the books I was reading encouraged using a word that was spiritually significant, I chose the word, “Here.”
So, when I was meditating, and I found my mind wandering, I’d just say the word “here” and come back to center.
It wasn’t long before I noticed that my mind would start to do this when I was out and about in the world.
I’d be daydreaming in a meeting or thinking about something I had to do while I was in a conversation. I’d notice I had drifted, I’d think the word “here,” and I’d bring my attention back to what was going on.
This is probably a handy thing for anyone, really, but it is critical for addicts.
Addicts like us do not want to be in the present moment. We want to be anywhere else. Our heads are typically found in the past, in the future, or in fantasy. Everyone struggles with this, but addicts live here. The present is where our pain is, and we want to be anywhere else but there.
The problem is that the present moment is also the only place joy can be found. It is the only place where relationships can sustain us and carry us through dark times. It is the only place where we can attend to the things we need to do that will cause us trouble down the road if we ignore them.
There is no amount of dreaming about (or dreading) the future or dwelling on the past or playing in fantasy that will bring the very things we need to fight addiction to us. That doesn’t mean we should never think about the past or plan for the future or enjoy daydreams or creativity, but it does mean that if our heads are there most of the time, we aren’t getting what we need. We aren’t giving anyone else what they need, either.
Meditation trained me to bring myself back to the present moment as a conscious choice, and this skill has helped me in all kinds of ways, not the least of which are people being grateful that I’m actually listening to them as opposed to thinking about what I’m going to have for lunch.
Meditation Trains You to Be Aware of Your Own Thoughts and Emotions
Here’s a twist on something you’ve probably done, before. For the next thirty seconds, try not to think of pink elephants. Ok… go!
How’d that go?
If you’ve done this exercise before (or did it just now), you already know this is impossible. In order to actively stop thinking of pink elephants, you have to think of pink elephants.
But here’s what’s interesting: did you notice that part of your brain was thinking thoughts (that probably involved pink elephants from time to time), and at the same time you were observing your own thoughts? You were thinking thoughts and also being aware of what you were thinking and whether you were thinking of pink elephants.
Kind of amazing, isn’t it? You can “watch” yourself thinking and actually have thoughts about what your thoughts are. But you also have to be somewhat intentional about it.
For addicts, this ability gets short circuited once we’re on the road to acting out. Events or thoughts during the day trigger us and get us moving down a very icy slope, and before we know it, we’re careening down that slope and nothing will stop us until we hit the bottom – we use whatever it is we’re addicted to.
For most addicts, we are completely unaware of our thoughts during that entire thing. Once we get rolling toward using our drug or behavior of choice, it’s pure inertia. If we are aware of our own thoughts, we’re already past the point of no return, and our thoughts are things like, “I can’t believe I’m doing this, again” or “I don’t want to do this” even as we’re gearing up to do it.
Wouldn’t it be great if, before the train even left the station, we could recognize what was going on and make thoughtful decisions about it before we were already well down the road of feeling like we needed to use?
Meditation gives you that capacity.
I remember rather clearly the first time I was just on the very first fringes of feeling like I wanted to use, and all of a sudden, my brain kicked in.
“Why do I feel this way? What am I feeling right now? What got me to feeling this way? Is there something else I could do that would help with how I feel?”
Maybe I was feeling lonely, and instead of acting out, I could call a friend. Maybe I was just bored, and instead of acting out, I could go do something interesting where it was impossible for me to act out. Maybe something had happened that day that made me angry or nervous, and I could talk to somebody about that or find somewhere to pray.
The point is: meditation trained me to be a critical observer of my own internal state. The things that used to set me up for wanting to use were no longer going unnoticed by me. I could see them when they happened and decide to do something about it then while I still hadn’t gone very far down the path.
And the more consistent I was with meditation, the more aware I became and the more frequently those moments happened.
Meditation Increases Your Resilience
If you’ve read many articles on this site, you’ll notice that I bring this principle up a lot: addicts have low resilience.
In other words, addicts have a very low ability to recover from or endure pain. There are all kinds of reasons people end up with low resilience, but when you do struggle with this, it doesn’t take much to create a feeling you’d like to escape from.
This is something that can be hard for non-addicts to understand. Someone’s life may not seem to be very painful to them, so the addiction is a mystery. Why do wealthy and famous people become addicts? Why do upper-middle class suburban parents? Why do successful business people? What’s so painful about their lives that they need to escape it?
Granted, part of this is that you never really know what someone else’s life is like. It may seem perfect to you on the outside, but it isn’t. Many times, people have deeply painful things going on in their lives and we have no idea.
But another piece to this is that addicts have low resilience, so even relatively minor things can feel very painful to them. Things that are just part of the normal, day to day irritations we all have to deal with can really burn and fester in the chest of an addict, much more so than a non-addict might expect.
We all probably know (or have been) a person who, after drinking a lot, flies into a rage at something relatively trivial or breaks down crying about something that isn’t really all that bad. We write that off as being because of the alcohol, but I would offer to you that the emotional intensity was actually there before they started drinking. The alcohol may have removed their inhibitions about expressing it, but it did not create those emotions.
Because of this, one of the things that needs to happen in recovery is to increase resilience. It’s not the only thing that needs to happen, but it’s one of the things that needs to happen.
The more a person can have the difficult experiences in life that inevitably come and still be on an even keel, the less they will look for a substance/behavior to extinguish their feelings. The more a person can regulate their emotions when they start to feel out of balance, the less they will need something to do that for them.
I had been meditating for about three months, maybe, when I was going to my 12 Step group and stopped for gas on the way. Through a combination of wind, clumsiness, and bad placement, I ended up with my fingers hurt, my gas cap laying six feet away, and my pants soaked with twenty ounces of Coke Zero.
Instantly, feelings of anger and irritation started to well up in me, far out of proportion to the events. It’s the kind of thing that would have set me up for acting out much later, well after I’d forgotten what had happened.
But as my emotions began to rise, I thought, “Whoa, hold on, wait a second. Is this really a big deal, or do I just feel like it’s a big deal? I can handle this. This kind of thing happens to people all the time. I just need to sit down, breathe, and calm down, and be resilient.”
And that’s exactly what happened.
I even said the word out loud, “Resilience.”
After that time, whenever something happened to me during the day that set my emotions off or caused me pain, I would say the word, “resilience,” and get some perspective, acknowledge my feelings and let myself feel them, and let myself come back down. I even started saying it in the voice of Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt, and it was so ridiculous that I’d often just start laughing at what had just happened.
I no longer say the word out loud, but I am convinced that it was meditation that trained me to endure life’s ups and downs with more serenity and thoughtfulness. It also enabled me to deal with past pains as well, opening up new paths for healing.
Meditation Can Increase Our Contact with Our Higher Power
I want to say up front that I know not everyone believes in a Higher Power or incorporates those beliefs into their recovery. If you read through the articles on this site, you’ll see that I am all about recovery for people of all religions and no religion at all. In fact, I think it’s harder for people to find recovery resources that don’t involve a Higher Power, so I try to point out such resources where I can in order to serve the people who would prefer that.
At the same time, many recovering addicts do believe in a Higher Power and do rely on that as part of their recovery. That happens to be the boat I’m in as well, so I did want to mention how meditation has impacted that aspect of things.
The 12 Steps explicitly state that meditation was used in those founding 12 Step groups to “improve our conscious contact with God.” If you go on to read Bill W.’s version of meditation, it becomes pretty clear how he envisioned that working. His version of meditation was basically, “Plan your day, ask God for wisdom about anything you don’t know how to handle, and see what He says.”
In that sense, the meditation mentioned in Step 11 originally meant something more like what I’d call “listening prayer.” Listening prayer is a great practice on its own and a good training ground for praying people who want to ease into meditation. I include resources for listening prayer in my recommendations for meditation resources.
That’s not meditation as I define it and practice it, though. What I mean looks more like our contemporary definitions of meditation. But even though such meditation is usually not a direct conversation with God (although it can be), it improves our contact with Him.
“Silence is God’s first language,” writes Thomas Keating. The God who came before creation was silent. It was just Him and Himself.
We are usually familiar with the God who speaks and acts and reveals Himself the way a person might, but mystics throughout history have recognized that there is still that fundamental aspect of God as He is by Himself – quiet, still, hidden, and unknowable through the normal ways we know people.
Meditation can be praying. It can even be reading or reciting. It can be focusing your thoughts on God or an aspect of Him. It can be a lot of things and still be great.
But there is also a meditation where we join God in being quiet and still and content with ourselves. In those moments, we realize that God’s silence in our lives is not abandonment. It’s a different way for God to be with us – to commune with us – to share with us His presence as it is.
And I can tell you that those elusive moments when I am being perfectly still and quiet, without expectations, and simply being aware that God is there, being still and quiet – those are moments when work is being done in the nooks and crannies of my heart as I resonate with His.
I can’t prove that, and I can’t offer you a cool story about how this directly impacted an event in my life. But if you’ve experienced what I’m talking about, then I don’t need to explain it to you. And if you haven’t experienced it, well, you can.
Meditation Is Not That Optional for Addiction Recovery
Can a person recover from addiction without meditation? Sure, I have no doubt.
But what I hope you’ve seen is that meditation is not simply some optional practice that you might incorporate into your recovery if you can get around to it. It’s not that optional.
Meditation is a powerful tool that hits so many critical areas in recovery. I credit it as key to my own success; I’m actually not sure how I would have recovered without it, although maybe I would have, eventually. It was such a significant contributor, though, that you should think about prioritizing it.
If you’d like to give meditation a try but aren’t sure where to start, please check out my Best Addiction Recovery Daily Meditation Resources of 2018 and let me know if they worked for you.
How has meditation impacted you? Do you think you might give it a try? Tell us about it in the Comments, below.