“Look beyond the walls of therapy, towards independence and empowerment.”
In Recover!, Ilse Thompson and I liken your addiction to the noise of the surf that you dive under in the ocean. You then come up fresh on the other side of the wave. That image is an example of a mindfulness exercise or meditation through which you translate your thinking into a concrete image that you can identify with your addiction and manipulate mindfully.
Mindfulness means slightly different things in psychology (à la Ellen Langer) and Buddhism (à la Tara Brach). In Langer’s formulation, mindfulness is the awareness of what impels you to behave as you do, emotionally and situationally. In Buddhism, mindfulness is the acute awareness of your presence in the world, the here-and-now. Langer’s mindfulness allows you to control your environment and yourself; Buddhism’s to experience the world directly and instantly.
The first formulation allows you to feel your agency—that you are directing your life in place of being driven habitually and emotionally. The second allows you to be at peace with yourself—the notion of radical acceptance.
And both types of mindfulness are tools with which to attack addiction. Each of them shows you
the path toward recognizing that you are not defined by your worst habit, that your addict identity is false.
Becoming aware of what drives your behavior means that you are no longer powerless. If being in a place, having a feeling, reacting to a condition, failing at a task, or having a dispute causes you to take a drug, or drink, or smoke, or eat, you can find tools to master those addictive forces. (Indeed, even AA now makes people aware of their addiction “triggers.”)
For Brach, being present in your world and accepting that you are an integral part of the universe means you have no need to tar yourself with the addict label. Is the universe addicted? You are valuable and belong on earth as you are—this is radical acceptance.
Of course, self-acceptance doesn’t mean that you absolve yourself of responsibility for your actions, deny consequences, or, most especially, avoid the need for change. But we know that people are best able to change when they accept and value themselves. Baumeister and Tierney’s Willpower builds on the finding that successful self-control requires self-acceptance. And my fellow Substance.com columnist Maia Szalavitz has brilliantly reviewed how shame about drinking makes people more likely to relapse.
Mindfulness Research and Treatment
At the epidemiological (or causative) level, research at the National Institutes of Health found that people seeking treatment for both drug and alcohol problems displayed “mindfulness deficits” compared with a random population of respondents.
Those requiring treatment were found to be less accepting (negative on “I approach each experience by trying to accept it, no matter whether it is pleasant or unpleasant”); less curious about what they experienced; and less able to separate themselves from their urges (not agreeing with “I experience myself as separate from my changing thoughts and feelings”).
New research supports the importance and usefulness of mindfulness in addiction treatment. Mindfulness training has been shown to reduce stress, to improve the ability to handle negative thoughts, and to enable people to react less to alcohol cues. This research, by Eric Garland and his colleagues, was particularly encouraging since most of the subjects were African-American and earned under $20,000—groups often ignored in clinical research.
Meanwhile, the late Alan Marlatt’s group at the University of Washington has developed a mindfulness-based relapse prevention program. Compared with conventional treatment, the Marlatt group found, mindfulness-trained subjects had fewer cravings, displayed greater acceptance (think Buddhism), and showed more awareness of themselves in their environments (think Langer).
The elements impacted by mindfulness training by the Marlatt group are almost the exact traits the NIH study found lacking in those requiring treatment. Yet American treatment is not typically directed towards encouraging mindfulness. Indeed, it seems almost to discourage mindfulness-based traits.
Here are the eight elements of mindful thinking that you can encourage by self-imaging, meditation, here-and-now awareness and radical acceptance:
1. Rejection of an addict identity: “I am not an addict.”
2. Separation from the addiction: “I am not my addiction.”
3. Radical acceptance: “I am a valuable human being as I am.”
4. Mindfulness practice, meaning that you fundamentally accept yourself so as not to be overcome by your current problems.
5. Detachment: “I can visualize and detach myself from my urge to use” (e.g., see craving as a wave that you dive under or surf over as it surges and recedes).
6. Awareness: “I am sensitive to the world around me, both in terms of its beauty and in terms of the pressures to use.”
7. Mindfulness practice, meaning being aware of the triggers and blind spots that can foul you up.
8. Mindfulness is the opposite of trauma psychology, through which you see and define yourself in terms of your problems, hurt, or baggage. It instead means defining yourself in terms of your strengths and positive possibilities.
Losing your addict identity is a liberating experience—a blessing, a mitzvah.
Source: Excerpted from “Out With Your Old “Addict” Identity, and In With Something Better” at Substance.com, used with permission. Read the full post.