Mindfulness is different than other recovery programs and therapy. Mindfulness, when used in addiction treatment, involves watching thoughts in a nonjudgmental, dispassionate way and feeling emotions and sensations more and more without trying to change, get rid of, or neutralize them. Other programs try to change thinking and change emotions and sensations. To understand the difference between these approaches and why studies show that mindfulness works so well for recovering from addiction, one has to look at the nature of addiction itself.
If one is addicted to alcohol and the addiction begins to progress and get out of control, the addicted person asks, “How do I stop drinking alcohol? or “How do I kick the habit of drinking?” But stopping is difficult. Once a person becomes addicted, the brain is hardwired to desire the alcohol, sometimes putting it higher in priority than eating and other daily habits. The sheer force and momentum of the addictive cravings can make it difficult to simply “put a plug in the jug” as they say in AA. Studies indicate that those who are able to stop drinking but who do not engage in an effective treatment program are at a high risk of relapse.
The question of what is effective boils down to how we look at our moment by moment experience. Notice that in the moment you reach for alcohol or some other addictive substance or behavior, your thoughts and bodily sensations are controlling you. It’s as if you have no choice. You have to drink. Living with a constant desire to drink is like living in your head all the time. Because thoughts seem to be in control, trying to control your thoughts around drinking becomes incredibly difficult. It can feel like you are at war with your own thoughts and sensations. You are trying to control what is controlling you. Being at war with yourself in this way can be frustrating and can lead to failure in recovery. Anyone who has been drinking addictively for a number of years knows this. They know they can’t just quit through willpower and control. Those who relapse often, or find themselves in and out of rehab many times, also see the futility of trying to control and manage their thoughts and behaviors. Many recovery programs appear to speak about surrender, acceptance and powerlessness as a way to give up one’s addiction, but they are often infused with a kind of programming that fights the addiction through thinking strategies that involve some form of force and control. They keep addicts in their heads.
Mindfulness is not about willpower or control. Through the practice of mindfulness, one begins to watch thoughts dispassionately. He sees them come and go. He doesn’t try to control them. He just watches them disappear naturally. As they disappear, the command to drink that occurs with the thought disappears also. All that is left is the body sensation itself. One then begins to feel the urge or sensation in the body more directly, without trying to change or control it. Again trying to change the sensation just involves more willpower. Age-old wisdom tells us that whatever we resist, persists. Mindfulness allows one to gently feel the sensation without trying to control it. Because one is placing no force or self-will against the sensation, it is naturally allowed to disappear on its own. And as the sensation disappears, the command to drink that seems contained in the sensation disappears with it.
In a nutshell, mindfulness is a powerful antidote to addiction. Mindfulness is a relaxation into the present moment. It takes one out of his head (out of constant thinking about the past and future). It can bring about a deep acceptance of one’s present experience as it is. In this acceptance, where one non-judgmentally watches thoughts and feels sensations, he is no longer asserting willpower and control. Quite the opposite. He is releasing all those attempts to control and manage his experience which aren’t working. This is a true surrender. This counteracts the self-will in drinking as well as any recovery efforts that are also based in self-will and that are not working.
The key to understanding the powerful effect that mindfulness has on addiction is experience. One has to learn the habit of mindfulness and begin to live more in the present moment instead of “in the head” all the time. Most people need help learning the practice of mindfulness, just as they would need help learning the ropes of a 12 step program. At the Kiloby Center, we train people everyday in this practice until it becomes a natural habit in their own experience. People not only report a decrease in addictive cravings, but also a decrease in depression and anxiety and a greater sense of peace and well-being. They start living in the present moment more and more and less in the mind where all the control and self-will lies.