The Myths & Methods of Mindfulness Meditation

I kept cravings at bay with 12-step meetings and counseling but continued to seek meaning and purpose that would lead to lasting sobriety. Then I found mindfulness meditation.

I was raised to believe meditation was wicked. Along with yoga, Buddha, incense, and anything symbolizing or hinting of Eastern religion or ritual. The rationale? Meditation clears our minds of all thought, therefore leaving us susceptible to other-worldly suggestion and worse: evil energy.

The caution filled me with dread. If my mind was “cleared,” I would become vulnerable to Satan’s control, and then anything was possible. I pictured myself a savage, meditating zombie, turning violent or psychotic, doomed to Hades.

One too many chants of “om” and I’d transform into a freckle-faced, redhead Linda Blair. These fears were very real in the congregation of my childhood church. It would be decades before I’d be comfortable enough to engage in yoga for physical health, much less find spirituality and sobriety on a cushion, while flooding my nostrils with the heady smoke of palo santo. (A decadent alternative to smudging sage I highly recommend.)

Despite the best intentions of my religiously conservative upbringing, by 30 I was tragically addicted to opiate painkillers and drinking IPA instead of orange juice alongside my oatmeal in the morning. I was in trouble. Desperate to quit.

Limping along in 12-step meetings and counseling sessions, I kept cravings at bay but continued to seek meaning and purpose that would lead to lasting sobriety.

Two events occurred that significantly impacted the direction of my recovery, leading to the life of sobriety and joy I’d been dreaming of. First, my counselor suggested I attend a course called “Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention.” (MBRP) Second, I heard Russell Brand in an interview share how he utilized transcendental meditation to help him kick heroin.

“If Russell Brand can do it,” I thought, “surely I’m not hopeless!”

I’d long since abandoned strict religion, expanded my worldview, and earned a Bachelor of Science. But I still had misconceptions to overcome. From a distance, meditation and mindfulness seemed foreign; a bit too “woo” for my nursing background in Western Medicine. But I wanted freedom from addiction more than anything. So I joined the eight-week course my counselor suggested and quickly learned mindfulness is backed by science, not voodoo.

One session of MBRP and I was hooked in the best way. The gentle, individualized format reinforced compassion and welcomed curiosity. My heart felt as if it had come home.

While presumably not as radical as my own youthful conditioning, limiting beliefs and inaccuracies are a common barrier to people trying out meditation. Whether you’re sober-curious, or the top coin-earning member of your local recovery program, meditation may boost your well-being to new heights. Don’t fall for the following myths.  

Myth: Meditation means clearing the mind of thoughts.

Method: Mindfulness Meditation consists of observing, training, and focusing thoughts; not eliminating them. The sign of a “good meditator” is not the capacity to make the mind go blank or think nothing. Many people fear they’re incapable of meditating because of incessant, restless, racing or overwhelmed thoughts.

The truth is, all humans are continuously thinking; that’s just our minds doing what minds do best. Meditation improves our capacity to understand and even train the mind. No person’s brain is too chaotic to practice, it may just take some of us longer to discover successful techniques and cultivate these new skills.

With time and perseverance, we can improve the quality of our thinking by bringing our awareness to the present moment. We detach from stressful, negative thought patterns, improving focus and concentration. Changing the relationship to our thoughts is an especially powerful tool in maintaining sobriety. And since cognitive function and personal control are fully intact, no need to panic; outside forces won’t hijack your brain for evil intent.

Myth: Meditation is a religious ritual.

Method: Meditation can be associated with religious ritual or tradition. So can most modern medicine, if you follow it back in time far enough. The history of medicine and healing intersects heavily with religion, and the earliest healers were shamans and apothecaries.

Prior to scientific method and evidence-based practice, religion, magic and superstition formed the basis for treatments and remedies. With nearly 40 years of scientific research and present day MRI as a diagnostic tool, Western culture can appreciate what Yogis have known for centuries: Mindfulness works. And if mindfulness is the foundational concept, meditation is the practical tool. Meditation has roots in a multitude of religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Judaism. It’s prudent to understand and honor this, however, no doctrine or dogma is necessary.

And one doesn’t need to feel they’ve betrayed their personal faith by practicing meditation; it’s a tool that spans the spectrum of spirituality from atheism to fundamentalism. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is a secular mind-body intervention that has been shown to help relieve patient’s suffering and enhance coping skills for chronic pain, stress, and illness – including addiction and alcoholism.

This program and others like it are becoming increasingly accessible and acceptable to the general population, as research enlightens us to the benefits. Mindful meditation is a powerful tool in sobriety, helping to manage cravings, foster resilience and better our relationship to ourselves and the world.

Buddhist-inspired recovery like Refuge Recovery, while non-religious, explicitly promotes compassion, lovingkindness, generosity and forgiveness. And who doesn’t want a big heaping dose of that throughout their recovery journey?

Myth: Meditation requires sitting in Lotus pose on a cushion.

Method: There’s no perfect position to meditate. Formal practice is often accomplished while sitting upright, with eyes closed or a gentle gaze toward the floor. An upright posture keeps us relaxed but alert, diminishes distractions and prevents sleepiness. But the essence of mindfulness is compassionate awareness, not physical punishment.

I’ve heard Dave Smith of Against The Stream, begin his meditation instructions with these words: “Find a posture that is good enough for you.” Personally, I can’t sit with my legs crossed – much less in proper Lotus Pose. My feet fall asleep, the pain disrupting my flow. Some may say that’s an aversion I need to work with….and maybe some day I will.

For now, I find what’s good enough in the moment. If the physical position causes you to cringe, try sitting with your back supported in a chair and your feet flat on the floor. It may be comfortable to lie down with a small pillow under your head or knees. There are many different chairs, benches, seats and cushion choices these days, making meditation accessible and comfortable for nearly anyone, not just those who can achieve instagram worthy Lotus level. 

Myth: Meditation is sitting in silence for hours.

Method: Silence means being alone with our thoughts, a scary precedent for many of us, especially in early sobriety. With four years of consistent practice, I still feel anxious if the lesson calls for extended silence. If the quiet puts you off, experiment with guided meditations.

YouTube has an array of 60-second mindful exercises. Free Apps such as Aura and Insight Timer offer a seemingly endless assortment, with many in as little as three minutes. In just this brief amount of time, you can reset your daily intentions and regain mental clarity. Don’t beat yourself up if you plateau at the 10-minute mark or flee from the room when silence becomes unbearable.

Mindful recovery teaches us to tolerate the discomforts in life – perhaps that starts with the silence on the cushion. Or perhaps for you, guided is the way to go. Either way, it takes gentle patience and persistence. This is personal training for the brain, not a quick fix for enlightenment. 

Myth: Meditation happens on a cushion in a monastery.

Method: Mindfulness meditation can happen anytime, anywhere, and isn’t practiced with a goal of perfect meditation under perfect conditions. It’s meant to help us get better at life. To help us develop compassionate, wise responses to external and internal stimuli. Some mindfulness can and should be done in ordinary spaces.

For example, you can try an everyday task such as hand-washing or brushing your teeth mindfully. Similarly, eating meditations (like this raisin meditation) are a great method for concentrating the mind, expanding perspective, and cultivating awareness of the present moment.

Integrating mindfulness into your lifestyle is the ultimate desired outcome. Just don’t attempt meditation while driving your car or operating heavy machinery!

Mindfulness meditation can be a vital tool for successful sobriety. It improves our ability to live in the present moment, nurture ourselves and others with compassion and tolerate discomfort without reaching for substances to numb the pain. Let go of myths and misconceptions and begin practice today to start experiencing the rewards of living mindfully.  

There are many types of meditation. This article discusses Mindfulness Meditation specifically, which is just one form of the practice. Resources for mindful/meditation recovery programs include but are not limited to: Refuge Recovery (Buddhist inspired, non-religious), Eight Step Recovery (Buddhist Path) and Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention (science-based). Go here for other types of meetings in your area.

Tiffany Swedeen, RN, BSN, CPC/CPRC is a certified life and recovery coach, She Recovers Designated Coach, and a registered nurse in recovery herself from opioids and alcohol. Tiffany lives “sober out loud,” proudly sharing her story through advocacy and blogging and is passionate about helping others do the same. Her goal is to eradicate shame and empower all to live a life of radical self-love. You can contact Tiffany through her website Recover and Rise, read her blog and follow her @scrubbedcleanrn. 

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