It’s Not a Fad
A recent opinion written for the Boston Globe was headlined, “Mindfulness is not a fad. Try it.” Now if you are among the many people who think mindfulness is just a trend, that’s totally understandable. Meditation apps, another yoga boom, dating apps for “mindful singles”…it’s almost like “mindfulness” has become today’s version of what was called “new age” in the 70s and 80s. However, unlike the amorphous “new age,” mindfulness refers to something very specific. Furthermore, I can tell you from personal experience that developing a mindfulness practice has been one of the smartest things that I’ve done in sobriety. It has become an essential tool for my recovery.
What is Mindfulness?
Plainly speaking, mindfulness is awareness of the present moment. That’s it. It doesn’t require you to twist yourself into difficult poses, to eat a certain diet, or to backpack through Southeast Asia (though, admittedly, all of those things can be both very fun and very beneficial with the right teachers.) Furthermore, while mindfulness is a component of certain spiritual practices, there is nothing inherently religious about mindfulness, so you don’t need to join a temple or wrestle with your faith to practice it. All you need to do is bring your attention to the moment at hand. Sounds simple, does it? It is. But it is also very difficult. A study by Harvard psychologists shows that people spend about 47% of their waking hours with their focus on something other than what they’re doing. And what’s worse is that we’re usually unhappy when our mind wanders. We are habitually unfocused and we suffer because of it.
Starting Out: The Set Up
Fortunately, it is very easy to begin a mindfulness practice. You can begin by finding a quiet spot and getting comfortable, but not too comfortable (at the beginning, it’s pretty easy to doze off.) A chair with a fairly straight back works nicely. Give yourself a minute or two to just breathe and settle in, letting your hands rest naturally in your lap. You can close your eyes if you’d like, though I find this also promotes drowsiness. I like to focus my eyes a little past the end of my nose and just let my eyelids sort of drift half-closed.
Once you’re situated, start bringing your attention to your breath by breathing through your nose and noticing the sensation, cool air in, warm air out. It’s natural for thoughts and feelings to arise…let them. Notice them without judgment and then gently let them go, returning to the breath. You’ll notice the sound of the air conditioner, creaks in the walls, ringing in your ears…that’s all fine. Just remember to return to your breath. And that’s it. Those are the basics. If you’re just starting out, I recommend five minutes or so at a time, working up to about 20. And though you can certainly do this on your own, I also recommend working with a teacher at some point. They can walk you through some of the things you’ll experience.
Scientifically Proven Benefits
Mindfulness has been the topic of numerous studies in recent years and the results have been very positive. For one thing, it reduces anxiety. A study by the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital shows that mindfulness-based stress reduction classes led to a more significant drop in anxiety than stress management education classes. Furthermore, a study by psychologists Albertson, Neff, and Dill-Shackleford shows that mindfulness techniques can lead to a reduction in body dissatisfaction and body shame and an increase in self-compassion and body appreciation. Finally, a Harvard study shows that mindfulness can train the brain to reduce distractions, an enormous benefit in the smartphone/multi-tasking age.
Open Your Eyes
So how does mindfulness relate to recovery? Well, take cravings, for example. What is a craving? At its base, it’s just a feeling. Once we spend some time practicing mindfulness, we start to see how much of our lives are ruled by our feelings. And more importantly, we start to realize that they don’t have to be. If I am at work and I feel a craving arise, I have the power to say, “Yep, that’s a craving” (noticing a thought) and get back to work (returning to the breath.) I no longer feel the need to control the moment…I can just be in the moment. If you’re in recovery, I highly recommend giving mindfulness a try. It has the power to open your eyes to the beauty of life as it is right now.