Meditation in Recovery
Therapeutic Counsellor, John Graham, looks at the origins of meditation describing its techniques and its relevance to the Twelve Steps
The classical tradition of meditation has its source reference framework in the pre-Buddhist, Vedic Upanishads – the ‘Breath of God’ – the essence of which is collectively summarised in the Bhagavad Gita – ‘The Song of God’ – where, in Chapter Six, the basic instructions for meditation includes the idea of ‘continuous conscious awareness’ in the here-and-now-present-moment while engaging with life-on-life’s-terms.
Conscious awareness of this sort is nowadays referred to as ‘mindfulness’ the concept of which has been adapted as an ancillary discipline within Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which postulates a challenge to automatic negative thoughts with a basic formula of paying attention while applying a strategy to replace ‘ants’ (automatic negative thoughts) with a purposeful shift of focus, utilising the breath. This instigates a process of expanded attention provoking those who are applying the process to respond realistically and adaptively rather than to react impulsively, which is of course a common character trait of those in the grip of active addiction.
This process too, finds its source in the classical tradition of Raja Yoga, the text-book for which is the Yoga Sutra. One is instructed to be aware of the spontaneous arising of distracting thoughts during the actual process of meditation and to either let them flow with an attitude of detached observation or to pro-actively cut them off before they can develop.
It is therefore perhaps cogent to think in terms of ‘awareness’ as the essence of meditation, rather than the mundane term ‘mindfulness’ with all its modern commercially – flavoured connotations.
‘Awareness’ is also more onomatopoeically descriptive of the ‘Conscious Contact’ component of Step Eleven.
“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.”
To assist practitioners while working with individuals seeking to establish themselves in abstinence-based recovery from active addiction within the Twelve Step frame-work in a residential setting, an introductory process of facilitation that sets a therapeutic ambience is described below.
These instructions concur precisely with the classical Raja Yoga tradition outlined in the Yoga Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita. Both of these sources refer to ‘practice’ as the actual means for making gravitational progress towards ‘conscious contact’ which has self-acceptance implicit in this otherwise somewhat amorphous goal that is beyond verbal description and can only be experienced by actually practising meditation. However, the wording of the Serenity Prayer utilised by all Recovery Fellowships succinctly captures the ‘essence’ of the goal:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
With this in mind, the practitioner can facilitate a meditation sequence in the following way:
“Being aware of what we are doing, first of all, let us place our feet symmetrically on the floor while pressing our buttocks firmly into the base of the chair, simultaneously straightening our spine and tucking the chin towards the cavity of the throat, noticing the slight sense of tautness this reflex creates, which enhances awareness while allowing our gaze to pass beyond the tip of the nose to a self-chosen point on the floor one can focus towards without strain.”
Now let us become conscious of our breathing, beginning with a robust out-breath – allowing the in-breath to take care of itself – followed by a further out-breath and so on while we begin to become consciously aware of the space we occupy, sitting together as the atmosphere becomes quiet… although there are some detectable external sounds which we can utilise as a boundary within which we may observe the silence of meditation for a single minute which I will time…”
Further to this deliberately short adaptable means of introducing clients in a treatment setting to the basics of actual meditation practice, a set of guidelines for dedicated individuals – which includes walking meditation as an extension – is set out below. By way of the practice of meditation within this general framework , we can deepen our self-awareness while also effectively dealing with intrusive cravings and other difficulties associated with recovery from active addiction .
As initially outlined in the brief sequence given above, meditation practice begins with an out-breath, allowing the in-breath to establish the rhythm.
In observing this breathing process over time, we gain insight, from which we develop our own direction and understanding while being in receipt of the therapeutic benefits of meditation that progressively establish themselves in our daily lives.
We begin to experience inner poise, and, almost imperceptibly, there steals over us a sense of well-being which melts rigidity and scepticism.
Selfishness, hang-ups, prejudices, egotism, aggression, abusiveness, self-neglect, and other defects begin to disappear, and are replaced by empathy, concern for others, self-care and a selfless attitude towards all. A feeling-tone of peace and contentment begins to replace the toxicity of anxiety and low mood that many addicts in recovery can be plagued with.
This transformation clearly does not happen as we rise from our first sitting.
The ups and downs of “life on life’s terms” continue to present themselves as we establish a discipline of regular sitting. Steady progress creates a receptivity that allows the benefits of practice to accrue incrementally which includes by default an increased impetus of the spiritual endeavour suggested by Step Eleven.
When practising in our own space we wear clean baggy clothing, sitting on a cushion in a personally comfortable, perhaps cross-legged, posture that can be held for a period of time without being too awkward, keeping the hands open in the lap to form an oval shape. Alternatively, we can rest the wrists on the knees with the thumb and index finger touching. These positions help establish the meditative mind-set.
Meditation uses the breath functionally, to keep the mind from wandering, by employing the pragmatic technique of counting: one, on the first exhalation, two, on the second, three on the next… and so on up to ten at which point we return to one.
While counting, we breathe naturally; letting the breath follow its own course, simply remaining aware, noticing the fineness or coarseness, the shallowness or depth, the warmth or coolness of the air stream as it crosses the nasal membrane, maintaining the effort on the out-breath.
We attempt to become completely absorbed in this process.
However: when the mind inevitably wanders, we simply return it gently to the point of focus, developing a continuum which allows the cultivation of concentration conducive to unbroken steadiness over time. It is this process of ‘repeat attention’ while monitoring focus that constitutes the ‘mindfulness’ component of the original practice of formal meditation while also not letting thoughts or recollections distract us. When we notice these, we simply maintain detachment; confident that the distractions will disperse naturally provided we don’t pay them any attention.
We cultivate an enhanced sense of ‘conscious awareness’ by way of this process.
Over time, we become able to sit for perhaps twenty minutes before seamlessly interspersing the sitting with a brief contemplative walking period while maintaining continuity of focussed breath awareness. The walking serves to refresh blood circulation prior to once more assuming the sitting posture.
Two sitting periods of twenty minutes, followed by walking would normally suffice as a single session on a daily basis. We build up to this.
Between our formal sittings, we develop the ability to maintain an attitude of focussed ‘mindful’ awareness while going about our daily work and recreational activities. As a consequence a natural continuum of conscious awareness can be cultivated in the here-and-now-present-moment as we gain experience through the consistency of daily sitting.
Meditation, being an energy-generating dynamic activity, can progressively help dissolve any residue of past and/or present trauma, unresolved grief, and other lingering obstacles that threaten relapse while supporting progress in abstinence-based recovery.
Indeed: the potential for ‘conscious contact’ is now realisable which in turn potentiates one’s innate capacity to convey to others by personal example the achievement of redemptive emancipation from active addiction. One has the opportunity to become a living embodiment of the message implicit in the wording of Step Twelve:
“Having had a spiritual awakening as the result
of these steps, we tried to carry this message to
alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all