Head Full of Mindfulness

Mindfulness has become a buzzword in popular culture. It’s touted as a strategy to promote bliss, clear the mind, promote employee performance and sell products. Although it’s encouraging to see mindfulness gain more attention, the downside is that many of these applications dilute or misrepresent what it actually is.

Mindfulness has its roots in ancient Buddhist practice. It originates in the Pali term sati, which is often translated as “bare awareness.” It involves paying attention to what arises in the mind from a place of non-judgment. It is part of a broader process to help relieve suffering, which comes from attachment to having things be the way we want them to. Through practicing mindfulness, we can change the way we relate to our own thoughts and feelings. We create a space to slow down our responses and more meaningfully engage in our lives. It can even help us cultivate greater compassion for others and ourselves.

This isn’t to say mindfulness is easy. Our minds are generally very busy. In fact, the average person has 12,000-60,000 thoughts per day! Slowing down and paying attention to the stream of impressions running through our minds can be difficult and sometimes uncomfortable. Combine with this the idea that we are supposed to remove judgment, and mindfulness suddenly becomes a daunting task.

I believe this is why many people become discouraged when they try mindfulness meditation. People often expect that they need to clear their mind of thoughts or feel totally at peace. When these things don’t happen, they feel like they’ve failed. Instead of experiencing bliss, they end up disheartened and are less likely to meditate again. The truth is, mindfulness isn’t really about either of these things. It’s about experiencing whatever is happening in the moment without identifying too closely with it. That’s it.

We incorporate mindfulness into our work at Ascend because it can be particularly helpful for individuals struggling with addiction. Substance abuse problems are characterized by formidable cravings due to a malfunction in the reward pathway of the brain. They can overwhelm a person with obsessive thoughts, intense feelings, and powerful body sensations. These cravings are intense enough that they often leave addicts feeling like they will never be free of them.

Through mindfulness practice, we help our patients create a new relationship to their cravings. With training, they can learn to witness this phenomenon as it arises without automatically reacting to it. They begin to understand that cravings are always temporary. This can provide them with a sense of empowerment, knowing they can weather cravings from a place of non-attachment. As they combine this skill with others learned in the treatment process, our patients find greater hope for long-term recovery.

Of course, mindfulness is not only effective for addicts. It is a practice that can be cultivated and enjoyed by many. There are many online resources and apps that provide tools to develop a practice. A couple of my favorites are Headspace and Calm, although there are many more to choose from. Mindfulness practice has been a transformative force in my life and recovery, and I recommend it to anyone looking for a healthier way to relate to their own mind.

Written by: Matt Wright, LCSW, Clinical Director for Ascend Recovery

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