n recovery, as we gain experience, the world can be turbulent and at times we can become fraught. We make friends. We watch some of those walk away, and yet we make new friends. We lose things; homes burn down, or are foreclosed on. We lose jobs, and get sick. Friends and family are lost to death. Still life goes on, and we must find stillness in the storm if we are to remain abstinent long enough to see the impact of the steps in our lives. It is in these times that meditation can give us peace in times of chaos.
During the first couple months of my sobriety I was plagued by a fear of the unknown. The whole of my life was stretched out before me like a thunder cloud. It was very intimidating to think that for the rest of my life I could never put drugs and alcohol into my body again. At AA meetings I was assaulted by cliché after cliché after cliché. People said things like “one day at time,” or “easy does it,” or my favorite “keep it simple stupid.” I found no relief regardless of how true and useful the clichés were. It wasn’t until I found the practice of vipassana-meditation that I was able to find a hope that dispelled my fears. This daily practice combined with the steps I have taken in AA, and my higher-power (the study of Zen Buddhism and the spirit of the universe) has given me peace. I no longer gaze off into the future, and though it takes work, I look less into the past.
Vipassana, which means to see things as they truly are, is a meditative practice in which the practitioner uses mindfulness of the breath to see through to the impermanence of everything, and is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. In this practice the meditator assumes a comfortable posture, either sitting in a chair or on a cushion with her spine erect, but not rigid. She begins by focusing her attention on the breath. She does not try to change the breath to make it even, or longer, or shorter, but instead she lets the breath come and go as it does naturally. If she has trouble concentrating she can use a mental object such as counting her breaths one count for her inhale and one count for the exhale. She can make an internal notation such as: “I breath in one. I exhale one. I inhale two I exhale two, and so on. As soon as the state of meditation is gained, and the breath has become even and natural she should abandon counting and continue to rest a light, friendly attention on the breath. She should note any changes in her breathing as just that a change in her breathing. As thoughts pop up, as they always do, she gently acknowledges that there was a thought and kindly brings her attention to the here, the now, the breath.
Meditation allows us to be our true selves, beyond notions of personality—beyond belief and disbelief— then slowly we begin to see the truth. The truth is that everything that we see or believe to be true or right, tangible or intangible is empty, and temporary. We see that nothing is static and that everything is changing. We dig deep and realize that how we are defined in the world or how we define ourselves is just an idea, an illusion that is a result of the desire to know who we are in relation to others, and in that realization comes freedom. It is the type of freedom that allows us to be truly spontaneous, adaptive, and aware of the somatic cues that can easily trip us up.
These somatic cues are physiological states that trigger in us the craving to use. For example: Imagine using alcohol, or drugs to escape an unpleasant emotion state like fear. You’ve been avoiding addressing the fear directly for years, and instead every time that fear arises you used a substance for relief. After a while you’ve conditioned your mind to seek relief from that substance every time you feel the physiological manifestations of fear (e.g. rapid breathing, wide eyes, muscles tensed, rapid heartbeat, etc.) thus triggering the phenomena of craving.
A study done on meditation’s effect on the cortices (the outer layer of the cerebrum which plays an important part on consciousness) published on NeuroReport suggests that meditation may be associated with changes in the areas in the brain responsible for sensory, cognitive, and emotional processing.
“It has been hypothesized that by becoming increasingly more aware of sensory stimuli during formal practice, the meditation practitioner is gradually able to use this self-awareness to more successfully navigate through potentially stressful encounters arise throughout the day [2,23]. This eastern philosophy of emotion dovetails with Domasio’s theory that connections between sensory cortices and emotion cortices play a crucial role in processing emotionally salient material and adaptive decision making .” the study said.
For many of us in early recovery awareness can mean the difference between life and death. Early recovery is a period of chaotic and raw emotion that is very real, palpable, and which many of us have avoided feeling in a very long time. In this early stage of our recovery it is absolutely vital to be aware of our internal states in order to recognize psychosomatic cues and triggers, to become acquainted with our emotions to see them as not as inherent truths, but the internal bubbling of the mind that is impermanent, and also as a way of communing with our higher power and ourselves.
In conclusion meditation as a daily practice can help to enrich our lives, as well as our recovery by making us more aware of our feelings, both emotionally and physically. It can hold the key to boundless joy, peace, and compassion for us and for others. It can literally change our brains making us more adaptive, aware, and sensible, but most of all it can help us to become liberated from the past, anchored in this moment, and ready to accept the next moment with love, compassion, and ease.