Part Six of the Mindful Path from Addiction to Serenity Series
I’m putting together an eBook for people interested in using mindfulness to overcome addiction problems. I’ll share the chapters on here as I write them. Here is part six in the series – you will find links to earlier posts at the end of this one.
My behaviour during those years of addiction reminds me of a turtle hiding in his shell. It felt safe to be tucked away inside my drunken fog, but it also meant missing out on the joys of reality. Even during the happiest period of my drinking, there was still an uneasy feeling of missing out on something.
Like a curious turtle, I would sometimes get the courage to stick my head outside of my shell, but this meant feeling naked and unprotected. It usually didn’t take long before I would be hit full-blast with negative emotions such as sadness and loneliness, and this would be enough to have me scurrying back inside of my fortress walls.
A return to addiction can mean devastating consequences, but it is no real mystery why it happens. Being back at the mercy of negative thoughts and emotions is an uncomfortable way to live, and it can easily lead to the logical conclusion – if I’m going to be feeling this bad anyway, I might as well be getting drunk or high.
It is reasonable to expect that any path away from addiction is going to involve effective strategies for dealing with the raw emotions of early recovery. If you are going to be a brave little turtle, and stick your head out of your shell, you need a way to protect yourself. People who relapse don’t do so because they are wilful, weak, or stupid but because they left their shell and weren’t able to deal with what they experienced.
Get Hit with Two Arrows for the Price of One
I used to believe that I couldn’t handle my emotions and that is why I got drunk all the time. This was a misunderstanding. The problem was never with my emotions but with my thoughts about these emotions. I would experience a feeling like sadness, and this would trigger the idea that ‘I shouldn’t be feeling this way’ – it was this resistance to reality that was the real source of my suffering.
Buddhists describe this “it shouldn’t be this way’ reaction to negative emotions using the metaphor of the two arrows. When I would experience a feeling like sadness, this would be like being hit by a single arrow. This single arrow of sadness would be no big deal because it only involved some temporary low mood and maybe a lack of enthusiasm.
I struggled with emotions because I developed the habit of reacting to negative feelings by trying to resist them (i.e. ‘I shouldn’t be feeling this way’). This was like being hit with a second arrow, and it more than doubled my discomfort. The second arrow was completely avoidable – as the Radiohead song says “you do it to yourself and that’s what really hurts”.
Resisting feelings is the same as struggling in quicksand, and it can quickly turn a mild irritation into a total mental shit-storm. The urge to fix the situation is driven by magical thinking – the silly idea that our expectation on how we ‘should be’ feelings has any effect on the way we are feeling in this moment. What’s there is there.
The secret to dealing with the ‘emotional rollercoaster of early recovery’ is to accept what you are feeling and understand that it is just a temporary visitor. Life is a banquet of emotions, and we can only experience real joy if we are willing to face sadness.
The amazing thing is that once we begin to experience our emotions more mindfully, we start to see how we have been judging them way too harshly. The problem was never the emotion but our thoughts and subsequent reaction to it.
“This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all.”
Make Some Breathing Space
Mindfulness is a skill we need to develop through regular practice and it takes time. If you have just recently given up alcohol or drugs, your level of mindfulness may be too low for you to easily be objective around your thoughts and emotions. Luckily, there are some tools you can use at this stage and one of them is called ‘Breathing Space’.
The real danger with negative emotions is you can so easily slip into auto-pilot mode in response to them. This can mean you blindly wander back to the comfort of addiction because you are now been driven by unconscious impulses rather than rational thinking. It is vital that you avoid this decent into auto-pilot mode, and Breathing Space is one technique that can help you do this.
Breathing Space is a simple mindfulness technique created by Mark Williams who is a professor of psychology at the University of Oxford. It involves three steps – each of which take approximately one minute. Any time you start to feel overwhelmed by your emotions, you can use this technique to take a step back and see things more objectively.
You will find audio instructions for using Breathing Space on Mark’s website Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World, but here is a basic description of what you need to do.
1. Notice what is going on in your body right now including sensations, thoughts and feelings
2. Pay attention to the rising and falling of your breath in the abdomen
3. Expand your awareness to the whole body again
You need to get into the habit of using this technique so that you can easily do it when feeling under pressure.
An Emotional Recovery
If quitting your addiction wakes you up to this amazing opportunity called reality, you are likely to one day look back on the pain of addiction as a blessing. The sad reality is most people seem to walk through life in a half-asleep state but it never gets so painful that they feel the need to wake up.
Waking up to reality is the greatest gift you could ever give yourself – it is well worth the initial discomfort as you adjust to experiencing your emotions. This life may well be a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity, so it would be a shame to miss it. Perhaps you will accuse me of speciesism, but a turtle who never leaves its shell has never really lived.
”The tragedy for too many of us is not that our lives are too short, but that we take so long before we start to live them”
Mark Williams et al The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness (Book & CD)
Check back soon for the next post in this series – Mindfully Find Your Life Purpose
Part 1 – The Mindful Path from Addiction to Serenity
Part 2 – Why Mindfulness Makes the Perfect Replacement for Addiction
Part 3 – How Mindfulness Works
Part 4 – Mindfulness versus Addiction Cravings
Part 5 – Mindfulness for the Ups and Downs in Recovery – Part 1