The treatment world has begun to adopt mindfulness as a tool more and more in the last few years, and, while it is certainly invaluable for recovery, it is also important to understand mindfulness within its proper context. Mindfulness meditation, which comes out of the Buddhist tradition, has some obvious uses and benefits for the person in recovery. First, meditation has the effect of bringing calm and reducing stress, which is especially important for the person who is new to sobriety. The stresses of early recovery are a huge challenge, so having a tool for dealing with that is vital.
A second value of mindfulness is that it reveals the mental habits that lead us to relapse. Mindfulness meditation encourages us to notice our thoughts and feelings, and when we observe the urge to drink or use surfacing, rather than acting on it, we have the opportunity to let it go. If we are unaware of those thoughts, however, we tend to simply act on them as we do on so many unrecognized ideas that pass through the mind.
All of this is useful, up to a point. However, as someone who started using mindfulness meditation five years before getting sober, I know its limits. I used to meditate and then go out and drink. Worse still, I would think I was being mindful as I stumbled through the bar. In fact, when you’re three sheets to the wind, you need to be mindful just to stay upright.
It’s not that there is something wrong with mindfulness; rather, mindfulness, as it was originally presented in the Buddhist teachings, was part of a larger formula: the Noble Eightfold Path. This includes a whole spectrum of practices and attitudes that challenge us to bring our spiritual path into all aspects of our lives.
One of the attitudes that is critical to making mindfulness an effective practice, is the aspect of the path called Right Intention. At one point, the Buddha said that intention is what informed the results of our actions, that intention is what makes our karma. What he meant is that the reason we do something — our motivation — really determines the outcome. So, I can be very mindful as I’m breaking into your house, but because what I’m doing is immoral, the results aren’t going to be good — for you or me. I can be mindful as I pour a drink, watching every drop of liquor go in the glass, being acutely aware of the smell, the sensation of the cool glass in my hand, the burning as the booze goes down my throat, but the result is I get drunk. In fact, one Buddhist teacher back in the 1970s used to teach his students to do just this — drink mindfully. Unfortunately, he died of liver failure, and many of his former students are now in AA.
Mindfulness itself, in its barest sense, is really a neutral quality. If it is not informed by Right Intention, it doesn’t necessarily have a spiritual component. But when we bring along the intention to be awake and aware, compassionate and wise, fully engaged in our lives, mindfulness becomes a powerfully liberating quality.
One practice that comes out of both the 12-Step and Buddhist traditions is to daily “set our intention,” to consciously bring to mind some of our goals in our spiritual life. When Step Three says we should “turn our will” over to the care of God, this is what it is saying. “Will” is a synonym for intention, and when we take this Step, it’s not that we are giving our will to some outside, magical force that’s going to handle everything for us. Rather, when we turn our will over to God. What we are doing is trying to align our intention with the wisdom and morality woven into the universe. Instead of acting on selfish, reactive will, we ask ourselves what would bring the most harmony into our lives and the lives of people around us.
This is a huge challenge, because it is natural to want to do what you want to do. Turning your will over to God, or trying to live by Right Intention, means constantly questioning our own motives. Why am I doing this? For selfish reasons? For short-term pleasure? Or to be of service or to learn and grow? It is not always easy to answer these questions; intention is usually mixed.
This is where the process circles back again to mindfulness. In order to be clear about how honest and positive our intention is, we have to be mindful. When we look deeply into our intention with this quality of investigation, we can get a better idea of the true quality of intention behind our thoughts, words and deeds.
One of the risks of setting an intention is that we cross over from just intending something into trying to force it to happen. Setting spiritual goals is risky. The essence of Buddhism is letting go, or non-striving, so when we start chasing after goals, we are going against that idea. Addicts, too, have the tendency to try to control things, to make things happen, so a lightly held intention can blur into a grasping after something we crave. An important part of spiritual practice is to remind ourselves what is really important. We have to watch out for the way that desire makes us think that getting what we want will make us happy. Spending our time trying to satisfy desires is how we become addicted in the first place.
Step Twelve makes an interesting point about this: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message…” What the Step is saying is that our spiritual awakening isn’t selfish. The goal of recovery isn’t just to make us feel good or get what we want out of life. Once we achieve sobriety, clarity and spiritual growth, we give it away.
Mindfulness is the starting point for this process of change, but it is not the sole element. When mindfulness is joined with an intention to be of service, to grow and to live a life of integrity, it becomes a transforming power.