By Tom Charles
“Any behavior that is associated with craving and temporary relief, and with long-term negative consequences, that a person is not able to give up” – How Dr Gabor Maté defines addiction
If addiction is seeking the external search to fill the void within, then meditation is in stark contrast, suggesting an inward turn to know one’s true self. And that is why it helps with recovery from addictions.
Meditation is a safe, slow way to open up to the subtle energies. No sudden conversion or dramatic re-arrangement of lifestyle is required, just a place to sit for a few minutes. Unlike addictive behaviour, meditation involves being with what is, rather than seeking to escape it. It is no wonder that meditation contributes to addiction recovery, and is enshrined in Step 11 of the Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 Steps.
Once you stop being what you are not, you recover what you always were. You cannot recover what you never had…
Meditation is a technique that can allow the addict to come to know their true selves.
Meditation is widely viewed as attractive, but can be seen as esoteric, new age, for ‘them’ and not for me. Do an image search of the word ‘meditation’ and this is what you get, a fantasy:
There is a lot of talk and hype about meditation, so it’s important to break it down to this: a human sitting and doing nothing – just being. Not difficult and not a threat to any faith or atheism. It’s available to all people and that includes you.
Meditation is suggested in Step 11 of the 12 Step recovery programme, ‘Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God…’ This step suggests that direct contact with a higher power is possible through a meditative technique. To practice meditation is to touch stillness and essence, to engage with the absolute and experience our part in it.
Transcendental meditation involves sitting upright, relaxed but alert, repeating a sound (mantra) inwardly. Thoughts come and thoughts go, but the mantra acts as a gentle guide back to stillness when thoughts take over.
It is said that in a 20-minute meditation, if the meditator touches stillness a couple of times, that will be enough to sustain and energise them for hours to come.
Group meditation adds another dimension as people experience a shared consciousness and the meditation often seems easier and deeper. But, whether you are alone or in a group, do not analyse too much – just sit and breathe.
Regular practice is useful, morning and evening, plus spontaneous, short little meditations to centre oneself.
How does it help with addiction?
Meditation alone will not stop addictive patterns but it is an adjunct to whatever works for you, to enhance it and open up the possibility of long-term peace and happiness, rather than a life of miserable abstention, often referred to as being a ‘dry drunk’.
Most people are on the spectrum of addiction. Whether the addiction is obvious, as with drug addiction and alcoholism and their physical scars, or behavioural, or perhaps an addiction to a dogmatic way of thinking. Any activity can be addictive, even meditation itself, if used to escape the present moment and being with oneself.
Walk down any high street and observe how many people are led like lemmings by their mobile phone – a constantly available escape from ourselves. Respite and salvation seem perpetually close, but they are never reached.
Addiction on any point on the spectrum is ego-intensity, an attempt to fix from the outside. But life doesn’t flow like that. We carry on compulsively because the pain or discomfort is intense and we don’t know another way – this is because we don’t know our true selves.
Meditation is a way of tuning in with our true selves. We start to observe our thoughts. If we can observe them, our attachment and identification with them loosens. If we can observe them, they cannot be us; so who are we?
And if we feel both connection and stillness inside ourselves during meditation, could that be who we truly are?
“I’m an alcoholic” might change to “I’m a human being who used alcohol as a coping mechanism”.
Science has been extolling the benefits of meditation for decades, showing its efficacy in reducing depression and anxiety, shrinking the fight/flight area of the brain, expanding attention, emotion regulation, empathy and compassion.
The above are particularly important for addicts because all addicts have a dual diagnosis. As well as their particular addiction, they are depressed, anxious, traumatised, have low self-esteem or one or more of many other torments. Without the initial condition, they would never have sought escape and become addicted in the first place.
Meditation can form part of a holistic approach to addiction recovery, but it is also advocated as part of the 12 step programme. In the book Alcoholics Anonymous, a section called “The Promises” states that by following the steps to recovery the alcoholic will find “a new freedom”. This is the freedom from enslavement to the ego. Meditation helps with this, by gently enabling you to see your true self.
The same passage talks of serenity and knowing peace. Through meditation we can recognise our true value, which cannot be threatened by external events, unlike our egos, which are in a perpetual state of fragility and neediness.
“The Promises” state that the addict will become more interested in their fellow human beings as self-seeking diminishes. This is the recognition of unity, non-duality, inherent in our true nature, accessible through meditation. “Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us” suggests a new relationship. The insecurity and people may remain but the fear will not.
The passage continues, “We will intuitively know how to handle situations that used to baffle us”. Early in my meditation practice, a long-time practitioner told me: ‘you’ll find yourself becoming more confident, truly confident’. If I know myself then I know what isn’t right for me and I know how I really want to live: more in line with my true nature.
“God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves” is the final AA promise. Meditation plays its part in holding us, keeping us safe and imbuing us with confidence and a new effectiveness.
If you can turn in and find peace, then you can take that peace back out with you. In this way being with what is becomes safe, and the compulsion to follow addictive impulses in order to escape will lessen.
This article was also published here