Total Recovery: Balancing Head & Heart, Body & Soul in Recovery
 Author:   Jim Parker
Publisher:   Do It Now Foundation

 Publication Date:

  February 1999

 Catalog No:


Chapter 5: De-Programming the Mind

Be true to the thought of the moment and avoid distraction. Other than continuing to exert yourself, enter into nothing else, but go to the extent of living single thought by single thought.

--The Book of the Samurai

You usually don't have to look too far or very long to find a reason to justify body-oriented changes in recovery.

You don't have to be particularly insightful to suspect that your body has to be affected by the chemicals you spent months or years swallowing, snorting, smoking, or shooting. Or that the best way to begin cleaning things up there is through fundamental nutritional and lifestyle changes on a physical level.

Similarly, most everyone will agree on the need for a basic shift in the way we've got our minds wired up if we're going to stay away from chemicals for any length of time and avoid the problems that lead to wanting just one drink, joint, line, or fix in the future.

That's what we're going to be talking about in this chapter: What you can do to extend and broaden the changes we talked about in the last chapter and apply them to changing the way you relate to your own mind.

Because the changes in nutrition and exercise and lifestyle we suggested earlier aren't enough. Without reinforcement and expansion on an internal level, those changes are likely to go the way of every other change you've ever made in your life: They're going to get forgotten. Then someday, they'll get remembered -- as good intentions you once had.

To prevent that from happening, we need to find a way to reinforce those changes, extend them into the area of your thoughts and feelings, and lay the groundwork for "institutionalizing" the life changes you make in recovery as a permanent part of who you are and how you're going to be from here on out.

Seeing Patterns. A key element at any stage of recovery is seeing the need for change as fundamental to survival. Now, we'll expand that idea a little by saying that the key to recognition is observation, and a main part of our approach to generating deeper changes is simply expanding our ability to observe ourselves -- particularly our minds -- in action.

It's not as complicated as it sounds. In fact, saints and swamis have been saying the same thing for centuries: Know yourself.

The importance of self-awareness should be obvious, but few of us practice it as if our lives really depend on it. And the reason we fail -- in life and in knowing ourselves -- is because we're so adept at identifying with our minds that we don't question its assumptions about itself and the rest of the world.

Well, we've got good news and bad news about that. First, the good news: We're not our minds -- we're a lot more than that.

Now the bad news: We have to figure out who we are on our own.


For the uncontrolled there is no wisdom,
nor for the uncontrolled is there the power of concentration;
and for him without concentration there is no peace.
And for the unpeaceful, how can there be happiness?

--Bhagavad Gita

One of the best ways to begin figuring out what else we are is through the process of meditation.

There are as many different forms of meditation as there are people to practice them, but all revolve around one basic goal: stopping, at least temporarily, the flood of thought, commentary, and self-talk that flows through our minds.

Meditation has been studied extensively for years and offers all kinds of direct, tangible benefits -- lowered heart rate and blood pressure, increased self-esteem and confidence, and expanded interpersonal effectiveness, among other things.

But the reason we think so much of it in the context of recovery is that it works so well in both filling up the time formerly set aside for addictive behaviors and in reversing the stress and depression that can trigger relapse.

Don't know how?

Don't worry about it. Meditation is one of the simplest things in the world to teach or learn.

If you'd like formal meditation training, you can contact any of a number of organized groups to arrange it. Prices, as in most things, can vary from a little to a lot, but unlike most things, when it comes to meditation you don't necessarily get what you pay for.

You get what you create -- every day, once or twice a day.


The 'Relaxation Response.' A basic, no-frills approach to meditation that seems to include all the essentials is passed along by Dr. Herbert Benson in his book, The Relaxation Response. According to Benson, all approaches to meditation aim at the same basic goal -- quieting the relentless chatter of the mind simply by seeing it for what it so often is: noise.

Benson himself was introduced to the practice at Harvard Medical School in the early 1970s, studying the physical and psychological changes associated with one approach to meditation, Transcendental Meditation (TM).

The basic TM process that Benson originally studied involves the silent repetition of a word (often a Hindu name for God) called a mantra, accompanied by deep relaxation of the body. The technique worked -- very well, in most cases.

But Benson didn't stop there. As he kept looking over his data, at the lowered metabolic rate and decreased anxiety levels of meditators, he wondered if the results reflected specific properties of TM or represented a phenomenon that's true about meditation in general. To find out, he repeated his experiments with a group he taught to meditate using the word "one" as a mantra, rather than a Sanskrit word specified by the TM instructor.

The results were clear-cut. "One" seemed to work as well as the meditator's mantras, at least in eliciting a deep state of body/mind relaxation. Benson immediately dubbed the state the "Relaxation Response."

Benson believes that deep relaxation is an inborn human capacity that's gradually fallen into disuse and disrepair over the centuries. That's happened because to survive in a hostile world, we've had to adapt a hair-trigger approach to sorting out potential difficulties in our minds by constantly creating different "what-if" scenarios that typically boil down to two basic choices: fighting or fleeing.

Nothing wrong with that, according to Benson, except that gradually we've lost the ability to relax fully and we need to relearn it.

How do you teach yourself?

Easily enough, as it turns out. Begin by finding a quiet place. Ideally, it should be comfortable (since you're going to be sitting in one basic position for about 20 minutes) and distraction-free, since interruptions can both break your concentration and make 20 minutes seem like a long time, indeed.

After a while, though, comfortable and quiet aren't even prerequisites. Experienced meditators meditate wherever they are -- whether on a crowded commuter train or in their office between appointments. Still, for starters, it's best to find a reasonably quiet and comfortable place.

But not too comfortable. Try an armless straight back chair, but see that you're able to keep your spine straight and your muscles relaxed.


Stopping the Mind, Step by Step. Begin by closing your eyes. Take a breath, relax, and start to feel the tension flow out of your body. If you have a tough time with this (and many do), systematically tense and relax the main muscle groups of your body.

Starting with your feet, flex your toes and relax. Then tense and relax your ankles. Do the same in your calves and knees and thighs and hips and pelvis and abdomen and chest and back, upper arms, forearms, and fingers. Feel the tension in your body dissolving as you bring it up to conscious awareness.

After you've become relaxed, begin to pay attention to your breathing. Nothing fancy here, just notice the rhythmic in-and-out flow of breath, and silently say the word "one" (or "Aum" or "calm" or any other one- or two-syllable word that seems to fit) to yourself as you exhale.

This is where you'll begin to notice the incredible tangle of disconnected thoughts that ordinarily command so much of our attention -- all the things we didn't say or could have done, all the events we felt good/bad/indifferent about, all the slights and omissions dispensed and received, all the trivia that endlessly runs through our minds, that in fact forms a major part of who most of us consider ourselves to be.

When stray thoughts intrude (and they will), just notice them and, without getting angry at yourself for "not doing it right," simply go back to repeating the word you've chosen as a mantra.

Sound boring? It can seem that way, sometimes, usually when the mind needs quieting the most. But it can also be inspiring, restful, relaxing, and even fun.

Variations on the theme can include closed-eye visualizations, in which you form mental images to role-play your way through a problem, for example, or focus attention on a specific goal. But the basic premise remains the same: Stop the endless flow of self-talk in our minds and all sorts of possibilities open up.

That's all that meditation is about.

Because in spite of the mystical overtones often associated with the practice, it's only a technique to help focus awareness. If you're wondering what good that is, just think back to some of the best moments in your life. You'll notice that a relaxed, focused awareness is probably the only thing all your best moments had in common. Your mind got out of the way, and your soul (or your self-whatever you want to call it) took over.

What are you waiting for? Meditation is just like needlepoint, bowling, gourmet cooking, or anything else we've ever heard of.

The only way to get good at it is through practice -- preferably twice a day, every day.

You can settle for less. The only problem is that's what you get when that's what you do.

Table of Contents

Click to continue...


This is one in a series of publications on drugs, behavior, and health from Do It Now Foundation. Check us out online at www.doitnow.org.