Eat, Smoke, Meditate: Why Your Brain Cares How You Cope

Our National Director of Admissions, Joe Horrocks, suggested this as a basis for an article.  After re-reading it several times I decided that I couldn't present the subject any better then the author has done, so I decided to publish a link instead of reinventing the wheel.  This article explains the “why” of the exercise extremely well, and I'll follow up tomorrow with some information about the “how.”

Most people do what they have to do to get through the day. Though this may sound dire, let’s face it, it’s the human condition. Given the number of people who are depressed or anxious, it’s not surprising that big pharma is doing as well as it is. But for millennia before we turned to government-approved drugs, humans devised clever ways of coping: Taking a walk, eating psychedelic mushrooms, breathing deeply, snorting things, praying, running, smoking, and meditating are just some of the inventive ways humans have found to deal with the unhappy rovings of their minds.

But which methods actually work?

Read more: http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2011/09/21/eat-smoke-meditate-why-your-brain-cares-how-you-cope/

Compassion and Forgiveness

There is a well-known Buddhist lesson concerning two monks who were traveling and came to a muddy stream.  There they observed a woman who was hesitating to cross, apparently concerned about soiling her clothing.

The older monk approached the woman, bowed, and then picked her up and carried her across the stream.  He set her down, bowed again, and he and his younger companion continued on their way.

That evening, while they were eating their rice, the younger monk said, “I don’t understand.  As monks, we are to have no contact with women, yet you picked that woman up and carried her!”

The older monk said, “I put the woman down at the side of the stream.  You are still carrying her.”

That’s how we are.  We cling to thoughts and ideas, worrying them and twisting them around inside our heads, causing all sorts of turmoil and accomplishing nothing in the way of our journey toward spirituality.

To me, spirituality is about things of the human spirit: understanding, compassion, forgiveness, love, willingness to contribute our efforts to help others, humility (at which I fear I’m not all that successful) and things of that sort.  Compassion and forgiveness are especially important, because clinging to the resentments that prevent those qualities from shining forth causes us so much unhappiness.

Compassion is, essentially, seeing things from another’s point of view, and being willing to do what we can to alleviate their suffering.  Forgiveness is compassion toward ourselves.  It is not about freeing the other person from anything, but about freeing ourselves of the unhappiness that is caused by being unforgiving.

Like the young monk, we sometimes carry things along with us after the reality has changed and, in our very human way, often blow it up in our minds until it forms a nearly impassable barrier to true spiritual growth.  Not until we realize that forgiveness does not involve condoning a wrongful act, but is simply choosing to accept, and move on with our own lives, can we expect to get beyond it.  That doesn’t mean that we have to invite the person to dinner, but only that we need to learn to put down our own burden after we have crossed the stream.

Tolerance Is An Important Part Of Recovery

There are a variety of characteristics that make up what we refer to as “spirituality,” but it seems to me that tolerance stands out as one of the primary things we need to work on in recovery. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines tolerance as 1. capacity to endure pain or hardship; and 2. sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one's own. Both of these are important for recovering people to remember.

We addicts know The Way Things Ought To Be. We tend to be hard-headed, opinionated and prone to black and white thinking.  Generally, we are solidly for or against things, and rarely see the world in shades of gray.  Of course this doesn't apply to you, but I'm sure you know others who are at fault, and you probably have pretty definite ideas about them.  Right? 😉

The capacity to endure pain or hardship would be pretty well ingrained in addicts already, were it not for the fact that we spent most of our time, most of our money, and most of our attention actively avoiding those two things. We are folks who do not believe that it is okay not to feel okay. Considering that the first few months of sobriety find us extra-sensitive to many of the things that the alcohol or other drugs covered up, it becomes apparent that we are stuck with a period where we're going to have to endure certain discomforts without drugs to round off the sharp edges. In short, we get a crash course in what most other folks know already — sometimes you hurt and you just have to walk through it, but it doesn't last forever.

The upside to this is that without chemicals dulling our senses we are also going to be able to experience happiness — even joy — in ways that we never could previously. That may not happen right away, but it's worth working for.

Just as important is the aspect of tolerance that involves others. It is recognizing their right to be who they are, without interference from us. We run into all sorts of people in recovery, and unfortunately many of us bring our prejudices along with us: religious, political, racial, social, or any combination of those. Still legends in our own minds, many of us feel free to force those opinions on others.

What if someone is really down on himself, barely hanging on, keeping a stiff upper lip, and I come along and try to shame them by telling them how wrong they are as a person.  Is that going to help? I doubt it. If they're in a meeting they may just get up and walk out. I've seen it happen. I don't think it's ever happened because of me, but I hate to even consider the possibility.

People in recovery, especially early recovery, have one paramount purpose: to stay clean and sober. They don't need people “should-ing” on them. If we believe in fiscal conservatism, that's fine. If we love Jesus, or Allah, or follow the Middle Path, that's fine too. If we dislike gays, we're missing out on some interesting friends — but that's our privilege. It is not, however, our privilege to push our opinions about outside issues on other people in the rooms of recovery. Our primary purpose is to stay clean and sober, and we have no opinions on outside issues.  Remember?

Tolerance is about letting other people find out who they are, and letting them know that's okay. We expect that courtesy from others, so the least we can do is be tolerant ourselves.

Why Is Addiction A Physical, Mental and Spiritual Condition?

Why do they say that alcoholism and other addictions are a physical, mental and spiritual condition? 

Not to seem like a wise guy, but it's because they are.  Addiction affects us in many ways.  Let's look at some.

Most of us can understand the physical part.  We get sick, we feel shaky when we need our drugs.  We suffer withdrawal when we stop after using too much.  A hangover is simply short-term withdrawal, for example, and the fun increases the longer we use.  After prolonged use of alcohol and/or other drugs our health may start to deteriorate.  We may lose or gain weight, develop digestive problems, the shakes, liver problems, and a variety of other symptoms of physical decline.  Clearly the disease of addiction affects us physically.

It's not too hard to discern some mental effects, either.  When we're using, our minds obviously don't work in the same fashion as when we're straight, and over time the dysfunction begins to predominate.  As we reach the point of chronic use and addiction we may develop mental issues that can range from paranoia to mania, depression, and just about anything in between.

Even the various forms of denial that allow us to continue to fool ourselves that we're okay are a form of mental aberration.  As we progress in our addiction, our thinking and reasoning ability may begin to deteriorate.  In some cases, this can lead to various forms of dementia that are usually permanent.

However, spiritual deterioration is sneaky. 

Before I get into just how sneaky, I need to explain that by “spirituality” I mean the qualities of the human spirit that relate to the people and things around us.  No metaphysical or religious connection need be involved, although the qualities of spirituality are certainly necessary for those things to flower.

One of the first things to go is honesty. 

We begin to lie to ourselves and others about matters related to our drug use.  We tell ourselves that we can stop whenever we like — we just don't want to. 

We lie to our families about when and how much we have used. 

We call in to work with the “stomach flu,” when in fact we have a bad hangover. 

We steal time and services from our families and employers, and lie about our reasons.  When we've done that long enough, it becomes habitual. 

We are no longer the honest people we once were, even though we may console ourselves that we haven't stolen anything or harmed anyone by our neglect of the facts.

Compassion goes out the window.  We armor ourselves against the concerns, needs and pain of others, because to acknowledge them would be to admit our own part.  As our lives center more and more around getting and using our drugs, we reach a point where we're immune to any feelings but our own.  Those, we try to squash with drugs, because the reality is too painful to consider.  Relationships and family ties deteriorate.

We are quick to create resentments that justify our actions, and to forget what we may have known about forgiveness.  If I can hold your behavior against you, then I don't need to worry about how you feel, or about your opinions.  You're the bad guy, and forgettable, even though you may be right.

Love and the idea of joy either disappear, or become so distorted that we have no idea what they used to mean.

And so on, and so on.

Most of us draw away from our religious beliefs as well.  It becomes apparent to us that we are falling short of our convictions, and so we change those to accommodate our current lifestyle.  Morality may be an issue, if we have been promiscuous or dishonest.  We fear the consequences of those things predicted by our religion, and thus we can't afford to believe any longer.  We may cling to some beliefs that fit our situation, reject religion altogether, or become convinced that we are terrible people who are doomed.

So addictive disease is, indeed, a physical, mental and spiritual issue.  If we don't address all three equally in our attempts at recovery, we will almost certainly fail to gain the true benefits of a sober life, even though we may fool ourselves that we're okay, simply because we aren't using drugs.

But are we really okay?  Think about it.

Why did I have so much spirituality before I got clean, and now I can’t seem to get it back?

We go through a lot of changes when we get clean and sober.  After all, our whole world is turned around.  We go from total self-involvement to learning to depend on and to help others.  Our priorities shift from finding mood-altering chemicals to trying to get them mostly out of our minds.  We begin to look at our past realistically, and we start learning to forgive ourselves and move on with our lives.

We also have post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) to deal with.  Those issues can range from an inability to sit still and think about much of anything, to depression — occasionally both in the same person.  They are caused by changes in our brain as it repairs itself and returns to something like normal, and they can go on for months, alternating relatively good periods with some pretty uncomfortable times.  But millions have gotten through PAWS successfully.  With the help of our program, so can we.

Recovery takes time.  Getting to something like normal takes time.  And time takes time.  We are accustomed to getting what we want when we want it, and having immediate results from the getting.  Suddenly we are being told that we’re “right where you’re supposed to be,” and we don’t like hearing it one bit.  We still what what we want, when we want it.  As the old joke goes, “God, please grant me the gift of patience…right now!”

So it’s not too surprising that we find ourselves unable to focus on spiritual things.  In fact, our concepts of spirituality may themselves be undergoing changes, and considering the other changes happening in our lives, that’s hardly a surprise either.

The best thing for us to do is follow suggestions, remember that we have the rest of our lives to develop both our sobriety and a spiritual way of life, and simply not worry about it for the time being.  If we get up in the morning with the realization that we’re not hurting, and are grateful for it; if we try to do the next right thing as often as we can; if we sit down at the end of the day, consider our successes and failures, and remember that we have tomorrow to improve; if we remember to be thankful for a day without getting high and the prospect of another one tomorrow, then we have done all we need to do to insure that our spiritual life will develop, in it’s own time.

Just like recovery, spiritual growth is a process, not an event.

Questions from Newcomers: Will it be harder to recover if you don’t believe in God?

If we believe in a loving god who cares what happens to us, looks after us, and answers prayers, the peace that our belief brings will unquestionably be a great support in recovery.  On the other hand, if we believe that a god will take care of us simply because we ask, without our putting any effort into our recovery process, then it is quite possible that believing could hinder our recovery.  Likewise, if we were raised to believe in a harsh, punishing god who will make us pay for our transgressions, we may find that we are emotionally unable to deal with the implications and may so totally reject the “God Thing” (as many of us call it) that we end up throwing our recovery out with our religious beliefs.

We tell newcomers that their god can be a tree, doorknob or the group because, in reality, religion is a non-issue when it comes to the nuts and bolts of recovery.  In order to have a shot at recovering, we need to acknowledge that “our best thinking got us here,” (to quote another recovery cliché) and accept that we really don’t know how to do it.  That, in turn, leads to the inescapable conclusion that we need to stop trying to do things our way and let someone else help us.  This can be really hard for addicts and alcoholics who spent years defending their every behavior, but it is absolutely essential if we are going to escape our active addictions.

If we decide that “God as we understood Him” is the god of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, or one or more of the many gods associated with the Hindu faith, or the Wiccan goddess, that’s fine.  We can turn our will and our life over to the care of that entity, in the sense that we become humble enough to trust the recovery process, and listen to people who know what they’re talking about.  The comfort that we get from our beliefs will be a help as long as we don’t think that religion is all we need.

Recovery is about being honest with ourselves and those around us, open — both in the sense of accepting input from others and letting them know a little about who we are — and willing to “go to any lengths” to develop the qualities we need in order to recover.  It is about learning forgiveness, compassion, tolerance (even of people who believe differently from us), humility, acceptance, and the other things that are involved in living with and around other people.  It is about eventually becoming able to re-enter society and live a functional, productive life.  The “spirituality” that we talk about in recovery is not religion, it is the development of the human spirit.  It is about becoming comfortable in our own skin — about not needing to turn our brains off in order to achieve a reasonable degree of comfort, happiness and, occasionally, joy.  It is about learning that we don’t have to feel good all the time, and appreciating the times that aren’t so good along with the better ones.  After all, aren't most of them — even the bad ones — better than when we were using alcohol and other drugs?  The difference is that, like the rest of humanity, we're actually present in our lives, not hiding from them.

We can see that it is quite possible to achieve the qualities needed for recovery without believing in a metaphysical presence.  That is not to say that belief is not desirable or helpful, if that’s where our head is coming from, but many of us have recovered successfully without religious beliefs.    We also need to be really careful to insure that our objection to the beliefs of others (which are really none of our business) doesn't become an excuse to avoid the recovery process.  That's killed a lot of addicts.  Denial isn't a river in Africa.

“To thine own self be true” is the key.  Most of us were square pegs.  We need to learn that it’s OK — that we don’t have to fit into openings made for other shapes, and that we don't need chemicals for lubrication.  Learning that, and appreciating ourselves for who and what we really are, is what recovery is all about.

Some Words About Resentments

There is a well-known Buddhist lesson concerning two monks who were traveling and came to a muddy stream.  There they observed a woman who was hesitating to cross, apparently concerned about soiling her clothing.

The older monk approached the woman, bowed, and then picked her up and carried her across the stream.  He set her down, bowed again, and he and his younger companion continued on their way.

That evening, while they were eating their rice, the younger monk said, “I don’t understand.  As monks, we are to have no contact with women, yet you picked that woman up and carried her in your arms!”

The older monk said, “I put the woman down at the side of the stream.  You are still carrying her.”

That’s how we are…. http://digital-dharma.net/2011/07/18/compassion-and-forgiveness/