Alumni Perspective: An Unshakeable Foundation for Life

by Charles M. (Punanai 2001)


“Life is difficult.”

So begins “The Road Less Travelled,” a wisdom book about living well by Scott Peck. Talk about keeping it simple! We hear the same awareness time and again in the rooms of recovery: “Just because I’m sober doesn’t mean my life is easy.”

I had no idea what Peck was talking about when I first opened his book back in the mid-1980s — probably because I was neck deep in my addiction and desperate to believe that everything in my life would just work out. Magically.

Now I get it — probably because I’ve been clean and sober for a while and I’m paying attention. Today I’m free to say “Yes” to life, and most days I choose to face life on its terms, not mine, as best I can.

Unfortunately for me, however, I don’t always have answers for life’s challenges. The next right action isn’t always clear to me.  In fact, living sober sometimes leaves me feeling as rudderless, scared, and discouraged as I felt when I was using.

Life is difficult. And I don’t mind admitting I need a power other than King “I” to help me live sober — just as I needed that same power to help me get sober.

Enter Step Eleven, my favourite Step.

Something about this Step grabbed me — I can’t quite say what.  I jumped right into it the day after l graduated from “The House.” I still try my best to greet each new day with a time of prayerful and meditative quiet.

At first this was new and it was hard. And I definitely still need discipline to keep it up.  I do keep it up because I’ve grown to like how the still, deep quiet feeds my spirit. I need that. And I love the results.

Step Eleven is my anchor. Working this Step keeps me grounded in my relationship with the higher power I committed to in Step Three, and then some — it takes that relationship to a deeper place. I tap into courage when scared; strength when worn out; comfort when hurt or lonely; determination when discouraged.  Step Eleven keeps me trudging along.

Over time, I’ve learned what works best for me.  If I want solid results, I need a solid morning routine with built-in quality time for practicing the Step. A rush job doesn’t cut it. For me, that’s 20 minutes minimum — I prefer at least a half hour, if not longer. And of course that dictates when I set the alarm!

I’m better at the conscious part of “conscious contact” if I start by taking what time I need to calm my thoughts, relax my body, and settle into a true quiet. Sometimes that takes a few minutes and sometimes, on bad days, longer.  And I’m more open — less easily distracted — if I do my Step work first thing in the morning, before the rush of getting ready for work.

Step Eleven is also my rudder. I can’t describe how that works for me any better than the Step itself does:

“In thinking about our day we may face indecision. We may not be able to determine which course to take. Here we ask God for inspiration, an intuitive thought or a decision. We relax and take it easy. We don’t struggle. We are often surprised how the right answers come …”

~ “The Big Book,” Step 11, page 86

“Ask.” I don’t always know what to do. When I was new and inexperienced with this Step I’d pray for direction, then immediately look to the elders in recovery for advice.  I still do.

“Relax and take it easy.” “Don’t struggle.” If I’m anxious and impatient, then I’m fighting the Step. That blocks the power in the process from doing its work.

And then, “Surprise!”  A burden lifted; a door opened; a next step; a new direction.

Practicing this Step over time has given me a more open heart, one with a greater capacity to listen. It’s more natural for me to sit and wait with patience. Best of all, I can better recognize the inspiration, or intuition, that actually does come from my deepest, truest self, from my wise child, from my God. And to trust it!

All in all, Step Eleven gives me an unshakeable foundation for life — just as it promised me.

Practicing this Step over time has given me a more open heart, one with a greater capacity to listen. Best of all, I can better recognize the inspiration, or intuition, that actually does come from my deepest, truest self, from my wise child, from my God.


Perspective: Buddhism – the spiritual path that fit

by Mike R.

Some 10 years ago, I started to practice Buddhist meditation and study Buddhism in depth.

With 14 years sobriety and having gone through the steps 14 times, I felt I needed to be able to look at myself through a different lens. For me, this was the spiritual path that fit.

This is how my practice of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path of Buddhism works with my practice of the 12 Steps:

The First and Second of the Noble Truths can be aligned with Step One.

Step One: We are powerless over _____ and our lives are unmanageable.

The First Noble Truth: Suffering
Human beings are subject to desires and cravings, but even when we are able to satisfy these desires, the satisfaction is only temporary. Pleasure does not last; or if it does, it becomes monotonous. Even when we are not suffering from outward causes like illness or bereavement, we are unfulfilled, unsatisfied. This is the truth of suffering.

The Second Noble Truth: The truth of the cause of suffering
The Buddha taught that the root of all suffering is desire, tanhā. This comes in three forms: greed and desire; ignorance or delusion; hatred and destructive urges.

In the First Noble Truth I can see how drinking worked for a time, how it eliminated my internal suffering (restless, irritable, discontent). In the Second Noble Truth I can see that suffering brings back the desire (obsession) to use or drink, so I can fix the malady; that delusion can be twofold: 1) I don’t have a problem and believe deeply that I don’t; 2) This substance is doing something to relieve the malady; and, of course, that Greed is the selfishness in me.

The Third Noble Truth can be seen within Step Two.

Step Two: Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

The Third Noble Truth: Cessation of suffering
The Buddha taught that the way to extinguish desire, which causes suffering, is to liberate oneself from attachment. This is the third Noble Truth – the possibility of liberation.

To liberate oneself from attachment is to understand that lack of power is my dilemma and come to believe that on my own I am unable to relieve my addiction. So, there will need to be something greater than self.

The Fourth Noble Truth works with Step Three.

Step Three: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

The Fourth Noble Truth: Path to the cessation of suffering
This is the Buddha’s prescription for the end of suffering: a set of principles called the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is also called the Middle Way: it avoids both indulgence and severe asceticism, neither of which the Buddha found helpful in his search for enlightenment.

The step says as we understood him, not as others understand him. Here I am going to find my truth. But I need to remember it’s not me. Also, the decision in this step is just to move forward to find my truth and to follow the Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path

The eight stages are not to be taken in order, but rather support and reinforce each other:

  1. Right Understanding: Accepting Buddhist teachings. (The Buddha never intended his followers to believe his teachings blindly, but to practise them and judge for themselves whether they were true.)
  2. Right Intention: A commitment to cultivate the right attitudes.
  3. Right Speech: Speaking truthfully, avoiding slander, gossip and abusive speech.
  4. Right Action: Behaving peacefully and harmoniously; refraining from stealing, killing and overindulgence in sensual pleasure.
  5. Right Livelihood: Avoiding making a living in ways that cause harm, such as exploiting people or killing animals, or trading in intoxicants or weapons.
  6. Right Effort: Cultivating positive states of mind; freeing oneself from evil and unwholesome states and preventing them arising in future.
  7. Right Mindfulness: Developing awareness of the body, sensations, feelings and states of mind.
  8. Right Concentration: Developing the mental focus necessary for this awareness.

Steps Four, Five, Six and Seven are essential to get to the practice of the Eightfold Path. Steps Four and Five assist me in finding where I was wrong in all eight areas of my life. I no longer do a column inventory, but inventory by putting my life against the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Step Six is being willing to make the changes required for contented sobriety. Step Seven is being willing to let go of self, so these changes can take place.

I have to make the Step Eight list in order to be able to follow the path, and need to make my Step Nine amends because freedom is essential for my recovery.

Steps Ten and Eleven are strict disciplines and I must use them the way they were written. I am still human and make mistakes, and must rectify them promptly if I am to follow the path. At least morning and night I go to the mat for meditation and prayer. (In Tibetan the word OM or AUM is used to start and end prayer.) At night I also do daily review. Without meditation and daily review, I can return to the unconscious state where ego rebuilds, and it can take me out of the path I have chosen to follow.

This leads to the Twelfth Step. Carrying the message is essential to my sobriety, and the practice of the principles are the principles of the Eightfold Path. As for the spiritual awakening, there is a Zen saying: “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” It tells me that no matter what, I must practice daily.

The Practice of Mindfulness in Addiction Therapy

by Jenifer Talley, PhD

In my practice, I work with many clients whose addiction may be construed as a maladaptive response to “discomfort of unknown origin.” A patient will tell me: “I’m not sure how to describe it. I was feeling something. And before I knew it I had picked up.” Using mindfulness can help such clients explore, define and overcome these painful feeling states so that alternative nonaddictive ways of responding can be employed.

The process of becoming non-judgmentally aware of the components of a compulsion weakens its power. That’s why increasing numbers of clinicians are eagerly incorporating mindfulness into the treatment of substance use disorders, eating disorders, sex addiction and other compulsive behaviours.

At the same time, however, you have a responsibility to be mindful of exactly how to present the practice to a client. What expectations and assumptions are we inadvertently expressing? What values and goals are we implicitly communicating? And how can we tailor this approach to meet the unique needs of each client? Such an inquiry differentiates the “mindfulness” of pop culture from the mindfulness that deeply improves the quality of a life. Through my clinical practice and my own meditation practice I have found that being very careful and painstaking is crucial to applying mindfulness to therapy.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, founding director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, defines mindfulness in his book Full Catastrophe Living as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” To me, the fundamental aspect of mindfulness is the capacity to witness your internal experience in the moment rather than instantly reacting to it. But how do you teach clients how to be “mindful”?

With substance users, I often introduce mindfulness before we have fully determined a treatment plan or goal (for example, abstinence or moderation). Mindfulness can provide both the client and me with valuable information about what is unfolding inside. This is another benefit of mindfulness: the cultivation of curiosity about how our thoughts, feelings and body convey important information. More “data” can help promote greater understanding and healthier decision-making.

One of the first things I do is teach a client to slow down and note the mental “chatter” or “noise” that typically occurs nearly continuously with little awareness. The content is often harsh, critical self-talk that triggers discomfort that, in turn, triggers the habitual, automatic response of substance use and other risky behaviours. Mindfulness can help clients become more aware of these patterns and develop the capacity to choose from a greater repertoire of responses.

I frequently work with clients who state that they consume more alcohol or other substances than intended. They are often unaware of the internal process leading up to this increased use. In addition, there may be feelings of shame, along with fears associated with being able to sustain long-term changes. Guiding attention back to the moment in order to catch these mental habits, including the tendency toward shame and doubt, as they occur is key.

Here is a case study (based on a composite of several clients) that exemplifies my application of mindfulness to individual therapy:

My client, Joan, tells me, “I don’t know what happened. I started feeling uncomfortable, and before I knew it, I had three glasses of wine and don’t remember what I said during the rest of the evening or how I got home. Now I’m even more embarrassed and worried that I said something stupid. This is hopeless.”

Initially I try to model mindfulness through guided retrospection. I tell her, “Let’s try to relive that night: what you were thinking, how you were speaking to yourself, how your body was feeling, what sensations you noticed, and what led to the decision to have another glass of wine.”

I use careful questioning to unravel the specific details. Joan recalls that entering the social situation, she automatically compared herself to others and assumed that she did not measure up in some way. This thought process was associated with subtle changes in her body, including chest tightening, shortness of breath, and tension in shoulders and neck, and finally a holistic mind/body reaction that “this is intolerable.” For this client, like many others, this wholesale aversive appraisal triggers the desire for relief along with powerful cravings for substance use. All too soon it is the morning after and my client finds herself hung over and ashamed.

In our mindfulness work together, we practice noting this entire habitual pattern, and we explore the assumption that the escape from the “intolerable” feeling is to have another drink. By now, Joan has become authentically curious about the ways in which wanting her thoughts and feelings to be other than they are in the moment can generate cravings for substances. While this practice is focused on remembering a specific moment in a risky situation, it helps prepares for future stressful moments.

Over time, we practice breathing exercises so that she can begin to notice her breathing during these moments. As she catches her breathing become harsh as her mind spin toward self-criticism, she can slow down her breathing in order to tap into a sense of stability and groundedness. From there, Joan can shift her focus to her senses and re-attend to the holistic experience of the stressful situation and take thoughtful action.

Ultimately, mindfulness drives at the root of compulsive behaviours by undermining the assumption that inner experience is intolerable and therefore requires immediate relief through substance use.

An often-overlooked aspect of utilizing mindfulness in mental health is the assumptions that clinicians bring to the practice. As long as a collaborative, fine-tuned approach evolves out of a moment-by-moment understanding of where the client is, I find that people at many different stages of ambivalence, substance use and recovery can benefit. Often, a therapist’s having prerequisites to practicing or specific goals is an obstacle. All you need is a curious, compassionate style of relating to experience.


Reprinted from The Fix with kind permission of the author. Dr. Jenifer Talley is a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of trauma and co-occurring substance misuse. Working from an integrative harm reduction framework, Dr. Talley’s approach is interactive and focuses on the development of practical skills to manage intense emotions, reduce self-judgment, and promote self-compassion. Mindfulness skills are integrated into an active exploration of the interrelationship between thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and behaviours, along with their contribution to substance misuse and relationship issues. She is the Assistant Director of New York City’s Center for Optimal Living, an addiction treatment centre based on principles of integrative harm reduction psychotherapy.