One of the biggest tools in my sobriety toolbox has been meditation. When you hear the word “meditation” what comes to mind?
Is it bearded yogis in flowing tunics peacefully “om” -ing in an idyllic, natural setting? Or is it bendy, sculpted twenty-somethings in Lululemon with mandala tattoos posing peacefully in a yoga studio on Instagram with #liveauthentic #om #yogaislife?
Maybe it’s neither of those things. Whatever you envision when you think about meditation, I want you to consider (if you don’t already) how you can start to incorporate it into your daily life.
What is meditation?
Meditation, simply put, is the practice of mindfulness or focus. There are many ways that people practice this.
Some sit in meditation (what you might traditionally think of) and focus on their breath, eyes closed, clearing the mind of thoughts. Others may use chanting or mantras. People meditate while walking or doing daily tasks (more on that in a minute). And some meditate through prayer.
Any time you stop the racket in your brain long enough to focus on silence, the dishes you are washing, or your breath, you are practicing meditation, or rather, you are practicing mindfulness.
Have you ever sat mesmerized by a running stream of water, so much so that you lose time a little?
That’s a form of meditation.
The Science Behind Meditation
Why have people for thousands of years engaged in some form of meditation? Why am I bothering YOU to do it?
Well, because it works!
Whenever you engage in mindfulness, you are rewiring your brain by building up the areas that promote things like focus and decision-making, and diminish the areas that bring us fear, anxiety, and stress. This rewiring is called neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is our brain’s ability to change according to our experience. Brainworks provides a really great explanation of neuroplasticity that I’ll include here:
“With every repetition of a thought or emotion, we reinforce a neural pathway – and with each new thought, we begin to create a new way of being. These small changes, frequently enough repeated, lead to changes in how our brains work.
Why Your Brain Needs Reshaping
I’ve mentioned before how excessive drinking impairs many important cognitive functions of our brain. It shrinks the white matter in the brain, which is the area that connects all the neural pathways. In studies, brain scans have shown that heavy drinkers show damage particularly in the inferior frontal gyrus, the areas responsible for decision-making and impulse control.
If you feel like you’ve become more forgetful, more easily agitated, and increasingly anxious even after you’ve stopped drinking, it’s likely because your brain has been damaged a bit by your drinking.
The good news is that you can fix this!
A consistent mindfulness practice will help you repair these neural pathways, create new ones, and reverse the shrinkage in white brain matter, which is so incredibly important because reduced white brain matter is linked to major cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s and Dementia
If you want to learn more about the science behind mindfulness and HOW it reshapes your brain, I highly recommend reading Mindsight by Dr. Dan Siegel. He walks you through exactly how the brain works and why mindfulness is an effective tool for changing your brain. An absolutely fantastic read!
Additional Benefits of Meditation
If your experience with early sobriety is anything like mine, you might be experiencing days where you feel like you’re going crazy. Your emotions are up and down. You don’t know if you’re fine or pissed off or sad, but you do know that you’re FEELING too many things right now and it’s exhausting.
All those emotions you’ve been suppressing are having a little party in your brain right now. That party WILL end, my friend.
Healthline has a wonderful article that goes into detail about the benefits of meditation that you can read, but I will list for you here. All of these benefits are science-based.
- Reduces stress (yes, please!)
- Controls anxiety (double yes, please!)
- Promotes emotional health
- Enhances self-awareness
- Lengthens attention span
- Reduces age-related memory loss
- Generates kindness (especially towards yourself!)
- Helps fight addiction (more on that to come)
- Improves sleep
- Helps control pain
- Can decrease blood pressure
- You can do it anywhere!
Seriously, it does ALLLLLLLL of that? Yep!
Meditation and Recovery
Maybe it’s a bit obvious at this point, but I think it’s worth noting how meditation specifically helps people struggling with addiction.
For me, and maybe you as well, alcohol was a way for me to quiet my mind. I needed to quiet it because it was constantly raging with negative thoughts, memories of stupid shit I’ve done, self-criticism, and a steady stream of regret and disappointment with myself. My brain was a punching bag.
The awful tradeoff with booze is that while it might make you feel better the first couple of drinks, by the end of the night, I was reeling from a flood of emotions that alcohol was actually intensifying and making worse.
When you stop drinking, those horrible emotions and memories do not go away, so we have to learn healthier ways to cope with them. Meditation is one way we can do that.
Here’s a wonderful article by Irina Gonzalez about how meditation plays a role in her longterm recovery that I think you’ll enjoy. (After you finish this article, of course :))
In addition to helping repair some of the structural damage that alcohol has done to your brain, meditation is a tool you can use to deal with your emotions in a healthy manner, which honestly, you need right now.
What Meditation is NOT
1. A Silver Bullet Solution
Meditation is not going to fix you overnight. It is a slowwwww process. Therefore it’s going to require a bit of faith and determination on your part to stick with it. There will be some days you meditate and feel like you wasted your time (you didn’t) and there will be others day you feel genuinely refreshed afterward.
This will always be the case.
There are some immediate effects of meditation like feeling calm (or at least calmER than before you started), slowed heart rate, and relaxation. And then there are the longterm benefits that we mentioned above.
2. A One-Size-Fits-All Practice
I have been on a journey with meditation in my sobriety. Truly. And I also believe there are a lot of people out there calling themselves meditation “teachers” who are full of shit.
There is no wrong or right way to meditate really and I would advise you to steer clear of any “teacher” who insists on some rigid regimen (unless that kind of structure works for you). I’ve almost given up on meditation so many times in the past because I believed I was doing it wrong.
My monkey mind is always running and I truly thought if I was unable to “silence my thoughts” it meant that I was unable to meditate properly. Instead of being restorative, my practice felt like a battle. I felt exhausted, instead of restored. It was too much effort.
Then I came across long-time meditation practitioner and teacher Sharon Salzberg who reassured me with her words that EVERYBODY (except maybe monks who’ve been practicing for a lifetime) has chatter in their brain when they meditate. It’s normal. It’s FINE.
In the next section, I’ll introduce you to various meditation styles and provide you with resources to check them out.
3. Something That Requires A Lot Of Time
There’s an old zen saying that goes, “You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes every day unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for one hour.”
As you get further into your practice, you’ll start to see the wisdom in this quote, but for now, start small. Start where you are. Five minutes a day is enough to start getting benefits. You’ll start to increase your time naturally as you get more accustomed to your practice and it will become a part of your daily routine.
Don’t feel like you have to jump right into a thirty-minute session (or longer). You don’t. In fact, if you’re particularly squirmy and wrestling with a lot of demons in your brain right now, I would probably advise against it until you know how you take to it.
What Kind Of Meditation Should I Try?
That is entirely up to you, my friend. The sky’s the limit.
I’ll give a quick summary of the major practices and styles, as well as resources where you can learn more and get some help via guided meditations. I’ve also written about three books that made me really love meditation before, so you are welcome to use that as a resource as well.
1. Mindfulness Meditation
This is my personal go-to. It is a catch-all category for meditation practices that involve being present in the moment and having a singular focus, usually the breath. You can do it by forcing yourself to focus on what you’re doing at that moment instead of letting your thoughts wander (like when you’re folding clothes, you just focus on the task and don’t think about anything else).
More commonly you can sit in a quiet place (or lie down) and close your eyes and focus on your breath. There are a lot of ways to practice mindfulness in your everyday life.
Here is a link to Mindful, which can provide you with more information. I also HIGHLY recommend the Headspace app. IT.IS.BRILLIANT. The free version is a great starter course, and then you if you want to upgrade you can.
2. Guided or Visualization Meditations
Guided meditation has become a bit of misnomer because any style can technically be guided, but in this context, it’s a teacher guiding you through your practice and leading you through a visualization exercise.
Sometimes I do these when I’m feeling particularly busy brained. Any number of the bazillion meditation apps out there can help you with this if you’re interested.
I personally LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Insight Timer. It has a plethora of meditation resources of all styles and traditions all for free. In terms of free resources, I don’t think it gets any better.
3. Vipassana Meditation
Vipassana meditation focuses on “seeing things as they really are.” It is in the Buddhist tradition, though you don’t need to be Buddhist to practice it. It involves a lot of noticing and observing within your body.
I actually really like Vipassana meditation, mainly the body scans where you sit (or lay down) and bring your awareness, gradually, from the top of your head down to your toes. Maybe that sounds weird to you, but I find it really helps me realize where I’m feeling tense and it’s been a big factor in managing my anxiety.
Insight Timer has fabulous meditations and another great resource is Tara Bach who is a longtime teacher.
4. Loving Kindness Meditation
This one is similar to Vipassana but instead of focusing on your body, you’re focusing on a thought – the well-wishing of others.
You basically go through your practice directing well wishes to yourself, to someone you love, to someone you’re not a big fan of, and then the world writ large. You do this in your mind and also outloud, usually in the form of “May you be happy. May you be well. May you be healthy. May you be at peace.”
Again, there is no rule that says you have to say only those exact phrases. Sometimes I find this meditation style silly, but it’s probably because I really need it. I struggle with loving kindness, particularly self-compassion. This meditation style helps with that.
It’s worth keeping an open mind about and trying, which I do about once per week. In addition to Insight Timer, the incredible Sharon Salzberg does a lot of work with loving kindness meditation that you may find useful.
My advice is to start with one of the meditation apps, Headspace, Insight Timer or Calm (there really are so many to choose from). A great podcast on the topic is Dan Harris’s 10% Happier, which is also the name of his amazing book that you should definitely buy right now and read.
YouTube also has a ton of resources, though finding the right one can feel a bit like a needle in a haystack at times. Don’t overthink it too much.
Just start. That’s all you have to do. You don’t have to worry if you’re doing it right (you are) or if it’s working (it is). You got this!
Journal Activity For Today
Take some time today to think about meditation and your current headspace.
- Have you tried meditation before? What was (is) it like for you?
- What style of meditation are you interested in trying?
- What apps, books, or resources have you tried or want to try?
- What’s your headspace been like these past two weeks? Are your thoughts all over the place? Your feelings?
- Mentally, what’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced since you stopped drinking? How are you handling it?
- How do stress and anxiety impact your life?
- What are your biggest goals for your emotional health right now?
Here are some videos on mindfulness that will help give you a little more insight into this practice (and convince you to start)!