In the treatment of addictions it may be that mindfulness is best understood in terms of what it is not. Most people are pretty sure about what mindfulness is. In common usage mindfulness is being aware of something or attending to it. In a spiritual sense you might say mindfulness is being “present” or “in the moment”.
What mental processes stand in the way of this important recovery skill?
All the ways in which we become un-mindful can be reduced to variations on a basic theme: doing more than one thing at a given time.
Doing two things at once
Learning to do one thing at a time is considered important in addiction recovery. This sounds deceptively simple. And as prevalent as multi-tasking is, it has been shown to be a less efficient and even dangerous way for the brain to function.
Here are some of the most common ways in which the absence of mindfulness plays out. These are particularly important for us and our clients to understand because they are typically symptoms of the deeper issues, the conditioned defenses and survival skills that go way back in our development.
Waiting to talk
It is a commonplace that addicts don’t listen, they just wait for their chance to talk. This is a good example of the failure of mindfulness. If you are thinking about what you want to say next and supposedly listening to what someone else is saying then you are not really in a conversation. You are operating on two tracks at once, or trying to. For example one track may be to get the gist of what the other person is saying and the other may be calculating how to influence them, make yourself look good or to get them off your back.
Make no mistake; this is a defensive maneuver. It may be shrewd is some situations but most often it is maladaptive. To listen mindfully is to feel safe and open to influence, empathy, or whatever comes up. And being fully “present” to the other person makes them feel infinitely more comfortable.
This is a case of inattention to the matter at hand due to derailment by emotional reactions. These can take any of numerous forms such as feelings of resentment (“why do I have to be doing this stuff?”) or fear about the reactions of others, or the triggering of a traumatic stress response. If these emotions are strong enough they not only distract and split your attention but they impair your ability to think rationally. Addicts are particularly prone to emotional dysregulation (i.e. over-strong emotional reaction and slowed return to baseline).
Learning emotion regulation skills through techniques like Dialectical Behavior Therapy is essential for many people as part and parcel of learning mindfulness practice.
In treating sex addiction as well as other addictions and disorders of the self there comes a point in the “relapse scenario” where it is too late to turn back. This is the point where mindfulness has become impossible because the person has begun a “ritual” which takes him/her away from reality and into a sort of trance state. There is a recovery saying that “if you are arguing with your addiction you’ve already lost”. At this point one moves about in the real world but with most of one’s attention split off into fantasy.
Acting out behaviors are a not delusional in the technical sense. Reality is still reality (risks, consequences, harm to others) but realistic thinking has been split off. We are doing two things at once which is only possible by completely walling off one of them. We attempt to get these clients to recognize the early signs of this splitting while it is still possible to change course.
Asking what time it isn’t
We typically look at our phone to see what time it isn’t. This means our mind is on what is coming next, not what is happening now. This is a particularly common form of inattention in which we are focused on thoughts of the past or anticipation of the future.
It seems to be an unavoidable part of daily life but it is also a part of an escape from being present. This rumination is like being “lost in reality”, or obsessed with work, or worry or anything which takes us away and drowns us verbal thought.
The digital age has increased the tendency to do two things at once. I have reached a point where I have given up on trying to get my clients to completely ignore their smart phones during a counseling session. And I am always trying to hold the line in the temptation to read my email and watch cable news at the same time. This kind of “switching” is possible but there are reasons to believe that it can be harmful psychologically. See this good review of digital multitasking studies.
Learning to give one thing your full attention
Performance in any domain of life requires the ability to attend to one thing at a time. We already know that mindfulness/meditation is an evidence based practice for your physical and mental health. Doing one thing and giving it your full attention is powerful mindfulness practice. You can start by becoming aware of the various kinds of splitting of attention described above.
When it comes to enjoying a special moment you can try to stop and focus on what is going on right at that moment. And when you are “in the zone” in terms of your peak performance you will be in a heightened state of mindfulness or focus. When you are in the zone, mindfulness takes over completely and action is easy. At that point you are not trying to “be” mindful, you just are.
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