Wednesday, December 7, 2016

addiction & mindfulness

mindfulnessThere are layers of emotional pain that underlie addiction. Thus, recovery from addiction requires that we learn to manage and deal effectively (i.e. in healthy and growthful ways) with emotional pain, rather than trying to numb ourselves or escape from it via addictive substances/activities.

Let’s pause for a moment to think about and reflect on the phenomenon of emotional pain: take a breath and let your mind tune into the fact that you sometimes experience internal states that are uncomfortable, disquieting, chaotic, painful, disorienting, scary, frustrating, etc. Give yourself a few seconds to sit with this reality and with whatever feelings and internal sensations it triggers in you right now. Now let yourself wade even more deeply into the reality that you sometimes feel down, fearful, insecure, nervous, irritable, discontent, angry, restless, etc. Don’t think about fixing emotional pain right now, just think about ‘paying attention’ to it and ‘being with’ it in a new way.

THIS experience, right now, of tuning in and paying attention to your own experience (thoughts, feelings, and sensations) is essential for healing and personal growth. This is mindfulness, and if we want to grow emotionally we need to cultivate and integrate this skill/practice into our daily habits of living.

you and your own bodily sensations

Emotionality consists of electrochemical processes, particles and waves of energy moving throughout your body and mind, and throughout the interpersonal field between you and others. Emotionality is always there and continuously circulating even though much of the time we are not aware of or thinking about it. In fact this lack of awareness seems to be our default setting and we often only become aware of our emotionality when it goes from a state of gentle circulation into more intense and impactful states of arousal/excitability – positive or negative. On the negative side, emotional experience can feel clogged and heavy (depressive feelings) or chaotic and scattered (anxious feelings), or a back and forth between both. On the positive side, it can feel harmonious, pleasant and more. The point is that it is essential that we become both very familiar with these experiences and skilled at influencing them.

mindfulness, therapy & eastern practices

When I see clients for therapy in NYC for codependency, addiction, anxiety and more, we inevitably discuss the relationship between emotional pain and emotional growth. In modern life, people often need to be re-introduced to their own emotionality – to their own visceral/physical experience – almost as if they were long lost friends. The norm in our culture is to be up in our heads, disconnected and estranged from our own emotionality and from the basic processes of the five senses.

Thus, it goes against the grain to put your attention on and consciously feel/experience the physical processes and sensations of emotionality in your body – especially when they are painful/uncomfortable. Fortunately this is changing, in part due to explosion in the West of Eastern practices (yoga, meditation, tai chi) over the past 40 years where much focus is on paying conscious attention to your cognitive and emotional experiences. These practices encourage us to cultivate higher levels of consciousness, to let go of judgment and just ‘be with whatever you feel’ as a means to learning and growth. Widespread participation in these practices reveals that we are starving to grow beyond disconnection and to re-connect to the emotional experiences that exist within us as well as between ourselves and others.

contemporary mindfulness

If people want to develop a formal yoga or meditation practice, I fully support that. But those are not necessary, nor do they guarantee the growth and development of your awareness/intelligence regarding your emotional and relational life. We need not look far in NYC – inside and outside the therapy world – to see many people with strict and regimented yoga/meditation practices who do not exemplify the type of emotional balance and personal effectiveness that we want in our lives.

Contemporary mindfulness is the ordinary and everyday practice of paying increased attention to your personal experience – internally and externally – as you go about the business of living. In truth, the transformative effect of this simple practice, over time, is beyond words when it is coupled with a serious desire to make positive changes in your life. To become more sensitized and familiar with the nuances of your own subjective experience, including the relational dynamics between you and others, is one of the most valuable human capacities that you can develop.

And by the way – extolling the virtues of contemporary mindfulness is not an invitation for you to get caught up in what used to be described as “naval-gazing” (i.e. getting overly preoccupied with yourself and becoming less and less conscious of others and relationships). No, the best way I can characterize the practice of paying conscious attention to your thoughts/emotions is to compare it to paying conscious attention when you take some kids to the park: you don’t want to be excessively ‘on top of’ the kids, but you DO want to always be aware of where they are at and what they are doing just in case they start getting themselves into trouble and you need to intervene.

Chris Kingman lives with his wife in Park Slope, Brooklyn and has a full-time private therapy practice in Manhattan, NYC where he works with adults and couples. Follow Chris on Twitter or Facebook.

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