Early in the 17th century, the French philosopher Rene Descartes famously wrote, “I think, therefore I am.” Thoughts occur so naturally and automatically that we are oriented to see them not only as a part of ourselves, but as ourselves. We become so closely identified with our thoughts that we often believe there is no separation: Our thoughts are us and we are our thoughts. And yet, the reality is that we produce our thoughts. They are mental creations generated in our minds.
We also tend to believe in the inherent accuracy of our thoughts: “I think it, therefore it is true.” Assuming our thoughts are facts—that they are true and valid without examination—is one of the reasons we can find ourselves out of balance mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Given the intimate and increasingly well-researched linkage between mind and body, psycho-spiritual imbalances have adverse impacts on physical status/functioning. This dynamic is amplified when people are challenged with addiction and/or chronic pain.
Our thoughts often take us away from the here and now, diverting us into the past or the future. Whenever we aren’t paying conscious attention to the present moment, within as well as around us―we are effectively sleepwalking, even when we are wide awake. Usually, it takes the form of being caught up in thinking about what happened in the past or what may possibly happen in the future. This occurs unconsciously; for most people it’s an auto-pilot mode of operating that we default into easily and habitually. We were here, in the present, and without being aware of when we slipped away, we’re thinking intensely about things that happened yesterday, last month, or perhaps even years ago or something that might happen later today, next week, or two months from now.
When we’re focused on the past or the future, it is impossible to respond consciously and skillfully in the here and now. We are cut off from the possibilities inherent in the present moment—unable to see it and experience it for what it is, and disconnected from the opportunities for learning, growing, and healing that it may contain. During these episodes, no matter where we are and who we are with physically―mentally and emotionally we are somewhere else.
And when we are in this default unconscious auto-pilot mode, we can mentally manufacture impressive stories about what might/could happen, having nothing whatsoever to do with the present moment. These narratives are usually worse (sometimes much worse) then what actually happens. In the words of Mark Twain, “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.
The more consciously aware of this process we become, the more we are able to develop the capacity to accept and, if we chose to, adjust our thinking. Mindfulness is a state of present-centered awareness that awakens the individual from the sleep of habitual responses—responses that are conditioned by beliefs and expectations with origins in the past that frequently become projected onto the future. Mindfulness involves paying conscious attention to one’s internal and external experience to create a receptive space in which one observes thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations as they are, without judging or trying to suppress or deny them. It is direct contact, unobstructed by thoughts and judgments, with ourselves and the world around us. Mindfulness practice cultivates the ability to observe and accept the ongoing unfolding of one’s experience without becoming over-identified with or attached to the content of thoughts, emotions, and sensory experiences, regardless of whether these are painful or pleasurable.
This is especially relevant for people struggling with addiction and/or chronic pain—mindfulness practice helps develop the skill of observing urges to avoid or suppress emotional and physical pain and ride these urges out, rather than act on them reflexively by using mind- and mood-altering substances. Such urges to numb or escape are like waves on an ocean beach: They rise, crest, crash, and recede. By facilitating conscious awareness with a detached nonjudgmental perspective, mindfulness mitigates the tendency to get caught up in vicious circles of anxiety, fear, anger, guilt, regret, shame, and physical pain that render those in recovery from addiction and/or chronic pain more vulnerable to using.
Active addiction, oriented as it is on immediate gratification by means of changing feelings, controlling people and situations, and tunnel-vision-focus on where the next fix is coming from, is the antithesis of present-centered mindful acceptance. Similarly, those afflicted with chronic pain are ensnared by attachment to their desire for relief.
Through mindfulness and its associated practice of meditation (next month’s topic), people can develop greater capacity to face uncomfortable, painful thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations―learning to observe and accept the pain, anxiety, anger, or sadness and let it pass, without obsessing on it or struggling to avoid it. Nurturing conscious moment-to-moment awareness and developing the skills of mindfulness and meditation are among the cornerstones of a well-rounded skill set that promotes long-term recovery.