Through mindfulness and its associated practice of meditation, people develop a greater capacity to face uncomfortable, painful thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations, learning simply to accept the pain, anxiety, anger, or sadness and let it pass, without obsessing on it or needing to change it. Research has demonstrated that the practice of mindfulness meditation leads to improvements in attention, concentration, openness to experience, ability to inhibit distracting stimuli, and perceptual sensitivity. Mindfulness practice has also been shown to support the acceptance of thoughts and experiences as alternatives to attempting to avoid or suppress them. Active addiction, oriented as it is on immediate gratification by means of changing feelings, controlling people and situations, and tunnel- vision on where the next fix is coming from, is the antithesis of present- centered mindful acceptance. Consequently, 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. Although expanded awareness and acceptance of one’s present experience is the proximate goal, increased calmness, contentment, and serenity often come about as by-products of practicing mindfulness and meditation.
Meditation is one of the main roads that leads to a state of mindfulness.
The mind is like a wild horse that utilizes its tremendous strength and energy indiscriminately. Much of its activity seems random, running in circles, bucking and kicking. Meditation endeavors to train the mind so that gradually and progressively, its energy and strength can be harnessed and intentionally focused. Meditation accesses and conserves mental resources for conscious application. The purpose of meditation is to bring us to this moment, here and now. There are many ways to meditate, and different types of meditation utilize distinctive vehicles to establish and maintain present-centered attention. Meditation approaches can be divided into two basic styles: Concentration practices are aimed at sustaining conscious attention on specific content, such as particular internal sounds or bodily sensations. Open awareness practices have a more broad-based focus, aiming to develop a big-picture monitoring ability in which sensory content and experience is registered, but not fixated upon. Insight meditation (also known as mindfulness meditation) is an open awareness practice, while breathing meditation and mantra meditation are examples of concentrative practices. Insight meditation centers conscious attention on internal and external sensory stimuli using a relaxed though focused observation of thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations as they arise and fall. Breathing meditation focuses on the breath—being consciously aware of your breathing, making that the locus of attention as you slowly and deeply breathe in on your inhale and out on your exhale. Mantra meditation concentrates conscious attention on a mantra, an energy-based sound that produces a specific physical vibration, and may or may not have any particular meaning. The word mantra means to free yourself from your mind. It originates from two Sanskrit words: manas, or mind, and trai, meaning to free from or liberate. Meditation quiets the mind, helping still the thoughts that continuously wash over it. A common question of people beginning meditation is “how do I stop my thoughts?” The answer is, you don’t. The desire to “stop” thoughts mobilizes both resistance and judgment, and works against meditation’s fundamental intent. Even during meditation, other thoughts—including those related to the past or future—intrude on this most conscious and disciplined effort to stay in the moment. Although there can be significant immediate benefits to meditation and mindfulness practice, the positive effects are also cumulative over time. Recent research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) finds that meditation produces positive changes in the brain’s ability to process emotions that endure even when people are not actively meditating. Small pebbles can create big ripples. This is a gift that I give to myself. Stress affects everyone. It plays a major role in many physical and emotional illnesses; numerous medical conditions are caused or exacerbated by stress. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 90 percent of doctor visits in the US may be related to stress. Meditation and mindfulness practice are effective antidotes for stress, calming the nervous system by activating the relaxation response, a set of physiological processes that offset the physiological effects of stress. In stimulating the relaxation response (the physiological opposite of the “fight or flight” response), meditation flips a switch that turns on the parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The parasympathetic division is involved in rest, relaxation, recharge, and conservation of energy. Upon its activation, breathing slows and deepens, muscles soften, metabolism and pulse rate slow, and blood pressure decreases. The health benefits of meditation and mindfulness practice are wide-ranging and have been documented by scientific research for over thirty years. In addition to decreasing stress with all of the secondary health gains that come with that, meditation has a protective impact on heart health by contributing to measurable decreases in cardiac risk factors. Empirical studies have demonstrated that meditation practice can help: reduce high cholesterol; reduce insulin resistance, glucose and even insulin levels themselves; reduce blood pressure and hypertension; and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke among individuals over the age of fifty-five. Similar to keeping a fine instrument properly tuned, meditation practice enriches the brain’s neuronal structures, enhances connections, and affects neurotransmitter levels positively by decreasing those related to stress and arousal—cortisol and norepinephrine, and increasing those involved in relaxation and mood regulation—serotonin and GABA. When we exercise parts of the brain, which occurs during meditation, they become larger and denser with neural mass or gray matter. Studies also indicate meditation has neuroprotective effects, mitigating some of the impacts of aging. The volume of the brain’s gray matter ordinarily diminishes with age. However, scientists found that in meditators (in contrast to a comparison group of non-meditators), the volume of gray matter hadn’t reduced at all with age. Follow-up research suggests that long-term meditators also have stronger connections between different parts of the brain while finding less age-related decline in the brain’s white-matter tissue.
Moreover, meditation can help people face physical pain more successfully.
A study using magnetic resonance imaging technology that captures longer duration brain processes (ASL MRI) showed that meditation can dramatically reduce both the experience of pain and pain-related brain activation. Meditation expands the ability to consciously shift the perception of pain, and better accept the pain that is experienced, without obsessing over or trying to change it. Mindfulness-based applications that incorporate meditation have been developed for a wide range of behavioral health problems and populations. Empirically supported treatments that are based on or incorporate mindfulness training include: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy; Dialectical Behavior Therapy; Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy; and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Mindfulness- based protocols have also been developed for relapse prevention for addictive behaviors. With over 2,500 years of history and an expanding and compelling body of scientific research behind it, more medical and behavioral health professionals are incorporating mindfulness practices into their approaches to helping people. Meditation and mindfulness practice become even more important in a world that is increasingly Attention Deficit Disorder-inducing, with seductive distractions constantly demanding our attention, normalizing unrealistic breadths of multitasking, and spreading ourselves more and more thin. Our technology-driven culture, with its twenty-four/seven connectivity via the proliferation of new mobile information technology and social networking platforms, places ever-greater demands on our time, energy, attention, and emotional availability. As the stresses of modern life compel people to engage with the world at higher speeds while being pulled in more different directions, most drift further away from any mindful consideration of the present moment, and from the values that are truly important to them. The second part of the Eleventh Step speaks to letting life happen of its own accord and going with its natural current, instead of swimming against its flow and trying to force it to comply with our desires. Practicing Step Eleven is instrumental in uncovering and recovering those priorities that are most important to the individual and that are integral to assembling a life of value and meaning. This blog post is an excerpt from Some Assembly Required – A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain by By Dan Mager, MSW; Published by Central Recovery Press (CRP).
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