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Anyone who has traveled to a Buddhist country like Thailand and enrolled in a meditation course understands the exclusive relationship that alcohol and meditation have. The two don’t cohabitate – either in teachings or in practice – and one of the five Buddhist precepts actually forbids intoxication.
What fewer people realize is that meditation is sometimes used by recovering alcoholics as a means of getting and staying sober. Alcoholics Anonymous advocates meditation as a tool in the arsenal against relapse, and the American Journal of Psychiatry had already begun documenting studies that drew correlations between meditation and successful rehabilitation as long ago as the 1970s.
For anyone trying to overcome an addiction to alcohol or drugs, meditation can be a useful practice for resisting cravings and avoiding relapse. It’s not a turnkey solution to alcoholism, but it does pair well with the sort of comprehensive treatments made available through alcohol and drug rehab centers.
Meditation takes several forms, many of which have spiritual roots. Theraveda Buddhist, Vedic and Zen meditation are well-known (and highly diverse) practices that originate in the East. Some institutes have been formed under spiritual guidelines which encourage recovering alcoholics to embrace tenants of faith along with the mechanics of meditation. Even Alcoholics Anonymous recommends “subscribing to a higher power.” Faith as a rehab tool is certainly not a new idea.
Some meditative practices encourage students to conjure up imagined images and focus on these. For example, Tibetan Buddhism is well-known for mandala visualization, designed to overload the mind to the point that it collapses in exhaustion and gives in to the void of detachment. Other meditative practices, particularly the Vedic variety, call for reciting mantras until emptiness sets in. Still others rely on breathing exercises or intentional dismissal of thoughts to bring on a state of detachment.
In every case, objectivity is a central goal of meditation, and this can have liberating effects for a person who feels bogged down in a storm of addictive impulses.
However, at the root of every meditative practice is a quest for detachment or inner calm. In this sense, meditation fits nicely with recovering alcoholics’ central goals, i.e. establishing distance between themselves and their desire to drink.
It’s this psychic distance between wanting to have a drink and actually doing so that is so useful to recovering alcoholics. When students enroll in meditation classes, either through an alcohol rehabilitation clinic or an independent meditation schools, they learn to view their own impulses from a third-person perspective. In so doing, there’s a potential to cultivate peace and contentedness without resorting to alcohol or substance abuse.
With all the talk about higher powers and Buddhist or Vedic meditation, a person couldn’t be blamed for assuming that meditation as a part of alcohol rehabilitation is a specifically spiritual endeavor. While it’s true that the world’s best known traditions of meditation all have a spiritual bent, there are just as many secular takes on meditation as an act of mindfulness rather than prayer.
Since this sort of thinking circumvents any talk of faith or otherworldly intervention, it gives scientists a chance to have an empirical look at the benefits that meditation can play in addiction recovery. One study conducted by the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Wisconsin found that mindfulness meditation can play a role in preventing relapse.
Dr Aleksandra Zgierska coordinated the study, and she says the practice of mindfulness as a means of staving off cravings is nothing new – it’s just that most of the evidence of its effectiveness was anecdotal until recently. Now, backed by clinical research, meditation as an alcohol rehabilitation tool is garnering mainstream attention.
There’s a snappier term for mindfulness meditation within the alcohol rehabilitation community: urge surfing This originated with Dr Alan Marlatt at the University of Washington, but has gone on to achieve international recognition. At its best, urge surfing is a handy tool for overcoming addictive conditioning.
Here’s how it works: while a recovering alcoholic is meditating, he or she acknowledges an urge to drink when it arises. It crests like a wave, and the person is actually encouraged to envision it in that way. The urge to drink is seen as something to be expected rather than something to be ashamed of. It’s all part of the process.
The goal is to monitor the urge – watch it rise and fall without giving in to it. Meditative breathing serves as a metaphorical surfboard and lets the person ride on top of the urge and observe it without being sucked in. Do this enough times, and resisting these urges starts to become second nature.
However, it’s important to note that urge surfing is more of coping tool than a therapeutic practice. It’s something that can be passed along to a recovering alcoholic as a means of resisting relapse after returning to everyday life.
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