Welcome to the first of our Practicing Recovery series, the section of our blog written for those in recovery from substance use disorders. The series will offer encouragement and guidance for sustaining your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. It will remind you that you are not alone. It will help you cultivate your inner strength, and it will provide information about resources that can support your commitment to wellness.
Please feel free to comment on these posts if you have questions, feedback, disagreements, or advice of your own.
How Your Mind Makes You Suffer
I have a magnet on my refrigerator that says “Don’t believe everything you think.” Understanding how our thoughts work is essential to addiction recovery.
Zen Buddhist and teacher, Adyashanti, characterizes the mind as a storyteller that spits out a constant stream of stories about ourselves and our environment. Our mind takes any event that generates an emotional response, like a bad hair day, and turns it into a grand narrative about how rushed we are in the morning, how we can’t afford a good haircut, how hard it will be to concentrate at work when we look so bad, how no one will ever love us, and on and on.
It’s when we choose to believe our mind’s stories that we suffer.
Thoughts feed emotions. When we buy into our thoughts, we escalate our emotional reactions to the point that we hurt ourselves and those around us. So what do we do instead? Our thoughts have some basis in reality, right? Wouldn’t it be dangerous sometimes to ignore them?
Here’s the thing: even if your thoughts reflect “reality” (e.g., maybe your hair is not at its best today, and maybe others will notice), what’s the advantage of believing or acting on them? Believing them makes you feel badly about yourself (or about other people); when you feel badly about yourself or others, you don’t make the best decisions about how to behave. In fact, anything you do in this state of mind usually makes the situation worse.
Let’s look at an example with more weight than a bad hair day. Let’s say that you’ve been sober from alcohol for several months, but you’re beginning to experience especially strong cravings again. While you might at first experience the craving as a physical need, one you can feel in your body, how quickly does your mind latch on to that bodily feeling and spin stories to rationalize having another drink?
Let’s say you give in. You relapse, and then you feel that familiar mixture of shame and rebellion that makes it seem easier to continue drinking than to continue in recovery. What causes the emotions of guilt, anger, and fear? Your thoughts. Everyone—whether addicted to substances or not—knows the terrible games the mind plays with us when it wants something. Our mind nags, argues, shames, judges, excites, begs, rationalizes. Sometimes we’re tempted to relapse just to make the thoughts go away.
Instead of running from our thoughts, what happens if we allow them to be, without judging them? Our mind isn’t good or bad: it’s just doing what it does best. Our thoughts aren’t good or bad: they just ARE. Instead of trying to control our thoughts, which can feel like a losing battle, we can practice detaching from them and directing our attention elsewhere.
“When we begin to see that our mind is just a storyteller…we begin to listen—not for more thoughts or more complicated understandings, but for the silence,” Adyashanti writes. “It is when you listen in this way that you can see that it is only your mind that has the capacity to make you suffer. […] It’s all an inside job.”
So how do we even begin to listen for silence when thoughts and emotions overwhelm us?
Through practice. Give yourself some quiet time each day to observe your thoughts. Get comfortable, then tune in. How does your body feel? What’s going on in your head? As you observe your thoughts, notice the emotions they generate. Vice versa, if you notice an emotion, try to trace it to the thought that inspired it. For example, “This feeling of anxiety comes from the thoughts about whether my partner is upset with me.”
You might also try this visualization exercise: as you relax and breathe, imagine all of your thoughts and emotions on a stage, performing for you. Instead of looking at them all at once, let one thought come to the front at a time; try to distill that thought into one image (for example, if you’re feeling anxiety about your relationship with your sister, let your sister’s face be the image you see). Watch that image calmly, noting all its detail. Then, let it go so the next thought can come forward. Proceed through your thoughts in this way until they stop clamoring for your attention.
You can also imagine yourself floating up above the stage, going higher and higher until the figures on the stage are blurry and the sounds have been swallowed by silence. From here, look up and around. See that you are in a vast universe. Look down and see that the stage is also surrounded by infinite, silent space. As long as you can, enjoy the silence around you. If a powerful thought or emotion tries to get your attention, acknowledge it, observe it, then turn to the stillness again.
The key is to accept your thoughts, not to fight them. Let each one have its time on the stage, observe it with detached compassion, and then let it go.
Adyashanti. Falling into Grace: Insights on the End of Suffering. Sounds True, Inc. Boulder, CO. 2011.