In early recovery, there is value in filling your space and time with meetings and various distractions to fill in the space that was once consumed with substances and addictive behaviors. There is also value, at some point, to create unfilled space for your presence and attention. Creating space to be present for your presence is a key to sustainable long-term recovery. 

The practice of mindfulness; being there, being present, paying attention, and learning to be there for yourself starts with the process of letting go. Letting go of substances and addictive behaviors is a great start. The beginning steps of letting go are important. If you plan to begin a formal sitting meditation practice or go on retreat, the same is true; we begin to clear our schedules. We let go of our usual doing in order to create space for something different. 

Mindfulness and meditation are practices of letting go in order to create space for your attention. 

If you are filling up recovery time with meetings and the doing of “stepping”, you can begin taking your recovery a step further by creating space to observe your being, by yourself. You can learn to be there for yourself, to witness and give attention to the happenings of your mind, your body, and your emotions. 

Creating Space for an Inner Life

There is a lot of value in observing your inner life. You may discover the real hunger, the real need within you that is reaching out in an addictive way. This in and of itself could change the course of your entire life.

Creating space for yourself, to give attention to your inner happenings, is to begin healing yourself. Attention leads to connection; connection to regulation; regulation to order; and order to ease (as opposed to dis-ease), or more colloquially, to health.” [1]

Learning to Observe

Learning to observe yourself is much like bird watching. Even if you’ve never been bird watching, it’s not hard to figure out that all you need is some space, silence, and stillness (and birds).  If you can observe a bird, you can observe yourself. 

The mindfulness approach is learning to be there, just as you are. Like bird watching, we don’t try to change anything, we simply observe.  Being there for yourself with attention, listening, watching, and observing — observing our behaviors and mindsets — and that observation can lead to answers and solutions that drive addictive patterns. 

We give our attention away every day: to everybody and everything. We are listening, watching, observing: we watch television, we observe other people, we listen to others. We know how to give attention, we are simply not used to giving it to ourselves. 

To give yourself attention is one of the most loving, caring, interesting, brave things you can do. Why brave? Because not only will you be giving attention to the good, you will also be attending to the bad and ugly. 

Giving Attention

We can begin giving attention by listening. Silence is needed to listen and to hear your inner happenings. This is how you get to know the different parts of yourself; the parts of you that want to quit the addiction and the parts of you that don’t want to quit. You will get to hear the parts of you that fuss and scream that it’s too hard, and get to know the parts of you that resist. 

Giving attention to the parts of you that resist is of utmost importance for long-term recovery success. There may be parts of you that are resisting a new path, a different life, more opportunity, improved health, and better relationships. All the good things you want in life can be the very things you resist.

Being with Resistance

The mindfulness approach to resistance is not to beat it, shame it, punish it, strong arm it with willpower, or distract. We create space for it. We get to know it. We give it attention by looking, observing, being with, and listening; like bird watching. If anything, we come up closer, quieter, and gentler to our resistance. 

Relapse and continued addiction is sometimes less about wanting to stop. You know you want to stop. 

Not many people consciously choose to suffer. To ask if we want to quit the object of suffering can be an easy “Yes.” The real question is not if we want to quit, but why are we resisting things like a new path, a different life, better opportunities, improved health and relationships, and real success? 

This is getting to the deeper parts of ourselves. This is the good stuff; to start observing that which is unconscious within us can create powerful, long-term changes in our lives. 

The very things we so desperately desire can feel unsafe because they are unknown and unfamiliar. The path to a better life may come with thoughts that we have to walk it alone, and in many ways, this can be true.  

Braving a Better Life

The inner walk of self-observation is a journey solely for you. Braving your inner wilderness is meant to be your journey alone because no-one else is in there with you, but once you start walking around in there, you will soon discover you are not alone. 

With some space, silence, and stillness, you can also observe the part of you that wants to help. The you that wants to help you. This is where you start learning how to help yourself. You can learn to help the part of you in resistance. The two of you can have a conversation. It could be the most fascinating and enlightening conversation you’ve ever had. 

The Inner Laboratory

Jon-Kabat Zinn teaches that with a mindfulness practice, we become the scientists of our own inner laboratory. Just like a good scientist, we can observe our inner formulas. We can observe which thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that create disaster and explosions in the lab. From this observed data, we have more choices to explore new chemical and behavioral compounds that create different outcomes.   

The mindfulness approach is more than a practice of external abstinence; it’s a practice of observing our inner compounds and experimenting with them. It’s a practice of self-discovery and self-observation, which are both elements for self-healing and sustainable recovery. 

A 5 Step Practice for Self-Observation

In Mindful Recovery:

  1. Let go of the usual doing.
  2. Create unfilled space for silence without distractions. This can be at home, in a chair, on the porch. Keep it simple. If sitting still feels like too much to begin with; a quiet walk without distractions will work. 
  3. Do nothing but be there to observe your thoughts; listen, feel, pay attention. Observe your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors over the past few days. Imagine that you are the bird you have been watching the past few days.
  4. Collect data from your observation. Did you get any insights? 
  5. Do you want to do anything with the insights? Does anything need to be done?

 Notes: 1. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living; Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness (New York: Bantam Dell, 1990), 228.

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