I work in an office building that has multiple tenants.  One of those tenants regularly does work for the federal government, and some of those projects require special clearance, including the frequently dramatized “top secret” clearance.  Among other precautions, this means they have implemented security protocols to control physical access to their office space, including electronic badges to be used to open locked door and identify persons at all times.

As you might expect, while they have invested heavily in electronic security measures like cameras and electronic doors, this organization does not rely exclusively on such precautions.  They also have taken measures to raise the awareness of their employees to the importance of physical security in their offices.

I know this because I’ve taken note of a sign they placed in the common lobby area that I walk through on the way to my own office.  It has a picture of two business-type looking persons, one opening a door and walking through it.  As the first person walks through the door, a second person is RIGHT behind her, keeping up with the first person.  And the second person looks like he’s about to follow her right on in through the door that’s still open, defeating any expensive electronic lock the door might have installed in it.  No one is checking the second person’s identity, as the first person looks like they’re assuming the second person belongs there.  It’s a potentially serious breach of physical security protocols.

And the sign says, “Be aware of your surroundings.”

Being aware of my surroundings is at the core of what “mindfulness” means to me.  Except my surroundings aren’t just what’s going on around me.  My surroundings include both the external landscape, things that are literally outside of my experience, and the things that are internal, those that are completely hidden from me.

But before I go further in that direction, I’m compelled to qualify… why is an article on “mindfulness” even relevant to sobriety in the first place?

According to Hazelden, “mindfulness comes from the oldest practice of Buddhist meditation–Vipassana, usually translated in English as ‘insight meditation.’ This practice combines mindfulness (nonjudgmental observation) with concentration (focused attention).”  Okay, you might think, but what does that have to do with sobriety?

Mindfulness & the 12 Steps

The sobriety that I’ve discovered – indeed the only recovery from alcoholism that has had any lasting effect on my daily life – is the recovery that was offered to me by others who had been taken through the actions and work described in the book Alcoholics Anonymous.  The program of action described in that book has several core tenets which can be broken down into:

  • surrender to the hopelessness of addiction
  • finding the willingness to seek a spiritual solution to remedy the problem
  • becoming honest with oneself
  • making amends
  • helping others, and
  • continuing to seek spiritual growth

That’s by no means is a comprehensive or an official synopsis, but it’s simple enough for me.  Core to those tenets is the idea of honesty – with oneself, and with others.  Alcoholics Anonymous describes the kind of honesty required to practice these principles as “rigorous” and “thorough”.  The Twelve Steps are designed to help anyone who is interested in having a spiritual experience to overcome the basic selfishness and self-centeredness that can lead to self-destructive behaviors… namely addiction and alcoholism.

There are multiple practices in A.A. that are designed to help one strip away the stories – the lies – that can distort reality and put us in a position to be harmed by others… and subsequently retaliate.  The premise here is that without the willingness to see things objectively – as they are – I’m at risk of living inside a lie… a lie that I can use to justify my selfish behaviors, and to wreak havoc in the lives of those around me.  By this logic, the idea of finding the willingness to observe things not as I want to, or as I see necessary to fit the circumstances of the world around me to my own personal narrative, but as they actually are

It’s amazing how different life can seem when I stop trying to manipulate and manage every detail and interpretation, and instead become committed to the idea of seeing things as they actually are.  (And to be clear – I regularly fail at this endeavor.  Like every day.  The freedom I’ve begun to experience has not occurred as a result of me suddenly finding the ability to see and accept things as they are… but rather from the willingness to make a daily, hourly, moment-to-moment effort to do so.)

A particularly relevant passage from the text of Alcoholics Anonymous was first published in the third edition of the book, in 1976.

“And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation—some fact of my life —unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world by mistake. Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes.”

Okay – so back to mindfulness.  Elsewhere online, you can find attempts to distinguish the Buddhist practice of the Vipassana meditation from the mind-set of “mindfulness”.

… let’s just over-simplify the rationale (of Vipassana) in three steps:

  • If you spend your life wishing the world be different than how it is, you’ll be miserable all the time
  • So you have to learn to accept things as they are and act wisely as a result
  • And so the first step is to actually see things as they are

Herm… sounds pretty compatible, if you ask me.  The ancient practices found in Buddhism sure sound simpatico with the ideas of acceptance available to anyone attending an A.A. meeting in your town later this evening.

(BTW, for those interested, there are many great books available that attempt to draw out further the compatibility of Buddhism with the modern Twelve Step movement.  It’s consistently amazing to me how they seem to complement one another.)

So what about mindfulness, then?  That article discussing Vipassana meditation continues:

The recent interest in the West in meditation relies a lot on “mindfulness”.

At a conceptual level, “mindfulness” only asks you to pay attention to what is going on in a non-judgmental way and without over-reacting. You see the close relationship with the “See things as they are” theme above.

In a way, “mindfulness” is the overall mindset one should adopt to pay attention all the time to everything — some kind of an extension into everyday life of the formal meditation practice.

Mindfulness & Serenity

So, if I combine these two ideas, meditation (generally) and Vipassana meditation (specifically) are formal practices designed to help me pay attention to what is going on around me in a non-judgmental way, and to adopt a mindset where I’m open to seeing things as they are.  In essence, this mindfulness is a practice designed to help me gain closer alignment to the intentions of the serenity prayer:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

It sounds super simple and obvious when I write those words.  My experience is this endeavor is the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do in my life, ever.  Finding the willingness – and yes, even the courage – to see things as they are is sometimes terrifying, occasionally mortifying, and nearly always the opposite of how my mind wants to process things.  My mind processes things from a specific point of view – my own.  And when I let it, it can sure make a great case for me being at the center of the perceptual and imagined universe.

But my experience further informs me that perspective is not only flawed, but deeply dangerous.  Dangerous to my health and well-being, and that of those around me.  Including – and especially – those I love.

So – how does this all tie back to the top secret facility with super fancy cameras and doors and the reminder not to let people you don’t know inside by holding the door open for them?

For me, the Twelve Steps represent the basis of my recovery.  They provide the basis for my “protection”, if you will, against my addiction.  They are the cameras, the electronic doors, the “mechanics” of how I try to stay safe and secure.

Mindfulness allows me to attempt to stay “aware of my surroundings” – both internal and external.  They provide a basis for witnessing what is coming and going, in and out of my mind.

And central to all of it is the confidence born of an experience with the spirit.  Ultimately, all of these are practices designed to help me have a spiritual experience in order to help protect me from myself.

A lot is being written and talked about around mindfulness these days.  Companies like Google have begun offering courses to help teach mindfulness practice.  There is a natural inclination, I believe, for individuals to pursue the effort to see things as they are, in order to be unburdened from fear, anxiety, and other side effects that occur too often from modern life.  What I have found, and what has perhaps always been true, is that mindfulness can have a special purpose in the lives of those seeking recovery.

ENDNOTE:  I chose to use the original version of the serenity prayer, as it invites one to change the things which should be changed. The more common modern version fails to include this important distinction.  To me, it is a reminder that just because I can change something doesn’t mean I should.