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Someone once quipped that, “80 percent of success is just showing up.” The same thing could be said about this month’s theme of “mindfulness.” So much of what it means to be “mindful” is “just showing up” — in this case, to the present moment and the now of what’s real.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, who founded the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts’ School of Medicine, has given a more elegant definition: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” he said.
Take, for example, the problem of cravings in early recovery. “Just showing up” to the present, as part of a regular discipline of “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” can help reduce your cravings (and, in turn, your risks of relapse). What follow are thus some thoughts about how to use mindfulness to relieve cravings.
The Science of Mindfulness for Cravings
The science behind precisely how mindfulness reduces drug and alcohol cravings is still underway, but a study in 2014 offers some encouraging preliminary findings. In that study, researchers at the University of Utah wanted to see if a mindfulness intervention for chronic pain decreased opiate cravings in a group of patients that was abusing prescription painkillers, and if so, how.
The patients received eight weeks of instruction in mindfulness-oriented techniques. One of these was a “mindful savoring practice” in which participants focused on a pleasant and meaningful experience from the past, while calling to mind the pleasurable sensations connected with it. The colors, textures, sights, sounds and feelings … all of these various sensory recollections then became an opportunity to take in and savor the joy of that memory. Afterwards, the participants were instructed to use the same savoring practice on a daily basis in relation to other natural healthy pleasures.
And here’s the remarkable thing that happened: at the end of eight weeks, the same participants now showed greater brain activation in response to these natural healthy pleasures. They also experienced a reduction in pain and cravings. The implication? That cravings lose their power when we center our attention on the enjoyable things that make up our daily lives:
- A beautiful sunset or full moon from your balcony
- The sound and rhythm of an old familiar tune
- The softness of your baby daughter’s skin as she sleeps with her head on your shoulder
- Even the taste and smell of an ordinary meal
The Raisin Challenge
Just one single raisin can be a mindfulness teaching moment that embodies how to savor an otherwise very ordinary experience, (in this case, snacking on raisins), as I personally discovered. I participated in a workshop that challenged us to apply our five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch) to the task of focusing all our attention on what it was like to imbibe one little raisin.
We began by feeling the raisin in our hands and between our fingers. We noticed its color and texture and the ridges and wrinkles of its hard but also spongy skin. As we took our time placing the raisin in our mouth, we paid attention to the sensation on our tongue and its taste between our teeth.
Something that would rarely register in our consciousness by virtue of its ordinariness became an opportunity to draw out the unexpected pleasure and satisfaction that so often is right under our noses.
And the same principle can be applied to just about any other seemingly routine activity that makes up our daily life. The more we show up to the present, noticing with intention the unexpected and miraculous pleasure that is there when we really stop to notice, the more we “pleasure-pack” the brain. We dump more and more pleasurable associations into that mental hard drive of ours, so that pretty soon the same old cravings to drink or do drugs that can seem so unbearable will begin to recede — until one day they may disappear altogether.