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Cultivating Compassion in Addiction Recovery

Using mindfulness to cultivate compassion allows addict to lean into recovery.

In a recent article in Berkeley University’s “Greater Good,” Paul Gilbert, PhD, wrote about turning our attention toward compassion. He discussed how the brain works, the ways many mental health problems begin, and how we can counteract or heal some of these issues through mindfulness. Mindfulness develops and deepens compassion toward others and ourselves, an important emotion to foster for anyone, but certainly among addicts in recovery.

Compassion means “to suffer together.” It is the feeling that arises when we see someone suffering and want to help alleviate that suffering. Compassion is what I feel when I first meet an addict seeking recovery. In addition to being an addiction researcher, I have been recovered from alcoholism for more than fifteen years. When I meet someone who is even considering getting sober, I understand their fear and the challenges they face on a visceral level. I want to help them recover, because I know how much better my life is in recovery than it was when I drank. Compassion for other addicts was my motivation for getting my PhD and going into addiction research. Addicts need not suffer as they do. There is much we can do to help.

One of the ways in which we can improve the lives of those in recovery is to help addicts develop a practice of mindfulness. As Dr. Gilbert wrote, where we put our focus is what our mind grabs onto. If we focus on what is wrong with our lives and ourselves, we will feel miserable. If we focus on what is positive and what we can change, we will feel more hopeful. That’s how the brain works—it magnifies whatever we put our attention on. Now, I’m not suggesting an unrealistic perspective. Those in early recovery generally have a lot of problems that need to be attended to. However, worrying about them can cause undue anxiety and actually serve as a barrier to facing the issues that need to be dealt with. If we worry so much about our problems that they seem insurmountable, what incentive do we have to try and overcome them? Instead, one of the tools we teach addicts early in recovery is mindfulness—choosing to focus on the present moment. At first, it is impossible for the addict to do this, but the effort allows them to see just how many thoughts are passing through their mind. They begin to see how worry develops. As they become able to focus on the moment, at the task at hand and recognize that they are safe, protected, and cared for “right now,” they are able to press into the more difficult areas of life. It is then that compassion for one’s self begins to develop and we can begin to work on the deeper issues that are challenging for the addict.

Without compassion for self and others, it is difficult to do the deep work of recovery. We have to have the willingness to face the challenging issues, to lean into places that hurt, in order to overcome the pain that is at the root of addiction. Only then are addicts able to recover and go out into the world in ways that are assistive, rather than harmful to themselves and others. What’s even better—practicing mindfulness and cultivating compassion costs nothing, continues to improve quality of life over time, and is a great way to guard against relapse.

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