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Boredom and Relapse

A mindfulness-based relapse prevention plan.

Image by ZeeNBee from Pixabay
Source: Image by ZeeNBee from Pixabay

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. – J.R.R. Tolkien

I question my clients: "What's been coming up for you?" or "How are you experiencing life these days?"

For many clients in addiction recovery, the experience of boredom will surface. Boredom, if not taken seriously, is a fast track to relapse.

When we remove elements of our life that we no longer have interest in — i.e., drugs, alcohol, people, places, and things — we are left with "empty space," and many of us, not skillful with the use of our time, will call that empty space boredom.

A larger truth is that the empty space is a luxury. It's a gift, and if we can start to see it this way, our lives have the potential to dramatically change.

Once we let go of x, y, and z (elements of disinterest), we can find ourselves with more time on our hands and not know what to do with it. We haven't yet developed new elements of interest, and this can feel uncomfortable: It feels like no man's land, it feels unknown or uncharted; we can’t see our way in or through this empty space.

The discomfort of not knowing how we should fill our newfound time and space can lead to feeling squirrely, antsy, and can lead to relapse. If there is nothing new, we can easily revert back to old habits and patterns.

Let’s consider that the empty space is good. If we find ourselves without new things or habits to fill our time and space, it means we’ve made great progress. It means we have already let go of old habits and patterns – the old is no longer filling our time. This can be cause for congratulations.

The discomfort of none — of nothing, to be without negative experiences — is good.

This is what I introduce to clients as "human minimalism": In much the same way as we learn to declutter our physical space, we are sometimes left with empty space. As Marie Kondo would say, "If it doesn't spark joy, let it go."

The challenge is just that; if I let “it” go, and I have nothing that sparks joy, then I am left with nothing.

If I let something go that continues to fail me or not support my happiness, then I also take the chance to be without something: I am choosing to be without pain. I am choosing to not be unhappy, but happiness hasn’t found me yet.

To be without pain can feel like nothing. Nothing is happening. But nothing is better than pain. Ask yourself if what you are calling boredom is actually better than addictive behaviors and consequences.

I heard a teacher once explain the paradox of wanting true peace, in that many of us, when we actually experience true peace, won't want it — because nothing is happening.

Peace is calm. Peace is the still water. No waves, no ripples. Not much happening.

To be without interest in new habits, things, and such, is like having a blank slate, a blank canvas, and I urge you to be very careful and patient about what you start creating for yourself. That blank canvas is a gift.

That empty space of time is a luxury. That empty space is freedom. That thing we call boredom is a gift. A gift of time. Time is the gift of life. That empty space is an opportunity.

Why a luxury? You are lucky enough to not have any demands imposed upon you. Life is not demanding anything from you within that empty space. This is a luxury.

Why freedom? You are free to choose what you do and how you use that time, i.e., your life. For recovery, this is a huge deal. It means you are now in the choosing seat as oppose to the object of addiction. To choose wisely is to set yourself up for sustainable relapse prevention. You are learning to break the boredom-addiction connection.

Why a gift? That empty space is the gift of your life back. Congratulations.

Why an opportunity? Empty time and space is an opportunity to be with yourself. To be with your thoughts and feelings. We are quick to change our "state of mind," which leads to addiction patterns, instead of learning to be with our current state of mind.

It's an opportunity to learn to observe our mind, even in states of discomfort, and learn to take care of and support our state of mind in healthier ways.

Do nothing. It's an opportunity to learn that doing nothing is sometimes the better choice. That which we call boredom is a chance to learn the truth of this experience. One of my favorite meditation quotes is: Don't just do something, sit there.

Interestingly, as someone who meditates, we call doing nothing "meditating" as opposed to boredom. People who formally meditate, choose to do nothing — they just sit there, in observation of breathing, thinking, feeling. Call that boring? Not so much. Amazing things can happen in self-observation.

Do something worthwhile. Depending on the stage of recovery, this extra time can be used to manage the life in front of us — kids, cleaning, cooking, better health, finances, errands, and the domestics of daily life. It’s an opportunity to engage (or re-engage) in the fundamentals that make our lives move forward.

Lastly, and not an easy feat, I ask clients to consider filling in the empty space with what they find valuable, meaningful, and important. For many clients, this is the first time that they are presented with the opportunity to start creating a life of meaning and importance. It's a powerful moment. A powerful gift.

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