Why Meditation is Critical for a Spiritual Way of Life
For a long time, I likened myself to “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski. I was a simple, laid-back guy with a cavalier attitude. A steady intake of marijuana and alcohol bolstered my claim, although I didn't drink White Russians.
Then sobriety happened, and I soon discovered I was not “The Dude.” In the absence of a steady stream of pot and booze, I was actually a non-dude. Anxiety replaced mellow. Frustration replaced tranquility. I was on edge 24 hours a day in my first few weeks of sobriety.
I’d conveniently forgot the young teen who’d been encouraged to attend anger management classes at the age of 16. When presented with the prospect of joining ranks with society’s rage-a-holics, you might be able to guess how I reacted – angry.
When pot, booze and The Big Lewbowski came along, I slipped into perpetual mellow. Anger dissipated in a cloud of smoke. Frustration melted in a bottle of whiskey. My nickname growing up was “Dink.” And with a newfound formula for internal ease, the Dink abided.
Drugs Go Away and Anger Returns
Now that was all gone. The old me returned, ferocious as ever. Restless, irritable and discontent on steroids. I’m not sure why, without a program of recovery, I feel that way. I just know I do.
But my condition proved to be short-lived. It was a Tuesday. Dave Smith, founder of Against the Stream meditation group in Nashville, walked into the DeWitt Building at Discovery Place. Inside, 24 freshly-sober alcoholics and drug addicts waited impatiently.
He started speaking. I don’t know why I listened that day as I was still reeling in withdrawal from various narcotics. Something he said, though, caught my attention.
He talked about internal suffering. He talked about our propensity as alcoholics and drug addicts to conjure negative feelings and perspectives with a simple act of mind. And he said all this was possible in spite of our circumstances.
Dave asked us, “How much suffering do you take on as a result of your thinking?”
All my life, I’d been told I was a pretty smart guy. I had to admit, however, that I’d never considered this simple question.
Dave continued by saying, “I felt like my mind was basically torturing me… like a bully… so through meditation, we begin to ignore the mind on some level by paying attention to something else (the breath). We also begin to learn to just tolerate it.”
I wasn’t so sure about this guy with a hardened Boston accent and inked up arms. But I knew he made sense. And I knew I was sick of feeling the way I felt.
“When we get those hints of fear, those thoughts of the future, what’s going to happen two weeks from now, we don’t buy into it. How much suffering do you endure by believing what your mind tells you?” Dave was really starting to make sense now.
You see, all my life I’d taken my mind’s propositions as gospel truth. I never second-guessed myself. Sure I might question whether a course of action was best after a sequence of events, but that was usually due to an anchor of regret. Thought became action fast. Impulsivity was my featured trait. Foresight resided in luckier men. I’d become a slave to the dictates of my mind.
I knew I’d been this way since birth. It was a part of my blueprint. On that Tuesday morning, I decided I’d had enough. If meditation offered relief from mental bondage, consider me a monk.
Mindfulness Meditation Provides Relief from Mental Suffering
I started meditating every day, sometimes twice a day.
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
The benefits trickled, slowly at first, then gaining momentum as time passed. Internally, I felt an increasing sense of calm. Situations that usually ate my lunch ceased to hold much power over me. I was no longer horrified when I walked into a room full of people I didn’t know.
One incredible effect of 12 step recovery is the ability to “inventory” a past situation in rather objective fashion. You sit down with pen and paper, follow instructions from the Big Book and swim in a river of knowledge filled with underlying emotions, causes and behaviors.
Executed properly, these inventories wash away sediments of mind and leave behind genuine nuggets of self-knowledge. Actions and thoughts of the past are analyzed. But this information is gleaned after the fact.
Meditation offers the ability to view thoughts in real time. This was one of the first mind-blowing features I discovered about meditation. It felt as though I was in a movie theater watching a reel of my thoughts flash before the big screen.
I’d never experienced anything like it. Even my acid trip at Bonnaroo with Nine Inch Nails headlining and Buddha materializing out of cumulus clouds paled in comparison. There I was, engulfed in tranquility of breath and sound, watching my thoughts wander like an old man watches people from a park bench.
For the first time in my life, I received insight into the inner workings of my mind. There was good. There was bad. And there was ugly. But there was progress.
Relief naturally followed. Mindfulness breeds relief. It invites tranquility. I challenge anyone to focus solely on breath and sound for 20 minutes and not feel relaxed.
About one year into my meditation practice, I realized something that seemed so profound, yet now seems so simple. I cannot apply spiritual principles from an inner state of agitation. When I’m angry, frustrated, anxious or fearful, I always fail to fully practice some spiritual quality.
I’m pretty sure this is why the Big Book goes to great lengths to suggest that alcoholics and drug addicts pause when agitated and guard against resentment. Bill Wilson and the first 100 alcoholics knew it was difficult, if not impossible, to maintain healthy spiritual living in the midst of internal turmoil.
When I’m calm, I tend to treat others with respect. When I’m calm, I’m less likely to let a slip of the tongue hurt someone else. When I’m calm, I’m more likely to feel in harmony with my surroundings.
I did hear someone in a meeting say that, even after practicing meditation, they are still vulnerable to negative alcoholic behavior. While I can certainly act like a donk in spite of regular meditation, I’m less prone to erratic behavior. And when I do act out, I’ll have much better odds of catching myself before all hell breaks loose, provided I practice mindfulness meditation regularly.
After 2 years of daily meditation practice, I am finally the laid-back dude I always wanted to be. The Dink now abides, without the booze and pot.