Between the ages of four and seventeen, I underwent six operations due to injury and illness. I learned very quickly that I enjoyed the phenomenon of being “put under.” The state of euphoria, bliss, and complete contentment was pleasant beyond anything I had ever experienced and made the traumatic operations palatable. This idea set into my unconscious. I recall always having a bottle of narcotic pain medication at my disposal whenever I was uncomfortable, and that this notion was normal and acceptable. Without my knowledge, I was walking directly into the abyss of substance abuse under the care of medical doctors and supervision of my adult guardians who didn’t realize that I was becoming addicted. By the time I was eighteen, I had experimented with every substance I could get my hands on and was hopelessly addicted to opiates. How did this happen to me? Is this my fault? Am I a bad person? Those were just a few of the major moral questions that constantly ran through my mind. I was trapped in my own personal Hell on Earth and saw no way out of it.
After several attempts at treatment I finally found a way of life that felt right and appeared to yield the results I was desperately searching for. It took a few years of wasted money, frustration, pain, and suffering, but I believe that it was worth it. All of my previous failed attempts at treatment shaped me into the person I was when I ended up at Tree House Recovery in Southern California. I was broken down to the point of complete surrender and I placed every ounce of trust into the people who had graciously taken me in. I was put into situations that were foreign and uncomfortable. One of those places just so happened to be a Yoga Studio. During Yoga I came face to face with myself and had only one direction to look toward. That direction was within, and through meditation, yoga and other mindfulness practices I eventually uncovered the real Dan. The Dan that was buried underneath years of shame and guilt.
Mindfulness practices have been around for thousands of years and the origins can be traced back to the Eastern world in Hinduism and Buddhism, but do not have to be attached to any particular religion. In modern society, these practices have evolved into Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), basic meditation practices, yoga practices, etc. Many of these more current forms of mindfulness practices have been implemented into addiction treatment, and this is where I first began exploring the topic.
What I have learned is that there are many benefits to a mindfulness based practice including:
- stress relief
- lower blood pressure
- pain reduction
- improved sleep
- reduced depression
- reduced anxiety
- mental clarity
- emotional regulation
“If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
– Lao Tzu
This quotation really strikes home for me. I used to be depressed, anxious, sad, lonely, angry, and self-destructive. I would reach for outside stimuli to achieve some sort of false contentment or fulfillment, neglecting the fact that I had every bit of peace and joy within me, it was simply kept under lock and key. By incorporating a daily meditation regimen, practicing yoga regularly, and fine-tuning my mindfulness abilities, among other things, I was able to find the key to my own happiness.
This journey has led me to the forefront of addiction treatment, where mindfulness, yoga, and meditation are a requirement for sustaining one’s ability to thrive in today’s world. I have been blessed with the opportunity to share my experience and knowledge with others who are struggling. I approach them with open arms, love and kindness, and assure them that they have all of the tools necessary to live a joyful life, but they need some guidance, just like I did. And sure enough, through adding basic mindfulness practices to their routines, I have been able to watch upwards of 50 young men turn their lives around and become upstanding, incredible people. I teach them what was taught to me; that it requires hard work and discipline to untie the knots of the past and that there are many things we can begin doing today to start the process.
I teach them that first and foremost, utilize your breath: The breath is a powerful tool. It is a direct path to controlling the autonomic nervous system which regulates the heart rate, stress and relaxation responses, blood flow, etc.
Observe your immediate surroundings:
Really take some time and notice all the small details that you might have overlooked, and appreciate them for what they are. Allow yourself to relax, be in the moment, and concentrate on what is in front of you.
Do a body scan:
Take a couple of minutes to be still and come into your physical body. Maybe start by noticing each one of your toes and work your way up to the top of your skull. Simply notice each area of your physical being and observe whatever might be there.
Practice mindful eating:
The next time you decide to have a snack or a meal, sit somewhere quiet, away from any distractions like your phone, TV, music, etc. and really pay attention to all of the different sensation that are happening as you eat. The different scents, textures, noises, and tastes. Allow yourself to eat slowly and purposely, focusing all of your attention on each bite.
I teach them that all of these exercises will pull you into the present moment, where reality truly exists.
I tell them my story and what I have learned: That there are no cure-all pills or “easy” fixes to treating substance abuse. That it’s not something that can be achieved overnight. And that it’s not always going to be easy or pleasant. But there are solutions to solving this puzzle. We just have to be willing to admit that we are fallible, take a look at our flaws, and make some serious changes. And this can only be done by turning our attention inward. Somewhere within every human being is a spirit that is untainted by our environment, a spirit that is powerful beyond imagination and more valuable than any currency.