Meditating on addiction

By Emilie Syberg

Three people interviewed for this story requested that their last names be withheld to protect their privacy.

A group of strangers slowly fill a small room in the basement of the Shambhala Center in the West Loop on a Sunday. A few use folding chairs to seat themselves, but most sit on the floor, poised on cushions while Peter, their leader, rings a gong to get the morning session started.

This is how the weekly meeting of the Heart of Recovery, a group dedicated to processing the struggles of addiction with meditation, begins.

“Acknowledge your thoughts, and return to your breath,” Peter says to the circle. It is a reminder that the centered quiet of meditation can be interrupted by the clamor inside of our minds. Yet accepting the intrusion and going back to the beginning is the key to clarity.

The Heart of Recovery group began in 2012, and is held weekly on Sundays.

“Being in the Buddhist community is no different than being in any other community,” Peter said. “You’ll have all the same issues that you would have in any community. Substance abuse is going to be one of them. In this case, this group was created by people who felt that they had a need.”

He said a meditation group devoted to addiction recovery made sense within the context of Buddhist beliefs, and then explained why.

“The first noble truth is that life is suffering. The second noble truth is that the cause of suffering is grasping, or desire,” Peter said. “The third noble truth is the truth of cessation, that it’s possible—in theory, at least—to cut through that.”

“The question arises, of course: grasping for what?” Peter said. “You could call it self-medicating, some underlying problem…that people are in some sort of psychological, emotional pain or discomfort. And for some people, it’s easier to pick up a substance or a behavior to numb that, or to ignore that…than it is to actually deal with them.”

Peter stressed that the meetings are not intended to replace conventional recovery methods like Alcoholics Anonymous or rehabilitation centers, but exist to supplement and support them.

“What this does present is meditation and fellowship. And the meditation itself—so how does that work?” Peter asked. “How is that helpful to an individual who’s struggling or who wants help with their abuse?”

The Heart of Recovery meetings begin with meditation and end with group discussion. The circle focuses on remaining aware not just of their breathing, but of their bodies being present in a space and time, with their eyes slightly open and focused on where they are.

“The problems in life that cause a person to abuse something—it doesn’t have to be a substance, it can be a behavior—those problems are universal,” Peter said. “And for the last 2,500 years, people have found that meditation is helpful in creating kind of an incubator in which you can experience your own mind.”

Peter said that on a very literal level, meditation allows people to be alone with themselves.

“But it’s alone time without The New York Times, without your phone—it’s basically unplugging. That simple act, in and of itself, is an act of kindness and generosity to yourself,” Peter said.

“I think what people discover over time with meditation is that it…has a self-feedback loop,” Peter said. “You sort of naturally discover where you’re tense and where your tensing up points up are…physically, but mentally as well.”

Meditation has its uses for the present moment and for the long haul. In the short term, it can take the form of a few minutes focused on a self check-in; the proliferation of apps like Headspace and Stop Breathe Think help anyone who meditates carve out time during the day to de-stress.

In the longer term, however, meditation can tackle the root issues of addiction.

Andrew Shykofsky, who runs Meditate Yoga and Meditation Center in Lincoln Square, said people have to address the emotional foundations of their behavior in order to make a full recovery.

“There’s a temptation to want to get out of [your subconscious],” Shykofsky said. “What’s stored in there is the reason why people are not relaxed and peaceful and balanced.”

Shykofsky said people manage their negative emotions differently, developing different defenses against them, and that people struggling with addiction might have difficulty with the act of processing those emotions.

“The act of indulging in something that takes you into an altered state—that state is a way to escape from the emotional turmoil that’s going on,” Shykofsky said.

Casey, who learned to meditate under Shykofsky’s guidance, said she went down a path of addiction in her 20s with alcohol and marijuana.

“[It] helped me to forget about everything,” Casey said. “That was sort of my coping mechanism for a long time.”

Casey traced her addictive behavior back to a difficult childhood, and began exploring ways to understand and manage the addiction: a Buddhist retreat, tarot card readings, crystals, and self-help books. She eventually began practicing meditation seriously, and credited it with helping her to completely change her life.

Casey also acknowledged that making meditation a priority was initially difficult.

“It took me a really long time to be able to calm my mind, and turn that off…and go into a deeper place,” Casey said.

Jim began meditating two years ago after cycling through a period of period of sobriety and recovery, followed by a relapse.

“I knew I wanted to change, but didn’t really start changing,” Jim said. He added that meditation helped him process difficult moments.

“I realize that I’m having some different emotions, that a lot of thoughts are going through my head—let’s pause, and sit down, and do the work…first calming down the physical body, getting to a level of observing your thoughts, then seeing why your emotions are so stirred up,” Jim said.

Peter said meditation is not prescriptive; it is a long term practice. He also said meditation impacts its practitioners differently, and that everyone proceeds at their own “velocity”.

“The one thing that I’ve noticed about [meditation] from the beginning is that there are no guarantees. It doesn’t absolutely work for 100 percent of the people in the world,” Peter said. “There are some people who need other types of help. Just like me—I really needed to go to rehab. It did the job. It got me to where I needed to be. And that was after meditating for twenty years. So again, it’s not a silver bullet.”

Before the Heart of Recovery group began their meditation on Sunday, Peter read what he called a “seed thought” for them to contemplate. It was written by Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun.

“The teachings tell us that there is suffering. There is dissatisfaction and frustration. Often nothing seems to go right. There really is a wound. But it is not necessary to scratch it.”

A meditation shrine in the Heart of Recovery meeting room reminds visitors of their intrinsic goodness. (Emilie Syberg/MEDILL)