Mindfulness and a Path of Lifelong Sobriety: An Interview with Bill Alexander

mindfulness and recoveryToday I bring you a topic that is close to many of our hearts and minds as most of us have been affected by addiction in one way or another. William Alexander is on staff at the Hazelden Foundation in Minnesota and is also author of many books including his latest release of Ordinary Recovery. Bill leads workshops on the process of Ordinary Recovery.

Without further ado…

Elisha: I’m going to start out with a very direct question, one that is on everyone’s minds when it comes to addiction. What is the key to breaking free from alcoholism or really any addiction?

Bill: In 12 step groups the answer is “the gift of desperation.”

I’d say that it is a matter of getting to the point of deeply questioning what in the world is going on in your life. But I think the answer is better approached with a story; in this case, my own. The strongest pillar of 12 step recovery is, after all, in the stories we tell.

My last drink was well over 26 years ago.  Apparently it was an epic one.  I barely remember it, except that it began in the member’s dining room of the Museum Of Modern Art (MOMA) and ended on the couch of my tiny apartment on E. 77th street in New York. I found that I had bought the Sunday New York times, in my blackout and, further, had left the magazine section open to a story about one of my favorite writers, Raymond Carver.  I poured a cup of coffee, opened a beer and got out the brandy to lace the coffee.  I never drank that beer and I drank the coffee straight.  In the story Carver was very open about his own drinking history and the staggering results he got from simply quitting.  “If he can do it, so can I.”  And I did. I have not had a drink or a drug since that day; nor wanted one.

One way to see that event, of course, is divine providence or grace; my preference is to see that in the darkness of that night, there was one small part of me that could see the way out.  And that part of me, the “daimon” that James Hillman writes about so persuasively in The Soul’s Code, made sure that I got a look at who I had become and who I could become.

In Buddhism, we say that “the lotus blooms best from the mud.” That muddy night led, finally, to a state of clarity and insight that had been hidden for 30 years of drunkenness. There, in my opinion, was the “spiritual awakening” that members of AA refer to; the first one, to be sure, but all the rest have rolled out from that one. So the bumper sticker answer to your question is “karma.”

A Zen master once pointed out to me that I can’t “possibly understand all the millions of vectors of cause and effect that are impinging on (my) current situation.” But that I can use what happens to me in service of my urge toward awakening and freedom. If there was one simple answer to your question, and either of us knew it, we’d be hailed as geniuses. As to other addictions:  there are as many addictions as there are possible distractions from our personal angst and fears; addictions themselves, by the way.

The gift of that first awakening is that I’ve been able to identify many others, in myself.  The ultimate ones, of course, are the addictions to my closely held beliefs; those beliefs which are themselves distractions; a separate self, for example.  Or a separate creator God who makes everything OK so long as I’m nice. That’s not for me. I believe that one mark of a mature person is freedom from his or her own beliefs.

Elisha: In a past column in Tricycle Magazine you talked about how “We are all Addicts.” Give us some insight into this. 

Bill: OK.  That little page on Tricycle has been a forum that has run for well over a year now. It’s been quite a gift. I think my answer to this question is embedded in the final few words of the answer to the first.  But then the question becomes – “does this mean that everything we do is an addiction?”  No.  But everything we do or believe can become an addiction the moment that we move from such action or belief being part of what we do and becoming all that we do.

That action or belief, work, sex, religious fundamentalism, “good works,” endless “self” improvement becomes the shadow that surrounds us, you might say, keeping out joy, art, love, music, simple kindness; in a word, keeping out connection. And the final addiction is that pervasive belief in a separate self.

Elisha: Are you aware of any recent research or some that is underway that is looking into the intersection between mindfulness and preventing relapse?

Bill: There is a great deal of research, yes, and it is finding its way into the community of recovery.  And I must be honest here; your question has created for me a little soapbox that I think I will mount for a sentence or so. So – a story again.

I first studied mindfulness many years ago, at least 15, in a place called Plum Village, the home, in the Dordogne area of France, of the Vietnamese Zen Monk Thich Nhat Hanh.  I spent an entire summer immersed in this brilliant spiritual practice of mindfulness with Thay, as he is called. Here is what I have found, since then.

Mindfulness is a spiritual practice embedded in an entire spiritual way of life and, in my opinion; it is a spiritual practice that loses its true punch when separated from spiritual practice. Mindfulness, in my experience, is not about stress relief or relapse prevention.  Those can be side benefits, for sure and powerful ones.  However, it is part of a spiritual path which, when undertaken in a wholehearted way, led very directly into the very heart of stress and, eventually, into the folly which guided my life for many years.

I practice mindfulness in the context of my Zen practice.  It is part of a practice, but not all of it. And, selfishly, I will add, that I have had the experience of people taking workshops where I teach and saying, of both mindfulness and meditation that they finally came to understand what they “really” are.

I hasten to mention that a very skillful teacher named Elene Loecher also teaches mindfulness at Hazelden, in its spiritual context and has had the same experience I have. It’s not about us; it’s about the power and beauty of the practice, divorced from “the data game.” But to be fair – in skillful hands, I emphasize skillful, the practice can be quite useful, in its severed form.

Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from someone motivated to make a change, what would you tell them?

Bill: I don’t know. Probably nothing, unless they asked.  Then I’d tell them what I have done. And I would also counsel them to find the path that works for them; once they have seen the folly of the path they’re on. I often wear a t-shirt that says, “Take My Advice:  I’m Not Using It.”  One final anecdote. Years ago, I attended a weekend seminar with one of the big time ballroom gurus.  His specialty was “family issues.”  I remember him, but I remember precious little of what he said.  And I noticed, waiting for the train to NYC that a number of people who were at the seminar were going over this guy’s schedule, planning where they would spend time with him next.  Addiction, it seemed to me.

A week later, I was with a Zen master in Oregon.  I spent time in face to face teaching with her (it’s called Dokusan). When we were finished and I had moved on from the small room where we had talked, I left her there – and I took her teachings with me. That is a skillful and loving teacher at work. In my opinion, anyway.  I may be wrong.

Elisha: Thank you so much Bill for your wisdom, we’ll take it!

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Photo by Dennis Wong, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

Reposted from Elisha Goldstein’s Mindfulness Blog on Psychcentral.com

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