When I got sober and gave up the option to mentally “check out” with a drink, my mind continuously ran on an uncomfortably high frequency. Many people recommended meditation — in a group, with an app, or on my own — to give my mind and body space from the chatter and chaos of daily life.
Call me an overachiever, but the thought of trying to sit still at all, or shut down the thrash metal band of thoughts, ideas and mostly-made-up stories that plays in my head 24 hours a day, seemed like a fast path to failure. If I’m stressed out about trying not to be stressed out, I’m already starting from the bottom.
Nonetheless, I did give meditation a try. I downloaded several suggested meditation apps — which are truly helpful if you use them — but the habit didn’t stick. A friend suggested that I stare into a candle flame, which worked. Until it didn’t. I also logged several hours of time streaming TV shows and scrolling the internet, but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t count.
“Many people I admire and trust in recovery practice regularly, and I wanted to try, but my attempts to sit still did nothing more but frustrate me.”
Still, meditation is in the suggested guidelines for my recovery program. Many people I admire and trust in recovery practice regularly, and I wanted to try, but my attempts to sit still did nothing more but frustrate me. Anxiety plagued me well into sobriety, in addition to my lingering and significant dependence on caffeine. This combination made sitting still — without checking my phone, fidgeting, talking, or all three simultaneously — close to impossible.
“I have so many clients that fear that their head won’t shut up once they try to find stillness,” says Meghan Renzi, LCSW-C, of Therapy and Mindfulness Practices, LLC, in Bethesda, Md. “[It’s] true for a lot of people; once they sit quietly, the mind becomes super loud. When considering the fact that we walk around with that noise in the back of our minds all day, it is no wonder we are stressed.”
My mind was definitely still so loud. Meditation is the process of training mental attention and awakening the subconscious mind. It’s getting beyond the noise of the habitual thinking and worn out stories that tend to play in our heads. Meditation isn’t just sitting still and getting rid of thoughts.
What finally worked for me was losing the idea that I had to sit on a cushion with my eyes closed for half an hour or more to gain the benefits of such a practice.
“For the people who can’t see themselves sitting still for an extended period of time, mindful movement can offer benefits including anxiety reduction, reduced rates of chronic illness, less pain, improved sleep, and focus,” Renzi adds.
“What finally worked for me was losing the idea that I had to sit on a cushion with my eyes closed for half an hour or more to gain the benefits of such a practice.”
I wanted these potential benefits — plus a spiritual connection to something — and stressing myself out about sitting wasn’t working. So I looked around for activities in my life that gave me peace and paused the mental noise, and then I got moving. Here are a few:
Walking is the purest form of meditative activity in my life. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Han writes that “When we understand the interconnectedness of our bodies and our minds, the simple act of walking like the Buddha can feel supremely easy and pleasurable.” Most days, walking my dog, watching the sky change and noticing the change of seasons in my neighborhood is my best path to slowing down the mental chatter that starts as soon as I wake up.
“Walking meditation is super helpful for people who cannot sit for too long,” Renzi said. “Finding a quiet place to focus on the act of putting one foot in front of the other can be grounding.”
A nurse practitioner told me years ago to start where I was. Walk for ten minutes, she suggested, because no matter what, that was progress. She was right. The best part is that even one of my well-worn paths never looks exactly the same twice.
Some people swim laps to quiet the mind and get in a physical flow, and I love floating in the ocean or a pool whenever I have a chance. I’ve even experimented with — and benefited from — floatation therapy in sensory deprivation tanks, but the only activity there is getting in and out. Typically this particular water therapy also requires tolerance for an hour of downtime with no noise or light (though there are some places that offer some kind of light option). A bath or a shower is generally a more accessible water option, and it’s readily available. I have had many shower epiphanies and answers to problems I just couldn’t solve before I turned on the water and washed my hair. That feels like meditation to me.
Cross-stitching, knitting, crocheting, and other needle arts are creative activities that also require intense and sustained focus. I’ve cross-stitched since childhood and started again a few years ago. The activity is restricted to your hands, eyes, and brain, which is great for focus, especially in intricate designs. Hours fly by while I unwrap thread, thread needles, stitch, and finish pieces. And even though I might be thinking the whole time, it’s typically the kind that results in clarity and answers, just like the shower.
Yoga is an active physical practice that can, but doesn’t always, include meditation. I practiced yoga for years pre-recovery, and it’s still the best way for me to find connection between my mind and body.
“The idea of staying in your body and focusing on the shapes can get you out of your head,” Renzi says. “With any moving meditation, it is important to let go of any judgments of yourself and your body. Striving for acceptance of where you are — which changes each day — is key.”
My mind might not shut up on the mat — and I’ve learned to stop yelling at myself internally about that when I practice — but completing poses requires focus and focusing on my breathing quiets the mental noise. Plus, making it to final relaxation is a fine reward for the effort, and an opportunity to let the answers come after all of that movement.
I took photography classes and shot semi-seriously over a decade ago, and picked up the practice again in recovery. I started taking pictures in the summer and initially documented flowers from hikes or on daily walks on Instagram with the #30DaysofFlowers hashtag to mark the time sober. After that first month ended, taking photos, editing, writing captions and engaging with a supportive community of commenters calmed me and gave me some much-needed connection and structure. There are few better days than shooting photos outdoors, in the city or on a nature preserve, and flowers are still a constant subject. I feel joyful when I shoot, share and especially give away photos.
Several years into recovery, I can now sit in meditation, but only in short bursts. I still prefer — and get more clarity and peace — from movement. I’m also still an all-or-nothing person who tends to discount anything that doesn’t look like the real deal, but I also know and accept what works for me. Taking pictures and walking my dog might seem like an odd spiritual path, but it works.
Meditation is a “practice” for a reason; start where you are, give yourself the grace to experiment and see where it goes.