Engaging in Your Life, Nurturing Your Spirituality & Reconciling a Paradox in Mindfulness for Couples in Recovery

As a meditator, recovering addict, and mindfulness oriented therapist, the fourth and fifth practices in The ASCENT Approach–Engage in Your Life and Nurture Your Spirituality–meld into one core project, which in turn lays a foundation for the final component of this approach for couples in recovery–Treasure Your Partnership. Though I do not have a religious bone in my body, I consider the practice of mindfulness to be “spiritual” in that it shares what I see as the central goal of all spiritual practice–liberation from the oppressive bonds of self. It is “spiritual” in that it is a way of exploring self-transcendence, and it is not “Spiritual” in that it requires no faith or mysticism. The practice of mindfulness is also, by definition, a practice of cultivating an active and engaged presence in one’s life–a sort of situatedness in one’s moment to moment experience. I see these two core ASCENT practices through the lens of mindfulness.

Once couples have come to terms with the unhealthy ways that they have tried to direct the flow of thought, sensation and emotion in the past–their addiction behaviors–and find healthier, more sustainable ways to achieve valued states of consciousness, they face the broader and more subtle everyday challenges of engaging in life together in more deep and fulfilling ways. This is where the practice of mindfulness comes in. At its heart, mindfulness is just a state of non-judgemental attention. Something we could all use more of as we swim the tumultuous waters of recovery with our partners. We are so used to reacting to thoughts and sensations that we have prejudged as pleasant or unpleasant. Our reactions are often automatic and hurtful. Mindfulness is a state of openness and acceptance towards whatever happens to be appearing in the mind from moment to moment without reactivity or judgment.

But there is a tension at the heart of mindfulness itself that really comes to the fore in the context of recovery. The paradox of mindfulness in recovery lies in an apparent conflict between true present moment acceptance and the effort to change. In mindful recovery we are both trying to engage fully in our present life with true acceptance while at the same time resisting who we were in the past. Reconciling this paradox has been important for my clients in recovery as well as for myself. How can we practice a root-level acceptance and cultivate an active, engaged presence in life while struggling with cravings and contending with old habituated behaviors? How can we relax and accept things as they are as we work to change? The way that this paradox plays out and resolves with respect to cravings is a good explanatory example. For me, the key to untangling this conundrum when it comes to cravings–patently unpleasant sensations–is a matter of noticing when I am secretly wishing cravings would just go away. In other words, it is a matter of becoming aware of moments when acceptance is conditional; moments when we are operationalizing mindfulness as a strategy to eradicate craving. This kind of strategic approach actually undermines the power of mindfulness. I had to learn to notice both my aversion to the sensations of craving and my reactions to that aversion–wishing they would go away. In becoming aware of this reactivity I position myself in relation to the craving itself in a less reactive way. In truly mindful moments one can fully accept craving as just another momentary appearance in awareness.

This kind of mental positioning demands a lot of practice and guided instruction. I find this guided work to be a very effective therapeutic approach with both couples and individuals in recovery who are so inclined. I see this work situated within The ASCENT Approach squarely within the practice of Engage in Your Life. The reason why I think that mindfulness is so critical to the successful practice of Engaging in Your Life in recovery is because any given moment of craving (though this applies to all appearances of mental suffering, not just craving) is not actually intolerable in that moment. Really, what is intolerable and painful is the background belief that the next moment will feel the same and the next moment after that, and the next moment after that. It’s the hidden assumption that this suffering is permanent that creates the illusion of intolerability of craving in the moment. But any given moment of craving or pain is not intolerable because in that moment we have already tolerated it! When we pay attention, when we are mindful, we can all see that the actual meat of suffering is always in our projection of that suffering into the future, our fantasy assumption that the suffering is permanent. In this way, Engaging in Your Life with moment-to-moment mindful awareness is actually a kind of antidote to the suffering of craving that so often derails recovery.

When two people couple, they create a third entity: two separate individuals and a third, the “couple”. Couples counseling represents the hope and opportunity for all three entities to break through the old, rigid storylines, reconnect to themselves and to each other, to renew the purpose union and begin again in each moment. A couplehood and the individual selves are in a constant state of creative tension as each self seeks individual self-actualization. This ever changing reality of being-in-relationship demands mindfulness to maintain an active, engaged presence. It is always in the present moment that the union can become home for each individual to more fully actualize.

For every couple in recovery, there is the narrative of “who we were” before sobriety. Then there is the “sober” narrative, the story of “who we are” today. Beneath the surface of each narrative lies the subtext–the shadows and assumptions–that bely the stories we tell about ourselves and each other. Buried between the lines are the conscious or semi-conscious “beliefs” that shape our perceptions, trigger our reactions, and maintain our habitual ways of interacting in the world around us and towards the significant people in our orbit. Over time, views become fixed, assumptions become automatic and attitudes predetermined. They are no longer fluid or self-correcting, forgiving or compassionate, generous or nuanced enough to reflect the abiding depth and truth of the present moment. Maybe even more painfully, these rigid views, assumptions and attitudes disconnect us from the depths and truths of the people we love the most. When we engage in therapy, we commit to pulling back the “veil” and examining what lies beneath to question the views, assumptions and attitudes that undergird our own narratives.

For example, the fear of relapse can feel like an ever present weight hovering over the relationship. This fear can act as a filter through which partners view each other. It can become the background noise of the couples’ interactive sphere. When a couple is unaware of the ways in which fear is fueling their dynamic and impacting their perspectives of one another, it acts as a corrosive force that further entrenches each partner into old narratives. Here again, mindfulness is a way of rekindling a genuine curiosity about one another, a way of fully engaging in the “soul work” long-term recovery. Our mental muscles of curiosity about one another can atrophy in the paralyzing fear of relapse just as they do in the chaos of addiction. Learning to notice when fear is the lens through which one is viewing their partner and openly acknowledging that fear, is one of the many ways that couples can engage more mindfully in their new life, treasure their partnership, safeguard their recovery, and break the bonds of fear and old assumptions to encounter each other anew in each moment.

In general, I think The ASCENT Approach provides a helpful framework for simplifying the complex dynamic processes of couples in recovery. It delineates these processes into a sort of stage theory of recovery for couples. Mindfulness is the practice I connect with and use in my therapy work around the tasks of Engaging in Your Life and Nurturing Your Spirituality. I recognize that the degree of mindfulness suggested here might sound intimidating or overly demanding. Is total acceptance of the transitory nature of experience too much to ask of people struggling with addiction and the day to day challenges of reauthoring their lives in recovery? I recognize that it is a challenging project at the outset. However, mindfulness is simply a skill, and like all other skills, requires practice. For those who put in the practice time, the skill of mindfulness eventually “clicks.” I believe that it is a skill that is well worth the time and effort to develop. Both individuals and couples can put this skillset to good use to better confront obstacles of varying degrees of complexity in the interactive dynamic of recovery. Most importantly, cultivating the capacity for awareness of background assumptions and reactivities that keep us locked into old maladaptive scripts, narratives and patterns of mental suffering is the most efficient and globally applicable skill for Engaging in Your Life more fully.

Perhaps the only real injury one can inflict on the other in a couple is not accepting where the other person is and expecting them to be different in that moment. Both individuals and couples tend towards who they have been in the past by virtue of habit and homeostasis. Mindfulness is a way we can break that regressive tendency and free ourselves and our relationships to experience the fullness of the present moment together. It is an incontrovertible fact that the quality of our experience in each moment is always determined by the quality of our attention. Mindfulness takes full advantage of this fact.