By Meghan Vivo Recovery is full of enemies: drugs and alcohol, peer pressure, stress, and so on. But sometimes the biggest obstacle isn’t an outside force at all, but rather one that comes from within: our minds. Many people, whether they struggle with addiction or mental illness or not, hold onto beliefs about themselves, others and life and how those things should be. If only they had a happier childhood, a better home life or a new car, they would feel whole. Others are plagued by critical thoughts that they would never tolerate from others and that prevent them from creating the life they want. Writer Anne Lamott says, “My mind is like a bad neighborhood I try not to go into alone.” But the reality is that we have to live in that neighborhood, says Ranch therapist Christine Bates. She uses mindfulness to help clients begin to set up a “neighborhood watch,” a concept she borrows from author and meditation teacher Noah Levine. “Through mindfulness practice, we can observe what is going on in our minds – not in a way that is unkind or abusive, but in a way that sets up a firm, caring guardian that has compassion for us and others,” Christine says.
In Search of Alternatives
Christine grew up in Alabama in a family that was driven by addiction and mental illness. When she left home and headed off to college in Tennessee as an 18-year-old, she thought she would automatically leave behind the issues of her childhood. Instead, she arrived at Rhodes College with unresolved trauma that needed to be addressed. Fortunately, a school psychologist was knowledgeable about adult children of alcoholics and introduced her to resources that helped her heal. In the course of ongoing healing and growth, Christine was exposed to a series of influences that led her to the formal practice of mindfulness. For over a decade, instruction was limited to books and audio recordings from such teachers as Jack Kornfield and Sylvia Boorstein. Then, in 2009, while serving as clinical coordinator of a youth addiction program, she needed recovery tools for adolescents who were resistant to the 12-Step model. She came across the website of the first Buddhist Recovery Conference and made arrangements to send colleague Dave Smith. He then entered a certified facilitator training program with Against the Stream. As a founding member of the local group that resulted, Christine benefitted from practice, retreats and trainings offered through Against the Stream. In 2011, she became one of the first peer leaders of the Refuge Recovery group in Nashville. In 2012, she facilitated a practice and study class for other therapists, offered through Catholic Charities, called “Minding Our Business.” She has also studied with One Dharma-Nashville and continues to lead practice groups for creative people in recovery.
Bringing Mindfulness to Life at The Ranch
In May 2013, Christine joined The Ranch as a therapist who leads mindfulness practice groups for clients, alumni and staff. Clients at The Ranch spend time learning mindfulness skills in dialectical behavior therapy groups. Then Christine helps bring mindfulness to life. “In treatment, clients not only learn the benefits and core tenets of mindfulness, but they also receive practical instruction to make mindfulness part of their lives after treatment,” Christine says. Mindfulness is highly effective for stress management, but it is much more than that. Christine introduces mindfulness as part of the emotional work of recovery, beginning gradually with a few simple tools and expanding from there. Over time, clients discover that they are not alone; the puzzling things their minds do are universal. Then they explore ways to stop judging their emotions as right or wrong and instead, observe, understand and accept their own experience. “The way the human mind operates is not random, but the result of thousands of years of conditioning to pursue pleasure and avoid pain,” Christine explains. “Whether it manifests in alcoholism, relationship addiction, the patterns of adult children of alcoholics or something else, we can see this conditioning at work. This is where mindfulness comes in – not only as a stress reliever but also as a way to adopt skillful ways of living.” Mindfulness is an ideal fit for clients at The Ranch because of the broad spectrum of disorders treated. Although each individual’s patterns and issues are unique, the principles of mindfulness ring true across all of human experience. “The Ranch is truly a sacred place,” Christine says. “Clients have many modalities available to them during their stay, but they also learn how to bring parts of this once-in-a-lifetime experience into their own lives and continue their journey at home.”
The Courage to Pursue Other Options
At first, becoming more mindful can be uncomfortable, Christine advises. Particularly for an addict, sitting quietly with oneself and experiencing feelings without reacting can be intimidating. “Through mindfulness practice, people learn that thoughts and feelings arise and may create discomfort, but they also pass,” Christine says. “When people realize their thoughts do not define who they are, that they don’t have to do everything their minds tell them to do, a world of options opens up that they didn’t even know they had.” For recovering addicts struggling with stress and other emotions that could trigger relapse, realizing there are options outside of using drugs to cope can be life-altering. They can use healthy distraction. They can lean on their support network. Best of all, they can separate their addictive thinking from who they are and sit with feelings in the moment without taking any action at all. “Again and again, I find myself admiring the people who are taking the time out of their lives to address their issues,” Christine says. “Lots of people are doing things that aren’t working and they just keep doing it, without ever finding their way into treatment. Our clients have found the courage to do something different.”