Sitting With It

It takes practice and skill to sit. I thought it was easy. How often do I just sit? I'm telling you it's challenging not to cave in and start doing stuff. Like thinking, for example. Whenever I sit I start thinking, stressing or fretting over some new catastrophe that is certainly going to kill me this time. Or daydreaming, that mental excursion designed to help me flee the emotional experience of...whatever. My mind never shuts off. I think so much I really do believe I'm sitting when what I'm actually doing is following my mind, like a parent chasing after a toddler, trying to keep her from wandering into dangerous territory. I can't front­­­­—sitting ain't easy.

I notice other people find sitting difficult, too. They want to explain a problem, solve a problem, ignore a problem, exaggerate a problem, minimize a problem. They can't just sit. Because we have so much difficulty sitting with ourselves, we have difficulty sitting with each other. We all want to do something, even if we don't know what the something is we want to do.

Take, for example, my experience with Pearl, an African American woman I see every Monday.

“My hands are lethal weapons. I can kill you with one blow,” she says as she pushes the front door open to the community mental health office where I work. Scarf tied to her head, white rimmed sunglasses, numerous necklaces, neck scarf, blouse, leggings, and tennis shoes. She looks like some psychedelic space traveler with a mothership parked outside. Her fetid clothing assaults my respiratory system. She refuses to take medication, so her delusions rise even above her body odor.

Tearfully she laments, “They don't like me cause I'm white. Why they don't like me?”

Her mind never stops, often not even for sleep. Persecuted by her own thoughts, she can't sit still.

Her symptoms make it difficult if not impossible to engage her in any meaningful way. (I'm defining meaningful as getting her to begin taking her medication and managing her symptoms.) However, like the rest of us, she is both here and not here, and learning how to sit with her for me is meaningful. Her psychosis lies outside any treatment plan. To be with her, to sit with her, to hold space with her requires that I reduce my narcissistic expectations and be with uncertainty. Accept, listen, and allow her to be who she is. The way that she is. Just sit.

It's not difficult to sit with her. It is difficult to sit with powerlessness, vulnerability, and the shame of knowing I cannot help her. I cannot change her into someone else. It's not difficult to sit with her. It's difficult to sit with the knowledge that my mind can leave me at any time, too.   

Sitting helps you get over yourself. Sitting teaches you how to sit with others. Sitting gives you the experience of powerlessness. Sitting puts stuff in your face. So the next time you see an advertisement for mindfulness, a white woman in a leotard, sitting by a still pond inviting you to sit, remember sitting is not an escape. Sitting is not a vacation. Sitting is work. Don't do anything. Just sit.

Addiction Relapse Prevention Possible by Exploring Drug-Associated Memories


Memories contribute to who we are and our experience of life. Recovering drug addicts can avoid relapsing by exploring drug-associated memories through mindfulness practice. When memories are positive they provide us with a sense of joy and well-being. But when our memories are unpleasant they can compel us to avoid them at all costs. We can find ourselves withdrawing from others, avoiding anything that might trigger a negative memory, or trying to escape our thoughts and feelings all together.

Humans evolved with a negative bias which enabled us to survive in a predaceous world. Is that a tan rock in the distance? Or a lion. Our early ancestors who could not discern the difference ended up on the dinner table. We remember. According to Professor Robert Sapolsky, zebras don’t get ulcers because zebras only think about lions when lions are present. We, on the other hand, think about lions (or negative events) all the time.

While drug use can be considered an unsuccessful repair attempt, at its core, addictive drug use is rooted in memories both positive and negative. Because memories are so powerful many people would like to avoid thinking and, thus, re-experiencing the feelings associated with memories. Exploring those memories through mindfulness practice offers recovering people the greatest opportunity to successfully avoid relapse. Mindfulness practice teaches us how to experience our thoughts in a more productive way by inviting us to accept our thoughts and feelings without ruminating, judging, or trying to fix how we feel.

By learning how to breathe, relax, and simply observe our thoughts we can increase our capacity to tolerate various emotional states without turning to compulsive behavior. With practice and time we can develop a non-threatening relationship with our own thoughts.

As scientist search for a cure for addiction, a pill that will enable us ignore its siren call, I remain doubtful. My skepticism is born out of my experience with nasal sprays—which worked wonderfully for about two hours after which my nostrils were blocked far worse than before. That experience taught me about the concept of rebound. Addiction is a rebounding condition. Recovering addicts don’t get to return to the beginning stage of their addiction if they start using drugs again. Their addiction picks up where it left off and they quickly discover that it is far worse than before.

I can’t imagine the side effects of any pill capable for curing addiction. Mindfulness has no side effects. It also increases the capacity for compassion for self and others. It can also decrease the effects of trauma. Studies have shown that it helps decrease chronic pain. It is effective in reducing both depression and anxiety. Mindfulness is something you can learn and practice anytime and it is free.

Mindfulness does not erase memories or empty the contents of your mind. Your mind will not become a blank slate. Over time, with practice, mindfulness can take the charge out of memories by teaching us how to accept without judgment our thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness teaches us how to be happy.