Remember what it was like when you first got clean? How suddenly there was so much to do? For many of us it went from a life focused on one goal – getting high – to a full life in recovery. This meant learning how to juggle all our new commitments of not only rejoining life (a job, honoring financial responsibilities, reuniting with loved ones) but also incorporating time for meetings, new friendships, the gym, new hobbies, meditation, therapy, health and dental check ups. The list goes on. While it felt great to be taking care of ourselves, it was overwhelming to have days that were busy until ten or eleven at night without a break. “Will it be like this forever?” we’d ask old-timers, wanting reassurance that eventually we could take a break.
We create healthy new habits that become part of the fabric of our lives and we stick with them because they make us feel good. Our lives run smoothly until we experience change – a change in jobs, new responsibilities, new romantic relationships – and we have to adjust our schedule accordingly. Unfortunately, addicts are prone to amnesia. We make deals with ourselves based on what has the highest rewards with the least labor. It feels good to snuggle in front of a movie with our date so we let the gym slide. We need that overtime so we cut back on meetings. We gravitate back to junk food because we didn’t have time to go to the supermarket. And forget about meditation. Who has the time to sit?
I spent last week at a friend’s country house in upstate New York. The plan was to work on my book and to help harvest their garden. On the way up I offered to make a gooseberry pie since no one seemed to know what to do with all the gooseberries. As soon as we arrived I put on a bikini and headed for the garden. I had no idea that gooseberry bushes were a tangle of thorn-covered branches or that each berry had a small spike of its own. I really wanted to get it over with so I could start writing but quickly realized that this was not going to be a job I could rush.
Hours later I was so scratched I looked like I’d been in a cat fight but I had two large bowls of berries. It surprised me to realize that I’d arrived to a country visit expecting to maintain my city pace. While picking berries it dawned on me that being self-employed in a freelance way, I create momentum by applying a certain level of stress and urgency where there probably isn’t any need for it. Somewhere in my mind, I equate that feeling of urgency with energy when it comes to productivity. Yes – even with years clean and all the mindfulness tools at my disposal I get amnesia. It took picking berries for me to recognize the pressure I put on myself to be productive.
When it came time to make the pie I discovered that each berry had to be cleaned from its thorn and that most thorns stuck to my hands and fell into the bowl of cleaned berries. It was not an easy job. Three hours later I was ready to make a pie. This pie-prep experience turned into something of a spiritual epiphany for me. The slowing down, being in the moment, and concentrated focus was similar to a meditation and the results were similar. I was forced to set aside expectations and my tendency to rush through my day. What is the point of rushing through life when this time is finite? Yet it is how most of us live. We rush through things that feel like work and try to bask in the things we decide are pleasure. What if we turn as much of our experiences into pleasure by mindfully being present to them? This is an easy way to multi-task recovery and reap the benefits.
Preparing a meal is the one time of day where you can allow yourself to exhale. Whether it is chopping produce or stirring something on the stove, this is a time you can redirect your attention away from the future. The great part is that it is not slowing down the actual process of making the meal. Taking a break from the fast pace of our lives will give us more energy throughout the day. All we are doing is essentially following that old saying, “Stop and smell the roses.” Some people find washing dishes to be a meditation. You can bring mindfulness into almost any activity that you do. All it takes is letting go of the idea of urgency, paying attention to what is in front of you, and you will be living in the moment. You don’t have to restrict mindfulness to a formal meditation or a yoga class.
My gooseberry epiphany was not new. Recovery is about learning what works, forgetting, and relearning. Just because we can veer away from what works does not mean we can’t reclaim it.