Familiar Suffering

17 percent:
the success rate of the oldest residential drug & alcohol treatment facility in the world.
17 percent
of people stay sober for a year after they leave.
17 percent.
And it’s the highest success rate of any treatment center in the w h o l e world.
17 percent.

*Data from the book A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, published in 2003.

One of the most recent studies on recidivism rates – which most often refers to the rate at which a person relapses back into criminal behavior after being released from prison – showed that 67.8% of people were rearrested within 3-years of being released from prison, within 5-years that number increases to 76.6%. And of those prisoners, a little more than half were arrested by the end of the first year of being released.

I often ponder why it’s so hard to break our cycles of detrimental behaviors and habits. These are more extreme examples, of course, but the thread is the same for all of us. We all have a hard time letting go of the suffering we’ve grown strangely accustomed to. Even when we know what we’re doing is not working. Even when we’re miserable. Even when we’re crippled by shame and guilt and fear.

A common deterrent towards making positive changes that I’ve heard often from people, in a variety of contexts, involves the deeply rooted and long-held view that they’re broken, un-fixable, damaged beyond repair. My husband used to think he was one of those people. I have at least two friends and a family member I can think of that feel this way, too. And it makes sense to me that if we think we are broken then there’s little sense in trying to change course – because there’s a core belief that nothing will work.

“Attachment to views is the greatest impediment to spiritual growth.” -Thich Nhat Hanh

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Sugar

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It’s been 2 or 3 years now since I gave up what I call “dessert sugar.” Funny, how I’m not sure how long it’s been. Funny how it doesn’t even really matter. When looking back, individual years acquire a different sort of time stamp in our memory, which dramatically lessens the significance one experienced while actively living it.

I’ve been a life-long sugar addict. One for whom chocolate and cookies stir a deep adoration no other food product comes close to matching. Those were my DOC’s (drugs of choice): chocolate and cookies. On the addiction scale I’d say I was somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, edging my way over the line into the “Danger, Will Robinson” zone.

I came up with the “dessert sugar” phrasing in an effort to find a quick way to explain myself in response to the inevitable quizzical look that would follow after turning down a sugar filled offering. Apparently, people often find it curious when someone doesn’t partake in sweets, which is similar to what used to happen when I would decline libations before I fashioned a largely sober friend base. It would be easier for people to understand if I were, say, a diabetic trying to watch my carb intake, or an alcoholic on the wagon, but as someone who chooses to voluntarily avoid both substances, I become the equivalent of a talking unicorn found serendipitously in the woods on a long hike.

“Dessert sugars” mean just that. They refer to the eats one would commonly consider a dessert product: cookies, cake, brownies, ice cream, pie, and anything having to do with chocolate. If I weren’t limited to explaining myself in the time frame of someone’s minuscule attention span, I would further add that I’ve given up both dessert sugars and junk-food sugars. Junk-food sugars being: candy, breakfast pastries, funnel cake, sugary cereals, and anything else one tends to eat large quantities of and is socially allowed to have at any hour of the day. For a reason I have yet to pin down, I feel it necessary to report to anyone who’ll listen about how I’m not foregoing ALL types of sugar, just the sort that might trigger my particular proclivities. I continue to eat fruit and granola bars most every day. I even drink juice, un-caffeinated sodas, and sweet tea every so often. I guess I just don’t want people to get the wrong idea and wind up stewing in a falsely held judgement about how I’m a hypocritical wind-bag, when next they spot me sipping on a smoothie.

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What Mindfulness Isn’t

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With our second installment of Mindful Community Conversations happening tonight (a monthly series I put together to focus on difficult topics that incorporate the practice of mindfulness as a tool to help along the path of healing), I’ve been thinking about the sometimes common tendency to regard mindfulness as the only tool needed in order to build a healthy, happy life, or to recover and heal from difficult situations. It’s important to relay, especially to newer practitioners, that mindfulness, while a big tool in the tool box, is only one of many others. Just as we would not be able to use only one tool to build a foundation for a house, we will likely not be able to use mindfulness alone to build a foundation for our well being.

Over the years I’ve heard from people who regard mindfulness as some kind of magic solution to every situation that arises. Those same people then become deflated and disappointed in themselves (as though they were a bad practitioner) as a result of mindfulness not being enough to help them through certain difficulties, such as when dealing with depression, addiction, loss, grief, anger, anxiety or trauma. While the practices of mindfulness: sitting meditation, walking meditation, mindful eating, mindful breathing, and so on, can aid in any situation that arises, we also need to develop and work with other tools in order to support and nourish our entire being.

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