If we remember we’re the ocean, we won’t be afraid of the waves.
In a group coaching discussion, I was asked a question that really dug deep into the private experience of sobriety. The question was: at the end of the day, how do you sit alone with yourself, without the help of alcohol to tame the thoughts, emotions, and memories flying freely in your mind. The painful truth of this question really struck me. I remember in the early days of removing alcohol from my daily life, when I was still thinking about it constantly and I was working really hard to NOT think about it. I felt I had to run away from my thoughts, fight them, or ignore them. My mind didn’t feel like my friend at times. This woman’s question made me remember how tender those first few weeks are when you don’t really trust yourself yet and you’re uncertain about just how strong you can continue to be.
I learned a lot about the mind when I stopped drinking, and these were lessons I couldn’t have understood when I was still forcefully numbing my mind to the vivid experience of my internal life.
You see, at the end of the day, no matter who we are surrounded by, we are left with just ourselves, in our own mind and body, alone in the experience of being alive. What I found after becoming alcohol-free was how much more aware I was of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations in my body, all of which I had been numbing and silencing with alcohol over the years.
For anyone going through this process right now, who is afraid of what they will find when they stop drinking, the first thing to know is that you CAN handle those emotions. You can and you will. Because the only other option is to numb them again and delay the day that you will have to deal with them. You are choosing to deal with them now, and this is the work that cannot be done when you are drinking (or escaping those feelings and thoughts in other ways). This is, in fact, the exact opposite of what you’re doing when you have a drink.
I found that once I stopped numbing the feelings and thoughts, and instead welcomed them in and just listened to them, first of all, they weren’t as scary as I thought they’d be. Second, I finally saw that they had no power over me. Mindfulness and meditation are SO essential at this stage. Not as a means to transcend to another state of mind, since that is also a form of escapism, but rather to ground yourself in the bare reality of the moment, in all of its beauty and terror. Mindfulness (just 10 minutes per day) opens a space in your consciousness that allows you to step back from the experience of those emotions and thoughts and lets you observe them. You are able to identify not as the emotions, but as a person experiencing them. As Tara Brach stated, you begin to see that you are not the waves that crash and churn, you are the sea below: calm, deep, and steady.
I invite you to try this tonight (whether you’re still drinking or not). Sit in your bed or somewhere safe and cozy, without the distraction of a TV or phone screen. Perhaps play some music if the silence is too loud. Set a timer for 10 minutes and welcome in all the thoughts and feelings you fear. Don’t push them away. Welcome them in like a visitor in your home. See them in detail, the messages, the words, the images in your mind. Observe them, don’t get lost in them. Can you feel the difference between being the thought and observing the thought?
Whenever you feel like you’re getting overwhelmed with a memory or emotion, step back from it and focus on your breathing, or on the sensation of your body on the surface of the Earth. Remember you are NOT your memories or emotions, they are simply things happening in your brain. After 10 minutes, check-in with how you feel. What was the experience like. Journal about it if that helps.
Consider this an introduction to your “demons” so to speak. The more you shed light on them, the less power they have, the less scary they will be. And as you welcome them in, you will come to understand them, and understand yourself, in a way you never could have before.
Remember that this is brave work. The majority of people will never willingly face their own internal landscape, naked and unprotected by a mind-altering substance. It is only in this space that you can start to see the path toward befriending your mind and soul and seeing that you are already eternally perfect and unmarred.