It used to be that when people heard about meditation, they often pictured someone with long hair and a beard, wearing Eastern-style clothes and a string of beads around their neck, sitting cross-legged in an excruciating posture like a pretzel, eyes closed and chanting some unfamiliar words. Sometimes, the mental picture included this type of person sitting all alone on top of a mountain, with only some goats to keep them company.
Fortunately, this view has changed over time. For good and for ill, meditation has gone mainstream. Books on the subject abound, classes can be found in any city and many smaller communities, and there are online videos, apps, and other forms of instruction available just about anywhere. Bankers, grocers, dancers, and your local dentist may well practice meditation. And they’re just as likely to practice in a favorite pair of jeans or sweatpants as in white cotton garments fashioned in India.
The one part of this picture that hasn’t changed much is the alone part. There just seems to be something about meditation that feels solitary, even if you’re in the middle of ten people in a class or thirty on a retreat. In fact, this is even part of the Buddhist paradigm for meditation: when I did my first Vipassana retreats, an ancient Southeast Asian form of meditation, we were taught at the beginning that the mental frame in which we should hold the process was “alone together.” It was a paradox that united these two seemingly opposite principles, meant to emphasize that although we had a teacher and were surrounded by fellow students struggling just as hard to stay awake and keep from fidgeting, ultimately we were on our own in taking responsibility for our effort, keeping our intentions, being honest with ourselves, and processing whatever came up in the course of five days, a week, two weeks, or however long we were there.
At the same time, the “together” part acknowledged that we had support: meditating with others is different from meditating by oneself, even though you might not see them or be very aware of their presence once your meditation deepened. We were taught that the group dynamic and energy changed the experience substantially; that knowing the collective effort was being made, that we were in this with others, made a difference, even if we couldn’t know what anyone else was dealing with.
I certainly found this to be true. Particularly as the days wore on, and the struggle sometimes got harder and more intense, the strangers I started off with on Day One changed into fellow travelers along the way, and then friends and something like coworkers, engaged in a great, common effort.
There’s an upside and a downside to this. The upside I just mentioned: you feel supported. At some level, even if unconscious at times, you know there are others all around you, trying to get the hang of this thing just as you are. The downside is that with others nearby, breathing and sniffling and coughing and adjusting their blanket and the like, your meditation may not feel as deep. Your stillness and serenity get disturbed, like when the phone rings just as you’re “getting somewhere,” or like trying to get a good night’s sleep with someone else in the bed, tossing and turning. Fortunately, and sometimes annoyingly, a good teacher will tell you that even these distractions ultimately serve your meditation, because they help you learn how to maintain mindfulness and concentration no matter what happens around you. Meditation isn’t supposed to be a hermetically sealed bubble of private peace. It’s a space in consciousness from which you observe everything coming up evenly, neutrally, without weighting one thing higher or lower, better or worse, than another. You’re just watching the river flow.
With this in mind, I want to make a couple of recommendations that those of you in recovery and practicing meditation, or interested in it, might try.
One of the things that can make meditation a little tricky for those in recovery, particularly if you are new in recovery, is precisely this aspect of being alone with it. Too much aloneness is often a factor in why someone turns to alcohol or drugs or other addictions in the first place, and the idea of turning off your phone, closing your eyes and having to face your inner world with no one to help you deal with the stuff that comes up can be scary. What if the urge to use comes up, because staying mindfully with painful feelings has triggered it? What if some early memory of a trauma you’d forgotten surfaces, one that led to your addiction, and you don’t know how to handle it?
These are realistic concerns. Anyone in recovery who is considering meditation should look into them seriously before starting. If you’ve faced the possibilities beforehand, and have some good tools to handle them, should they arise, you are better prepared than if you just jump in. And in any case, I don’t recommend that anyone still in early recovery try meditating alone in the beginning, whether following instructions from a book, online, a phone app, or whatever. It’s a little like working on an engine without training: you might get a shock.
One way of lessening the likelihood of this is by meditating with others. This could take any number of forms: working one on one with a teacher, taking a class, or participating on Zoom. Formats where discussion and question and answer are available are better for beginners than those where everyone enters the hall in complete, formal silence, sits in silence, and leaves the same way. This has its place, and can be very powerful, effective, and beautiful, but it’s not for everyone, and it’s probably not the best place for most to start.
This is true generally, but for those in recovery, I want to offer a couple of ideas. First, you might want to try and find a meditation teacher who has, herself or himself, gone through the recovery process and come out the other side, at least to some significant degree. They will be better positioned to understand what you’ve been through, what you’re going through now, and how all of that relates to the meditation practice, and what particular practices might be especially helpful for you. If you’re part of a Twelve-Step group, you might consider bringing the subject up, perhaps during a break, or at the end of a meeting, and see if the group leader or others are already meditators and would be willing to help you with it. Just as knowing that there are others going through the same effort you are, can help anyone practicing meditation, knowing that the person or people you are working with understand not only meditation, but addiction and recovery, as well, can give you a sense of reassurance that someone is there to help if needed.
If you’re interested in learning or deepening meditation through the Buddhist teachings, one of the most popular and well-developed systems of meditation in the world, check out buddhistrecovery.org, the URL of the Buddhist Recovery Network. You will find listings for many different meetings, including those working with the Twelve Steps, either near you or online.
The other thing I want to propose is something that I haven’t yet seen done, but that seems like a good idea to me. That is to partner up with someone, not in a formal way with a teacher or as part of a class, but individually, on a regular basis. Ideally, this would be someone also in recovery, but further along in the process than you. If this sounds familiar, it’s because I got the idea from the practice of having a sponsor in the Twelve Steps. I know many people who have benefitted from this in processing their addiction, and adding the dimension of meditation seems potentially very helpful to me.
Many who are recovering have found that adding the discipline of structure to their lives is useful. Meditating with another, on a regular day and time, with a well-organized process, possibly including notes from your private meditations to discuss with your “meditation sponsor,” a way to track your progress, and conversations about both your recovery and your meditation, could help keep you focused and provide the sense of not “going it alone” that can be daunting in any long-term endeavor.
This wouldn’t have to be an alternative to sitting alone, if that is a positive thing that you enjoy, but in addition to it. However, if private meditation is difficult for you, having someone in the room (carefully socially distanced) with you who knows the score could be very valuable. Even practicing this way with the other person (or persons) on Zoom would be better for some people than being totally by themselves.
Alone together. As the Buddhists like to point out, it’s already the situation we’re all in, all the time. No one else knows what you’re thinking or feeling or have experienced, only what you tell them about it. We tend to ask ourselves, “what have I got to lose?” It’s not a bad question, especially if we’re coming from a bad place. But perhaps a better question might be, “what have I got to win?” Support in recovery and meditation could offer an answer.