5 min read

Excerpt from Hopeful Healing

by Mackenzie Phillips

On becoming mindful.

Another type of mindfulness is to be aware of the words you use, the way you phrase things. Do you phrase things always as either/ or? Are the word choices you choose always negative? Are you compassionate with how you describe yourself to yourself? Do you use language that lifts you up or pulls you down?

Language and how we choose to use it is powerful. We can use it to bludgeon ourselves into an emotional pulp or we can use it to open ourselves up to new and wonderful things. When you tell your story, listen for repeated phrases and words. The words you use to tell your story will also tell you about your self-talk and your perceptions of the world.

Mindfulness is one of the most effective behavioral tools you will ever have for dealing with rising anxiety, stress, sadness, and myriad other emotions that can start you on a downward spiral of negative thinking. It’s a healthy way to self-soothe that is about a gazillion times better than that other way you’ve been self-soothing. (Ding, ding, ding! Drugs and/or alcohol.)

If you are practicing sensory mindfulness (being bodily and environmentally aware), it can make things real in a way that offers you a deep connection with the world. Take a drive or go on a hike, and do it like you’re embarking on a life-changing journey because, hey, you are. Go east in the morning and west in the afternoon— pursue the sun. Look around you and be where you are.

There is a trail I know of with evergreens bracketing the sides. They stand like beautiful mystics, frocked in green. Their trunks and branches stretch up as if in praise of the sun or the sky, or maybe God. They make a cathedral out of the trail. I like to find a place to sit and then take everything in, listen to the birds; and stay long enough to watch the lengthening shadows mark the passing of time like the gliding minute and hour hands of a giant clock.

Mindfulness gives back the moments that you would have otherwise never noticed. The distortion of time, the negative perception of self and the world, steals wonder from you. It takes away the joy of gratitude. Mindfulness helps you get it back—it’s always the goal.

Internal mindfulness—which is to say mindfulness that pays attention to negative self-talk—watches for negative patterns of behavior and perceptions. It takes some doing because you have to break through the distortion of what you think versus what is true. You might be thinking, Everyone is out to get me! But is it actually true? Break it down. Do you know everyone in the world? No? Then what you’re thinking isn’t true. If you are thinking you’re worthless, ask yourself how you’d go about figuring out if that’s true. Treat it like a hypothesis. Do the facts support the claim? Have you ever made someone feel better with a hug? If so, you had worth to that person. Therefore, you aren’t worthless. Challenge the shit out of your habitual thoughts and behaviors. Ask, Why do I think that? Why do I do that? Get mindful about what’s real and what’s distorted.

Addicts use all-or-nothing thinking: everything’s shit or everything’s beautiful. We rarely walk the middle road. Negative thoughts can creep in even if you’re in the middle of doing the most beautiful, sober-as-fuck activity out there. Here’s the deal: you could get rid of the drugs and get rid of the alcohol, but if you don’t work on your thought processes, you’re not going to make a ton of progress. You’re not going to be happy.

If addiction is a disease of distorted perception and negative thought processes, then you’re not left with a drinking problem; you’re left with a thinking problem. Many of us are constantly talking to ourselves in negative ways, but we don’t fully realize it. This negative self-talk lives below the level of consciousness, so we’re not aware that we’re doing it until we begin the practice of self-monitoring and self-intervention.

Say you’re watching Animal Planet one night—a show about big predators on the African plains. There’s a herd of gazelles running around in perfect formation. They’re leaping along, and they’re all happy and safe. But then there’s that one little shit that inevitably runs away from the herd, right? One second, he’s safe in the middle, and the next, he’s broken off from the group because he’s not paying attention. We all know what happens next. Say hello to the lions, little buddy! But you can control those gazelle thoughts; you just have to recognize them for what they are and get them back in line before the lions close in for the kill.

In the end, mindfulness demands acceptance of what is. You can’t be mindful and regretful at the same time. You can be mindful of the regret, but the regret is not being felt—being seen and being acknowledged, yes, but not felt. As you practice mindfulness, you’ll notice that your ability to accept what you can’t change gets easier. Through the doing comes the being.

Practice mindfulness and let the rest flow through.

Mindfulness is indeed a practice, and like every other thing that takes practice, you have to work at it. Sometimes you’ll be on your A game and sometimes not so much. And when it’s not so much, it sucks. A thousand days can be lived in a bad night when you toss and turn because you can’t shake shit loose. You want to say, “Fuck mindfulness! Nothing is okay. Nothing works.” In these moments, try being like water. Think of a river with boulders and rocks, logs and reeds. The water doesn’t stop when it encounters these things; it comes up and against, slides around, and goes through. Be like water. Ride through it; don’t fight it. Reach for hope. Remember the clock hands—the minute and the hour. Find the breath between one moment and the next, even if your second-hand thoughts and negative self-talk are trying to take over.

At the end of my day, as I’m lying in my bed happy, falling asleep, I’ll go over my day in my mind. I’ll look at who I interacted with and what my interactions were like—where I was selfish, where I was intolerant, where I was impatient, where I was defiant. I make note to be mindful of those things the next day, to raise the bar, to make amends where I need to set something right. Then I release it. I focus on sensation, on the moment I am in. I feel how comfy my bed is and listen to the night sounds of my house. I fall into my body in that time and in that space. Honestly, it feels like those trees on that trail. It feels like I am stretching upward, like I’m a cathedral.

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