Although the mindfulness methods I practice are firmly set in the meditative tradition, it’s refreshing to encounter an approach to mindfulness not grounded in what is all to often assumed to be the only route to the benefits of mindfulness. I found this in Ellen Langer’s book, Mindfulness. Langer’s comments about ageing, education, creativity, and work are original and thought provoking, with little mention of meditation. I’d like to point out some ideas she brings to the treatment of substance abuse. To Langer, mindfulness has more to do with perspective, and her reference to it relies upon the context in which a drug is taken.
She reports that people who don’t consider themselves addicts are less likely to experience withdraw symptoms than those who do consider themselves addicts. Perceived drug availability also influences the outcome of quitting. Heroin addicts sent to prisons where they believe there is no chance of getting the drug rarely suffer intense withdraw symptoms, “while addicts in other facilities who are denied the drug but believe they might be able to get their hands on it do experience the pain of withdrawal.”
Work with smokers denied cigarettes in both nonsmoking and smoking permitted environments also illustrates the importance of context. Those surveyed did not suffer withdrawal symptoms in nonsmoking contexts, but in an environment where smoking was allowed but they could not smoke, their cravings returned.
Langer describes the mindful addict as one who looks at her addiction from more than one perspective. An open-minded person struggling with addiction will affirm that there are positive results of her addiction as well as the obvious negatives. And these positive aspects: relaxation, social functioning, alertness, etc., have a very strong appeal. Healthier substitutes become the answer. “If the needs served by an addiction can be served in other ways, it should be easier to shake.” An honest open-minded approach to the addict’s motivations for using the drug can make substitutions easier to identify and practice. More mindful ways of breaking habits than the mere denial of the addictive substance can be found and should be more successful.
Of course, for many of the motives for taking a drug, meditation can be an appealing substitute. But Langer is astute enough to not limit herself to one therapy or substitution for all addicts. Mindfulness takes on a very broad, new context in her work.