"See the ball... hit the ball!"
"Don't over-think this!"
"This is a simple game!"
From the time they are 11 years old, baseball players have had these things shouted at them. It may not seem to have a lot to do with making changes in substance use behavior, but give me a minute.
In the real world, these statements help baseball players about as much as telling a heavy drinker to "keep it simple," or just take it "one day at a time." Not much. While these can be profound life suggestions, the ability to put them into action can be brutally difficult. In fact, "see the ball," "keep it simple," and "don't think too much" can be kind of a pain in the neck to hear over and over when you don't really know how to pull them off.
So we come to mindfulness. How could mindfulness actually be helpful to a heavy drinker and a baseball player? First, we have the issue of awareness. Nobody (including baseball players and heavy drinkers) likes to really slow down and see what's happening. Instead, (while shouting at themselves to "stop thinking" and "keep it simple"), they are often cycling through a barrage of other thoughts: "Geez if I could really blast this one over the wall," "Damn, I already struck out twice today," or "Maybe there's a window when I could grab a drink," or "having just one won't be a big deal."
In my 11 years with the New York Mets and 25 years in addiction treatment, these voices whirling in people's heads are often the place to start the long road to mastery. They effect one's ability to hit the ball, recover from a substance use problem... to be present. In that sense, they may be the most important voices to slowly start to hear, to acknowledge, to speak... so they can be let go.
... to let go of the imagined future right after that perfect crack of the bat...
... to let go of the simmering past, still wondering why the umpire singled them out for a bad call last at bat...
... to let go of that longing to ease the tension in their stomach with a drink...
... to let go of that memory of being able to have a glass of wine with dinner without it escalating...
The past and the future are barriers to the present. The glorious, not always happy, but crystal clear present. The present is that place where one is absolutely most likely to hit that small white object flying at 93 miles per hour or stand a chance of not drinking.
We could argue over which is harder... not returning to heavy drinking (relapse rates north of 60 percent) or hitting a baseball successfully. Both are very hard to do in the best of circumstances. As they say in baseball, the most successful guys of all time are the ones who can hit three out of 10 times. There are not a lot of actions where hitting it three of 10 is a wild success. It is a tribute to how hard it really is.
What makes hitting a ball or changing a serious substance use problem so hard? Your brain, taking you back in time, out of the present, to 20 seconds or 20 minutes or 20 days or 20 years ago... "Shouldn't have swung at that crappy pitch," "I struck out last time so badly... god I don't want to do that a third time!" and "My dad always said I couldn't handle the really big pressure situations." The brain can also launch you into the future just as easily: "It would be so sweet to hit it where they left a gap..." If I strike out for a fourth time the booing is gonna be brutal." Either way, being in the past or the future leaves our poor baseball player stranded like a ghost at the plate. The outcome? He is unprepared and more likely to get a hit out of luck than skill.
Mindfulness is being aware of what is happening in the present moment, accepting it, and not having it drowned out by the past and future. Try it for a minute and you'll see. Look down from your computer right now, take one deep breath, and just focus your gaze on the skin on your hands for 30 seconds.
How was that? Notice any thoughts you were having while doing this "silly" exercise. Any words come to mind? "Wasting my time," "Did I park in front or back," "What time was dinner," "Did she not like the presentation today?" In mindfulness practices, all of those thoughts are fine to be having. There is no "right" experience, but what we are practicing is being aware, instead of being in the past or future and not noticing what is right in front of us.
How does this help hit a ball or resist a drink? If I am not going to drink at the work function tonight (level of difficulty = 10), I first need to be aware of how much I want to drink. If I am going to stand a chance against Stephen Strasburg (level of difficulty = 10), I need to know how much I am dreading striking out. Then I can acknowledge these thoughts and feelings, and not react to them.
Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of what is happening in your head and in front of your eyes without getting stuck in reactions to it. Mindfulness allows the whispers and nagging voices to come and go and to not make you lose sight of the literal ball... or the choice to stay sober. Hitting a baseball is difficult. Deciding not to drink is difficult. Both benefit from practicing mindfulness, and stepping away from attention to the past and future.
And this stepping away is the path to freedom. Freedom of the bat swing, from distractions, from self-attack. Freedom from all those whispers and nagging voices (which can actually be a roar in your ears) that make everything from hitting a ball to recovering harder. It is a freedom that allows for simply seeing the baseball without worrying about the outcome. A freedom that allows for maintaining a focus on the goal without getting distracted by old reactions or emotions or worries about the future.
And it allows you to simply see the ball, hit the ball, and live one day at a time.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.
Jeff Foote, Ph.D. Dr. Foote is a Clinical Psychologist and Co-Founder of The Center For Motivation and Change in Manhattan, as well as CMC:Berkshires, an inpatient substance abuse treatment center in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. He has been a federally-funded researcher on substance abuse treatment and a lifelong clinician in the addiction field, focusing on implementation of evidence-based treatments. Dr. Foote was also Psychologist for the NY Mets the last 11 years, as well as an independent performance consultant to athletes. He is co-author of the soon to be released Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change, a Scribner books publication.