“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference” – the Serenity Prayer
In the Serenity Prayer, we ask for the wisdom to know the difference between what we can and cannot change. Without that wisdom, we can get stuck trying to “fix” things we need to accept or accepting things about ourselves that really can be changed. The question many recovering addicts ask themselves is how they can achieve this sense of wisdom.
It is a tough question for addicts to answer, considering that we have made decisions that led to terrible consequences. Can we really learn to trust our instincts over what we can and cannot change?
One of the most popular strategies in treatment of addiction and mental illness today is mindfulness. However, without a proper understanding of mindfulness, you are probably wondering how sitting in meditation can help give you perspective.
But mindfulness really is the key to implementing the lessons in the Serenity Prayer. Here is how mindfulness can give you the perspective you need in recovery.
The attitude of Non-Judgment
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the father of Western mindfulness practice, speaks about 9 attitudes of mindfulness. One of the most important is that of Non-Judgment.
Non-judgment requires you to put aside your ideas of “good” and “bad.” Usually, we think or feel something and immediately assign a value judgment to it. We feel happy, and consider it good. We feel guilty, and consider ourselves bad. Mindfulness tells us to try to reserve judgment.
Judgment and reactivity
If you are trying to be a better person, non-judgment may seem counterintuitive. Don’t you need to know good from bad to make the right decisions? However, the automatic judgments we make do not make us better. They only make us more reactive.
Think about the following scenario. You meet someone you have hurt in the past while under the influence of substances and you feel guilty. This guilt leads you to think that you have been a bad person. You immediately try to make up for what you did in the past.
Chances are you forget about the present and begin to obsess about what you did. Instead of finding a way forward together with the person or letting the past go, you over-apologize, buy gifts, make promises you can’t keep. You are not actually helping the person. Rather, you are trying to get rid of the bad feeling of guilt, along with the sense that you are bad.
Only by being non-judgmental can you see things for how they are. In our example, you would feel your guilt and acknowledge that it relates to something you did. You acknowledge to yourself that you hurt the person. You even acknowledge the internal instinct towards self-loathing and self-punishment.
Then you see what your instincts are telling you to do. Instead of simply reacting, you take an objective look at how you would react and what that would do in the situation. Would it change anything for the better? Is there actually anything you can do to make the situation better?
This is where you begin to generate “the wisdom to know the difference.”
The mindfulness attitude of non-judgment is one of the most significant aspects of wisdom. While it is tempting to think that our automatic judgments of good and bad indicate our moral rightness, it is actually the opposite. Those automatic judgments are simply reactions based on instinct.
Mindfulness tells us not to take those judgments too seriously. You can’t suddenly stop yourself from having judgments, but you can acknowledge them and let them go. This will give you the space to become wise, seeing reality for what it is, not what you want it to be.
As addicts, we get used to making judgments about ourselves and the world around us. By letting these judgments go, we are not letting our moral compass lapse. On the contrary, we are allowing ourselves to put our flawed worldview aside and decide what needs to be done.