Once there was a professor who wanted to get spiritual answers to his life concerns. He traveled far to find a guru who lived on the mountain peak, away from the busyness of the city. When the professor arrived, the guru extended his greeting and two of them sat down for tea. Within seconds, the professor began to go on and on about his life concerns and for each of his problems provided an intellectual answer. While the professor was rambling on with his reasoning, the guru prepared to pour tea into a cup. But the guru continued to pour and pour and pour beyond the capacity of the cup spilling the tea all over the table and floor.
The professor was alarmed and stopped talking. The guru responded that the professor was just like the cup spilling over and that he was never going to be able to learn anything from the guru because his mind was already too full. The point the guru was making was that the professor needed to begin again. In order to learn, in order to see his life in a new way, he needed to find his beginner’s mind.
Beginner’s mind is a Zen Buddhist concept that encompasses the idea that in the beginner’s mind there are many new possibilities; but in a full mind there are few. Interestingly, in teens, the brain is ablaze in its growth. Neurons are forming new connections and the prefrontal cortex, responsible for logical reasoning and thought processing, is also developing. Daniel Siegel, author of Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, writes that, “Life is on fire.” There is a burst of exploration, maturation, and growth. Typically, Siegel described in his book, teens are searching for what is new and novel, yearning for more social connection, responding to life emotionally, and bursting with creativity.
Returning to a sober life after alcohol abuse requires a beginner’s mind, which not unlike the teenage mind. It means finding the humble, open, and receptive mind in order learn because no doubt the path of becoming sober requires learning new skills.
The following are some skills that might be necessary during alcohol abuse treatment:
- Becoming aware of your emotions so that you’re no longer hiding from them through drinking or drug use.
- Regaining a sense of internal power (versus blaming others) and taking responsibility for the events in your life.
- Learning how to take care of yourself, including making decisions that are life affirming versus those that undermine your well being.
- Building relationship and communication skills so that you are communicating your needs even when it might feel like you’re “rocking the boat” in relationships with parents and peers.
- Learning to express your emotions in a healthy way, versus bottling them up and exploding later, or repressing them.
- Facing your fears instead of allowing them to hold you back.
- Stretching yourself so that you’re no longer living within the small boundaries of your comfort zone and using your skills and talents.
- Developing a strong support network versus falling into old patterns of isolation and loneliness.
- Cultivating self-honesty and the ability to reflect objectively about thoughts and feelings.
It’s easy to be like the professor, especially in the beginning of recovery. The beginning stages of getting sober can be intimidating and perhaps you don’t yet trust yourself or how the first few months are going to go. One way to compensate for that fear is to hang onto what you know, clinging to old thought patterns in order to feel safe in the unknown.
Yet, a willingness to face the unknown and drop those old thoughts, perceptions, and worldviews for newer ones is precisely what recovery from alcohol abuse requires. Letting go of the old and returning to a beginner’s mind might feel unsafe at first, but that kind of vulnerability is worth it.