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Monday, December 10, 2012

Meditation and Working Memory

This is a fascinating story on the US military's adoption of meditation as a way to combat stress-related anxiety:

The article mentions the problems that alcoholism presents for combat veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which leads to symptoms such as violence and addiction.  Right now, scientists studying the brain are using the term 'Working Memory' to describe our active conscious state, and how alcoholism impairs it.

How would alcoholism impair it?

Well, the life of the alcoholic is full of unresolved issues.  Guilt and shame are things that cannot be 'put away' by the mind.  After all, they govern our behavior, and so they must always be 'on the table' of the Working Memory.  The more you have, the less room you have to think about anything else.  PTSD also fills the table of the WM with fears and concerns.  Again, this leaves little room for other processes.

Addicts can think little of anything else but their problems because the WM is overwhelmed.  It makes clear thinking impossible.

So, what can meditation do?

Well, meditation, along with counseling and spiritual growth, can help the sufferer to organize his WM and resolve the many open problems so that the WM is less cluttered.  He will be able to think more clearly and observe more of his surroundings.

The common problem of a cluttered WM is that, as with any 'hoarding' problem, the number of issues overwhelms the person's ability to identify and treat one single issue.  All of the problems become a single blob.

The Church has always taught the importance of silence in spiritual growth, hence the importance of Hesychasm as it has developed over the centuries, particularly within monasticism:

But, inner stillness and 'mindfulness meditation' as it is now being called in an important component of recovery.  The Big Book stresses both prayer and meditation:

"We usually conclude the period of meditation with a prayer that we be shown all through the day what our next step is to be, that we be given whatever we need to take care of such problems." 

Chapter 6, "Into Action," describes the process of integrating meditation into the daily life of the recovering addict and how the WM is an analyzed.  Problems are are noted and either prayer or some other resolving action is then taken to remove the issue from the WM.

My experience is that this process is no longer taught much in AA, I think in large part because the larger AA culture, through its popularity and the vast number of 'court card' carriers coming to meetings, is getting watered down.  Treatment programs are also not using meditation with prayer, but focus more on 'relaxation' techniques rather than prayerful mindfulness.

It is pretty hard to get a recovering 'tweaker' to sit still and meditate.  So, sponsors and programs skip the difficult bits... and rely on repetition of attempts to get sober to knock down much of the resistance and WM problems the addict may be carrying around.

But, we must practice silence.  Otherwise, we are captives to the 'noise.' 

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