Session walkthrough

This section will take you through a basic session, and things to bear in mind for each part of the session. Timings are all approximate, and if you have longer then all the better – most of the parts could be longer (though the meditations are deliberately a max of 15 minutes long).

Consider having a flipchart of the running order titles from the left column below showing, so people know what to expect each time, which may help with feelings of containment and safety (this can be the same flipchart until it starts getting tired-looking, as the format rarely changes).

Each session follows the same format (except Noticing Nature, You Can’t Stop the Waves…, and the Polyvagal System):

Boundaries and safety chat.
SOBER breathing space.
What is and isn’t mindfulness? And why for addiction?

5 mins
2.Suggested practiceMain mindfulness practice for the session.15 mins
3.InquiryInquiry about this practice, and anything from the last week.10 mins
4.Mid-way point – sense the energy in the room and move/ground if needed.
5.ExerciseAn interactive exercise based on the group’s theme.20 mins
6.ClosingWhat has been learned?
Set up home practice;
Final breathing space.
10 mins

1. Introduction

Boundaries and safety chat – this is an opportunity to remind participants of a few points, as it may be different to other groups that they are doing, and it is important for those with trauma histories to feel that they have choices during the session. These points may be worth mentioning:

  • Maintain confidentiality and respect for each other;
  • This group may be different from other recovery groups, as it is about each person’s individual experience in the group;
  • There are no right and wrong answers, and it is not a competition about who is the cleverest or wisest;
  • All the suggestions in meditation practices are voluntary – they can choose to follow them or not;
  • There may be exercises that involve sitting quietly for a while – the maximum will be 15 minutes. If a meditation triggers any distress, they can open their eyes and come out of it;
  • During a meditation, they can leave if it becomes too overwhelming to stay – and are invited to come in again after the meditation;
  • When we talk about a practice afterwards, if they don’t want to say anything that is fine.

SOBER Breathing Space – A couple of good audio examples of this, as well as other meditations, are available to stream or download here. If possible give all participants a copy of the A5 diagram to keep, as this is the backbone of the course.

What is and isn’t Mindfulness?

There will be a mixture of levels of motivation and experience in the room – some may have done courses before, other may be completely new to it, and (if it’s a mandatory course) others may think it is complete rubbish and have no time for it whatsoever. This is a chance to briefly explain, or if you have some motivated people in the group, to throw it open to the group to explain their understanding of mindfulness (it can have more potency coming from a peer and this is one advantage of a rolling programme).

There are many definitions and ways of understanding it – the ABC (adapted from Valerie Mason-John‘s ABC) is a helpful “what” and the Mindful Recovery COW a good “how” – you could alternate these as ways of explaining (both are a little much at one time!), interspersed with peers’ explanations and some of the ideas below:

Other ways to explain what mindfulness is:

  • “Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to things as they are.” (Jon Kabat-Zinn)
  • Intention – Attention – Attitude: Shauna Shapiro suggests we set an Intention (e.g. to keep returning to the breath), and then use our Attention to do it, with an Attitude of non-judgemental acceptance and kindness.
  • DBT describes mindfulness as observing, describing and participating – and doing it non-judgmentally, one-mindfully and effectively.
  • “Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. It isn’t more complicated than that.” (Sylvia Boorstein)
  • (1) the ongoing monitoring of present-moment experience (2) with an orientation of acceptance

What ISN’T mindfulness?

It is not relaxation, or clearing your mind, or sitting a certain way, or finding everything lovely, or trying very hard to be wise.

Why do it for addictions?

Making the practice relevant to participants’ recoveries is the key point here – whatever you think will resonate with them. The ABC can answer this on its own with some exploration. Here are some other quotes and facts that might inspire:

  • “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” (Viktor Frankl)
  • “You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf” (Jon Kabat-Zinn)
  • Many addicts struggle to sit with themselves – which can lead to relapse. Mindfulness can help us to be with ourselves without needing to escape.
  • “Watch your thoughts; they become stories
    Watch your stories; they become excuses
    Watch your excuses; they become relapses
    Watch your relapses; they become dis-eases
    Watch your dis-eases; they become vicious cycles
    Watch your vicious cycles; they become your wheel of life” (Valerie Mason-John)

2. Suggested Practice

These are suggestions – you could do a different one if you have done the same practice the week before, or if it feels more suited to the group that day to do a different one. This is kept to 15 minutes maximum – ensure participants know this is the maximum length of time, to reduce anxieties for those may struggle. There are a range of practices built into the programme, so that participants will experience a mixture of things and can see what they are drawn to initially.

Ensure that at the beginning of each practice you remind participants that they can choose whether to follow instructions, and to trust themselves if they feel unsafe. So for example if they feel triggered by focusing on a certain part of the body they can simply focus elsewhere if that feels safer.

3. Inquiry

After the practice it can help to explain that we spend a few minutes after a practice talking about what was experienced during it, and emphasising that no-one has to talk who doesn’t want to.

This section is kept short as it can be easy for participants to lose interest – they have just spent some time in quiet contemplation, and staying still and listening to someone else’s experience can be difficult.

It can help to keep inquiry fairly horizontal, for the same reason, rather than spending a lot of time with one person, unless you can tell the group is engaged.

So, asking an open question such as, “what did you notice?” helps to open the discussion.

Then listen – truly listening – and reflect back to people what they have said, so that they feel heard. Maybe checking that you understood right. Asking permission before delving deeper.

At this early stage in recovery it’s likely that simply noticing what is going on in the body, and starting to put names to it, will be enough for people, so encourage curiosity into experience and help them put it into words. Don’t push for great insights! Just help them explore whatever arose.

It’s likely that you will be staying around the first layer of inquiry, unless the group is very engaged, and someone is ready for a little more delving. And you can always end by suggesting they explore a bit more in their own time.

Then widening the inquiry by asking about the past week’s practice – perhaps saying there is some time to mention anything they noticed, and whether they’ve struggled with anything they would like help “troubleshooting”. This gives them the opportunity to say what they’re struggling with as well as any learning.

4. Mid-way point

After the inquiry and before the theme-related exercise, just take a moment to gauge the energy in the room. If people are very activated and noisy then a brief breathing space may help to soothe the mood, whereas if there is a sense of heaviness then standing and stretching may help to lift the energy. It may be that nothing is needed – this is often just a few breaths to take stock.

5. Exercise

Each exercise is outlined in detail in each group session outline. They are by necessity shortish exercises – twenty minutes is a rough guideline, but this depends on whether the group has run a little over already, or whether you have some extra time. Use your own judgement.

6. Closing.

What has been learned: First of all, ask the group for one thing they have learned, or one thing they struggled with today. If appropriate, congratulate learning and encourage people if they express struggles. This is also a useful method of getting feedback about the group that you can use to guide what you do in future, so is an important element of the group. I also always include myself in this and say one thing I learned or struggled with too, but this is personal choice, depending on whether it feels useful for your group or not.

Then setting up home practice: emphasising that it helps to practise regularly. You can provide materials to help (see audio/CD suggestions)

Suggestions for home practice:

  • A SOBER breathing space at fixed times in the day – on waking/before bed etc. (Five minutes a day are better than an hour once a week – do little and often, though the more you do, the more effect it will have.)
  • Take time to be mindful in everyday life. E.g. brush your teeth with the other hand, enjoy a mindful mouthful of food, feel the water on the skin in the shower/when washing up etc..

Some useful ideas and phrases for encouragement for home practice:

  • It’s important to practise when feeling ok so we have the tools when we hit bad times. You don’t wait until you’re falling out of the aeroplane to start weaving the parachute.
  • “Practice makes progress” (i.e. not perfect – we are all on a journey and progress is the important thing, not the idea of perfection in the future).
  • No-one becomes a genius musician/engineer/can speak a foreign language fluently overnight – but just doing it often enough means anyone can reach a certain standard.
  • You don’t have to ‘get it’ – just do it! (thanks to my friend John for that one).

End on a breathing space. If I’m running short of time I sometimes end on “the shortest breathing space known to humanity”: invite everyone to take one deep breath in – “so I can hear you”. Breathe in with them, loudly – then invite them to breathe out slowly, as you do too.

Tell them you will be around for a few minutes afterwards, in case anyone had any difficulties or anything they wanted to talk about.

Finally, thank the group.

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