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How Can Mindfulness-based Sobriety Help Alcoholics Recover?

When people in Texas think of mindfulness and meditation, they might think of a Buddhist monk in a robe. Mindfulness for alcoholism treatment probably isn’t what comes to mind. It is an ancient Buddhist practice and extracted from eastern world philosophies. However, you don’t need to wear a robe and become a monk with a shaved head to practice mindfulness. You can be an alcoholic or drug addict who adds mindfulness training to your treatment program. Mindfulness came to western society in the 1940s and 1950s. Eventually, it made its way into mental health. It began entering American therapy in the 1970s when Jon Kabat-Zinn created Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for stress reduction.

Since then, studies have consistently shown that mindfulness-based interventions can reduce anxiety, depression, and PTSD. It can help cancer patients, people, in prison and it is becoming a way to help treat substance use disorder.

Behavioral therapists and researchers saw that mindfulness can help people with substance abuse treatment and mental health. More than 20 studies have shown that practicing mindfulness is associated with reduced substance use.

“For young adults with a history of substance abuse, mindfulness-based interventions were shown to be effective in preventing relapse or reducing the frequency of substance use.”

Mindfulness-based addiction treatment combines cognitive-behavior therapy with traditional relapse prevention approaches and mindfulness practices.

What we have found at Renewal Lodge is that teaching and practicing mindfulness with the 12 Steps helps with relapse prevention.

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What is Mindfulness?

The godfather of modern mindfulness Jon Kabat-Zinn defines it as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”

Participants focus their awareness on the “non-judgmentally” present moment. Harnessing this non-judgmental attitude can change how we recognize and respond to psychological suffering. Mindfulness gives you the ability to change your attitude to this suffering.

The goal — just like any form of therapy — is to create better-coping responses to inner and outer experiences.

Mindfulness Can Enhance 12 Step Work

The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous continue to be a guide to recovery for the alcoholic and addict. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous was written in a time when there were no meetings or treatment centers. People would read the book and get sober.

Traditionally Burning Tree Programs has worked with people who have chronic relapses in our long-term rehabilitation program. We saw that many of the chronic relapsers we worked with had trouble staying accountable and honest with themselves. We created an environment to help foster this accountability and honesty.

However, we also saw that not every addict or alcoholic who came to Burning Tree Programs fit the requirements for long-term treatment.

We opened Renewal Lodge to help alcoholics and addicts who may not qualify for long-term treatment but still need help. Renewal Lodge’s specialty combines mindfulness and the 12 steps into recovery.

Mindfulness and addiction treatment with the traditional 12 steps can go hand in hand.

Mindfulness helps our clients gain deeper insight into what is going on in their minds and in their daily lives. It helps one to get a better relationship with their minds, emotions and behaviors.

This insight can help our clients be more honest and thorough when doing their step work, which is what the program laid out in the Big Book asks them to do.

In the Big Book Steps 4 and 5 have us looking at emotional states and behaviors like resentments, selfishness, fear, and dishonesty. With mindfulness practice, clients can be more aware of what is going on in their minds and in their environment.

Mindfulness practice also comes with a level of responsibility and accountability. This ethical responsibility is the same as when Step 12 directs us to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Mindfulness Can Change the Brain

Mindfulness meditation can help participants strengthen parts of the brain that are related to self-regulation of thoughts and behavior. More specifically, research has shown that mindfulness affects the prefrontal cortex which governs decision-making.

Other studies show that mindfulness breathing can change the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that experiences emotions.

Research has shown that certain mindfulness practices “may engage multi-network neural processing.”  (Riggs N.R. 2019)

Responding with Non-judgement with Mindfulness-based Addiction Treatment

After an alcoholic has written a searching and fearless moral inventory, they are on Step 5, where they are required to talk to someone else about their resentments, selfishness, fear, and dishonesty.

The book Alcoholics Anonymous talks about how difficult this honesty can be for someone addicted.

“Coming to his senses, he is revolted at certain episodes he vaguely remembers. These memories are a nightmare. He trembles to think someone might have observed him. As fast as he can, he pushes these memories far inside himself. He hopes they will never see the light of day. He is under constant fear and tension – that makes for more drinking.

Psychologists are inclined to agree with us. We have spent thousands of dollars for examinations. We know but few instances where we have given these doctors a fair break. We have seldom told them the whole truth nor have we followed their advice. Unwilling to be honest with these sympathetic men, we were honest with no one else. Small wonder many in the medical profession have a low opinion of alcoholics and their chance for recovery!”

Mindfulness trains participants to respond non-judgmentally to uncomfortable emotions. What this means is that clients have the ability to accept painful current experiences. Researchers say that this can reduce substance use behavior because unpleasant emotional experiences are looked at from a different perspective. (Linehan, 1993)

Mindfulness training can help alleviate an alcoholic’s common problem of opening up and being honest. When someone can respond to past harm or unwelcoming thoughts in a non- judgemental way, it means that they will experience less pain related to whatever they are thinking about. (Kabat-Zinn, 1982)

The Big Book states that the problem of addiction centers in our mind. An attitude adjustment, psychic change or spiritual awakening is what needs to change in the alcoholic or addict.

Mindfulness practice helps us to more effectively be aware of what is going on in our minds and in our environment, which leads to adaptive changes in one’s thinking mode or attitude (Teasdale, Segal, & Williams, 1995);


Riggs N.R., Greenberg M.T., Dvorakova K. (2019) A Role for Mindfulness and Mindfulness Training in Substance Use Prevention. In: Sloboda Z., Petras H., Robertson E., Hingson R. (eds) Prevention of Substance Use. Advances in Prevention Science. Springer, Cham

Jennings, J. L., & Apsche, J. A. (2014). The evolution of a fundamentally mindfulness-based treatment methodology: From DBT and ACT to MDT and beyond. International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy, 9(2), 1-3.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, General Hospital Psychiatry, Volume 4, Issue 1, 1982, Pages 33-47, ISSN 0163-8343,

John D. Teasdale, Zindel Segal, J.Mark G. Williams, Behaviour Research and Therapy, Volume 33, Issue 1, 1995, Pages 25-39, ISSN 0005-7967,

Dear Renewal Lodge Visitors,

My name is John Bruna, co-founder of the Mindfulness in Recovery® Institute, and more importantly, a grateful member of the recovery community. I am incredibly fortunate to have found my recovery in 1984. Of course, I did not achieve continuous recovery through willpower or my own efforts, but through the guidance and caring support of countless others that selflessly taught me how to live through the 12 Steps.

My journey of recovery brought this once homeless, shame-based, traumatized, insecure young man to a life far beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I discovered self-worth, the joy of helping others, the gifts of parenting and grandparenting, and most importantly the ability to live a meaningful and purposeful life with integrity.

One of the greatest gifts of recovery is that I have the opportunity to give back and help others discover their self-worth, dignity, and the skills to fully live lives that they find truly meaningful. This is the inspiration for developing the skills of Mindfulness in Recovery® (MIR) to meet the needs of new generations struggling with alcohol and other substance use disorders. MIR is a set of evidence-based skills designed to help people fully integrate their tools of recovery in ways that are personalized, practical, and in alignment with their deepest values.

While we train counselors and therapists throughout the United States and abroad, I personally have chosen to work directly with the amazing team and clients at Renewal Lodge to develop the model MIR 12-step program for the nation. I choose Renewal Lodge because of the vision of its mission and the dedication of its team. Renewal Lodge is an extremely rare environment in which the staff embodies the very mindfulness and 12-step practices and skills they offer their clients. The results have been beyond my expectations. It is an honor to be here and I treasure my personal time with every client I meet.

With Gratitude,

John Bruna
John Bruna
Director of Mindfulness