Saturday, June 5, 2010

Denver (2)

Bill Staudenmeier is a soft-spoken man.  You could see yourself in a room with him, one on one, pouring out your troubles, and having him ask questions, ever so softly, that cut right to the heart of your issue.  In the  crowded auditorium of the second floor of the Unitarian Church in Denver, Bill had to raise his voice to be heard. His topic: mindfulness.  Bill had us sit with our feet square on the floor, back straight, shoulders relaxed, eyes either closed or in soft focus (easy for me, just had to take off the glasses), and become aware of our body, limb by limb, our breath, our vision.  What I got is that mindfulness is an exercise, or a set of exercises, where we become quiet and, well, mindful of our bodies.  This helps relax us, dissipates stress, gives the speeding mind a rest.  And there's more.  It's not only an exercise, it's a  mental tool that you can take with you and use in a great variety of situations.  For example, when you're in the presence of "your" drug, and you're experiencing a craving, the mindless thing to do is grab the drug and put it in your body.  The mindful thing is to say, "Ah, I'm in the presence of this drug and I'm being triggered and I'm experiencing a craving.  How boring! Well, soon this feeling will be over and there'll be something else more interesting to draw my attention."  Mindfulness generates a calm inner observer that gives us distance and cool in the presence of emotional barking dogs.  And there's more.  Mindfulness is not only a meditation exercise and a tool for self-government, it's a philosophy for being in the world.  If we are mindful of ourselves and of our relationship with other beings and things, we are likely to be more truthful, more kind, and more fair in our behavior.  And that's a good thing.  Many people in LifeRing are interested in broader life guidance and philosophy issues -- what does it all mean? -- and Bill Staudenmeier's introductory exposition pointed toward an entirely secular, soft-spoken, and spiritually enlightened body of thought.  In keeping with his motto of speaking kindly, Bill also said some kind things about my book, Empowering Your Sober Self, for which I am grateful. Bill's talk got a special lift at times from the huge round stained glass window that formed his background.  This being a Unitarian church, the window's motifs consisted of flowers, jewels, feathers, and other non-religious designs; nevertheless, as Bill spoke in his calm, thoughtful manner, occasionally it seemed as if a halo had materialized approvingly around his head.  See photo, above.

Candice Shelby, the next speaker, comes from several generations of drunks, which did not prevent her from becoming a professor of philosophy, which she is.  Her interest in addiction was piqued by the dawning awareness that philosophers, by and large, didn't know the first thing about it.  Candice spoke in an edgy, animated tone, with endearing wisecracks and asides that let you know she knew some things about addiction from personal experience.  She made well-deserved fun of rationalist theories of addiction (theories that deny that addiction is real and see addictive behavior as a rational choice).  Her battle with the philosophers ultimately led her to look for answers in the neurobiology of the brain.  She spent a couple of years  acquiring the equivalent of a second Phd, as she put it, in the subject.  She took us onto a tour of the human brain: neurons, axons, neocortex, limbic system, amygdala, dopamine, and all that. She showed that some of the addicted persons' response to triggers, and some relapse mechanisms, are not conscious and not within the rational framework; that emotions are faster and more powerful than rational thinking, and that people sometimes truthfully do not have a clue why they did what they did. All in all, if I were a rationalist, Adam-Smithian philosopher, I might have felt crushed by the onslaught of neuropsychological research findings that Candice marshaled. I have read a number of neurobiological explanations of addiction, particularly those trotted out to clients in treatment programs to prepare the clients for step one, and Candice's was definitely one of the best informed, better than that of some medical doctors, and far more lively and witty.  But it had some of the same limitations.  The standard program lecture on neurobiology of addiction typically builds up the power of addiction to such an extent that it becomes quite incomprehensible how and why many people are nevertheless able to shake off their addiction and get free.  What is the neurobiological basis of recovery?  Candice's talk, perhaps because her time was up before she could finish her prepared text, left this issue unexplored.  It would be interesting in a future LifeRing event to hear her lively analytical mind present the results of her study of the brain's inherent powers of recovery.  

After lunch -- on our own in an area of Denver with quite a few choices of restaurants -- we reconvened in the cooler downstairs room of the church, and heard a short presentation by Anne Hatcher with ideas toward building a LifeRing Partners group.  Hatcher, a veteran counselor and teacher with a formidable list of credentials and affiliations, is a plain-spoken, empathetic person.  Among the points of her talk that stuck with me was that the people in a relationship with an addicted person often find themselves adapting to the addicted person.  This, of course, tends to reinforce the addiction, requiring further adaptations, and so on in a vicious spiral.  The conduct that Anne has seen work is for the partners to put their own priorities first, and force the addicted person either to adapt to that, or be left alone.  Anne would like to see a LifeRing Partners group come into being.  She left us with some handouts that I will be posting shortly.  

Next came a convenor workshop, led by Dru B. of Union City CA, where Dru convenes a highly successful Friday evening meeting at the Kaiser Chemical Dependency Recovery Program.  The meeting is remarkable in that it has had a consistently good attendance, averaging about 25 in the past year, despite the fact that it commences hours after the treatment program's schedule is over and everyone has gone home.  It's also remarkable in that it is a success story in a time slot where most other meetings have not done well.  Dru runs a standard format, How Was Your Week?, and has created an atmosphere where there is lots of cross talk with people engaging one another.  The workshop session also featured presentations by Mona H. of Connecticut, focused on meetings by conference telephone; by Lynn C. of Sacramento, describing recent developments in the LifeRing chat rooms, and by Lloyd E., describing the workbook study format he has been developing in his study group at the Kaiser CDRP in Oakland. He too has developed additional material for posting.

The afternoon closed with a brief presentation of the Expansion Committee Report by Craig W., Kathleen G., Lauretta M., and Carola Z., leading members of the working body that was formed at last year's Congress to engineer the transition of LifeRing from its founder to a new generation of leaders.  As the Expansion Committee proposals had been thoroughly ventilated and publicized for months both by mail and by electronic media, there was very little discussion at this session.  Except for the fact that this was not a Congress session but just a workshop, it would have been adopted by consensus voice vote then and there.  

Dinner that evening not only satisfied the belly, it demonstrated the growth of LifeRing in Denver.  At our last annual meeting in Denver three years ago, everyone fit around a single table.  This time it took four tables to hold the group, more than the restaurant could accommodate in its separate dining room, so we ate in the main room.  It was also delightful and reassuring to see that the average age around the tables was probably  ten or 15, maybe 20, years younger than at the last occasion.

I had the pleasure during the dinner to award the annual LifeRing Pioneer certificates.  The award goes to LifeRing participants, usually convenors, who push the envelope in a good way, for example, by starting a new meeting, or a new online venue, or performing some other service that helps the organization move forward.  The number of awardees was at an all-time high.  The certificates this year took their graphic theme from the plaque mounted on the Pioneer 10 spacecraft.  A few small modifications enhanced NASA's original design for our purposes; see image.

(To be continued)

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