Quieting the Mind

By Sarah Siegel

Meditation may come hard at first, but it’s worth it.

Sarah Siegel Photo by Brian Delaney

Sarah Siegel’s first experience with meditation brought neither peace nor joy. It took place at yet another detox center and all she got, from her own mind, was a blast of poison directed against her frightened, malnourished, self. “You’re ugly, you’re gross, you’re just a dirty junkie, you don’t deserve to live, that sort of stuff,” remembers Siegel, 36, “The violence was unbelievable but I was able to watch it for the first time ever.”

Kathy Potter Photo by Brian Delaney

Kathy Potter, 60, heard an equally unpleasant voice. Its accusations were milder – “Who are you kidding, you a meditator? You phony, you cheat,” – but the self-loathing was the same.

The two women had recovery in common – but there all similarities stopped. The first was a drifter, a rebel, the second a housewife steeped in every imaginable comfort. Yet in both of them the sense of enslavement was nearly total, the thirst for freedom so deep that meditation, once started, eventually became a way of life.

Meditation can positively impact overall wellness. As a recovery tool, it quells those negative inner voices, promotes mindfulness and allows practitioners to get a handle on their emotions. It is a common part of rehab programs worldwide and, for many, meditation is an integral part of their ongoing recovery efforts.

Left free to rampage, Siegel and Potter both realized, the mind had nothing but darkness. Observed, it gradually quieted until it became still. In that stillness, says Siegel, who now teaches meditation, was conscious contact with what she calls “the unchanging, ground of being.” The god of the 12 Steps, she says, “is an experience, a living experience,” fully accessible through meditation ultimately adding up to “nothing less than freedom.”

Siegel’s addiction had her stripping in clubs, captive to fentanyl, heroin and IV OxyContin. She had sworn never to sell her body or put a needle in her arm. At age 21 she was selling her body “to keep the needle in my arm,” she says. She hit bottom one day doing nothing special, “just shooting up alone in my room, over 1500 miles away from my family.” For some reason, on that particular day she understood she was going to die. “I got on my knees and I said, ‘I don’t know who the f… you are, but I love my son so please help me,” she says.

In a kind of furor, she did something she had never done before: she flushed every gram, every pill, down the toilet. She’d raced through the first three steps of Alcoholics Anonymous in some distant past, and now she took personal inventory as suggested by the fourth. As she wrote her inventory, she felt “poison flowing out of me.” Finally, she sat down and meditated. “The theistic model of AA never did it for me,” says Siegel, who completed a chaplaincy program and is now an interfaith minister in Freeport, “so I chose Buddhism. I lived and breathed Tibetan Buddhism,” until the chronic pain of Lyme disease forced her off her cushion and into real life. “It was a gift,” she says. “I had to weave my practice into everyday life.” With the repetition, says Siegel, came “a strengthening of that part of the prefrontal cortex that controls the fight or flight response,” in other words, the part of the brain that regulates fear.

While Siegel was busy transforming herself, Potter was sitting alone at a bar on Congress Street pretending to have dinner while in reality drinking herself nearly senseless. “I would look over at the people who were sitting at the table laughing and I remember feeling so alone,” says Potter. She had left her husband and a life of ease and comfort and moved to Maine from Massachusetts. In her late 40s then, she was pursuing a degree in sociology and criminology at USM.

Her drinking, however, was only getting worse. One Fourth of July weekend she bought “the biggest bottle of pre-mixed margaritas I could find” and drank all but one quarter of it. The next morning, she poured what was left down the drain and went to her first AA meeting. She got a sponsor, started working the steps, and got through her son’s wedding without drinking a drop. She got her bachelor’s degree – both her kids came to her graduation – and kept going to meetings. But something was missing, she says.

She realized what it was when she walked into the Shambhala Center Heart of Recovery meetings in Portland at around six months sober. “I knew straight away that there was something there,” recalls Potter, “People were just crammed in there, sitting on cushions -- people from sober houses, all these guys covered in tattoos.” All Potter wanted at that point was to quiet her mind, to “stop the racing thoughts.” At the Center, she found a bookcase. She started borrowing the books, then she started buying them.

She deepened her meditation by attending weekend retreats at various Shambala centers, completing three levels of their Heart of Warriorship program, while paradoxically fighting feelings of inadequacy in the privacy of her own practice. “I had this idea that if you don’t meditate for one hour in the morning and one hour at night it’s not enough,” says Potter, “So here I am, a failure. Here’s one more thing I won’t stick to, one more thing I can’t do.” A meditation instructor taught her to be gentler with herself and now Potter is perfectly content with 20 minutes a day. “She also taught me that I have the answers inside myself. She taught me to trust my own intuition because I have a strong intuition.”

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