Before class begins, the meditation room is raucous; there’s laughter and friendly shouts as men and women joke and chat with each other. It’s hard to believe that these people, so diverse and full of life, are all battling the same chronic disease: addiction.
I’m at the Phoenix House Long Island City Center, a nonprofit residential treatment program for adults who are overcoming substance abuse. “I’m at a good spot right now, right in the middle,” says the woman seated next to me. “Because, you know, I’m an addict, so I’m usually either very high or very low. But right now I’m good.”
So what’s her secret? Meditation. She, like everyone else in this room with me, looks forward to meditation class every week. “Donna D’Cruz is incredible, just incredible,” she says of the teacher, a spiritual advocate who has collaborated with the likes of Deepak Chopra.
Students are invited to share their experiences or concerns before class begins, and most express their gratitude, relief, and surprise at how much meditation has helped them. But one burly middle-aged man in the back row is nervous. He tells us that after class he’s planning to reunite with his long-lost daughter for the first time after his 16-year addiction, and he doesn’t know what he should say or how to reconnect.
“Don’t worry,” chimes in a young woman in the front row, probably the same age as the man’s daughter, “I’ll help you figure out what to say.”
Suddenly, Donna arrives in a whirlwind of mala beads and flowing dark hair. She chats with the “regulars” before beginning class with a few simple seated yoga exercises – easy movements accessible to anyone, to get the blood flowing and prepare the body for meditation. Then the lights dim and Donna invites us to close our eyes. “Meditation – and recovery – changes as you do it,” she explains, “just like anything you do with awareness. There’s something beautiful about being in your own silence.”
She guides us through 25 minutes of that silence, talking us through relaxation imagery and breathing rhythms. She mentions the natural filters that exist in the body and breath, and how they contribute to achieving peace of mind. Towards the end of the meditation, she falls silent herself and allows the total quietness to resonate throughout the room. Thirty people are silent, immersed in their own meditation. Donna brings the class to a close with some final words of wisdom to take with us out of the meditation room and into the bigger, scarier “real world.”
“The noise of our thoughts can be frightening to witness,” Donna acknowledges. “But if silence becomes natural for us, we access our true deep selves. When you’re faced with challenges, just come back to that silence – back to yourself.”
As the lights come back on and rustles of movement start, it’s clear that the mood in the room has shifted. The students seem joyful and less frantic as they stretch and smile, ready to take on the day. Quiet conversations begin as the men and women share their experiences.
“It’s so calm and relaxing,” sighs one student. “Everyone who comes to class has a positive energy for the rest of the week.” Chris, a blond guy in a hoodie, explains how the meditation practice has helped him commit to his treatment and recovery. “I’m noticing how much more energy I have now,” he says. “Meditation takes practice, but it’s definitely gotten easier.”
Another client, William, agrees. The tools he has learned in class help him avoid returning to destructive behaviors. “I used to be really violent,” William explains, “but not anymore; the meditation helps with that.”
Ricky, a young client sporting a t-shirt and woven messenger bag, looks like he belongs on the campus of a California liberal arts college rather than at a New York City drug rehab. “I feel great,” Ricky says enthusiastically. “I’m in tune with my mind, confident, content with the outside world.” He explains that he feels more creative and motivated since he started meditating. He often paints, and is planning to go to school to become a nutritionist.
As students file outside, the sun is high over the Manhattan skyline and the burly man who had been so nervous before class is now striding confidently and peacefully towards the main building. Soon, his daughter will meet her true father for the first time. A father who, with the help of treatment and meditation, has escaped the grips of addiction and is determined never to lose her again.
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