Some of Michelle DuVal’s students don’t want to be there.
As the instructor of a mindfulness meditation training that’s part of a yearlong program in Albuquerque for repeat offenders arrested for driving while intoxicated (DWI), she faces a wall of resistance—arms folded across chests, bodies slouched low in chairs, eyes averted.
At first. And then, something shifts.
“Oh, I can almost cry thinking about it,” DuVal says. “That first week, they sit as far away from me as possible. Then, week to week to week, they realize, this stuff isn’t weird. I’m teaching them how to skillfully use their minds. Nobody has ever taught them about their own minds before. No one has ever shared with them that they have say over what their minds are full of. And they have this moment where they’re like, ‘Damn, this makes sense.’
“It’s literally like giving them water when they’ve been so severely dehydrated. They just drink it in.”
DuVal, who runs The Mindful Center in Albuquerque, has had many students over her 13 years of teaching. She typically has five to eight Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs running throughout the city, she says—in businesses, government offices and schools—in addition to lecturing and teaching nationally.
But this particular group of students is different. They’re mostly men, many with gang affiliations, and their defenses are strong, she says. There’s a real fear of looking stupid and of letting their guard down.
And meditation? Definitely not within their comfort zone.
“It took about a year to figure out how to skillfully connect with them,” DuVal admits.
“I tell them, ‘I’m going to give you an offering. Whatever you do with it is your choice. I trust you to do what you need to do with this class.’”
“It’s one thing to teach mindfulness meditation. It’s another to teach it to folks who don’t want it. Michelle does a marvelous job in charming them into even considering this as a possibility,” says Daniel Blackwood, founder of the Evolution Group, which provides wellness training to people struggling with addiction and mental illness, and holds the contract with the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court to facilitate Albuquerque’s DWI program.
Offered as an alternative to jail time, participants agree to a highly supervised regime of individual and group therapy, in addition to random drug and alcohol testing and regular court appearances.
Modeled after other drug court programs around the country, Albuquerque’s program has graduated more than 2,700 people since its inception in 1997, according to court. Offered as an alternative to jail time, participants agree to a highly supervised regime of individual and group therapy, in addition to random drug and alcohol testing and regular court appearances.
The MSBR training was added in 2012, after a team of judges, law enforcement officials, therapists and others from the court reviewed the research and experienced a sample training, according to Blackwood. The technique, which was originally created by Jon Kabat-Zinn for chronic pain management, has shown tremendous potential for helping to break the patterns of addiction.
Now, participants in the DWI program learn mindfulness meditation right from the beginning, through the eight weekly trainings with DuVal that are held at Evolution Group’s facility. The response, Blackwood says, has been extremely positive, both by the participants learning it and the professionals who work with them.
“With MBSR, these folks are learning skills they are able to retain months and years later,” he says. “They’re learning about who they are inside, and how to regulate themselves for the rest of their lives.”
Each week, DuVal teaches a different MBSR technique—a body scan, a breathing meditation, and a craving and aversion practice, among others. She recalls the reaction of one student after learning an eating meditation. “It just blew his mind!”
“This guy is a line cook at a restaurant. [After learning this meditation] when he goes to taste the dishes, he said his palate is enlivened, and his ability to taste the flavors is so much stronger. Now he wants to be a chef.”
Students report that they’re sleeping better and relating more easily to their kids or partners. But the most common thing DuVal hears is how the practice helps them manage stress. “Very few of us are taught skillful means of coming down off that mountain of stress—all of those things that make the use of drugs and alcohol so appealing,” she says. “So you can have a beer or two or 12—or you can do one minute of informal meditation right there where you are. Just five deep breaths. And what a huge difference that makes. [I’ve had students tell me] they could’ve gotten fired without the practice, because they get into such a volatile state when something happens at work, and have never been able to calm themselves before.”
“Very few of us are taught skillful means of coming down off that mountain of stress—all of those things that make the use of drugs and alcohol so appealing. So you can have a beer or two or 12—or you can do one minute of informal meditation right there where you are. Just five deep breaths. And what a huge difference that makes. [I’ve had students tell me] they could’ve gotten fired without the practice, because they get into such a volatile state when something happens at work, and have never been able to calm themselves before.”
—Michelle DuVal, mindfulness instructor and director of The Mindful Center in Albuquerque
“Not only are they recovering [from drug and alcohol dependency], but they’re also recovering their true selves through this practice,” Blackwood says. “They’re healing at a deep level, becoming empowered to resource the wholeness that’s inside of them.”
By the last week of the training, DuVal says, everyone wants to sit next to her. “There are all these big dudes sitting right up next to me, I have to squeeze myself in,” she says with a laugh. Some will even be moving into meditation on their own before she begins.
“This practice, it gives them a space, a refuge—and every living being on the planet seeks that,” she reflects. “And this is a way they can do that themselves, right in their own minds.”