HOW To Fix A Problem

As a psychotherapist here in Los Angeles I often have clients who come to me seeking help for a wide variety of life problems and personal difficulties. Anxiety, depression, financial insecurity, drug addiction and marital problems are just a few of the issues that I see people struggling with. Often, by simply revealing and discussing their issues with me these clients start to see a reduction in their difficulties, such as less anxiety, improvements in both their mood and their relationships, less struggle with their addictions, and more. But sometimes the problems don’t seem to get better and I often see that what is needed is a deeper commitment to making changes in one’s life and the willingness to take action.

As a psychotherapist here in Los Angeles I often have clients who come to me seeking help for a wide variety of life problems and personal difficulties. Anxiety, depression, financial insecurity, drug addiction and marital problems are just a few of the issues that I see people struggling with. Often, by simply revealing and discussing their issues with me these clients start to see a reduction in their difficulties, such as less anxiety, improvements in both their mood and their relationships, less struggle with their addictions, and more. But sometimes the problems don’t seem to get better and I often see that what is needed is a deeper commitment to making changes in one’s life and the willingness to take action.

Those who can acknowledge their problems, can be open-minded towards trying something new and who are willing to commit and take action invariably begin to feel better and function more efficiently in their lives. I am continually amazed at how quickly and successfully people start to heal mentally, physically and emotionally.

This has led me to often ponder the question: What are the factors that lead to growth and healing in people and a reduction of their problems? What I’ve found is that a person must exhibit three qualities for real and deep change to occur in them. Those three factors are reflected in the acronym HOW: Honesty, Open-mindedness and Willingness. *(I must confess that I in no way originated this idea. These three factors are often mentioned in the 12 step recovery programs and appear in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, also known as The Big Book.) In this blog post I would like to explore these three qualities and discuss how they are essential in helping people overcome their difficulties in life.

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
― Aldous Huxley

Let’s begin with the first letter, H, i.e. Honesty. Since we were children we’ve heard idioms such as “Honesty is the best policy” and “honest to goodness” and it is my belief that most people believe that honesty is better than dishonesty. Such things as lying, cheating, stealing and slander are all forms of dishonesty that without fail have negative consequences for a person who engages in them.

But in the context of overcoming personal life problems honesty can be looked at in a particular way. Unless a person is able to acknowledge that a problem exists, i.e. admit to themselves and to another person that they have the problem, very little attention or help will be directed towards the problem and thus rarely occurs. Another way to state this is that often people are in denial that a problem exists, or they minimize the severity of the problem to themselves or others.

The need for honestly admitting one’s issues in order to be able to change and overcome life problems is nicely encapsulated in the book Alcoholics Anonymous at the beginning of the Fifth Chapter “How It Works”. “

“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.”

I have witnessed this many times my clients. If a person is able to be unflinchingly honest about their problems and can begin to be more honest in all aspects of their life, they invariably begin to feel better and their problems begin to decrease.

“A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.”
― Frank Zappa

I must be clear that Honesty is just the initial factor needed and without the second factor, Open-mindedness, progress will surely begin to falter. One definition of open-minded is a willingness to hear and consider new ideas. (

Why is it important to be open to hearing and considering new ideas in order to overcome one’s problems? I might state it simply in this way: It’s difficult to learn anything without having an open mind. And I strongly believe that in order to fix serious life problems a person must learn possible solutions to their problems and be willing to enact those solutions.

If a person is open-minded to making changes in their life and for trying new things, they are well on their way to improving their lives and seeing their problems decline. However, many people are resistant to being open-minded. Various factors can contribute to this lack of open-mindedness. Prideful obstinance, denial, trust issues, over reliance on self-will, fear of change, and many other forms of resistance can lead to a person being close minded to hearing and considering new ideas.

I would like to share an example from my own life to highlight the need for open-mindedness. When I was a boy growing up in South Louisiana, I came to believe, by observing the other boys and men around me, that a “man” was not supposed to share his feelings with other people. If a male was sad or upset the societal belief that I tuned into was that they should “suck it up” and “drive on.” I can remember hearing phrases like “boys don’t cry” and “crying is for sissies.”

Looking back I understand now how unhealthy these ideas were for me and the extremely negative consequences that resulted in me as a result. Fearing that any expression of negative feelings would be met with judgment or disdain from other males, I learned to bottle up and bury any feelings of sadness, anxiety, fear, etc. You can probably guess where this headed to. By not “processing” my negative feelings in a healthy manner, over time these normal human experiences such as angst, anxiety, depression, fear, and such became worse and worse. My solution to these issues was to often self-medicate and numb these feelings or avoid them altogether.

Now what does this have to do with open-mindedness? Well, quite simply, I had to learn and practice a new way of engaging with these negative and toxic emotions. It was suggested to me that I start to talk about these feelings with others and to start to get more “vulnerable.” This went against my social conditioning and definitely was outside of my comfort zone. Luckily I was desperate enough to try something new and my road to emotional healing began.

“The future depends on what you do today.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

The last component in our three part formula HOW is Willingness. A definition of willingness that I particularly like is “The quality or state of being prepared to do something; readiness.” This suggests one’s being willing to take action. And “action” is the key. Without taking some form of action a person, in my experience, will not change. A person can be honest about their problems and open-minded to possible solutions but without taking action in all likelihood no real change will occur.

What types of action are we talking about? That depends on the person and their problem. However, for emotional and psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, anger and the like, activities such as meditation practice, going to a therapist, prayer, exercise, yoga, EMDR therapy, equine therapy and others have all been shown to have therapeutic benefits for people. But without the action of participating in these activities, they can’t help a person change.

In closing I would like leave you with perhaps my favorite quote of all from the writer and philosopher Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”

Why I Teach Mindfulness

Hello, my name is Charley Allen and I am a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in Santa Monica, CA. I also work as a therapist for Thrive Treatment, an outpatient drug and alcohol treatment program here in Santa Monica, I would like to share with you some of my experience with mindfulness and explain why I practice mindfulness and teach mindfulness to both my clients and the students at my son’s school.

To give a little backstory, when I was a child growing up in rural Louisiana I was what was called then a “hyper” child. I was very active and struggled to pay attention in school or in most situations for that matter. This caused problems in school and I was often reprimanded for my behavior. I can remember how incredibly difficult it was for me to sit still and pay attention to the teacher.

The diagnostic label Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) was first made by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980 and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) wasn’t named until 1987. Though I was never formally diagnosed with these conditions I firmly
believe that I suffered from them, specifically ADHD.

Along with ADHD I began to experience intense anxiety. In social situations, performance situations (public speaking, sports competition, etc.) and at other times I would have strong feelings of anxiety. Not only was this very uncomfortable but it would limit my ability to function and perform well. I would often “freeze up” or I would avoid certain situations which might trigger my anxiety. One of the unfortunate consequences of this was that I started to feel intense embarrassment.

When I was 15 years old I took my first drink of alcohol and instantly my anxiety and feelings of embarrassment miraculously disappeared. I learned that for me, alcohol was not only very effective for relieving my anxiety but that it was also socially acceptable. For the next twenty years I continued to self-medicate my anxiety with alcohol and eventually other substances.

As time went on my alcohol and drug use progressed while my anxiety also got worse. In my late 20’s I began to have panic attacks, characterized by sudden surges of overwhelming anxiety and fear. My heart would pound and I would have trouble breathing. I would sometimes think that I had a brain tumor or that I was going insane. Several times I blacked out during a panic attack, once while driving on the 101 Freeway in Hollywood. I crashed my car into a guard rail but by some miracle I was not harmed.

At this point I realized that I had to get help with my anxiety and panic attacks. I began to research anxiety and speak with others who suffered from it. I learned that while medications such as Valium and Xanax could alleviate symptoms for a short while they did not treat the root causes of anxiety. I also learned that these types of medications could be very addictive. In my research I learned that meditation and other what are called mindfulness practices had been shown to help alleviate anxiety and panic attacks. I previously had some experience with meditation and yoga and had enjoyed them. So I began to meditate on a daily basis and continued to do more research into mindfulness.

Around this time I came to realize that I had a problem with drugs and alcohol. The negative consequences of my alcohol and drug abuse were now equal to if not greater than the anxiety that I was self-medicating. I decided then that I should get sober, and that it would be an essential part of addressing my anxiety and panic attacks. Through the help of Alcoholics Anonymous I started to recover from the disease of addiction. And I continued practicing meditation.

As I practiced meditation more often and for longer periods of time, I noticed that my anxiety was starting to slowly decrease. If my anxiety was intense I could meditate and after a few minutes the anxiety would begin to go down. Another thing I noticed was that meditation was helping to decrease my cravings for drugs and alcohol. This was a very big deal. As anyone who has ever tried to get sober will tell you, cravings can be intense and incredibly uncomfortable, and often lead to relapse. The fact that I could diminish my cravings by meditating was a huge source of relief for me and was crucial in me staying sober.

Fortunately I was able to stay sober and my anxiety continued to diminish. At five years sober,after marrying my amazing wife Tara and the birth of our son Murphey, I decided to leave my career in the television business and go back to graduate school to become a psychotherapist. This decision was a direct result of my experiences in getting sober and addressing my anxiety.

During grad school meditation helped me immensely in managing the stress of studying and taking tests, all while I was holding a full time job. During graduate school I deepened my research into the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. I learned that extensive clinical and scientific research was proving that mindfulness practices can provide incredible benefits for health and well being for a person. Some of the proven benefits include:

– Better focus and concentration

– Increased calm and sense of well being

– Decreased stress and anxiety

– Improved impulse control

– Increased ability to self regulate emotions

– Increased self-awareness

– Increased empathy and understanding of others

I was encouraged by this scientific proof. I was also seeing these positive effects in my own life. I decided that when I became a therapist I would use mindfulness as a way to help my clients. While in graduate school I began working as a counselor at Axis Residential Treatment. a drug and alcohol treatment program in Los Angeles. As a counselor I began to introduce mindfulness into both group and individual counseling session. I found that while many people have heard of mindfulness and meditation, not many had a clear understanding of what those words meant.

One of my favorite definitions of mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, a renowned mindfulness teacher, writer and clinician, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Or, in other words, mindfulness is paying attention to what is happening right here, right now and without judgement.

As for meditation, the definition I personally like the best comes from the magazine Psychology Today: “Meditation is the practice of turning your attention to a single point of reference. It can involve focusing on the breath, on bodily sensations, or on a word or phrase known as a mantra. In other words, meditation means turning your attention away from distracting thoughts and focusing on the present moment.”

What I have found is that meditation and other mindfulness practices can help people in early recovery (and long term recovery as well) manage their anxiety, decrease cravings, and increase their ability to focus their attention on learning what they need to learn in order to stay sober.

I feel it is important to point out that sometimes people misunderstand meditation in relation to religion. To be clear, meditation does not belong to any one religion. In the words of spiritual teacher Deepak Chopra, “Meditation is part of every spiritual tradition in the world but has nothing to do with belief or ideology or doctrine. It’s a simple mental technique to go to the source of thought.”

It is my belief that meditation and other mindfulness practices are powerful tools for treating anxiety, drug addiction and many other mental illnesses as well. And perhaps the best part is that it is absolutely free. While one can pay for yoga classes, or meditation workshops, etc, that isn’t necessary. One can sit quietly and still, turn their attention towards their breath, and simply pay attention to their breath. If thoughts come in and take one away from paying attention to the breath, they can simply move their attention back to their breath. This is called “Anchor Breath” meditation. Do this for five, ten or twenty breaths and see what happens.

One thing I have found is that meditation can be very difficult and uncomfortable for beginners. Many people find it hard to sit still. Or their mind races uncontrollably. Or they feel they that they have too much to do and that they don’t have time to meditate. These are all natural reactions. I often like to use this analogy: Suppose I asked you to play a song on the piano. If you had never played piano before you would undoubtedly say that you couldn’t do it. That would be true. But with practice I am confident that anyone can learn to play the piano. It is the same with meditation. While it can be extremely difficult and seemingly impossible at first, one gets better with practice.

In closing, I would like to emphasize that meditation and mindfulness can help anyone, not just those who suffer from anxiety or addiction. All of us have stress in our lives. Meditation is an incredible tool for managing stress. Many people suffer from depression. Mindfulness practices have been clinically proven to help improve mood and sense of well being. In my own life I have seen that mindfulness has helped me to be a better parent. I find that I am able to be more present for my son and give him my undivided attention. And the list of benefits goes on and on.

So that is the story of how I came to teach mindfulness to people who are recovering from addiction. If you have little or no experience with meditation but are interested in trying it, please feel free to contact me via email at: and I would be more than happy to share my experience and mindfulness resources with you.