Men in leather jackets and razor stubble arrived to class early, talking about meditation on the stoop before coming in.
An older guy wearing cowboy boots was already waiting, seated in a circle of folding chairs.
They were among 20 students enrolled in the mindfulness meditation portion of a yearlong program called the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court DWI/Drug Court Program. It aims to divert drunken drivers from a possible jail sentence to a place of meditative bliss.
Simona Lopez of Los Lunas, who got caught driving drunk in 2010 and again in 2014, recently completed the mindfulness class and now uses the technique to stay sober and relax more easily. “It was my one day out of the week where I can go and unwind and be in the present moment,” she said.
Michelle DuVal, 42, director and lead instructor at The Mindful Center in Albuquerque, teaches the course. It’s held weekly at the Evolution Group, a counseling center near Broadway and Gold that has a contract with Metro Court.
In a recent hourlong afternoon session, participants – white, Hispanic and Native American, most who appeared under 30, and three-fourths of whom were men – arrived early and found seats before DuVal breezed in.
She greeted participants while signing their attendance slips. “Are you new?” she asked unfamiliar people, and gave them a workbook with a few meditation CDs. “How are you? You good?” she asked those she recognized.
Her eight-week series draws on the mindfulness-based stress reduction program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.
Mindful meditation involves sitting still, focusing on either the breath or on counting to 10, so that the mind slows down and the meditating person becomes calmer and more aware of his or her thoughts and actions.
During DuVal’s class, nothing about alcohol or driving under its influence was actually talked about. Instead, she began by asking students to talk about what they’d learned in previous sessions, for the benefit of newcomers.
“It calms me down,” said one woman who was finishing the course that night. “I close my eyes. I count to 10; take three deep breaths.”
A single father of three who sat opposite her said the class was helping him mellow out so much that he taught his 9-year-old; another man said he felt as if he were lounging on a hammock.
After students described their past experiences, it was time to practice. Using body language to describe the difficulty the mind has on focusing on the breath, DuVal said, “You move your mind away from the source of anger to the breath, and you can feel your central nervous system calm down.” She gave occasional tips during the otherwise silent time:
“Your mind wanders, you bring it back again … Anytime you repeat any behavior, the brain will grow in a way to help you get good at it,” she said. “You can create more positive frames of mind; it just takes doing again and again.”
Everyone sat in silence for a while until she spoke again. “We are trying to raise awareness about what’s going on in your own mind. Just that moment when you’re feeling the breath, you’re not thinking about stuff,” she explained. “It’s hard. That’s why we practice.”
Most students appeared to surrender to the experience: Chins bobbed on chests; heads rolled in circles. Only a few participants sat disengaged with their eyes open, arms crossed, looking around the room.
People thanked DuVal as the class ended, and a few went to have a smoke on the steps before leaving.
Each participant pays a monthly fee of between $46 and $213, depending on income, for the yearlong program, of which the mindfulness meditation piece is an obligatory part. The program also includes courses in chemical dependency and integrity.
Participants’ payments supplement the $1,685 it costs per person to run the program, with money that comes from liquor excise taxes and the Metro Court’s general fund.
Since it began about 18 years ago, 4,446 people have participated, and of those, 2,665 have either graduated or are on their way. At any given time, there are about 250 participants, all of whom have been convicted of DWI and participate voluntarily as a way to avoid going to jail, according to Metro Court public information officer Camille Cordova.
Published articles indicate a relationship between practicing mindfulness and reducing addictions.”Research suggests that mindfulness practice may increase gray-matter density in the hippocampus (the area associated with learning and memory) and decrease gray-matter density in the amygdala, which can help regulate stress and anxiety,” according to an article titled, “How Mindfulness Aids in Addiction Recovery,” by David Sack, MD.
“Addiction is an automatic behavior used to escape difficult feelings or situations, whereas mindfulness involves conscious and deliberate focus on difficult emotions as a way to disarm them and interrupt habitual patterns like drug or alcohol use,” the article states.
It continues: “Addiction is the pursuit of what seems to be lacking but has really been there all along. Mindfulness is one way to connect with one’s inner resources and see the abundance in life while recognizing that reliance on drugs and alcohol is no longer a helpful coping mechanism … Through mindfulness, the recovering addict honestly evaluates their addictive behaviors and takes responsibility for their actions, which empowers them to make changes in their lives.”
An article published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse in 2009 found participation in mindfulness training in addiction treatment center environments was associated with a decrease in the likelihood of participants dropping out of such rehab programs.
When the Metro Court program began, it was one of the few in the country, but programs like it now exist in most jurisdictions, according to Cordova.
The mindfulness meditation component was added in 2012, and since then, 342 participants who have completed the mindfulness portion have graduated from the program, she said.
Learning mindfulness has been productive for Lopez, who has already completed DuVal’s class and is working on completing the other components.
The first time she was stopped for drunken driving was in 2010, and her punishment was obligatory counseling that had minimal impact, she said in an interview.
The 27-year-old married mother of three, who works as a dispatcher for emergency services in Valencia County, said after her first time getting busted, she still drove drunk on beer. This occurred about once a month for the next four years, usually from Albuquerque night spots home to Los Lunas, to the disappointment of her husband, who felt she should have known better, she said.
She got away with it every time until one night in 2014 when she’d been out drinking with friends at an Albuquerque nightclub and got behind the wheel. That night, she got caught and was eventually convicted for her second DWI.
She was facing between 90 days to a year behind bars. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t do that,’ ” she recalled thinking.
So she decided to participate in the program, and the $200 she spends a month has been money well-spent. “What I learned is the mind is always doing two things: rehearsing, or rehashing. When I meditated, I was in that moment only, not thinking about the future, not thinking about the past,” Lopez said. “It would be nice to be quiet and stuff.” She has been sober for three months, and has gotten off sleeping pills since she began practicing mindfulness, which has also helped her de-escalate from disturbing emergency calls at work. “When (I) have a crazy day, I sit there and close my eyes and just breathe.”
Lopez had never thought of mindfulness before enrolling in the Metro Court program, but now, she said: “I think it’s a great opportunity for somebody to take advantage of … It’s kind of embarrassing, and I know a lot of people read the Journal, but it’s a learning experience for myself and hopefully for someone else … If I can make someone think twice about drinking and driving; that means a lot to me.”