How can you use meditation to overcome addiction?
As humans, the folly of addiction touches us all. We live in a world designed to facilitate addiction, from the trivial to the grave: Prescription pills for every malady, a Facebook Feed constantly generating new stories to entertain you, cigarettes and alcohol for sale at every street corner, commercials telling you the new phone you have to buy, Netflix starting a new show right when you finish the last. The list goes on and on.
If you’ve been a part of any modern reflection on ridding addictions, meditation will almost always enter the conversation. But what is it about meditation that gives it the potency to help vanquish addictions? Meditation in itself, to be clear, cannot single handedly decimate deeply ingrained, destructive addictions. Those who suffer from such should always seek professional help.
That being said, many professionals are now including meditation as a piece of their recovery plans, which begs the question, why? To answer why this is, we must first look at the root cause of addiction. Yes, the world is designed in such a manner to encourage them, but what about us as humans makes us particularly susceptible?
Modern meditation in the West came mostly as a result of Buddhism, so it is only logical to look to Buddhism, an ideology rich in psychological insights on the human mind, for understanding its efficacy. Three particular insights are especially relevant in understanding the relationship that addiction has with the human mind.
A consistent theme in Buddhism is that of attachment. We unconsciously attach by nature to people, habits, pleasures, feelings and so on. Our inclination towards attachment ultimately causes us to suffer as everything is impermanent. A colloquial form of this ancient Buddhist concept is simply, “Nothing lasts forever.”
Attachment in itself can partially explain the pervasiveness of addiction in our society, but our predisposition towards attachment is only part of the picture. Why do we attach given the impermanent nature of the world? Buddhism identifies certain tendencies of thought that enable attachments to take a hold of us and turn into cycles of addiction, namely our tendencies to generate aversion and to desire sensual pleasures.
Our tendency to feel aversion is deeply instilled in us. We judge all our experiences as positive or negative, and when we judge something as negative, we develop an aversion to it, causing us to experience negative feelings, such as hate, as a result. Equally, we have positive experiences and develop attachments to those experiences. Then we attempt to avoid all those external things that make us feel negative and surround ourselves with only what we deem as positive, which is futile.
Most people do not realize there is a way to disconnect the experience from the negative or positive feeling. They do not realize the feeling of aversion does not stem from the entity being judged, but rather the judgment itself is the cause of the aversion. Things themselves are not positive or negative, only our interpretation is. We develop attachments and aversions to inherently neutral things that spur negative feelings inside of us. We even develop aversions to the absence of things that we have attachments to. The subsequent negative feelings arise and we look to escape them.
Desire for Sensual Pleasures
To escape the negative feelings conjured by either the absence of things we’re attached to or the presence of things we have an aversion to, we oftentimes look to stimulate ourselves through sensual pleasures. Anything from chocolate to drugs. Basically, anything that stimulates us. Buddhist philosophy believes humans are addicted to stimulation, which is why monastic precepts forbid things such as dancing, television, luxurious accommodations, perfumes, and sex. All things that are likely candidates for causing attachments. If you’ve ever sat down to meditate and experienced an anxious mind that’s left to its own devices, you’ve experienced withdrawal from external stimulation.
When we experience negative feelings and cope with the feelings by indulging in some sensual pleasure, it creates a narrative in our head that we need this pleasure, and so an addiction is born. Once we have this addiction, simply not satisfying the addiction rouses the negative feelings, creating a vicious cycle.
Breaking the Addiction Cycle
What does meditation do to break this cycle? Meditation teaches non-judgmental awareness. It is about neutral observation, typically on the breath or the body. It creates a pause between the experience and the judgment of our experience. We may notice a bird chirping, for example, but then we simply acknowledge the bird chirping, without getting caught up in deciding if we like it or dislike it, and come back to the breath. Can we simply see reality as it is, without putting it through our egocentric prism to decide how the self feels about this reality.
This neutral state of mind is called equanimity in the Buddhist tradition. Over time, we can train ourselves to feel equanimous about something we normally dislike, such as a baby crying next to us on a plane. By training ourselves to be aware of our experience, without judging it, we can avoid arousing the negative feelings of aversion that cause the stress and anxiety that drives us to escape into sensual pleasures, thus avoiding addictions.
Another thing a sustained meditation practice fosters is greater awareness of the body, essentially connecting the mind and body in a way that doesn’t happen when our mind is caught up in chasing thoughts, constantly stirring up the stress and anxiety that sends us searching for more pleasures and distractions. When the mind is not lost in past or future thoughts, the mind can be with the experience of the body, developing the communication between the two.
The Moment of Choice: Using Your Mind as a Slave, Not as a Master
When we take advantage of these joint tools, greater awareness of the body and the neutral moment of pause, we can stop and evaluate what the aversion or desire is. We now have a moment of choice. Instead of reacting and simply indulging the craving or feeling, we can check in with the body. What does this feeling actually feel like in my body? Is the body actually asking for what you are craving, or is your mind concocting the need independently as part of a greater narrative? Am I focused solely on the sensations of the body or am I focused on the narrative my mind is telling me about the sensations? For example, are your lungs asking for the cigarette or is it your mind telling you that the body needs the cigarette.
If you use meditation to calm your mind, reduce the stress and anxiety that plagues our society today, you will allow a deeper moment of pause and contemplation. You have given yourself a moment of choice. In this space, you can begin to use your mind as your slave, not as your master. Let’s say you are in that seat on the plane next to a baby, you can really stop before generating anger and ponder the situation:
The reality is that it is only sound. Making it into anything more than that is the choice of my mind. What is the purpose of getting angry? I’m only hurting myself by being angry. There’s nothing that can be done. It’s not the baby’s fault he’s crying, he doesn’t know any better. And the parents can’t wait years to fly with their baby, maybe they have a sick relative they have to visit. And the flight is only a few hours long. It will end. It’s amazing I have a chance to fly through the sky in a piece of metal to quickly get somewhere so far in only a few hours. People used to die trying to make journeys this distance.
The Power of Meditation and Addiction
This moment of choice can not only defuse the situations in which you would normally generate negative feelings that drive you to seek a stimulating escape, but it can also allow for a powerful reflection on the root cause of addictions. Cigarettes, for example, contain an addictive substance, but the sensual pleasure from the cigarette may be filling a void, taking you away from an aversion you would otherwise have to face. Finding this root cause may be difficult and potentially distressing, but it might be key to overcoming your addiction. When you invest in the practice of meditation, it is always best to have a teacher to help guide you to ensure you have knowledgeable support in times of difficulty.
Addiction is a serious affliction. The sad reality of an addiction is that you can never truly live in the present moment because part of you is always yearning for the object of your addiction. Meditation, if nothing else, is a way to train your mind to simply be in the present moment.
While meditation is a perfect antidote in this sense, in itself meditation certainly cannot serve as a magic pill. There is no magic pill. Meditation is simply a technique to give you tools to help you in your everyday negotiation. A moment of pause where you can contemplate, communicate with your body, and make a choice rather than a mindless reaction.