Addictions can often be regarded as discrete areas of disturbance in what may otherwise be a well-functioning personality. Many people who are quite successful in life battle futilely with addictions ranging from cigarettes, coffee, and overeating to gambling, alcohol, and drugs. These addictions often involve both personality and bodily components. There may be a physical craving leading to changes in thought and emotion, and then to addictive behavior. Or a thought or feeling may come first, and then generate a physical craving.

For example, the physical lowering of the nicotine level in the blood may cause a smoker to feel upset emotionally and negative mentally, as well as uncomfortable physically, and then thoughts of a cigarette arise and lead to the action of smoking. Or a person might come home after work to an empty house and think, “I’m all alone,” accompanied by feelings of sadness, despair, and hollowness. These might lead to a trip to the refrigerator to fill up the emotional hole inside, a hole that never seems to stay filled, no matter how much we consume.

Meditation can help with addiction in several significant ways. First, impulses to action, the impulse to drink, the impulse to do drugs, the impulse to smoke a cigarette, these can be noticed without attachment. The compulsion to actually do them can be greatly lessened. They can be experienced as strong waves in the personality and body. From central calmness, they are viewed as powerful surges. When an impulse, be it addictive behavior or simply the impulse to scratch an itch, is attended to and witnessed, rather than instantly acted upon, it loses its grasping power. Yes, the impulse to smoke may be acute, but it’s not overwhelming. You can watch it, marvel at its strength, but not get caught by it. And, like a big wave, it passes swiftly. In this way, impulsive behavior can be gradually weakened. Impulse can be decoupled from action, so that a desire does not automatically lead to acting on it.

But this still leaves the problem of what to do to feel better. Whether the addiction is primarily physically or emotionally based, it serves a function: it makes you feel temporarily less bad. The second way meditation can help with addiction is that meditation is itself a way of feeling better. Instead of reaching for a cigarette, sit down to meditate for a few minutes. At first you’ll witness your discomfort and the impulse to smoke. But soon you’ll feel the peace of meditation. Meditative satisfaction can be substituted for a wide range of addictive highs. True, you have substituted one habit for another. But the habit of being mindful is healthy, not harmful. And, as time goes by, it becomes a natural way of living that eliminates the need for feel-better behaviors, since it is fully rewarding in itself.

There’s a third way meditation can help with addiction. By paying careful attention to the whole process that happens in mind and body when desire arises, the meditator can understand exactly what’s going on. What is causing the desire? What need does the behavior temporarily fill? And what might be a more permanent and healthy way of getting that need met? For example, coffee may be discovered to be primarily a physical energy booster, and, secondarily, an emotional comfort. Changes in diet, exercise, sleep, and other physical factors may be realized to be a better, if more ambitious, solution to low energy than caffeine. And the emotional needs may be better met more directly. Or alcohol may be recognized to be at first a way to dull out loneliness, which has later led to a physical craving. More scheduled social activities, such as going to recovery meetings, may prove a more satisfactory solution than the bottle.

So meditation can help with addiction by decoupling impulse from action, by directly promoting better feeling, and by providing insight into the dynamics of the habit and possible ways of growing beyond it. Addiction is a particularly troublesome and persistent problem for many people. Meditation can greatly help in surmounting this difficulty.

This reading is from Spencer Sherman, Ph.D. I Know I Should Meditate, But… What You Can Learn About Health and Happiness in Ten Mindful Minutes a Day . This book is free to download from: http://www.spencershermanphd.com/id4.html

Rev. August 2014

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