Mindfulness and Addiction

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Photo by Charles Deluvio

In their simplest terms, mindfulness is compassionate, non-judgmental present moment awareness, while addiction is a compulsion to do something again and again despite harmful consequences. When we are addicted, our ability to choose is reduced. This is because the reward pathways in the brain are hijacked by desire and behavior becomes dominated by the mindless pursuit of a particular sensation or experience. When we are mindful, we gain the ability to choose. This is because we see things more clearly and create space between perception and response so that we can consider our options wisely.

The conditions for developing an addiction are complicated. Genetic vulnerability, health status, environmental stressors, life circumstances, knowledge and beliefs, intensity of reward, and immediacy vs delay of negative consequences all likely play an interconnected role. Some of these factors we have a modicum of control over. If we know we may be vulnerable to addiction due to family history or that a particular substance or behavior is intensely rewarding with harmful consequences, we can choose not to engage. We can educate and care for ourselves so that we have the information we need to make good choices and the resilience to weather the inevitable storms of life without resorting to harmful coping strategies. The best approach to managing addiction is prevention.

Endless Wandering

Human beings are hard-wired to habituate. Habituation is the decrease in intensity of experience with repetition and/or over time. We appreciate this quality when something is unpleasant or painful – our sensitivity to it tends to decrease and we find we can live with it. Habituation is also very useful when there is something irrelevant in the background that we don’t need to pay attention to. But, we lament this quality when something is pleasant or desirable – we just can’t seem to hang onto the original high we experienced. When we fail to see or refuse to accept this truth about ourselves, we wind up expending endless amounts of energy striving to avoid the unavoidable and to attain the unattainable.

There is a compelling metaphor for addiction in Tibetan Buddhism – the Hungry Ghost Realm – where beings who are driven by worldly desires that can never be satiated wander endlessly, tormented by unfulfilled craving. The Acceptance and Commitment Therapy folks would call this a “rigged game”. We think we can find contentment through the acquisition of external things and sense pleasures, but habituation makes this impossible. Everything changes eventually and we find ourselves feeling dissatisfied and empty. The game stops working for us.

If we insist on maintaining the initial level of stimulation we experienced in the early days and we believe something is wrong when it inevitably changes, we are bound for disappointment. If we let ourselves become pawns in this rigged game, we will continually discard what is familiar for new experiences or seek out increasingly intense stimulation, wandering endlessly in the realm of the hungry ghosts.

An Antidote to Craving

Craving, or intense desire, is the inner experience that maintains addictions. It is accompanied by a powerful urge to seek out stimulation. If we act on this impulse, this is where the trouble ensues and we wind up relapsing. Mindfulness is an important part of stepping out of the rigged game of craving and relapse. We first must be aware of craving early enough that we have a chance to respond rather than react. We have to be able to see craving for what it really is, a memory of a positive reward that is removed from and distorts the present moment. By practicing mindfulness, we give ourselves the opportunity to see clearly and respond with wisdom.

Self-compassion is also an important component of interrupting the cycle of craving and relapse. Shame and self-blame only serve to further undermine our resilience so that we are more vulnerable to craving and urges. When we learn to treat ourselves like a beloved friend, we are more likely to care for ourselves in a way that builds resilience. We are also more likely to hold ourselves to standards of behavior that serve our ultimate wellbeing.

Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) is an evidence based program that has been shown to help people in recovery ride the waves of craving and urges in order to maintain gains. It combines the practices of mindfulness with cognitive behavior techniques and relapse prevention strategies to help address addictive habits of mind that limit choices and cause suffering. If you’d like to learn more about this program, take a look at my MBRP page. Those who are struggling with active addiction should first seek out a high quality rehabilitation program in order to acquire the tools needed to step firmly onto the road to recovery.

People are distracted by objects of desire, 
and afterwards repent of the lust they’ve indulged, 
because they have indulged with a phantom 
and are left even farther from Reality than before. 

Your desire for illusory is a wing, 
by means of which a seeker might ascend to Reality. 
When you have indulged a lust, your wing drops off; 
you become lame and that fantasy flees. 

Preserve the wing and don’t indulge such lust, 
so that the wing of the desire may bear you to Paradise. 
People fancy they are enjoying themselves, 
but they are really tearing out their wings for the sake of an illusion

– Rumi

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