This post was inspired by a dear reader who sent me the following:
Enjoying your posts have you ever considered writing on freedom from addictions. Just a thought as I myself have been clean and sober for 40 years after suffering.
I gave myself credit for years until I accepted Christ into my life.
That day He reminded me of the simple prayer I prayed the night I gave up all drugs and alcohol.
The prayer was simple. “Please take this from me.” He said to me that night “It was not you all these years but Me who answered your prayer.”My question would be how many others have found life again in much the same way?
Have you ever stopped to think about western society’s expectation that you’re “supposed” to have the perfect house, the perfect car, the perfect salary, the perfect spouse, the perfect vacation and that if you have all those things, you’d have the “perfect life”?
I can’t tell you the countless stories I’ve heard – and even experienced myself – about how many people strive for these ideals and actually seemingly get there. But then when they do, they realize their lives aren’t perfect at all and there’s this hollowness inside.
Society, unfortunately, does a terrible job of reconciling a consumer attitude and what’s really important in life: becoming the highest version of yourself so that you can cultivate relationships, spend time with family, and live in the service of others.
I, fortunately, realized this pretty early on.
I am the product of being adopted (within my family) and alcoholism was one big reason for that. My real dad admitted in court that he could not care for me. (As did my mother, but for other reasons.)
I grew up with my grandparents who became my parents – in every sense of the word.
I wanted for nothing growing up: we took vacations, I went to private school, I had good clothes, shoes, health insurance, more than enough food, and love.
But there was one thing I remember I wish I had more of: more time with my parents.
I realized that the material things were less important to me than a family unit that went picnicking together, hiking together and had family meetings.
Honestly, there was never time for any of that. My parents – bless them – were always working to give all of us everything we needed and then some.
What does all this have to do with addiction?
Alcoholism touched my life early on. I also learned that there was more to life than society’s expectation to consume to aspire to the “perfect life”, as well.
However, so many fall into addiction, and part of the problem is this need to fill the void – to fill that voice inside the head that says we don’t measure up, that we’re agitated, or stressed or trying to process traumatic events. So, we turn to what we hope will make us feel good.
We crave a substance or activity to make us feel better (and it never really does).
What is Addiction?
Internet, television, video games, food, drugs, alcohol, work – anything in excess can become an addiction.
It becomes a craving such that the desire for whatever makes you feel good can make even the most determined of us falter – and give in to the craving.
The brain then forms a dependence on that substance or activity.
The need to satisfy that craving develops into an ever-greater need, often to the detriment of everything else.
I’ve had family members and friends abuse alcohol and when you see them hiding bottles of booze in toilet tanks, you know something is terribly wrong.
What is it about addiction – what pulls people toward it?
Scientists think that addiction is probably genetic – that they have a tendency toward whatever it is that people become addicted to, whether it’s alcohol, food, or whatever.
But there’s something else: self-criticism and out-of-control thoughts.
Going back to society’s need for striving for more, more, more, we all can get pretty self-critical, can’t we?
Our thoughts spin all sorts of tales in our minds, over and over again until we actually start to believe them.
If you commute to work, take a second to think about all the things that go through your mind as you get ready and then get in the car.
You might think about how you don’t like the way you look, or you look at yourself in the mirror and think, “I need to exercise more, or I look fat or too thin or too old or not old enough.”
Then you change into your work clothes and think about the phone conversation you had with a friend or a sibling. “I wish she hadn’t said that. I should have told him what I really think. I don’t visit them enough.”
After that you get in the car and think, “I don’t want to do everything I have to do today. I can’t deal with that colleague who is entirely incompetent. My boss is incorrigible. I should have gotten gas yesterday and now I’m going to be late because I now have to stop. It’s going to be so cold and miserable, too.”
The mind. A constant string of critiques, judgements, living in the past, and thinking about the future.
But then…imagine if you stopped all that.
Did you give one thought to gratitude?
The warm cup of joe or tea that filled your belly?
The fact that you have a warm roof over your head?
That perhaps you have a supportive roommate or spouse who wished you a good day?
We’re not conditioned to breathe and take in the present moment. And those constant thoughts stress us out. They’d stress anyone out.
To cope, people often turn to something to feel better.
It makes sense, right?
Life is tough. If we can find something to make it a little easier, why not?
Conventional Treatments to Addiction
One day we realize that, perhaps, we have a problem – hopefully we arrive at that conclusion, anyways.
We intend to fix it.
“I’ll give this up,” you tell yourself.
You make a plan to either go cold turkey or get on a schedule that decreases your addiction.
This is good!
Many people give up their addiction and don’t relapse. But many more relapse time and time again. The average is three times before really kicking a habit.
Because of that, it’s always wise to seek the help of a qualified professional, too.
A counselor or psychologist, for example, can help you ferret out the root cause of the problem – this is important so you can understand what drove you to the addiction in the first place.
He or she can guide you into various 12-step programs that will also help.
Perhaps medication will be part of your treatment.
Another conventional treatment that will help? Exercise.
You can walk, jog, ride a bike, hike, play tennis – all of these are great stress relievers and release a chemical called endorphins to give you that characteristic “runner’s high” that you hear about.
Other Tools in Addiction Treatment
Using every tool that you can to succeed is not only a good idea, but they greatly increase that chances that you won’t relapse. Because once you’ve become addicted to something, relapse is always possible.
When you experience a craving, you can:
- Distract yourself by going for a walk
- Watch a bit of television (as long as that is not your addiction)
- Shift your focus: you’re craving another beer, so go out and play with the dog
- Do something creative, like coloring, painting or drawing
- Face your craving: tell yourself exactly what’s happening – “I’m craving this, but I’m stronger than my craving. It feels bad right now, but it’s going to pass.”
- Understand that the brain is a living, breathing organ that can actually change: you can actually rewire your brain to think and grow differently outside of addiction
The One Powerful Tool That Can Work Wonders: Meditation
That last point just above mentions how the brain can change. This term is plasticity.Meditation has been shown to change the brain. #intuitiveandspiritual #meditation Click To Tweet
As you meditate, your brain forms neural connections.
This is the same phenomenon that occurs as a person is learning.
Scientists used to think this only happened when a person was young. But now, they have determined that this happens throughout life.
The brain is actually learning and forming new neural connections during meditation.
This is great news for someone who’s trying to unlearn a habit of addiction.
The brain forms new connections to help form new habits.
You can effectively unlearn a bad habit, form new neural connections and form new habits to replace the old ones.
Brain scans actually show that people who meditate about four hours a week can condition themselves to get into a state of high concentration and creativity very quickly.
They learn how to focus quickly, too.
This is due to the prefrontal cortex actually getting thicker, along wth the mid-insular region.
Yes, physical changes in the brain happen, too.
Furthermore, the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for controlling emotions, can counteract the deleterious effects of anxiety with regular meditation.
This allows more room for a person to feel more optimism and hope for the future, along with a greater dose of creativity.
How Meditation Can Help Someone in Addiction Recovery
If you’re a heroin addict who also watches television for eight hours a day, meditation is going to have little effect if you have no interest in controlling the addiction.
You’re not using any tools to help change your behavior.
However, once you decide to work on your addiction and actually want to give it up, then the real work can begin.
You have all the tools above to help you. But, there’s also meditation.
Let’s talk about the benefits of meditation, first, to see how it can help in recovery:
Meditation and mindfulness can:
- allow you to watch your thoughts, detach from them and let them go
- help you to discern patterns of thinking
- increase your sense of wellness
- feel more compassion for others
- allow you to become more self-aware by becoming aware of your thoughts
- allow you to focus more easily
- help you to keep your emotions in check
- experience more self-love and self-compassion
- help with many more things
Let’s look at what happens then to someone who’s trying to give up an addiction:
- You practice detachment from your thoughts which, in turn, can help you to detach from desire
- Increased happiness comes from letting go of desires
- You can more easily control your thoughts
- You can label a thought as “I’m craving this” and actively let it go
- You realize that after practicing for awhile, you feel a sense of calmness and lightness toward life
- You feel more connected to others and to the rest of the world
All these things then motivate you to keep going with your practice.
You’re literally changing your life in more ways than just dealing with an addiction.
The practice of “detachment” – of letting things go – is key in helping to curb the desire to give into cravings. Just when those cravings are at their strongest, meditation and the practice of it can help you to remember why you are giving up that addiction in the first place.
Coupled with the personal transformation that you see with meditation, you then have a real chance to leave the addiction behind – forever.
This works on the big things, but it can work on little things, too, like biting nails or eating too much sugar.
Three Different Approaches to Meditation
Again, I cannot stress how important it is to work with a coach, doctor, and/or a support group – at least for the more serious addictions. This is also true with meditation.
If you’ve never tried it before, you can try what I suggest here, but it’s always great to have a friend or a team of folks to cheer you on to help you and guide you.
One of the most straightforward ways you can approach mindfulness and meditation is through breathing. You focus on the breath. When thoughts come, you can treat them like clouds, imagine that you are a massive mountain, and let them go.
With this form of meditation, you focus on the breath, but you also imagine that your heart fills you up with love. You take that love and send it to all parts of yourself and then to others.
Transcendental Meditation (TM)
This meditation is different from the other two. When you first start out, you work specifically with a teacher and get a mantra that is personalized to you. It has no specific meaning, but between the mantra itself, the sound it makes and your application of it, you create a healing practice that echoes the Vedic traditions of India.
You can try all of these, or none. However, I would like to share about a scientific study that is a testament to the power of meditation.
In this case, the focus is on TM.
There was a study done in Germany in the 1990s about the use of illicit drugs and folks trying to give them up. Over three hundred participated in the study.
About 125 people elected to try counseling and TM to give up their addiction.
The rest of the subjects became the control group and received just counseling services.
After one year, 45% of all the people in the TM group had completely stopped taking drugs after the first year. Only 15% in the control group had.
Quite a few other studies have been done, but this is one example of how profoundly meditation can make a difference.
A Guided Meditation for Addiction
If you would like to try meditating on your own, you can always do so. Just be aware that if you ever feel too uncomfortable or feel anxious, stop immediately and seek out the guidance of a teacher or counselor.
Go to a quiet place and sit quietly. You can be outside or inside, but somewhere where you won’t be distracted for 5-10 minutes.
When you first start meditating, you don’t want to do too much at once.
(More than a few minutes can make you feel frustrated or anxious – because it can be hard to sit for too long without your thoughts crowding your mind without having an established practice, first. You can always build up to a longer practice, though.)
As you sit quietly, bring your awareness to what is around you.
Notice the sounds you hear.
Notice any scents and aromas in the air.
Notice if there are any parts of your body calling for attention and gently move to a more comfortable position, if necessary.
Notice of you feel tension anywhere else. If you feel a bit of tension in your chest, gently breathe and see if you can release that tension.
Bring your awareness to your breathing. Take ten deep breaths.
When you breathe in, fill your lungs to capacity.
As you breathe out, expel the air slowly until you can no longer do so.
Feel you lungs contract as they get ready to expand with life-giving air again.
Perhaps you notice that different thoughts come to mind.
See if you can turn them into clouds. Now watch those clouds as they float by.
Perhaps you feel an emotion rising.
If you’re up to it, you can label it. Perhaps it is happiness. Sadness. Regret. Freedom.
Whatever the feeling is, accept it.
Then turn it into a cloud and let it go.
This may be difficult at first. Just be gentle with yourself. There is no expectation here.
You’re just breathing.
If another thought comes, it’s okay.
Say to yourself, “here’s another thought, and I’m going to let it go.”
In the span of a few minutes – especially if this is your first time trying this – you might find yourself doing this over and over and over again.
That’s a beautiful thing! You’re making progress just by sitting quietly and breathing.
Take five more breaths.
Now, imagine your heart beating inside your chest. You feel your chest swelling with love.
Feel your heart expanding with pure love.
Now, take that energy and send it to yourself: to your brain, your hands, your feet – all over.
Feel the warm current of love radiating all over your body.
Now, imagine that love expanding around you.
Imagine beautiful love surrounding you.
Now, think of someone you love already.
Imagine that the love surrounding you now is surrounding that person you love.
Feel the harmony.
Now imagine an acquaintance. Send this same love to your acquaintance.
Feel the energy of love surround your acquaintance.
Now, if you’re up for it, imagine someone that you don’t always get along with. Imagine that same love that is surrounding you is now surrounding that person.
Send that person love.
Now, send that love back to yourself. Surround yourself with love.
Take a deep, loving breath. And open your eyes.
As you continue your day, continue with loving thoughts toward yourself.
If a negative thought comes to mind, take a breath and send yourself love.
To help remind you, you can draw a heart or other symbol on the back of your hand.
- Marchant, Jo. Cure: A Journey into the science of mind and body. Penguin Random House: 2016.
- Rosenthal, M.D., Norman E. Transcendence: Healing and transformation through transcendental meditation. Penguin Books: 2011.