Overcoming Cravings and Addictions through Mindfulness Practice

In my previous blog post, I discussed Melli O’Brien’s interview with Judson Brewer, an expert in the use of mindfulness for overcoming cravings and addictions.  Jud, as he is called, is the author of a number of books, including The Craving Mind.

In the earlier blog post, I wrote about how addictions are formed and how mindfulness undermines both cravings and addictions through breaking the link between our addictive behaviours and our perceived rewards.

In this blog post, I will focus on the barriers that prevent us from using the power of mindfulness to break the shackles of cravings and addiction and present a mindfulness practice, recommended by both Melli and Jud, that will help to overcome those barriers and shackles.

Personal barriers to using mindfulness to overcome cravings and addiction

During the interview with Jud, Melli suggested that sometimes shame gets in the road of our recovery from addiction.   Craving and addiction feels so very personal that we are reluctant to own up to ourselves or others about its existence.  We want to avoid the pain of self-realisation.

We may be reluctant to give up the rewards associated with the addiction because they have become our crutch, e.g. to deal with stress; and we might be fearful that we will not be able to cope.

Melli also asked Jud what he personally experienced as barriers to daily mindfulness practice.  In his response, Jud identified three key things that made it difficult for him to sustain his daily mindfulness practice:

  1. growing in self-awareness that was painful – it became progressively clearer to Jud that he had caused suffering for other people in his life and this was difficult to face on an ongoing basis, and was humbling;
  2. being too intellectual in his practice – intellectualizing about some of the practices rather than just being-in-the-practice;
  3. doubting the efficacy of loving-kindness meditation; but finally, after a number of years, overcoming his assumptions and bias against the practice.

A four-step mindfulness practice for overcoming cravings and addiction

During the interview, Jud introduced the R.A.I.N. process as a mindfulness practice for breaking the habit loop of cravings and addiction.  The four-step process involves the following:

  1. Recognise – that you are caught up in a habit loop through a craving and recognise the addiction it creates when you give into the thoughts and emotions associated with the craving;
  2. Accept -that you have this craving and related addiction which, as Melli suggests, is a part of the “human condition”, that is part of being human;
  3. Investigate – what is happening in your body when the craving appears; what are the body sensations you are experiencing? what triggers the craving? what are the real outcomes/cost of the addiction (challenge the behaviour-reward link); experience the pleasantness of exploring your curiosity about yourself and your personal reactions to various triggers; enjoy the experience of getting to know yourself and who you really are.
  4. Non-identification – acknowledge that your cravings and addictions are not you; that you are not your thoughts; that you are not your emotions; and that underneath it all is you growing in awareness and becoming-in-the moment.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we gain a better understanding of the personal barriers we create to stop ourselves using mindfulness to break the shackles of our cravings and addictions.  We can also learn mindfulness practices that can break through these barriers and the shackles that hold us captive to our own unhealthy habit loop.  In the final analysis, we learn to trust in the power of mindfulness and the resultant awareness.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

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How Mindfulness Undermines Cravings and Addiction

Melli O’Brien recently interviewed Dr. Judson Brewer (known as Jud) who is Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts and author of The Craving Mind.  Jud is an acknowledged international expert in training people in mindfulness to overcome addiction.

In the interview Jud explained the basic cause of addiction and shared neuroscience research that explained the impact of addiction on the brain and the counter-impact of mindfulness.

How addiction develops

The concept of “operant conditioning” developed by B.F. Skinner provides a fundamental explanation of how addiction develops.  Basically, certain behaviours lead to what we perceive as rewards.  So, if we continue to engage in those behaviours and receive the associated rewards, we positively reinforce the behaviours so that we are more inclined to repeat them – thus leading to cravings and addiction.

The craving and resultant addiction can be related to anything, e.g. food, sex, shopping, spending money, drinking alcohol, gambling or consuming drugs.  We unconsciously link the rewarded behaviour with something that is unpleasant – e.g. if we are stressed we may over-eat or drink alcohol excessively.  What we are attempting to do is to substitute something pleasurable for something that we find unpleasant, e.g. we eat dark chocolate (pleasure) to overcome the unpleasantness of stress.  So, stress acts as the trigger for our craving and addiction.

We consolidate our belief in the utility of dark chocolate to help us deal with stress by reminding ourselves of the latest research that shows the positive benefits of dark chocolate – thus we not only receive a physical reinforcement (pleasant taste) but also an emotional reinforcement (positive feelings for “eating what is good for me”).  Of course, we overlook the fact that the research on dark chocolate stresses the moderation required in eating the chocolate so that the positive benefits are not outweighed by negative impacts such as the amount of saturated facts consumed.

Mindfulness undermines addiction through a process of substitution

Jud pointed out in the interview that addiction activates a part of the brain that is called “the posterior cingulate cortex”; whereas, when we engage in mindfulness practice, the opposite happens – that region of the brain becomes deactivated.   Through mindfulness, then, we are substituting excitation of the brain (generated through craving and addiction) with restfulness.

Mindfulness for overcoming addiction works on two basic levels – firstly, as we look inward, we increase our awareness of the body sensations associated with our craving; and secondly, we sever the link between our addictive behaviour and the rewards we ascribe to that behaviour.  We effectively undermine the reinforcing link between the behaviour and the reward.

Substitution occurs on three levels:

  1. pleasant feelings associated with our addictive behaviour are replaced by the pleasure experienced when we are curious about, and investigate, the bodily sensations generated by our cravings and addiction (we are substituting one form of pleasure for another);
  2. seeking to have, or do more, is replaced by the act of noticing what is going on for us (we replace uncontrolled seeking with patient noticing of the bodily sensations experienced in craving something);
  3. temporary happiness derived from satisfying our craving is replaced by the realisation of more sustainable peace and joy.

In the final analysis, mindfulness breaks what Jud calls the “habit loop” of addiction with a new and rewarding “habit loop” – habituated behaviour whose rewards grow exponentially.  Jud reiterates that developing new habits, such as mindfulness, requires “dedicated practice every day”, which is one way to overcome the barriers to changing our behaviour.  Sustaining mindfulness practice, then, is critical to undermining cravings and addictions.

As we grow in mindfulness, we gain a better understanding of our craving and addiction and learn ways to use mindfulness to undermine the hold that cravings have on our thoughts and emotions.  We can learn to make more conscious choices in the process.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of  whekevi on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Barriers to Loving Kindness

Sharon Salzberg has trained people, on a global basis, in the art of loving kindness and compassion.  She offers ways to undertake loving-kindness meditation in her books, videos and blog posts.  For example, in a blog post for mindful.org, she described a practice that helps people connect with kindness in a world where people increasingly feel disconnected.

In discussing mindful connection in a recent presentation, Sharon alluded to potential barriers to loving kindness.  The following barriers can be identified from her presentation:

Centrality of ourselves

Sharon describes “centrality” as a serious impediment to loving kindness as the primary focus is on ourselves, our needs, our priorities and our happiness.  Jon Kabat-Zinn refers to this barrier as “the story of me” – where I am the producer, the central character and actor in the story about me.

Sharon suggests that we can overcome our tendency to “centrality” when we gain insight into the pain associated with this positioning of ourselves.  We can come to this realisation through meditation or reflection on a challenging life event – when we begin to understand that placing ourselves at the centre of everything is the root cause of our loneliness, sense of disconnection, boredom and frustration.

Disconnected worldview

We often hear media reports that state that it was fortunate that the flood, cyclone or bushfire did not strike “here” but passed us by and struck “over there”.  This worldview conveys a sense of disconnection – as if what happens “there” has no impact or implication for us “here”.

This worldview is extremely narrow even taking into account our economic, ecological, financial and political interdependence.  It does not recognise the interconnection at a human level with families, friends, colleagues and relatives involved.  At a deeper level, it fails to recognise our interdependence with nature and the interconnection of all humanity.

Loving kindness and compassion meditation can open us up to recognition of these interdependencies and interconnections.  We can also monitor our own words on a daily basis to ensure that we do not unwittingly promote a narrow, distorted worldview.

Beliefs about love

There are many connotations of the word “love” but it has become synonymous with “romantic love”.  This leads to the belief that love is a feeling and that to love someone you have to like them or approve of them.  If you view love as connection, then love is seen as a capacity to connect -something that can be cultivated.  Love, then, is independent of whether you like a person or not.

The belief that compassion is solely an inner state

It is true that compassion is developed through loving-kindness and compassion meditation.  However, as Sharon points out it is actually a “movement toward” rather than a “movement within”.  The latter can lead to “empathetic distress”.   Compassion is the recognition of someone’s suffering and the desire to act to alleviate it in some way, while recognising that in many situations we cannot act directly to affect the pain and suffering of another person.

Compassion in day-to-day life can be expressed through active listening and what Sharon calls “spy consciousness” – where we turn our attention to our own thoughts and motivation in a situation to assess whether we are acting from a compassionate, considerate stance or from one of “centrality”.

Judging ourselves

We all carry a degree of prejudice and unconscious bias but there is nothing to be gained from beating up on ourselves, disliking who we are or belittling ourselves.  What is needed is compassion for ourselves and recognition that these deficiencies are a part of the human condition.  Sharon argues that self-loathing does not lead to transformation whereas compassion for ourselves is transformative.

As we grow in mindfulness through loving-kindness practices, we begin to recognise at a deeper level that we are connected to everybody else and we start to cultivate love for others that is a true form of connection.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source:  Courtesy of  brenkee on Pixabay

Sustaining Meditation Practice

In his presentation for the Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, Elisha Goldstein discussed the theme, Towards Sustainable Happiness.  He covered the barriers to sustaining meditation practice and offered ways to overcome them. Elisha is the author of a number of books, including Uncovering Happiness and The Now Effect.

Elisha acknowledged that integrating a new habit, such as meditation, into our daily lives is a challenging task. Starting the habit is relatively easy but sustaining it over time can be extremely difficult.

He identified a number of barriers that make it difficult for us to achieve the desired integration:

1. Our negative bias

As we mentioned previously, our brain is wired to perceive danger and threat and persists in a negative orientation as an evolutionary safety mechanism. This manifests as doubts, anxiety or uncertainty when we are trying to sustain the habit of meditation. We tend to question not only the way we are meditating but also the utility (usefulness/ benefit) of meditation. We can focus on the effort involved without seeing the benefits.

2. Fractured attention

In this day and age, we are constantly interrupted by technology, advertising and noise pollution. Our attention is continuously fractured by interruption – we now talk about disruptive marketing as a means to capture the attention of our desired audience. This continuous disruption to our attention makes it increasingly difficult to meditate and feeds our doubts and uncertainties.

3. Our cultural environment

The acceptance of busyness as laudable and inactivity as blameworthy, translates into little tolerance for being still, taking time out or meditating. This means that there are very few positive models within our immediate environment to inspire us to sustain our meditation practice. There are few rewarding or supporting social cues that motivate us to maintain the effort.

4. Our loss of connectedness

The development of our social norms means that increasingly we are superficially connected to lots of people (via social media) and see ourselves as separate and independent. Images of meditation practitioners reinforce this separateness. However, neuroscience confirms the view that we are social beings that are interconnected and interdependent. We have a reliance on each other whether we are conscious of this or not. Research also highlights the fact that social isolation can lead to physical and mental illness including depression.

Elisha’s very strong recommendation, based on his own research and experience, is to work towards enriching our environment as a way of building sustainability in our meditation practice and enhancing our experience of happiness.

He suggests that this can be done in two ways, (1) enrich our physical environment, and (2) build social connections that provide positive social cues and inspiration.

On a physical level, we can surround ourselves with inspiring books and sayings, clear clutter than distracts us and detracts from the inner journey, value the beauty and calmness of our natural surroundings and develop a space that engenders calm and ease of meditation.

On a social level, we can get connected to like-minded people by participating in retreats, workshops, online conferences and courses. What is more likely to be sustaining for our meditation practice, however, is regular participation with a group of people who engage in meditation.

If we enrich our physical and social environments, we are better able to grow in mindfulness by sustaining our meditation practice, so that the benefits are longer lasting and flow into our everyday lives outside the meditative environment.

Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of RitaE on Pixabay

Mindful Leadership: Motivation

There are a number of ways to build our motivation and mindfulness as a leader and I will discuss four ways here.

1. Alignment with our values

When what we are doing is aligned with our values, we have more energy, focus and insight.  In an earlier post, I asked the question, “What are you doing this for?”  In that post, I explored the exercise involving the process of asking yourself three times “why?” i.e.  why are you doing the work/ activity that you are doing ?   This is one way to check your motivation and how aligned it is with your values.

2. Alignment with our core skills

Previously, I explored three elements that contribute to happiness- an intrinsic source of motivation.  One of the core elements was how well aligned your work or other activity was with your core skills.  Alignment with your core skills keeps boredom at bay, builds learning through challenge and maintains motivation.

3. Envisioning our future

The capacity to envision the future provides the opportunity to work towards some desired state or future condition – this clarity around an end goal helps to maintain motivation and guide action.  The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute provides leaders with a way to discover an ideal future through a scenario and a series of questions:

If everything in my life starting today, meets my most optimistic expectations, what will my life be like in 5 years?

  • Who are you and what are you doing?
  • How do you feel?
  • What do people say about you?

Consciousness about what you are working towards is foundational to mindful leadership, because a core role of a leader is setting a future direction..  If you don’t know where you are heading, it is difficult for others to follow you.

4. Building resilience

Resilience is your capacity to bounce back from setbacks and disappointments in pursuit of a goal or end vision.  There are always things that create temporary barriers to goal achievement such as illness, loss of sponsorship or exhaustion.  Resilience enables us to overcome these impediments and persist in the pursuit of an end state. In an earlier post, I discussed how mindfulness develops resilience.  The mindful leader needs to be resilient if they are to persist in the face of difficulties and enable their followers to contribute to their vision.

As we grow in mindfulness, we develop the capacity to create a greater alignment with our values and core skills, gain clarity about our vision and build resilience in the face of obstacles.  Each of these elements contribute to our development and motivation as a mindful leader.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of dweedon1 on Pixabay