Dear Cynthia, I feel like everything around me is grabbing at my attention telling me I need “more.” More clothes, more money, more exercise. And when that doesn’t work I fall into a pit of negative “mores”: more alcohol, more binge eating, more self-hatred. I need a way to find a balance and better habits. How can I begin to de-tangle myself from compulsive behavior and addiction to “more”?
It’s not really a question of “mind over matter” because the mind IS matter!
As recent neuroscience has demonstrated, every habit lays down its own neural pathway, i.e., it carves its own rut track in the brain—and the inertia around these pathways is considerable. The disruption of ANY happy pathway brings with it considerable discomfort and resistance. So you’re quite right in lumping together habits and addictions; the difference between them is more one of degree than of kind. One can be addicted to coffee, alcohol, porridge for breakfast, endorphins, heroin, meditation, exercise, sex or God! The difference is only that the classic “chemical dependency addictions” add to our already full plate of cognitive and emotional distress and, at the interruption of a habit, physiological distress as well.
Most of the moral and spiritual training of Western minds over the past two millennia has been couched around instilling “good habits”—or at least replacing unhealthy behavior patterns with healthy behavior patterns. But there has been a school of spiritual training in all the great traditions that claims that real spiritual maturity is the ability to be habit-free: to be able to bushwhack through consciousness without laying down ANY of those familiar but deadly rut tracks.
The idea is to remain ever flexible and mindful of any overly habituated pathway in which we can become entrenched.
My own teacher Rafe belonged to this school of thought. On his prayer desk, he kept a quotation from the British spiritual teacher Maurice Nicoll: “Faith is a continual inner effort, a continual altering of the mind, of the habitual ways of thought, of the habitual ways of taking everything, of habitual reactions.” Rafe took that saying deeply to heart. From time to time, he would spontaneously uproot his established patterns and preferences in order to keep his spiritual life (as well as his mind) supple, and to experience that pure rush of freedom that comes from being able to sit in the chaos of a disrupted habit—like an anthill that’s just been kicked in—and transform the pain into the razor’s edge of pure consciousness.
To do this, however, is an advanced spiritual skill. It requires an ability to sit in the presence of powerful emotional currents—pain, grief, yearning, fear—and experience them as pure sensation rather than as part of the story we keep telling ourselves about who we are. This is an acquired skill, whose foundations are in meditation and conscious breathing…which is why our spiritual practice is so important.
Both habits and addictions, in my experience, are a kind of shorthand we resort to for getting through our lives because we lack the spiritual/energetic force to stay present to the field of our own “pure awareness.”
Our habits are primarily the SYMPTOMS of our low level of Being, not the CAUSE of it.
So my own preference is to work a little each day on increasing my tolerance for Being (or presence or pure awareness—they’re simply different ways of speaking about the same vitalized energy field of consciousness). Once that force of Being is strong enough within us, then dealing with habits/addictions is like taking off a raincoat once the sun is shining.