Have you noticed that repeated association of a particular sense object with a particular activity or experience, such as food with loneliness, or alcohol with stress, creates a sense of craving for the sensory object (the food or the alcohol)? Many people are accustomed to drinking coffee every morning. Coffee is associated with resistance to waking up and starting to move. The experience of resistance is associated with a possible mood-altering substance that can override the resistance and get the body moving. Experiences like stress and overwhelm, loneliness or hopelessness can be associated with the comforting sensation of flavor and texture in sugary, crunchy carbohydrates, alcohol, drugs, etc.
Humans are not born with a coffee requirement, or with a need for chips or nuts, wine or beer and television. But repeated behavior becomes a habit, and that habit leads to a craving. How does it start? The habit of drinking coffee didn't happen in one day! Cravings, or addictions, start with a repeated experience of relief perceived and attributed to a particular sensory object. For example, if I am stressed, lonely, depressed or anxious and salty chips with a soda taste good, feel good to crunch and make sweet fizzy sensations in my mouth, my mind is momentarily off my troubles and my bio-chemistry is altered . . . so I don’t feel quite so despondent or stressed for a while; for as long as the bag of crunchy stuff lasts, for as long as the sugary soda-high lasts. I start to associate relief from loneliness with food.
Without consciously intending to, the next time I am stressed or lonely I will return to some version of the crunch and fizzy, some “sensory producing object” that will temporarily shift how I feel. Discovering that I can control my sensory experience and limit the pain of loneliness or grief with an alternative feeling of a food coma, or some kind of alcoholic numbness leads to an habitual repetition of these protective strategies.
While habits do impose alternative experiences and suppress pain and dejection, habits do not bring sustainable, actual peace or joy into life. Habits, or addictions, alter the body, but these are temporary physiological alterations, settled for when we believe that the embodiment of true peace and joy is unattainable.
The repeated experience of relief from unresolved emotional trauma and distress associated with a particular sensory-altering object, such as cigarettes, sugar, heroin or adrenalin makes the sensory object increasingly desirable.
In fact, you may notice that you can think about that bag of chips and your favorite Netflix show at noon knowing that they are waiting for you at the end of a workday. If you get to them soon enough, the loneliness or lack of self-worth won’t have a chance to surface at all. Each of these thoughts stimulate the release of biochemicals, which in turn create a sensation of more wanting. So, why wait until 6pm? You can have chips and a soda for lunch; You can eat a high-carb salty/sugary snack at 3pm. You can shoot up in the bathroom at work. You don’t have to wait for the weekend. You never have to feel pain, loneliness or self-loathing again.
And it snowballs. Eventually you are completely disconnected from, disassociated from the feelings of depression or self-loathing you were trying to numb. Mission accomplished . . . But now you find yourself attached to the food or the alcohol or the drugs. The food has created obesity, the alcohol has ruined your marriage and the drugs lost you your job. What can you use now to repress these new dimensions of shame and loneliness? Meth? Sex? More Food??
What to do? How to stop? How to change these life-long controlling behaviors when controlling your state of being has been your way of getting through life?
I’ve noticed that inherent in my personal need to control my state is the belief that the feelings or sensations of my unaltered or uncontrolled self are not survivable, unacceptable or simply not okay. Feeling lonely, afraid, unworthy, unloveable seems unbearable, and also unacceptable. There is a deep belief that others will not want to see or be exposed to my pain.
And while this was certainly true when I was young . . . while it was true when the holding environment of my youth could not respond to and include my vulnerable and developing sensory aliveness . . . now, as an adult, my nervous system is robust and capable of feeling and sharing loneliness without driving people away; able to feel rage without disintegrating or destroying; able to feel fear without dying. Putting down the wine and the TV for just one night, . . . there I am . . .
“What about my passion?!” Rumi demands of God. God says, “Keep it burning.” “What about my heart?” asks Rumi. “Tell me what you hold inside it,” says God. “Pain and sorrow,” says Rumi. God says, “Stay with it. The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
While the trance of habit and addiction is sticky and seductive, slowing down for just a minute, pausing and stepping back from the habit of imposing external controls, I can see that my habits and addictions are never going away. They are always and forever available to me. It's a matter of having other choices, other ways of meeting and being in the feelings. I can always return to drugs or food, but as I begin to perceive and experience other options, old habits become more remote, like friends from elementary school whom I loved at the time but who I no longer see. I could look up my old friends if I wanted to, but I probably won't. I have other meaningful relationships I can turn to now in my adult life. The pull to my old "friends" becomes less strong . . . Now there are other choices available . . . So I consider . . . explore . . . Listen. Feel. Sense. Choose.
Have you, like me, been conditioned to find a problem where there is actually an invitation? Is it possible that pain and sorrow, guilt and shame, resistance or loneliness are guardians and protectors of a love that might have otherwise been lost, long, long ago? Place your hands on your heart. Attune to the aliveness of the inner body. Follow the breath back into the truth of what you are.