Addiction can be defined as a deeply imbedded habitual attempt to meet a need. For reasons no doubt having to do with our early survival, the brain creates neural pathways that remember past behavior, and eventually encourage these behaviors, even if they are not healthy. We are “creatures of habit” you might say. Being mindful of the needs that our addictions are trying to meet can be an effective tool in dealing with those addictions that are not meeting other needs, and in fact might be life threatening.
All addictions at some point started off as effective strategies to meet needs, based in part on our environment, our genetic make up and our level of knowledge. Probably most alcoholics can remember that first drink when they felt confident or safe or at peace. And maybe the use of alcohol continued to meet those needs and others for years until the habit of drinking became so embedded that the inability to stop drinking or drink in moderation left many other needs unmet. But as the mind goes with what it knows, it thinks that more will meet the needs. It is a logical expectation for the mind until it has other successes to draw upon.
With mindfulness of needs we burrow down and connect with the needs that are alive in us when we want that drink. It may be something as simple as ease and relaxation. It may be some difficult emotion we are having trouble feeling. With practice we can retrain our mind to understand that there are other actions we can take to meet those needs, such as taking a nap or a vacation or talking to a trusted friend. The difficult part will be in rewiring the brain so that it stops thinking about the drink and starts thinking about other alternatives. The first step is to become clear on what needs we are trying to satisfy.
Of course, when it comes to substances like alcohol and drugs, being able to connect to our needs is no easy feat. It’s hard enough sober. But like anything, it can come with practice. Knowing the concept alone is not enough. A new habit of asking yourself what you are needing whenever you feel drawn to action will start to develop this new more conscious and connecting habit. I would also recommend support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or if you are lucky enough to live in a major city Refuge Recovery, a new growing recovery program based upon the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path.
For addictions to food, gambling, smoking or sex, the same simple initial steps apply: Feel the urge, try to guess your needs. But like all forms of awareness, the hardest part can be just being aware. Most of the time we think we are aware, but we are only aware of what we are aware of. Which may be very little.
Awareness is like a muscle that needs to be exercised. The stronger your awareness becomes, the more you can see. Probably the most important frame of mind to improve our awareness is willingness. Just like it takes willingness to go to the gym and exercise, it takes willingness to do the exercises needed to grow our awareness.
Meditation is the classic eastern philosophy practice for increased awareness. In the west, we have the 12 steps, psychotherapy, NVC and dozens of other self help and self healing practices to draw upon. In these, the primary benefit is increased awareness, especially in getting to know ourselves in all our manifestations. This may include what triggers us into reaching for that drink or drug. It may include understanding our childhood and how early life trauma and abuse can contribute to addictive behavior to meet needs for safety and predictability.
It also helps to have understanding. In Buddhism, wisdom is considered the second wing along with compassion. Wisdom can come from self inquiry and from study. When we learn that in fact we do not have to have that drink and that other strategies are available, we start to develop confidence that this is so. I found the more I understood psychology the more compassionate I was towards myself. When I combined this knowledge of how the human psyche works with the information I had about my childhood, it was easy for me to say “Of course I drank! Of course I became a work alcoholic!” All these strategies that at one point caused me shame now became very understandable choices given my circumstances and upbringing.
When we understand ourselves, we are kinder towards ourselves. Understanding is loving. When I love myself, I meet one of my very important needs. When my needs are met, I am less likely to act out in an addictive way. Addictions are tragic compulsive habits to meet needs. But when our needs our met, we will have less use for the habit!
Addictions are also signposts for help. Almost without exception, if we are powerless over an action that causes many other needs to go wanting, there is an underlining reason or cause. (This is called being powerless in the 12 steps.) If we can get to the cause and hold it gently in our awareness, we can often diffuse the need to act out addictively. We can start to heal the underlining wounds cause the discomfort in the first place. Although sometimes the addiction is so deeply rooted as to be our DNA, even then, with enough work we can usually decrease the powerless to a point where we are in choice. The key is awareness of what needs we are trying to meet.
So what are some of the needs we might be trying to meet with certain addictions? Here are a few:
Rest, relaxation, freedom from pain and anxiety, fun, courage, connection, community, mutuality, share reality
Connection, touch, sexual expression
Acceptance, order, success, challenge, learning, accomplishment
Safety, connection, closeness, acceptance, harmony