Overcoming Cravings With Mindfulness
by Jessica Graham
(Watch this video for a very truncated version of the practice described here. And then come back and read the article.)
I love popcorn. I have a special pot I use to cook up huge amounts of it, and a special bowl I like to eat it out of. I cook it in coconut oil and then add salt and nutritional yeast. I can eat a lot of popcorn. I also love movies and I, like many others, associate popcorn with viewing films. They just go together so dang well. But I’ll eat it as a snack anytime. I don’t need to be at the movies or on my couch with Netflix. I would go so far to say I have a wee bit of a problem with popcorn. I get serious popcorn cravings and become quite disappointed when I find I’ve run out or only have enough for a small potful. I have a big aversion to small portions of popcorn or sharing a too small bowl. I love popcorn so much that I used to tell an old girlfriend of mine that I loved her more than popcorn (let me tell you, that meant I loved her a lot.) When I once had an online dating profile, my love of popcorn was included in the ‘“about me” section.
So, you can imagine my utter dismay when I found out that because of some health issues I can no longer eat popcorn. Yep, that’s right, for foreseeable future I will not be gorging myself on the delicious salty treat that I hold so deep in my heart. This actually makes me feel a special kind of popcorn grief, a slight tightening in the chest and a little quiver in the belly. And watching others eat it, well let’s just say my heart breaks a tiny bit with each crunch I hear. But to eat it would cause moderate discomfort for days and as much as I love it I’m not too big on dysfunctional relationships anymore. Lucky for me I have a meditation practice that helps me overcome my cravings and keep my belly happy.
My practice has helped me with all kinds of cravings and aversions over the years. Meditation helped me quit drinking, quit smoking, and stop eating crappy food. It has also helped me get over my aversion to exercise which led to me loving a good, sweaty workout on a regular basis. Meditation also extinguished my craving for unhealthy relationships which was a game changer for a girl who had a history of broken dishes, filing restraining orders, and piles of personal items on the sidewalk in front of her house. All in all meditation has been a tremendously powerful antidote to craving and aversion in my life.
In Buddhism there is a lot of talk about craving and aversion and how they lead to suffering. In my experience this tends to be true for the most part. Let’s take quitting smoking for example. You want to quit smoking because cancer runs in your family and you’d prefer not to die young. Plus your girlfriend is on your case about it because she is hoping to be a great-grandparent with you one day. So you smoke the last one in your pack and crumple the empty case, saying good riddance. Then about a half an hour you start to feel edgy and tense. You mind begins to tell you what a good idea a cigarette would be just about now. Those thoughts set off a serious craving in your body. Your chest aches, your stomach is in knots, you want to peel your skin off. The sound of your girlfriend talking on the phone in the next room feels like nails in your ear drums and you decide you should probably break up with her. You don’t like how you feel. You are having an aversion to the craving for a cigarette. You are suffering big time.
There are three options. 1. Get in your car, drive as fast as you can to the 7-11, buy a pack of cancer sticks, and smoke baby, smoke. 2. White knuckle it for as long as you can, hoping you can get past the two week mark when they say it gets a little easier. But during that time you will most likely get in multiple fights with your well-meaning girlfriend, eat way too much sugar which leads to putting back on the weight you’d fought so hard to drop, and generally feeling like a stinky lump of raw emotional nerves and irrational irritation. 3. You take up a mindfulness practice and kick craving and aversion to the curb, while skipping the sugar binge, the extra weight, and the pointless arguments with your sweet-as-pie lady friend.
I don’t know about you, but I think option three is looking pretty good. It won’t have the immediate relief that giving into the craving will, but it also won’t be followed with the guilt and disappointment about letting that monkey onto your back again. It may feel like “more work” than white knuckling it, but come on, is that really true? Think of all the work it will take to repair your relationship, give up your new sugar addiction, and lose that weight again. When you think of it that way, meditation becomes the easier, softer way to quit smoking.
You can apply this smoking scenario to whatever craving you are working with. When you are changing a behavior or breaking an addiction both craving and aversion will surely arise. If you have an arsenal of mindfulness tools at your disposal navigating the mental and emotional experience will be much less overwhelming. The odds of sticking with your positive change will increase greatly. This is made possible through your ability to mindfully deconstruct the craving and aversion in the moment.
Craving and aversion are made of two things; thoughts and emotional sensations. That’s it. When you fully accept this, your craving for that chocolate mocha layer cake and aversion to the experience of not eating it, become much like the Great Wizard of Oz. Meditation allows you to looks behind that curtain to find that your all powerful need to smoke, or eat junk food, is just a tiny man man pulling some levers. Thoughts and emotions, which seem so huge and so personal are actually transient and impermanent illusions. Once you learn to deconstruct and witness the thinking and emotional system it loses it’s power to dominate you. You no longer need to act on each whim and fancy this system wants you to. Over time the system will start to rewire itself and it won’t tell you to do things that aren’t in your best interest. If it goes off the rails now and then—telling you, for example, how great that emotionally unavailable bass player would be in bed—you won’t have to listen.
The craving and aversion related to quitting an unhealthy habit can be very overwhelming. This is because the thoughts and emotions regarding the habit get all tangled up in a knot. The mind is saying I must drink that 20 oz cherry Coke and showing you images of the carbonated sugar sludge. The body is tightening and twisting in response to the thoughts, which then creates more thoughts, and more emotions, and so on. Meditation can help you to separate the thoughts from the emotions and deconstruct the whole shebang.That way they are no longer in a big, overwhelming knot that pushes you to do the thing you no longer want to do. Meditation will also show you that every craving, no matter how intense, has a beginning and an end. It will not go on forever. It may come back up, but if you stay with it in a mindful way it will once again shrink back down and disappear. You can track the expansion and contraction of each craving and the aversion that arises to that experience. This allows you to break the shackles of addiction and negative behavior patterns. You are essentially set free.
The first step in getting this kind of freedom is to learn to meditate on the thoughts and emotions. This is something you should do every day for at least 10 minutes and also when a craving arises. Here’s how to do it or watch this video for a guided version.
Set a timer take a comfortable seat, and relax from your head to your toes. Now place your attention on the area where mental talk arises, for most people it’s in the head region. When you notice some thoughts coming up try labeling them “Talk” and then just listen. Not to the content of the thought, but rather to the activity of the thinking. How loud is it? What is the pace and pitch? What part of the head or body is it coming from. With this technique you will never be trying to “quiet” your mind, or change the thoughts. You are simply witnessing the arrival and departure of each thought. Notice, all thoughts eventually pass, even the ones that seem ultra important the way a craving or aversion can. You can observe mental images the same way. Try labeling them “Image” and then just watch the imagery come and go. If you find that you are pulled into the images or words (which you almost definitely will be), without judgement, pop back to observing.
After a few minutes of that move your attention to your body. Start to scan through the body to see if there are any emotional sensations present. You may want to pay special attention to your face, throat, chest, and stomach. This is where people generally report experiencing emotional sensations. When you notice something that seems emotional, plant your attention there and feel the sensation. Explore all aspects of the sensation with your physical awareness, letting go of any resistance and allowing it to be just as it is. If you’d like you can label the sensation “Emotion” as you deeply feel it. Does the sensation vibrate, expand or contract? Is it warm or cool? How big is it? If you are not aware of any sensations that seem emotional, just explore what you can feel in your body. Your breath, your heartbeat, the feeling of your butt on the chair or cushion, any pain or itches, and any feelings of relaxation or pleasure. If you become aware of something that seems emotional bring your attention to that area of the body. It’s okay to guess if a sensation is emotional. As Michael Taft says in The Mindful Geek, you won’t go to meditation hell for getting it wrong.
Now allow your attention to free float between all three, mental talk, images, and emotional sensations. Be sure to know which one you are paying attention to. Stay clear and sharp as you explore the thinking and emotional system. When the timer goes off take three deep breaths, sighing out loud on the exhale. Then take a moment to rest your attention on something that feels good or neutral in the body. And you’re done!
If you practice this technique every day for even a few weeks you will find that your relationship to thoughts and emotions begins to change. Once you’ve become comfortable with the technique you can start to practice “in action.” That means using the technique during your day, especially when an instance of craving or aversion arises. The more you practice the better you’ll be at this, just like learning a language or an instrument. While this does take work, remember the alternative is not that great. And if you have an aversion to meditating, guess what? That aversion also comes in the form of thoughts and emotions and you know what to do with those.
If you are recovering from a hard drug or a pharmaceutical addiction, detox, a temporary replacement drug, or slow withdrawal may be required. In cases like this a meditation practice will absolutely help, but can’t be your only support. There are purely physical aspects that may need to be addressed by a professional for your health and safety. With that said, a meditation practice will make the other interventions much more likely to lead to long term recovery.
I’ve been practicing this technique every day for about 8 years. At this point it’s pretty much automatic. It doesn’t feel clunky or awkward anymore, it’s fully integrated in my life. It’s part of how I interact with myself and the world. Kind of like cell phones. When they first hit the market they were obtuse and novel. Now we are not many years away from these devices being implanted in our brains. Whether or this give you chills of excitement or chills of terror, technology is on the move. I think of meditation as a kind of biological technology. As my practice improves and develops I can depend more and more on it to kick in as needed.
So this week when I had a movie night with friends and when the popcorn (my version of a crack pipe) was being passed around it was no big deal. I noticed the slight tightening in my chest and quiver in my belly. I noticed a thought or two about how maybe it would be different this time, and just a little wouldn’t hurt. And then I moved on to laughing with my friends while we watched Amy Schumer get drunk and have sloppy sex with strangers. I didn’t need the popcorn to have a good time and I didn’t have a problem with my friends enjoying it in front of me. I’ve been through this with drinking, smoking, eating gluten (Oh how I miss pizza though), dysfunctional relationships, and a slew of other things that stopped working for me. It does take work but it’s so worth it to have a healthy, happy body and an awake mind. If I can do it you can too.
One of the important insights that will come from practicing this technique is that you are not your thoughts or emotions. How could you be if you are able to observe them? This insight is the beginning of spiritual awakening. It will point to what you really are, in all your vastness and beauty. You will begin to gain access to the depths of your unconscious, unravelling the knots of belief, preference, and of course craving and aversion. You will find that you have had an almost adorably limited view of what it is to be be You. Suffering will become optional as you effortlessly ride the waves of existence, free from struggle. Life will become an endless adventure, occurring moment by glorious moment.
This is the long game. For now, you can get some relief from craving and aversion and find a little more ease in life. The rest? Don’t take my word for it. Find out for yourself.
Watch this video for a guided version of the meditation in this article.
Jessica Graham is a meditation teacher, sex, relationship, and spiritual guide for couples and individuals, speaker, and author of Good Sex: Getting Off Without Checking Out. She is a contributing editor for Deconstructing Yourself and her work is featured on many apps including; Simple Habit, Wise@Work, Emjoy, Breethe, and Sanity & Self. Jessica is also an award-winning actor and filmmaker. Connect with Jessica on Instagram and at yourwildawakening.com.
Find all of Jessica’s DY articles here.
Read more about working with addiction and craving.