Mindfulness versus Addiction Cravings

Beer bottles Koh Samed

“A craving is like that loudmouth in an oar-less boat. Instead of choosing to fight this urge, I can just view it from the sidelines.”

Part Four of the Mindful Path from Addiction to Serenity Series

I’m putting together an eBook for people interested in using mindfulness to overcome addiction problems. I will be giving this book away for free on my website. I’ll also share the chapters on here as I write them. Here is part four in the series – you will find links to earlier posts at the end of this one.

There were many mornings when I woke up determined not to drink yet would end up necking bottles before noon. I always felt defeated when this happened, but there was a sense of inevitability about it too.

My repeated failures turned me into a fatalist. I felt at the mercy of my own brain. All I could do was wait for the mental conditions to improve – even though I had no idea how this could happen. I was like a guy spending all his day lying on his sofa hoping his body would magically transform so he feels fit enough to go to the gym.

I would try to put up a fight against cravings by using one of the following defenses:

• I would try to reason with them
• I would distract myself
• I would bully myself not to give into them

I had varying success with these tactics, but they were very ‘hit and miss’. My reasoning ability diminished in the midst of craving, and bullying myself could actually make things worse – I’d then feel bad about myself and use this as an excuse to drink.

Distraction could work in the short-term, but it took constant effort to keep my mind on other things. By running away from cravings like this, it also made them appear far more threatening – by choosing distraction, I was reinforcing the idea that I couldn’t cope with cravings.

The days when I found it easiest to manage these urges was when I was too sick to drink. Once there was no possibility of giving in, I no longer had to fight them. It took me a long time to realize the significance of this. The problem was never the cravings but how I related to them.

I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to illness, but I mostly just get on with things. I know there is not much I can do about the discomfort in my body, and so I simply accept it. The exact same applies to a craving, and these urges only have as much power as I give to them.

Cravings were hard for me to deal with so long as I continued to try to fight them. This battle took the form of a ‘will I/won’t I’ debate. The ‘Will I’ side of my thinking had deviousness and a massive amount of habit energy on its side – as well as the trump card ‘you can always try again tomorrow’. The ‘won’t I’ side was at a great disadvantage because it relied on rational arguments that didn’t appear so convincing in the midst of a bout of cravings.

The Mindful Art of Not Fighting Cravings

“I call it, the art of fighting without fighting”
Bruce Lee

There is an encounter in the movie Enter the Dragon that highlights a different way of dealing with cravings. The scene takes place on a ship where a loudmouth is trying to pick a fight with Bruce Lee. This bully questions the hero about his fighting style and demands a demonstration.

Bruce explains to the tough guy that he practices the art of ‘fighting without fighting’ and suggests that they take one of the small boats and row to a nearby island where they can do battle. The loudmouth is happy to agree to this, but when he gets into the boat, Bruce pushes the craft into the sea without any oars for the guy to control it.

A craving is like that loudmouth in an oar-less boat. Instead of choosing to fight this urge, I can just view it from the sidelines. In much the same way I can observe an itch without scratching it. Facing a craving like this means it no longer appears so threatening. I see it is only a temporary visitor in my mind that will eventually run out of steam.

Urge Surfing

G. Alan Marlatt was a professor of psychology at the University of Washington who specialized in relapsed prevention. He devised a mindfulness technique known as urge surfing. I only found out about this technique after I got sober, but it is similar to how I learned to deal with cravings.

A craving is like a wave in the ocean that starts off small, gets bigger and bigger, before crashing on the shore. An urge only appears in your mind for a limited time-period (usually around 20 minutes), and this knowledge can give you the courage to just surf it mindfully.

I like the image of surfing a craving, and it can actually become a fun thing to do.

The Need for a Clear Vision with Mindfulness

I started using mindfulness for cravings a few years before I finally quit for good. Stopping became much easier when I used this tool, but there is far more to overcoming an addiction than overcoming initial cravings. It wasn’t until I experienced how much better things could be for me when I applied mindfulness to every area of my life that permanent change became possible.

In order to avoid the ‘will I/won’t I’ battle that was so much a part of my cravings, I needed arguments supporting my recovery that were unbeatable. Vague hopes and fears just weren’t going to cut it. I had to accept alcohol had nothing more to offer me, but that the peace of mind I had always yearned for would be possible by choosing a different path.

Do Addiction Cravings Go Away?

I haven’t had a craving for alcohol in almost nine years, so they definitely can go away. Sometimes these urges do stick around. I know guys who have been sober for decades, and they still get and occasional urge to drink, but they find it easy to dismiss these thoughts. During the nineties, I stopped drinking for two years, and the cravings never really went away.

I suspect mindfully observing cravings greatly increases the likelihood of them disappearing for good. I can’t remember who originally used this metaphor, but it is like giving food to wild cats. So long as you go on feeding them, these cats will keep on coming back. Mindfully observing cravings means you are offering no nutrition to this visitor – the urge is likely to keep returning in the short-term, but it will eventually lose interest.

Stay Tuned for the Next Post – Mindfulness for the Ups and Downs of Early Recovery

Part 1 – The Mindful Path from Addiction to Serenity
Part 2 – Why Mindfulness Makes the Perfect Replacement for Addiction
Part 3 – How Mindfulness Works

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