Part of the joy (or curse) of being a human being is experiencing addiction.
As our brains have the innate capacity to over-rationalise emotions, so too are we experts at over-inflating our reward centers. Dopamine is a crucial part of the basal ganglia motor loop, responsible for sending messages to various parts of the brain, as well as movement and cognition—but it’s the role dopamine plays in pleasure and motivation that attracts the attention of the mindfulness crowd.
We need food to survive and sex to reproduce. Obtaining either or both releases dopamine, which gives us that feeling of pleasure or satisfaction. As we grow to desire that pleasure or satisfaction, so too do we grow to desire specific dopamine triggers—a perfect catalyst for motivating us towards actions promoting survival.
Unfortunately the world is full of less natural actions and behaviours that trigger an equivalent dopamine release—one that is sometimes even more powerful. These abnormal dopamine triggers can have a negative effect on our lives, as we continue to repeat detrimental behaviours in order to maintain a certain level of satisfaction. Unless we open our awareness and become mindful of these actions, they can easily and subconsciously spiral to levels beyond our control.
At its heart, risk and reward is a process we will never escape—fundamentally it’s how we function during our earthly experience. Human nature favours creativity and innovation—it’s the basis of how we advance, and dopamine rewards this advancement. But to innovate requires risk, so with certain risk comes certain reward. Gambling is a prime example of this: The brain recognises a level of risk, and the greater that risk, the greater the rewards.
There’s a trick addictions play on us: rose-coloured glasses. They shove them on our faces every time they appear. That smell of passing smoke: rose-coloured glasses. Those golden arches late at night: rose-coloured glasses. Those couple of drinks to boost our mood: rose-coloured glasses.
I’m not being a stick in the mud here; life has its fruits. But I’m not talking about apples. Our minds don’t build up imaginary scenarios every time we eat an apple. If we were incessantly disappointed by the anti-climax of apples, we’d stop eating them. Simple. Perhaps oranges are more your thing. But to keep reaching for an apple that doesn’t live up to its hype is an addiction.
An addiction counteracts a week’s worth of certainty in one second. Who’s in control now? We can use our imagination to predict certain outcomes beneficial to our survival, but we can also create imaginary scenarios with an unrealistically inflated sense of reward. These feedback loops can be difficult cycles to break, especially without the help and support of mindfulness. With the foray of addictive substances or chemicals—be it food, or alcohol, or cigarettes, or drugs—we can have trouble distinguishing a mental addiction from a physical one. A physical addiction can be harder to kick, but a mental addiction can stay with us for years.
Unless we take steps to rewire our structure, there will always be dopamine pathways leading to unhealthy habits. To initiate this rewiring process is to cultivate a better understanding of our addiction. Cravings trigger internal sensations of tension; use the associated tensions and anxieties as a basis of mindfulness meditation. Spend a few moments focusing on the breath. As the mind becomes quiet and the body becomes still, awareness of specific tensions arises. These can include the lower back, thigh muscles, shoulders or behind the eyes. Wherever the tension arises—be with it and create peace with it. Battling tension cultivates more tension, creating the perfect fuel for addiction.
The only aim is to understand, and to understand is to be aware. Watch the flow of tension; does it grow heavier or lighter? Does it slowly spread to neighbouring areas, or erratically jump from end to end? Nothing lasts forever—craving tensions included. There will always be peaks, and there will always be troughs. We may experience success with our meditation, or we may only soften the tension slightly. Like building muscles in the gym, persistence is the key—anything worth growing takes time. Know that change can happen, and know that with mindfulness meditation we are on the correct path to remoulding our brains.
As children we experience satisfaction on a smaller plane—running through grass or climbing a tree can bring a profound sense of pleasure. It’s healthy for us to spend time with our minds, to rewire ourselves to bring joy back to the trivial. To feel the crisp air of the morning, the sand on our feet or the salt water on our skin. It takes time to remove the comfort of the known, no matter how bad that habit can be long-term. But the more we remove ourselves, the more we’re surprised—and the more we can again experience that unexpected dopamine hit.
As Ajahn Brahm says, “This too shall pass.”
Author: Lee Charles Walker
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Flickr/Maria Morri