We all have a relationship with addiction.
Whether we’ve taken life to its limits with alcohol or drugs or use coffee and work (or exercise, gaming or food) to numb feeling, it’s a rare soul who hasn’t felt the sting of addiction.
For 20 years of my life, I lived with bulimia, alternately binging and restricting my eating.
While disordered eating looks different from substance addiction, the same energy of contraction and self-denial fuels them both.
In my eyes, an eating disorder is an addiction, either to food or to a specific cycle of struggle. Obsession with eating and body image ruled my world, so much that nothing else—none of the bizarre, beautiful chaos of real life—could really touch me.
In my own process of recovery, I began to see how ubiquitous addiction is. It’s not just the plight of hard drug users in abandoned buildings. It belongs to all of us.
As I learned to open my heart wider to real contact with life, I learned that recovery is a deep and true spiritual path—one that takes us face-to-face with all we long to hide from.
Addiction begins as a response to pain that our bodies just don’t know how to integrate. When we can’t cope, we do the next best thing: We leave our bodies. We dissociate and shut down aspects of our somatic and emotional experience. In that numb space, we experience emptiness and a gnawing hunger. And in that hunger arises addiction, compulsion and obsession.
Once the addictive patterning gets integrated into our lives, its fundamental action is turning away from experience. It can be very subtle.
It points to those parts of ourselves we’d rather kill than face.
Addiction is violent. Deep down, it is saying “no” to the experiences that we’re having: “No, I can’t feel this!” Through subtle or gross means it compels us to leave our bodies and cease the feeling.
Addiction and the Heart of Awakening.
What does this have to do with awakening, anyway?
In my view, everything.
Healing and awakening are nothing more than learning to embrace ourselves, layer by layer. Learning to say yes to it all—saying yes to the depths of sorrow so we can receive the heights of joy. Dissolving the blocks so that experience flows through us, opening us up to the crisp, clear bite of what is real—to the honey of each small taste of life.
Systematically saying yes to more and more of reality is nothing more than the heart of awakening. Those of us lucky enough to be addicts practically have giant neon arrows guiding our way forward.
Here’s my story—
I struggled for most of my life with bulimia. Sometimes I still struggle with food, using it to numb when I feel overwhelmed.
At best, though, the urge to eat when I’m not physically hungry serves as a huge, in-my-face signal that there’s something else going on that needs my attention. It’s like having a live-in therapist or guru.
When the overwhelming urge to do my addictive thing arises—when it feels like my body has gotten hijacked and I find myself on auto-pilot reaching for the cake or whatever—it’s like a slap in the face letting me know I have a choice. Either I do the habitual thing (which is okay, too) or I slow down and get intimate with the fine-grained texture of my experience.
Oh, God, it’s a gnawing, awful feeling! But the more I practice sticking with that awful feeling, the more it blossoms into something wider and more free.
We practice with addiction by slowing down enough to feel the underlying urge. To simply be with it, to listen to it, to cradle it like a crying baby. Through choosing over and over to be with the urge, to stay with ourselves in that fire, life begins to open up.
Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron talks about this in her article, How We Get Hooked and How We Get Unhooked. She calls the urge beneath addictions “Shenpa,” which roughly translates to “stuckness” or “hookedness” or “attachment.” She writes that meditation practice is vital in learning to slow down enough to see and feel the urge instead of acting it out.
Chodron sums it up this way:
“We could think of this whole process in terms of four R’s: recognizing the shenpa, refraining from scratching, relaxing into the underlying urge to scratch and then resolving to continue to interrupt our habitual patterns like this for the rest of our lives. What do you do when you don’t do the habitual thing? You’re left with your urge. That’s how you become more in touch with the craving and the wanting to move away. You learn to relax with it. Then you resolve to keep practicing this way.”
Practicing this way is really effing hard, and feels impossible at times. It’s a hard-knock path that we didn’t choose. Over time and with patience, the addictive urge can transform from a painful, contracted seed of self-destruction into a life-affirming guide to waking up.
This life is short, and I want to live it.
Author: Myriam Maida
Apprentice Editor: Terese Keehan / Editor: Toby Israel