HOW "ADDICTION" AFFECTS US ALL
Episode 21: So many are quick to dismiss addiction as something that only affects other people. But could more subtle forms of addiction be keeping millions of us trapped in habits and behaviors that have devastating consequences for ourselves as well as those we love? You might be surprised.
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"He who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered his very own self is mightiest of all."
Welcome to Real Yoga, a podcast dedicated to helping you use yoga's ancient wisdom to unlock your life of radical happiness, connection and meaning. Right here, right now. I'm your host, Eric Walrabenstein, and I'm glad you're here.
This is a quote attributed to Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism. And it points to one of the most critical pieces to a life well lived. That is to say a life of joy and clarity and inspiration and meaning.
And that critical piece is: Self-mastery. Or we could also say self-control.
I mean, think about. Nearly everything that adds up to an amazing life is predicated on our ability to control our thoughts, our words, and our actions.
The ability to control the kinds of foods that we eat, foods that nourish us instead of deplete us. To choose activities that serve our health and wellbeing, like exercise or inspired creativity. To be able to choose to fill ourselves full of nurturing thoughts and feelings that elevate us.
And on the other side of that coin, to be able to restrain ourselves when experiencing anger or impatience or fear.
Indeed, there can be really no argument. Self control is crucial to our happiness. And that's true for each and every one of us. And that's why this week inside the online Bright Life Yoga Collective, we've been exploring the number one enemy of self control: Addiction.
The fact is that addiction is the mortal enemy of your joyful and successful life. And to be clear, that's true. Even if you think addiction has absolutely nothing to do with you. And I'll say that again. And that's true even if you think addiction has absolutely nothing to do with you.
And that's because whether we know it or not, the forces that fuel addiction, in so many forms, are 100% in operation in all of our lives.
And while it may be true that most of us aren't in danger of being dragged into full blown addiction, nearly all of us experience significant amounts of totally unnecessary suffering as a result of these forces.
It's here that I'll invite us all, for at least our time together today, that whenever we hear the word addiction, to put down whatever current definition that may be floating in our heads.
And instead just think of the loss of self control.
The loss of self control that can leave you drinking more than you know you should. The loss of self control that can leave you eating in ways that are depleting your energy or your health. The loss of self-control that has you snapping at your kids and partner when you know it's not helpful.
Or even procrastinating in a way that blocks you from pursuing your heart's desire.
Because again, the underlying forces that fuel full on addiction are the same ones that challenge us all. In fact, they are normal and natural instincts.
If you want to understand addiction, you first need to understand something about human nature.
Now, back in episode 18, The Power of Desire, we saw how human beings are instinctually driven to avoid discomfort. We could also say that discomfort is the biological lever that Mother Nature uses to get us to do what she needs us to do.
The discomfort of Hunger prompts us to eat. The discomfort of loneliness prompts us to seek companionship. And the discomfort of anxiety prompts us to seek security.
This really is the natural order of things, and in the vernacular of my Bright Life program, we would say: discomfort drives action.
But today we want to put a finer point on things and contrast the normal functioning of this instinct with its dysfunctional counterpart.
So, let's start with how things are intended to work.
In three little words they are, FEEL, THINK, DO.
Wherein we FEEL an uncomfortable feeling, say like hunger.
We then THINK, and a brain determines that this feeling is hunger and to alleviate it, we should eat something.
And then we DO whatever the brain has determined is the best course of action to get relief from the discomfort. In this case, grab a bite to eat.
So, that's the natural cycle, FEEL, THINK, DO.
Now, where things go wrong is when this normal and natural process, again of FEEL, THINK, DO, becomes altered, and it's the second step, the THINK step that so often gets diminished or left out altogether.
In this case, we FEEL the uncomfortable feelings, but due to habit, or in full-blown addiction where the prefrontal cortex of the brain is actually changed, in that case, it's due to diminished cognitive capacity, but whatever the reason...
The THINK step becomes lessened, and we are simply left to react to the uncomfortable feelings without that critical stage.
So, instead of the natural FEEL, THINK, DO process, I'm left with a truncated process of FEEL, DO or as we say in BrightLife: "Feel This" where "this" is the uncomfortable feeling; and "Do That" where "that" is the activity or substance that I've become habituated in using to get relief from the discomfort.
What all of this means is, that if I've become habituated to eat as a way to get relief from anxiety, or to drink as a way to soothe my stress and overwhelm, or even even to snap at my loved ones, to soothe my anger...
That's what I end up doing. I eat, I drink, I snap, or any number of other unhelpful behaviors automatically as if on autopilot.
Understanding this, it becomes clear how so many struggle with cravings and addiction—sometimes for life. And it's because one part of their brain is working against another part of their brain.
It's the instinctual part of the brain that just wants the uncomfortable feelings gone now, versus the cognitive part of the brain that knows that the eating, or the drinking, the using, or whatever the habituated activity is, it recognizes that it's not good in the long run.
It's a little like having two captains on a steamship...
A bad captain: this is the instinctual part who is concerned only with the short-term goal of getting relief from the uncomfortable feelings like craving or anxiety or doubt or desire.
And then there's the good captain: this is the rational part of you that relies on the prefrontal cortex, or what psychologists call executive function, to consider consequences, plan and make sound and well considered decisions.
And the whole problem is that the good captain and the bad captain, they trade off watches.
The bad captain, who is only concerned with his immediate discomfort, wants to sail with the waves completely ignoring this takes him directly towards stormy waters.
So when he's on watch, he sails North towards a loss of self control and addiction.
Now, on the other hand, the good captain who has his eyes on a destination of lasting joy and happiness, he understands that it's sometimes necessary to endure a bit of discomfort by sailing against the waves in exchange for a long-term payoff.
So when he's on watch, he sails South. Towards self-mastery and confidence and meaning.
Then, of course, because they're trading off, their efforts cancel out and they get nowhere.
But it gets even worse because the good captain, that rational part of your brain who wants so badly to sail south to the warm placid waters of self mastery, he gets filled with regret and frustration and shame about leaving the bad captain in charge and his good intentions actually begin to tire him out, and he takes shorter and shorter watches.
This allows the bad captain to sail north even further toward the stormy cold waters of loss of self control and addiction. This even further frustrates it exhausts the good captain and on and on it goes.
This is the losing battle against cravings and addiction.
Of course, we don't really have captains in our brains. They're really just mental patterns. Something called samskaras in yoga. The instinctual samskaras that drive us to strive for immediate relief from discomfort. and the rational samskaras that are more concerned with the long-term consequences and our long-term wellbeing.
But here's what you really want to know.
The instinctual patterns are typically much stronger than the patterns that fuel the rational thought. This is why so many of us struggle to free ourselves from unhealthy habits, sabotaging tendencies, and yes, even addictions.
And it's all because we've been taught that if we're just strong enough or persistent enough or committed enough, we'd be able to take back control.
But here's what the ancient Yoga Masters would want you to know about that. Willpower will never set you free.
With willpower being a completely impotent strategy, at least when used by itself, it's no wonder that so many struggle for their entire lives.
And it all points to the real secret to our self-mastery and a life of the ease and confidence and joy and creativity that come with that. And that secret is to understand that we need not fight cravings and addiction nearly as much as we need to outsmart them.
The fascinating thing is that those two parts of your brain, the good captain and the bad captain, they're both reacting to the exact same thing, discomfort. Or as we could also say, the uncomfortable feelings of urges or cravings or other troubling emotions.
It's just that the more powerful instinctual patterns are shortsightedly concerned with getting relief now, with no consideration of the long-term consequences. Consequences, by the way, that can so easily trap us in strong habituated reactions in the best case, and full blown addiction in the worst.
But it's not all doom and gloom because it's here that we find ourselves with actually really good news.
Namely, it's that the brain is a programmed and programmable mechanism. That is to say, these patterns in the brain, the samskaras that fuel out-of-control, cravings, and addiction...well, they can be changed. The ancient yoga masters knew it, and now modern science agrees.
And this is exactly how we stop fighting cravings and addiction, all the while getting our clocks cleaned for the effort, to outsmarting addiction and truly taking back our power.
When we recognize from a practical perspective that the brain is merely reacting to uncomfortable feelings like urges, cravings, and emotions, our path to freedom becomes clear.
We could either decrease the frequency and intensity of those uncomfortable feelings so we're no longer triggered, or we can increase our capacity to remain relaxed and undisturbed by those same feelings when they do arise.
And of course, ideally we would do both.
Which is exactly what we're laser focused on in my BrightLife program for Craving and Addiction, but more on that another time.
For today, I'd like to end with an invitation: if you are finding yourself struggling with out-of-control cravings, or addiction, or even wrestling with diminished self-control in regards to habits or behaviors, or even patterns of thinking...
You are not damaged or deficient or weak—and certainly not powerless.
You are strong enough and smart enough to regain control so you can live a life of freedom and ease that you deserve.
It's just about working smarter, rather than just harder when it comes to defeating the forces that are arrayed against you. Or perhaps said better, within you.
And don't forget that the investment in your self, in the nourishment of your nervous system, in the work to make lasting and positive changes in your patterns of habit, and in your commitment to your own life of joy and meaning that you came here to live.
These are not really investments merely in yourself.
They're investments in the whole of life that have far reaching ripples for your family, for your friends, and, for the world.
Well, that's all the time we have for today. I hope our conversation here has delivered an insight or two about how you can invite more self-mastery and the attendant joy it brings into your life.
As always, thanks for listening and please remember that this podcast and so much of what I do is made possible only by the generosity of listeners like you.
So please, if you can support me over on my Patreon page, and when you do, I'll gift you with some of my most powerful yoga practices and guided meditations as my personal. Thank you. You can check it out now at www.patreon.com/ericwal, and of course, don't forget to hit subscribe so you don't miss out on future episodes.
Finally, if these kinds of teachings are something you would like more of in your life, consider joining us. In the online Bright Life Yoga Collective where each week you'll join me to go even deeper with this ancient wisdom. Plus, you'll get weekly yoga and meditation practices to transform your yoga practice and your entire life.
Learn more at my website. At www.ericwal.com. Thanks again, and remember, I'm here to help, so let me know how I can serve you. Wishing you all the best, and I look forward to seeing you next time.