By Melissa Kulick, Ph.D., RYT
And You? When will you begin that long journey into Yourself?
Happiness is your nature. It is not wrong to desire it.
What is wrong is seeking it outside when it is inside.
- Sri Ramana Maharshi
When children grow up with experiences of trauma or deprivation, it is not uncommon for them to feel an inner emptiness. Confronted with what may be overwhelming negative emotions (sadness, hurt, fear, unworthiness,) and never having had the opportunity to learn healthy “self-soothing,” these individuals adapt by finding or developing more unhealthy coping strategies, including various form of addiction. They learn to search, reach and cling outside themselves to anything that seems to offer some immediate release from their pain.
The word “addiction” comes from the Latin addictus (pp of addictio), meaning an awarding, giving over, devoting or surrendering to. In addiction, we give over to the object of our addiction our power and ability to know we are okay, enough, whole. We actually, unknowingly, surrender our identity.
That being said, it can be argued that we are all addicted in some way. We all have things we can, consciously or not, cling to in order to tell ourselves we are okay in a given moment. We can be addicted to substances (drugs, alcohol, food,) activities (work, shopping, gambling, sex, exercise,) relationships and persons, receiving praise or attention, controlling others, and even to beliefs about ourselves and other internal thought processes (denial, interpreting situations as saying/confirming something negative/shameful about us – as unworthy or stupid.) Yes, we can be addicted to negative thoughts and feelings about ourselves, even addicted to an identity as an addict – as a way of experiencing a known, predictable, solid identity and not having to confront the fear, confusion, groundlessness of not knowing, and the responsibility that comes with accepting our choicefulness.
All addictions arise from the same place within us and all share a common effect. All addictions are (conscious or unconscious) reactive attempts to temporarily reduce, eliminate, or avoid facing and moving through our pain. The result, however, is that they all block in us our ability to open to receiving that which we are, at heart, truly seeking: knowing that we are enough and loved for who we are in any given moment; that we are already whole just as we are.
Well-known spiritual teacher Ram Dass describes the experience addictive behaviors afford as a “short rush” allowing us a “taste of heaven” and “home” but not allowing us to remain because we didn’t get there in a right, real way. There is a yearning to come home, but we continually find ourselves thrown out by the negative self-thoughts and feelings we were trying to avoid in the first place, now seemingly reinforced by our ‘bad’ behavior. In our attempt to fill the whole, we feel it only growing. [For Ram Dass’ full commentary on Attachment and Addiction, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3ixRqOauq4.]
Healing is Making Whole
Eminent Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, in a letter to Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson, described the alcoholic’s craving for alcohol as “the equivalent . . . of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness.” Continued attempts to satisfy the thirst through addictive behaviors, however, render it ultimately unquenchable. As a common AA saying goes, “For an alcoholic, one drink is too many and a thousand is never enough.” In other writings, Jung stated that it is our darkness, our “shadow” aspects that we are compelled to disown, that have the capacity to be our greatest teachers and tools for growth. He wrote that our felt brokenness results from an alienation from who we are. We heal by embracing, not dividing. Healing is making whole.
If the addict’s perceived self is an empty or fragmented self, how does one create a sense of self based in wholeness and fullness?
My teacher, Swami Jaya Devi Bhagavati, was once asked by a student struggling to understand and reconcile the co-existence of God and war, whether God was absent in war. Swami Jaya Devi’s response was that God was present, but that the awareness of God was absent. Another twelve-step saying is that an addict is “not a bad person getting good, but a sick person getting well.” Addicts are not bad or evil people absent good, they have simply lost or lack awareness of their true goodness, leading them to wage the internal war of addiction.
Learning to practice simple awareness – without reactivity – is therefore a vitally important tool in addressing addiction. We need to learn to sit and be and allow a feeling or sensation without jumping to interpretation that something is (or I am) wrong, bad and/or needs to be changed. Awareness, itself, allows for transformation. We give power to a feeling by resisting it. We have already transformed our relationship to it and its power over us by not reacting to it. It no longer needs to be removed in order for us to be whole and okay.
Most people are familiar with the expression, “Whatever we resist, persists.” It is also and perhaps even more accurate to say that it is not so much that we resist things because they are painful, but that they are painful because we resist them. We can transform our experience of, and relationship to, pain. Simple breath meditation – sitting with our eyes closed and following our breath in and out, bringing our attention back to our breath when we become aware our mind has wandered (because it will) – is one way to begin training ourselves in awareness and focus without judgment. Anything that happens inside of us is okay – anything we think and everything we feel. Nothing we think or feel is evidence of our not being enough. And nothing we have done diminishes our wholeness.
The teachings and practices of yoga can be powerful resources on our journey to wholeness and ‘enoughness.’ Yoga literally means “union” and “wholeness of being.” It is designed to “yoke” the practitioner to her or his deepest Self. Yoga is an “eight-limbed path” toward our highest consciousness, toward true contentment and happiness. One of these limbs, pratyahara, most directly addresses addiction. Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the senses, a turning inward. When we practice pratyahara we stop chasing our external sense experiences and focus our attention inside ourselves, directing our energy internally. We practice coming back to center, to our heart. We come home in a way that allows us to stay.
The physical practices of yoga, the asanas (postures) and pranayama (breathwork), are also valuable in cultivating our experience of wholeness. To “practice yoga while you’re practicing yoga” can be a great challenge. It means to be fully present in our body and breath, neither judging nor forcing ourselves beyond what is true and right for our body in that moment. We are given the opportunity to practice awareness and acceptance and ‘enoughness’ on the mat, then bring this experience off the mat and apply it in our everyday lives.
There are also specific practices in yoga that can help move us toward wholeness. Our bodies are energy bodies, with thousands of energy paths running through it. There are seven main energy centers in our physical body, beginning at the base of our spine and moving up to the crown of our head. The second of these energy centers, or chakras, is located low in our abdomen. Correlated with the sex/reproductive organs in our body, the second chakra is also associated with creativity and the element of water. When in balance, we experience ourselves ‘in the flow.’ When out of balance, we have a tendency toward avoiding, controlling or ignoring our feelings. At its extreme, this imbalance leads to self-denial, self-rejection and self-deprivation. When we are blocked in this way, when this flow of receptivity is dammed, we are unable to connect with that which would truly satisfy us. Our ability to enjoy any activity is in direct proportion to how present and open we are to it in the moment.
The second chakra is considered the seat of duality (separation), unworthiness and of addiction. Its name, Svadisthana, means “sweetness” or “one’s own place or base.” Addicts’ external searching is a longing for the elusive sweetness of feeling/ knowing they are finally ‘home sweet home.’ Yoga practices that balance second chakra energy (e.g., Seated Spinal Flex) help bring us home.
“I Am Enough” Meditation
Find a comfortable seated position, lengthen your spine and gently close your eyes. Begin taking full, satisfying breaths, focusing your attention on the sensations of your inhalation and exhalation. After several breaths, bring your focus to the second chakra, low in the abdomen just a few inches above your pubic bone. Imagine you could feel the energy of the breath coming in and out of your second chakra. Allow yourself to feel the flow of that energy. Begin a silent mantra of “I am, therefore I am enough” on each inhale, and “I am, therefore I am enough” on each exhale. Continue this breath for 3-11 minutes. When you feel ready to complete the meditation, bring your attention to the center of the chest, called our spiritual heart. Breathe in and out of your spiritual heart three times repeating, “I am, therefore I am enough.” Know that you are enough, you are home and you can stay. When you are ready, slowly begin to open your eyes.
Addiction – the experience of craving in this way and looking for the ‘quick fix’ in whatever form it takes – is a signal that we are out of balance. One of the ways to approach addiction, therefore, is to seek the experience of balance, rather than reactively seeking the quick (and actually unbalancing) fix. An important element in addressing any addiction, not just food addictions, is to balance our blood sugar. When our blood sugar is out of balance, it typically triggers the feeling of craving and a state of reactivity; the quick fix becomes very hard, if not impossible, to resist. Our ability to be choiceful and response-able is greatly compromised. The best way to balance our blood sugar is to eat three full, satisfying meals at least 3-4 hours apart, with no between-meal snacking. If you feel a strong need for sweet, sugary treat, the best time to have it is as a lunchtime dessert, when it is least likely to have as strong an impact on your blood sugar. Snacking prevents our blood sugar from stabilizing by keeping it in constant movement.
Know that it is absolutely normal to grieve the loss of your addiction; it is like losing your best and most trusted friend. Know, too, that every addict struggles with being present in their bodies, in their lives and in the world. Recovery is a process of developing awareness and acceptance of all that you are, without judgment and reactivity. With this awareness, you begin to confront the truths your addictive behaviors were ‘protecting’ you from, and in so doing you reveal to yourself the truth that you already are, and have always been, whole and enough.
“The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.”
~ Carl Jung
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
”Real healing can begin only when we finally learn to be present in the places where we have been absent.”