When it comes to the universally-not-so-fun experience of craving, it goes something like this: my old job gave me an iPhone to keep me in the loop, which soon led to the intense pleasure of flicking through the app store and downloading my first version of the game “Angry Birds,” which then sparked more cravings of app-related things.
My phone and I became fast friends—though I was a jealous, needy friend, and kept my iPhone clamped tight to my hip in a pouch, not unlike an old West gunslinger with his colt revolver. Ask my wife about my compulsive phone-checking at the dinner table and you’ll know a bit about what became my addictive cycle of non-work-related phone-fun (and suffering). Whether it be the mindless nudge toward your phone screen, a thick slice of cake, a cigarette, or various substances, craving is familiar to us all.
How the Brain Forms a Habit
Researchers like Judson Brewer at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts have studied the cycle of desire. Brewer and his colleagues have shown how addictions operate through a process of conditioning the brain:
- First, we sense objects of desire around us (e.g. TV, food, phones—selfies!, sex, etc.).
- Second, our brains link these up as either pleasant or unpleasant. We then end up craving the pleasant—even if it’s something like alcohol that, by itself doesn’t at first taste pleasant, we end up craving how it leads to both a pleasurable experience as well as taking away unpleasant things (like sadness or worry).
- Finally, the initial experience of satisfying a craving creates a new memory in the brain. We continue to seek out actions to satisfy the desire and thus an addictive pattern is born.
As Brewer points out in his new book, The Craving Mind, we are never in direct contact with the objects of our desires—only with mental representations of them in our minds. And it’s this fact that holds the promise of freedom from the destructive cycle of craving (particularly at the level of life-bleeding addiction). We can’t change the objects that trigger our desire—those cues will continue unabated and unbidden. But we can change how we relate to our mental experiences of them—the word thoughts, mental images, and bodily sensations of desire. “Craving is the link that is targeted here in cutting through the cycle of dependent origination” writes Brewer and colleagues.
Mindfulness could be the key to cutting the link between conditioned cues of desired objects and the craving that leads to addictive behavior.
Brewer’s research suggests that mindfulness is key to cutting the link between conditioned cues of desired objects and the craving that leads to addictive behavior. “Mindfulness functions to decouple pleasant and unpleasant experiences from habitual reactions of craving and aversion by removing the affective bias that fuels such emotional reactivity.”
Whereas more traditional or “relapse prevention” approaches to treating addictive craving focus on shifting the environment, problem solving, avoiding addiction cues, and boosting positive feelings, mindfulness offers the possibility of severing the cycle at its source in the brain, and treatment outcome studies in areas such as smoking cessation are increasingly bearing out the promise of this approach.
A Mindfulness Practice to Witness Your Cravings
Many modern cars have a navigation (“nav”) system built into them—devices meant to guide us in unfamiliar territory, and help us anticipate what lies ahead. Much like our always-thinking, and often-craving minds, nav systems are representations of reality—thoughts (including desirous ones) are meant to guide us toward something (or somewhere) we want, but they are NOT the real road itself.
With the practice below, you can begin to notice cravings (and mental images and thoughts in general) as mere nudges or cues from your internal nav system. You can learn to consult your nav (because desire isn’t necessarily always bad) when appropriate, and yet keep your focus on the road ahead.
When you find yourself lost in a sea of craving, try the following:
- Find a comfortable stable position, either seated, lying down, or even standing (because craving comes to us in all postures!) and observe the next several breaths.
- Bring your attention to the sensation of breathing, noting the rising of the in-breath and falling of the out-breath for a few moments.
- Acknowledge to yourself, “I’m having the thought that [insert desirous thought].” This will help you step back and watch the craving. Imagine that it’s the voice coming from your nav system—it’s telling you about a possible craving-related experience ahead. You don’t have to go in that direction though. You can simply note what the nav system of your car is saying and sit back and “watch” (the nav and the road!). This is very different than arguing with the craving, or trying to force it away.
- Take another breath and mentally place the thought on the screen (if it’s a mental picture) or imagine it as the voice of the nav system. Vividly imagine the shape, color, size, movement, and sounds of your craving. For a single, full, deep breath, just watch and listen to your craving. No need to debate it. It’s just there. . . . information being delivered to you, not your full reality.
- And now ask yourself: What will happen if I keep staring at the screen of my nav as I’m driving my life? How will things pan out? You’ll, of course, wreck the car! Are you willing to merely consult the nav (the cravings-filled thoughts and images—as we’ve discussed, they may actually be useful). Maybe there’s a wake-up call there as to something that would not just bring your pleasure, but might enliven your life, allow you to enjoy the ride?
- Are you willing to consider this desire in a balanced way? Is it something that makes sense to move toward, or are you feeling driven by it? Are you willing to not just listen to and watch your nav, but also take in the full truth of what’s happening both inside and outside the car—in the world around you? Are you willing to take it all in and then keep driving in a direction that really matters to? Maybe you’d go in the direction the nav points, and maybe not. You—the fully aware driver—get to decide.
The goal with this practice is to shift from a rigid frame of thinking to foster instead a more flexible relationship with your desires. This requires a lot of practice. To be of real benefit, this practice must become a habit. Such a habit will give you a measure of psychological freedom whether it be a mild chocolate impulse or an intense self-destructive urge.
Resilience in the Face of Cravings
When faced with a day’s activities and situations full of temptations (cake, drink, or something more of the libidinal variety), a torrent of thoughts run through the mind: Here we go again . . . I can’t believe I’m about to go down this road again! . . . Why do I always have to do this . . . It’s the weekend, I deserve to indulge . . . I’ll make it my New Year’s Resolution to stop . . . (Add your own examples, perhaps plus an expletive or two).
The pull of cravings (and the disruption this intense desire has on emotional, physical, relational, and perhaps financial well-being) suggests it may be important to get things on a less compulsive, more compassionate, and flexible track. The thoughts and mental images present themselves as real and in need of immediate gratification. “You need this now!” they scream. They often imply an absolute aspect of time with words like “never” and “always.” How effective are you when you get stuck thinking in these ways? Do thoughts infused with these characteristics help or hinder your ability to manage your daily life?
Mindfulness practice helps us learn to go behind the impulse and watch your own thinking, to notice that thoughts come and go on their own
An alternative is to build flexibility into how you relate to your own desirous thoughts. Instead of more junk calories, or another fling within a toxic relationship, what you need is a heaping helping of mindful awareness of thinking—of observing your own thoughts without buying into them as absolute truth or trying to force them away.
Try telling yourself not to think about a thick slice of chocolate cake. Do it right now. Don’t let yourself think about it, not even a little bit! Pointless, right? You can’t force thoughts away, particularly ones with the energy and momentum of desire behind them.
What’s more helpful is to build your capacity to serve as a witness to your own thoughts. Can you notice yourself thinking right now? Pause and try it. Can you observe your own inner voice? The moment you try to do so, you are mindful of your thoughts, instead of being the thoughts. Typically, when we think about something we crave, that thought feels very close, as if it’s inside us, part of who we are. Mindfulness helps us see the thought as merely a moment of information. It’s just a thought. Just one of the thousands our minds churn out on a daily basis.
Mindfulness practice helps us learn to go behind the impulse and watch your own thinking, to notice that thoughts come and go on their own. This sounds simple, yet takes considerable practice. Like bubbles you’ve blown, thoughts are just there. They float around a bit and eventually drift away and pop.
Brewer, Judson et al. (2012). Craving to quit: Psychological models and neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness training as treatment for addictions. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 1-14.
Brewer, Judson (2017). The Craving Mind. Yale University Press.
Harris, Russ (2008). The Happiness Trap. Trumpeter Publishing.
Wilson, Kelly & DuFrane, Troy (2012). The wisdom to know the difference: An acceptance and commitment therapy workbook for overcoming substance abuse. Oakland: New Harbinger.