Which Meditation Method is Best for Addiction?
How different awareness practices can help reduce anxiety & cravings
As an addict who once was unable to stay with her anxiety (or with silence, for that matter) for longer than five seconds; who was controlled by her cravings for one substance too many; and who looked for an escape in every moment, I’d like to share a few important things about which specific meditation techniques helped me the most, and why I think they worked then and continue to now.
I hope they will encourage you to give meditation a try—or to try out a new type of practice—and experience the results for yourself.
Full disclosure: I am not a meditation teacher, or even an advanced meditation student. By a serious meditator’s standards, I’m still a newbie. I first started practicing meditation 10 years ago, starting with a 15-minute-a-day formal practice. Today, my ideal practice is one hour a day, but usually, I manage to do one hour four times a week. Once a year, I attend a ten-day silent meditation retreat. Sometimes, I’ve lapsed in my practice for weeks or months at a stretch—but I’ve always gone back. I’ve gone back because it works. Meditation works for my anxiety, my addictions, and my cravings. Plus, my life just flows better when I meditate on the regular. Here are some insights I’ve gained that help explain why.
I appreciate the fact that when it comes to meditation, there are scores of different methods out there for every taste and every health issue: from quitting smoking to achieving bliss to reducing stress to manifesting your life partner. When I use the term “meditation” in the Sweet Science program, I’m referring to any practice that helps us focus our attention. Some meditation masters I follow are purists when it comes to defining “meditation” and only use it to describe a state of nirvana or enlightenment. I’m more general.
Exploring different types of meditation in addiction recovery
I’ve taken workshops and courses led by meditation masters from India, Taiwan, and the U.S., and have received training in a variety of techniques, including Zen, Dzogchen, transcendental meditation (TM), mindfulness/Vipassana, yogic breathing, and visualization.
After seven years of experimenting, I stopped on Vipassana: a technique in which you learn to observe and accept your emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations, leading to deep personal insights about the nature of your reality.
Eventually, Vipassana is supposed to pave the way to enlightenment. Even though I might not become enlightened anytime soon, this technique has done wonders for me when it comes to understanding my addictions and beating my cravings.
I think of Vipassana as a “reality-based” meditation method. Many methods fall into this category, but they all have one thing in common: they help us observe the reality of our being just as it is—our body, thoughts, and emotions—without adding anything extra, like a mantra, a special sound, an image, counting or controlling our breath, or a guiding voice. While probably all meditation practices aim in some way to calm our minds, let us rest, and help us gain a fresh perspective, these things are simply a preparation in reality-based practices, they’re not the main event.
In Vipassana, the true goal is to remove the cause of all suffering: craving. (This concept goes by many names, also including desire and attachment. Because Sweet Science deals so centrally with concepts related to food and addiction, I like to use the word craving.) Craving can only be removed by: 1) calming and focusing our mind, and 2) observing our reality and accepting it moment by moment. The article The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation explains this process in more depth, if you’re interested.
The meditation techniques that worked for me
As an addict, my sole mission since I was little was to run away and disconnect from reality because it was too painful. This is where Vipassana has helped me tremendously.
I avoided all the bad feelings that came with reality—the terror, anxiety, depression, anger, and sadness—and clung to all the good feelings (fleeting as they were) of being high. I would get high on alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, sugar, romance, and even escaping to “fantasy land” (my very first drug of choice, adopted when I was about seven years old). I craved and craved and craved, consuming anything that met my appetite in the moment, and hiding from anything that brought me back to my unthinkable reality.
What was important for me to learn in order to stop this cycle of addiction was how to begin to observe the reality of all my thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations—without judgement. This is why, I realized, methods like TM and visualization didn’t work for me long-term. They added something else to my reality—a mantra, an image—instead of helping me get adjusted to and feel grounded in what I was already experiencing. Practicing these forms of meditation, for me, just became another type of escapist high.
I do believe that TM and similar techniques can help calm the mind when one’s anxiety is simply too strong to make dealing with reality possible. (This was definitely the case for me at the beginning, when my body would literally begin to shake when I would try to stay present.) Different methods work for different people, and I would never gainsay the success anyone experiences with the meditation type of their choice. But my experiments led me to settle on reality-based methods that make me feel more grounded and alert, and more willing to try and take the next steps: staying ever more present with my anxiety, developing the ability to face it ever more fully, and allowing that ability to let me shed my cravings.
Today, although I believe I will always possess the brain of an addict, I am able to stay with my difficult feelings for long stretches of time. It can still be uncomfortable or even painful, but given that I couldn’t be with them for even five seconds when I started meditating ten years ago, it’s brilliant progress.
As a result of this “staying power,” I spend less time being an addict, escaping, and craving. I spend more time living in the present moment, seeing negative things for what they are, and then letting them go—without running away, covering them up, or getting high on alcohol, sugar, or fantasies (or even just eating something, even something healthy!, when I’m not actually hungry).
There are many reality-based meditation techniques out there. I encourage you to seek some out and try a few on for size. They are easy to identify because—like a good fruit bake—there is nothing extra being added. They are simple, easy to understand, and easy to follow. Here’s a good primer on Insight Meditation from Spirit Rock Meditation Center that can help you get a feel for the simplicity and power of reality-based awareness techniques.
Clearly, meditation is important to me! I’d love to know what you have to say about it, too.
What different types of meditation have you tried? Did any help you to break your addictive patterns?
Add your thoughts in the comments below. If you’d like to talk about how establishing a meditation practice can help you make the most of your sobriety, go on and schedule your free 15-minute chat with me.