Healing addiction – de-conditioning the hungry ghosts

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I listened to a podcast by one of my favourite Buddhist teachers, Tara Brach, called ‘Healing additions – de-conditioning the hungry ghosts.’ She talks a lot about food so I decided to take notes!

In Buddhism, there’s an image of ‘hungry ghosts’ – creatures with thin necks and large bellies – symbolising desire that can never be satisfied, the feeling of never having enough or being content. That’s something I can relate to.

Tara explains that when basic needs aren’t met, e.g. safety, love, security, desire gets riveted to something else that is available – in my case food. Whilst meditation won’t get rid of desire it can help us to see it as a habit. It can help us to de-laminate from the desire and meet ourselves with kindness and compassion.

She talks about the three layers of suffering from addiction:

  1. The first is that the fix is temporary and never cures the real, deep need. I get caught in a cycle of craving, reaching for sugar to satisfy the craving, getting a temporary feeling of pleasure which then feeds the cue to binge again and get the reward again.
  2. The second level of suffering is SHAME and SELF-AVERSION which feeds the cycle. This addiction turns me against myself. I hate that it goes against my healthy values and is so visual. It’s obvious when I put weight on. I see myself as fat, lazy and weak-willed and think that everyone else can see that too.
  3. The third layer is not being present and missing out on so much of life being preoccupied with the addiction. It makes me sad when I think of how many moments I waste obsessing about food and thinking that I need it to feel better. All the moments spent feeling like something is missing.

Tara gives the following advice for working with the three layers of suffering:

  • What is the message the shame most needs?
  • How can you work with the shame?
  • Watch the looping and identify the cues. For me it’s loneliness, not feeling seen, not feeling valued or good enough and finding it hard to tolerate difficult feelings at times.
  • When you are wanting a fix, what is it you are really wanting? For me it’s intimacy, closeness, someone to hug, hold my hand or stroke my hair. It’s relief and soothing.
  • Plan ahead -what activity might turn me towards what I really desire? For example before eating the food, read something, send a loving message or email, eat some fresh fruit and yoghurt. If this strategy was to work 50% of the time it would be a big improvement. I think I have the idea in my head that I will just stop one day and that will be it. However if it was that simple, I think I would have done it by now. Instead I think I need to see each day that I don’t binge as an accomplishment.
  • Believing that it’s possible to change and overcome the habit makes it more possible. That belief comes from others – knowing others have walked this path and taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. I’ve been really touched recently by a dharma friend who has opened up so honestly to me about her battle with food. She’s been reminding me that it is possible to overcome on the days that I haven’t been able to hold that belief myself.
  • Whatever we practice is strengthened. Notice the craving, choose to pause and bring tenderness to the parts that are feeling shamed and make fresh choices.

I’ll end with a quote from the Buddha that gives me hope it’s possible to change:

“whatever we frequently think of and ponder, that will become the inclination of our minds.”

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