Addiction has become so widespread throughout the United States that the president has declared a national public health emergency.
According to the New York Times, deaths from drug overdoses in 2016 reached 64,000, while a Whitehouse email sent across the nation in September of 2018, stated that the number of American deaths from drug overdose rose to 72,000 in 2017.
Death from addiction is certainly extreme, yet in a society where people are disconnected, glued to cell phones, and facing vast and complex unknowns, just about anyone is vulnerable to the potential of developing addictions; whether through technology, shopping sprees, or drugs and alcohol.
In journalist Johann Hari’s popular Ted Talk ’Everything you think you know about addiction in wrong,’
Hari states that, contrary to the medical model that proclaims the cause of addiction as genetics or chemical brain imbalances, the realities of our personal experiences and social circumstances are the real contributors to this modern epidemic.
While contemporary culture experiences extraordinary advances in science and technology, we have concurrently normalized hyper-individualism and isolation to a degree that has never before been experienced throughout human history. The resulting culture of addiction can be compared to one of the Six realms of the Buddhist Circle of Life called the hungry ghost.
Hungry ghosts are creatures with huge bellies and tiny, straw-like mouths. They exist in the hell realms because they experience a perpetual craving or starvation that can never be fully satisfied no matter how much they consume. We can parallel the image of the hungry ghost with the heroin or sex addict, the woman obsessed with diets and cosmetic surgery, or the Wall Street broker. Each of them is caught in endless cycles of needing more.
So how do we fix this social mess?
While differences may exist in our understandings and models of the nature of addiction and its treatment, there is a practice that remains outside of controversy and has proven effective in the process of recovery from addiction; the practice of mindfulness.
What is mindfulness?
To be mindful is to bring conscious and purposeful attention to the present moment without judgment, whatever the moment brings. It is, in essence, the opposite quality of addiction, which is a drive to avoid the present, and especially the uncomfortable feelings that inevitably arise in daily life.
Addictions are oftentimes perpetuated through unconscious behavior patterns triggered by fear, stress, and anxiety. For example, a man may be searching through a dating app while sitting across from his partner. He believes his partner is dismissing him, yet all the while, he has avoided sharing his deeper feelings and experiences. This man’s feeling of being dismissed or unloved may be an intense trigger from childhood experience. His patterned response has been to run away from the feeling of anxiety that arises by creating the stimulation of a new romantic or sexual experience. Because he remains stuck in this stimulating pattern, he is unable to stop and consciously observe the behaviors that contribute to the very pains he so desperately seeks to avoid.
Mindfulness teaches us to slow down and observe with greater objectivity, rather than continuing destructive patterns on auto-pilot. When we’re always moving, seeking and on the go, we are likely to remain in denial and proceed with harmful behavior patterns or pick up substances that we know don’t serve us.
According to the Mindful Awareness Research Center, significant research over the past decade has shown that mindfulness addresses mental health issues such as ADHD, depression and anxiety, and challenging reactive emotional states. Mindfulness can boost the immune system, lower blood pressure, increase focus and attention, and nurture healthy decision-making, self-empathy, and emotional flexibility.
Mindfulness can help those in recovery from addiction because it brings us back into presence. When we are present, we are connected with ourselves, which is the innate prerequisite to intimacy with others. When we see ourselves clearly, we can regain our sense of self-respect and dignity. Slowing down, we can observe our addictions for what they are and respond with loving compassion towards ourselves as well as towards others. As Hari poignantly states, “The opposite of addiction is connection.”