Applied Buddhism: Fight your inner demons on a higher plane

The demon shown above this post is Mara, the tempter. It’s no wonder folklore uses demons to represent temptation and struggle; that’s exactly what they look like while you’re fighting them. And the fight can be won.

Here’s some shameless self-marketing to see if I can trick you into reading on: during the last nine months, I’ve battled three addictions at the same time and destroyed them. They were:

  1. Alcohol. I used to drink up to three strong beers (7 – 14%) and a whiskey every evening. During the last 6 months, I had exactly five beers and one whiskey total.
  2. Game sales. I used to watch out for new games to buy in game sales, scouring half a dozen websites, subscribing to price comparison services, wasting so much time that I never actually played the games I bought. I only bought one thing from a game sale since March and played through my backlog instead.
  3. Coffee. I used to drink five to seven cups a day. Now I drink one in the morning.

I don’t say this just to enjoy the smell of my own farts, but more because I think I’ve discovered a connection between these types of addiction that can be used to control them, and I think anyone can practice to do the same.

Showing your brain the difference

I believe the brain works in contrasts. Try it out, drink only green tea and no tap water for four days. The green tea will seem less and less bitter. On the fifth day, drink a glass of normal tap water, the same you’d use for making tea. It will taste sweet now. So the brain gets used to things and uses the status quo to create a contrast “this water tastes sweet” when before it would feel “this water tastes neutral.” You can exploit the same mechanism for your addictions.

“Spending an evening without drinking is boring!” and “I can’t go to that party and stay sober” were my old excuses. But stand back from your excuses and reveal what they really are, just made-up reasons not to change anything, not to witness the contrast. So to start, spend one evening without alcohol, one month without game purchases, whatever your demon might be. You’ll notice that you won’t die (unless you’re a really heavy alcoholic).

You might not enjoy the experience much, but it’s important to track how you’re feeling through all this. Watch how your anxiety rises, how you really want that drink, how you jealously look at your significant other as she or he opens a delicious, thick, creamy craft brew.

Maybe sometimes you can’t resist, so take note of that as well. Not as failure, but as neutrally as you can. I drank that beer and that led to four more beers and now I’m drunk and yesterday I said I wouldn’t drink today. This is something you have to get through, and it’s the tough part. Never said it’d be easy, just that I found some connection.

Only once you’ve gone a significant time without your demon-thing, your brain can check out the world without alcohol/games/coffee. You should become more relaxed about it at this point. For me the revelation came when I had been to three parties and didn’t drink one drop of alcohol. Before actually witnessing such situations with your own mind, your brain would make up all sorts of stories about how it’s impossible to do. A ludicrous idea. Who’d go to a party sober? What an idiot. But not only is it possible, it might actually feel much better than what your brain told you it would. What a liar!

The next step comes when you do give in to your demon once after quite some time. Oh yeah, that feels good, an awesome hand-crafted north-west-Belgian sour ale, what a treat! So watch your own reaction. Does it feel good to be drunk? To buy that game? How about a day later, or two? How does your sober self of now react to the tipsy self of two days ago?

At this stage I found that caffeine makes me awake, but coming off the caffeine rush would make me more tired than I was before, so I drank more coffee. In the end I was basically just giddy and couldn’t focus anymore, so being awake had become useless.

This is a cycle. The only way to stop it is to not let it begin. There is no easy way out here, but realizing the stupidity of your moves is a great way to gain enough motivation to be less stupid.

Cutting with scissors of self-knowledge

At this point, your brain hopefully learns to discern between a few thing. Things about why you drank, for example. You’ll discover factors. Maybe you find out it was out of routine and boredom. But that means it can be changed, because boredom can be filled up with other things and routine can be broken. You need to do it once. You can then do it twice. Five times. You lose your fear, you gain self-knowledge, you find a path through the jungle, and before you know it you’re out on the other side and the sun’s up.

The factors will be different for each and every person, and I’m not saying you can go from total alcoholic to sober model for mankind in a week or two just with introspection. But I think these addictions have a common root,  when attacking one of them, something clicked inside me and enabled me to cut all three using the same set of scissors.

If you look at how, when, why these urges appear, then carefully analyze how they feel to you, how their absence feels, what you are experiencing before, during, and after, without self-pity, without dread, you can do the same.

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