Mindfulness & Compulsive Behaviour

Many of us will, from time to time in our lives, experience compulsive behaviours. Some gamble, some binge eat, some go shopping too often, some spend too long on the internet or other screens. Whilst these behaviours remain legal and can often be simple pleasures, sometimes when we begin to lose control we can become, to whatever extent, enslaved to compulsive urges. Sex, sexual fantasies, sexual desires can all become problematic. Much of the time our simple ‘needs’ can end up surrounded by shame, worry and anxiety. Day to day activities can become overwhelmingly complicated and we become prey to unmanageable energies which begin to run our lives and demand satisfaction. Of course compulsions can become even more dangerous if we begin to drift to the fringes of what is acceptable to ourselves and society at large. Stealing, substance abuse, self-harm are destructive very quickly if they become masters in your life. How does mindfulness help?

A very interesting mindfulness practise from the buddhist tradition encourages breaking experience down by which ‘doorway’ (sense) it enters the mind. One spends time looking at what you are experiencing moment by moment. Is it a sight, sound, smell, taste or touch experience? Buddhism treats the thinking mind as a sense just like the others. Just as for an eye there are sights to be revolted by or excited by, for a thinking mind there are ideas to be enjoyed or ideas that are distasteful. So, one spends time breaking experience down into the six senses. Is this a sight, sound, smell, taste, touch object, or a thought? One watches carefully. Breathing in and breathing out. Observant and attentive to the play of experience.

This approach can give a very different perspective to investigating just what is it you are longing for when it comes to a compulsive behaviour. What particular experience is it that gives you satisfaction or that you imagine will give you satisfaction. Investigating your experience will reveal useful data about what triggers you as well. The more detailed the clues, the more chance you have to find that crucial point of freedom. Take self-harm by cutting for instance. Is it the pain that releases you, the sight of blood, the ideas and images that go on in your mind as the self-harm process happens? Which is most significant? It might be the silver of the blade, or the sound of your breath as you sigh! Which details are heightened as you revel in the compulsive state? This mindfulness practise, often repeated, will slow the processes down. Mindfulness practise may also give you some control over the severity and/or the frequency of the behaviour. Mindfulness can give you the data you need to inform your next step.

There is a teaching story from the buddhist tradition that goes a bit like this:
Imagine a person catching six animals of differing ranges and differing habitats. A snake, crocodile, bird, dog, hyena and monkey. That person then binds them to one another with a rope and sets them free. The snake pulls towards the anthill, the crocodile pulls towards the water, the bird tries to fly, the dog pulls towards the village, the hyena would pull towards the charnel ground, the monkey would pull for the forest. All six become exhausted and eventually one would emerge as the strongest and would drag the others along to its favourite haunt. In much the same way our eyes are pulled towards pleasing sights, our ears towards pleasing sounds, nose to smells, tongue to tastes, body towards pleasant touch experience and our thinking mind is drawn to the ideas we like and value.

Another person catching those same 6 animals, tethers them together and fixes the rope to a firmly embedded post. The animals struggle and pull and struggle and pull but eventually lie or sit down next to the post. The post in this instance being a well developed practise of being mindful of the body and the breath.

(the original is here http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn35/sn35.206.than.html)

The suggestion the story makes and indeed my own experience of working with mindfulness for many years is that as we grow more grounded in the body and breath. IF WE CHOOSE TO, we can counter compulsions much more easily. I emphasise choose because there is no magic pill to breaking habits. At some point it comes down to you to choose and commit to change. Mindfulness is a crucial ingredient in selecting what to do to escape the bind.