Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Gentle Art of Self-Control, Lesson 7: Free the Looping Mind

The last couple of lessons have focused on developing the willingness to sit through temptation and difficult feelings. However, being willing to accept our urges and our distress doesn’t mean we’re content to wallow in them. Remember, one of the advantages of acceptance strategies is that they help shrink the footprint of the problem in our lives. If we’re enduring loop after loop of unwanted thoughts and feelings, it may be helpful to exercise a different aspect of the acceptance approach: mindfulness. Mindfulness is a way to “get out of your head and back into your life,” as Steve Hayes puts it.

Lost in the Loop

On Google Earth, the satellite view of the roundabout that circles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris shows cars driving six abreast in some places. Having gone an extra rotation or two myself in one of our little local roundabouts, I can only imagine what would feel like to be on the inside lane circling that grand arch, wanting to exit, trying to nudge over, unable to make my way out. Like a little moon, doomed to keep orbiting a giant planet.

That's the way the addictive cycle can feel. We know our old habits don't serve us, yet we keep finding ourselves back in their orbit, unable to break the gravitational pull. When we give in to an urge, the monster of addiction devours our time, energy, and focus. And the energy we use up struggling against our urges is also consumed by that beast. So is the time we spend feeling guilty about our past lapses and worried we may not be able to resist next time.

In the meantime, real life, with all its vitality and opportunity, continues to proceed as usual. As we're busily looping through these cycles of succumbing and resisting, delighting in the high of our addiction or abhorring its consequences, life does go on. Outside the six lane roundabout there are crepes to eat and the Louvre to explore.

And Now Back To Your Regularly Scheduled Life, Already In Progress

Sometimes, we get caught up in an unnecessary struggle because we give typical temptations more meaning, power, and attention than they deserve. We think, “Oh no, not these feelings again! Does this mean I’m a terrible person? That I’m hopelessly addicted? That I’m on the verge of acting on these thoughts?” Instead of getting caught up in the struggle, we can choose instead to accept the fact that we had an urge. We don’t have to “deal with” every common craving. We can turn away both from what appeals to us and from a fight to avoid what appeals to us. Without much fanfare, we can simply turn back to real life and get on with it. We can acknowledge the pull and then move right on—even if it’s only to some mundane aspect of life.

That’s great news when we need to get unstuck: Whatever our mind might be doing related to our addiction—either entertaining or fighting it—there’s always another potential focus for attention, there-and-available, ready to engage us: the present reality.

Noticing what's now helps us get back in the flow of real life and on our way again.

Here’s another way of putting it: Attending to reality is like eating fresh food; staying stuck in the loop of addiction is like re-swallowing vomit. Interestingly enough, our attention is a fairly narrow throat. Seems we cannot swallow fresh food and vomit at the same time. And guess what? Between the two, fresh food gets the right of way.

Scientists who study consciousness call this the Reality First policy. Here’s how Daniel Gilbert sums it up: “Your brain must use its visual and auditory cortices to execute acts of visual and auditory imagination, and if these areas are already busy doing their primary job—namely, seeing and hearing things in the real world—then they are not available for acts of imagination.” [Stumbling on Happiness, p. 135.]

In other words, when the brain has a choice between content coming from itself or input from the real world, it prioritizes input from the real world. Perhaps this “reality override” system helps insure our survival. But we can use this principle to pop the rivets that bind our attention to addiction and engage ourselves back in our real lives, which are still right here waiting to be lived. And with real life comes a myriad of other interests and potential pursuits that are worthier of our attention.

The Breathe & Notice Game

To interrupt the looping mind, some people find it helpful to take a deep breath and turn their attention to something concrete like a sight, sound or touch. Doing this three or four times in a row can help the mind free itself. For instance: Take a nice, full breath and notice: “There’s a poplar tree way down the street.” Focus intently on it for a moment. Then breathe again and notice: “There’s the sound of a car engine.” Hold that focus…. Breathe and notice: “There’s the hard sidewalk beneath my feet.” Feel it. Feel it. Feel it with each step.

Broadening our attention to notice sensory input helps interrupt our fixations and obsessions. In the process of attending to here-and-now sensations, taking a few nice, full breaths helps relax the body and calm it down. Instead of bracing ourselves against temptation, we’re loosening up. We’re oxygenating the brain and body so that we can approach the problem with all of our usual resourcefulness and intelligence still intact. We can only keep our wits about us when the body’s not in hyperaroused panic mode.

As simple as this technique sounds, it can help us stay rooted in reality here-and-now, where we can see more of our options. With more of our options in view, we’re prepared to take action, and to do so in different ways than we have been in the habit of doing. We are in the driver’s seat, not our addiction. Surprisingly, of all the techniques I teach my clients, this simple one seems to always get the most rave reviews.

Playing the Game

Adam always craved a smoke when he was stressed out. His worst trigger was boredom. It was his day off and no one else was home. Itching for a cigarette, he decided it was time to take a walk. He took a breath and noticed his lungs filling up as he walked. He inhaled again and checked out one of the yellow dashes in the middle of the gray asphalt road. He took another breath and noticed the sound of a semi-truck revving to shift gears. As he was about to focus on how the sidewalk felt under his feet, he saw see a Weeping Birch tree. He thought, Wait--is there such thing as a Weeping Birch? He remembered that he would be helping his dad with his yard that weekend. I’ll have to ask him. He really knows his flora and fauna. Maybe he can help me decide which tree would best shade our new backyard. The Breathe & Notice Game had done its job. He was back engaged in real life, no longer lost in the loop of craving.

Personally, I’ve found the Breathe and Notice Game to be as helpful as any self-help technique I’ve ever tried. One day I was in a funk feeling ashamed about a voicemail I'd just left for a family friend. "Kathy, we heard you had a biopsy and are wondering how it went. When you get a chance, let us know." Well, it was a biopsy of her breast tissue. Sheez, Mark, how about a little sensitivity? You don't just leave a message like that! You couldn't wait for Jenny to call? What if Carl picks up the message? I had plenty to do, but I couldn't focus on other things. I'd get started on something and the shame would pop back in: How would you feel if someone left a message like that left for Jenny? How embarrassing. I was definitely lost in an unproductive loop. I sat down and took a breath. Tight in my chest. As I exhaled again I looked out the window and noticed the line of the trees against the snow on a peak of the Wasatch Mountains. Breathe again--there's the sound of my daughter chatting with her friend in the other room. Breathe and reach up to feel the skin on my cheek. As I stood up to try again to go about the business of the day I thought, Kathy may have cancer, and I'm worried about what she or Carl might think about a message I left on their voicemail? I shook my head and smiled at the natural self-centeredness of the mind. I was out of the loop and never did get swept up by it again.

In the flow of consciousness, we simply cannot be caught in an eddy and traveling downstream at the same time. Either we are spinning with the rest of the flotsam and jetsam in one of our familiar thought eddies or feeling eddies… or we’re flowing over the next rock, around a new bend and past landscape features on the shore we've never seen before. Pausing to breathe and notice what's now can help get us back in the flow of real life and on our way again.

Challenge for the Week: Play the Breathe & Notice Game

Take time once or twice a day to interrupt whatever else you’ve been caught up in and breathe and notice. It takes less than a minute and it may help you feel more grounded in the here-and-now. As you play the game you'll simply take some nice, full breaths and notice a few sensations. Here’s what you’ll be doing. Go ahead and try it out right now to practice:

Inhale and notice what you feel someplace in your body right now. Anyplace. If you don't notice anything, just move on. Take another breath and notice something you can see. Really focus on what it looks like at this very second. Let that go now, and with the next breath pay attention to one thing you can hear right now. Then inhale and focus on something you can feel against your skin, be it the armrest of your chair against your forearm or the sun warming the back of your neck. Finally, breathe and notice your current situation: "I'm waiting at the dentist's for my daughter." "It's Friday afternoon and I'm driving home--end of a long week." "I'm on the couch watching TV late at night."

After you've practiced for a few days, you'll be more likely to remember to breathe and notice at those key moments when a potent urge hits. Or when you start to go into the kind of funk that can set you up for feeling tempted later.

Please let us know in the comment section below how it goes for you when you try out the Breathe & Notice Game. How did it impact your consciousness? Did you find that it helped in any way? 

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