Ancient mindfulness philosophy says that humans are wired to cling to pleasure and avoid pain. That truth is evident across the span of human existence and is more prevalent than ever in modern-day society. Most of these tendencies unfold without our awareness, such as reaching for a piece of cake or our cellphone to escape the grips of stress, anxiety, or other uncomfortable emotional experiences. Substance abuse is another example of our oh-so-human drive to seek pleasure and avoid pain.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 24 million Americans struggle with substance abuse. Managing addiction is an extremely complex issue, requiring us to consider how our genetics, environment, personal experiences, mental health, and more all might be playing a role. If you're struggling with an addiction, it's always best to reach out for help and work with a medical professional. Mindfulness can also help us cultivate nonjudgmental awareness, which can be helpful in fighting addiction. For example, if strong cravings arise, a mindfulness tool such as mindful breathing can bring us back into the present moment and help us feel grounded. Practicing the art of letting go of desire strengthens the mindfulness muscle—bolstering the mind and body to "host" cravings without needing to react to them. In other words: Mindfulness becomes the portal through which we reclaim our lives by responding rather than reacting to our thoughts and emotions. Here's how it works:
By cultivating awareness of our internal lives, we can begin to understand the sometimes hidden reasons for our perpetual cravings and overall substance use. The inner void that substances fill is often unseen and unconscious. Through self-awareness, we gain insight into what our perceived personal voids are, reclaiming inner resilience. Both the formal practice of meditation and mindfulness-based skills strengthen our capacity for intention-based behavior, shifting away from impulsivity. During the process of self-awareness, one learns how to tolerate negative emotions, which enhances our resilience.
In an ideal world, when pain and anxiety arise, we will be able to recognize the discomfort with presence and compassion instead of reaching for a substance to numb it away. Studies continue to support mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) as an effective aftercare approach for individuals who have recently completed intensive treatment for substance use disorders. Cultivating self-awareness is an essential element in MBRP.
Through consistent mindfulness practice, we naturally enhance our self-efficacy—the belief in our ability to succeed. When life’s stressors tamp us down, we can feel powerless to our addictive cravings. Mindfulness empowers us from the inside out, showing us the space between our thoughts and the essence of who we truly are. Being present shifts our power internally, as we recognize our innate abilities.
Long story short: Internal self-efficacy determines our ability to cope with life obstacles. By paying attention to the present moment without judgment and with a compassionate heart, we can unveil our authentic power to choose how we want to live. With this, we can transform our lives for the better, releasing damaging habits that once left us powerless.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow described self-actualization as maximizing your human potential. When we’re caught in the web of addiction, the prospect of blossoming into our fullest expression becomes a distant fantasy. But through mindfulness, we can see that self-actualization is simply one breath, one choice away. Maslow studied many great self-actualized men including Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein. These individuals had multiple characteristics in common such as accepting of personal flaws; prioritizing the journey, not the destination; and allowing themselves to be motivated by growth, not by the satisfaction of needs. When we pause to meditate, using our body and breath as anchors of awareness, we expand self-actualization. Healing addiction becomes a process of healing our negative thought patterns while we embrace our innate greatness.