Compulsive behaviour and mindfulness

Many of us will experience compulsive behaviours from time to time in our lives. Some gamble, some eat, some shop too much, some spend too much time on screens. Whilst these behaviours are legal and can be simple pleasures, sometimes we can begin to lose control and become to whatever extent enslaved to compulsive urges. Sex and sexual fantasies and desires can become a problem for some and much of the time our simple ‘needs’ can end up surrounded by worry, shame and anxiety. Day to day activities can feel like problematic and unmanageable energies which begin to run our lives and demand satisfaction. Of course, compulsions can become more dangerous if we begin to drift to the fringes of what is acceptable to ourselves and society at large. Stealing, self-harm, substance abuse become destructive very quickly if they become masters in your life. Can mindfulness help?

There is a very interesting mindfulness practice from the Buddhist tradition which encourages breaking experience down by which doorway (sense) it enters the mind. One spends time looking at whether what you are experiencing is a sight, sound, smell, taste or touch experience. Buddhism goes one step further and treats the thinking mind as a sense just like the others. Just as for an eye there are sights to be excited by or revolted by and many shades between, 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?

When it comes to working with compulsions this approach can give a very different perspective to investigating just what is it you are longing for? What experience is it that gives satisfaction and allows the compulsion to subside for the time being? The investigation into your experience can reveal useful data about what triggers you as well. The more detailed the clues, the more likely you might find a point of freedom. Take self-harm by cutting for instance. Is it the pain that gives release, the sight of blood, the ideas and associations that go on in the mind as the self-harm happens? Which is more significant? It might be the silver of the blade or the sound of your breath as you sigh. Which details are heightened as you enter and leave the compulsive state? This type of mindfulness practice may slow the process down and perhaps give you some control over the severity and/or the frequency of the behaviour, it provides data which can inform your next step.

There is a story from the Buddhist tradition that goes like this:

Imagine a person catching six animals with different ranges and different habitats. A snake, crocodile, bird, dog, hyena and monkey. That person then binds them together with a rope and sets them free. The snake would pull towards the anthill, the crocodile would pull towards the water, the bird would try to fly, the dog would pull towards the village, the hyena would pull towards the cremation ground, the monkey would pull for the forest. All six would become exhausted and eventually one would emerge as the strongest and would drag the others along to its favourite haunt. In 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 catches those same six animals, tethers them together and then fixes the rope to a firmly embedded post. The animals struggle and pull but eventually lie or sit down next to the post. The post in this instance being a firmly developed practice 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 of the story and indeed my 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 pacify compulsions more easily. I emphasise choose because there is no magic pill to breaking habits that I have found yet. At some point, it comes down to you to choose and commit to change. Mindfulness can be a crucial ingredient in selecting what to do to escape the bind.

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