How can mindfulness help folks in addiction recovery? Rabbi Rami offers his frank thoughts after a compelling podcast interview.
Hi, my name is Rami. I’m a food addict and compulsive overeater. I am a poster boy for the Lay’s Potato Chip ad dare: “Bet you can’t eat just one.” One what: one potato chip? One regular-sized bag of potato chips? One party-sized bag of potato chips? Regardless of how you define “one,” I would lose the bet.
Most people aren’t like me. They eat until they are full and then stop eating. Eating for me has nothing to do with being hungry or full—I eat because eating itself is an addiction. Of course, I’m not addicted to all food, only certain trigger foods. I never binge on fresh broccoli (though I like broccoli), but I suspect that if you fried it and covered it in salt, I would discover I am a broccoli addict.
While interviewing Adrienne van der Valk, author of Big Sober Energy, on the Spirituality & Health podcast, I was fascinated by the current neurological insights into compulsive eating and the role mindfulness meditation can play in breaking addiction (not a term Adrienne uses, by the way). While I have studied mindfulness meditation, I am not a practitioner of it. Yet I find the experience of being mindful very helpful in dealing with my compulsive overeating. Here’s why:
Addiction has nothing to do with willpower or the lack thereof. Addiction isn’t a choice one makes, but a situation in which one finds oneself. I didn’t make a conscious choice to eat compulsively, and because this is so, I cannot make a conscious choice not to eat compulsively. What I can do is learn to watch my compulsivity, and when I do, I find I am free from it.
In my book Recovery, the Sacred Art, I write about standing in front of my open refrigerator and listening to the argument going on in my head between two aspects of myself: one who wants to eat though I’m not hungry, and one who doesn’t want to eat because I’m not hungry. Don’t imagine that the first self is my Addicted Self and the second is my Sober Self. The truth is they are both part of my Addicted Self: one is addicted to eating, the other to not eating, and both are addicted to the argument: “to eat or not to eat.”
The self that observes this argument is my Sober Self. It has no skin in the game: it isn’t hungry or full, eager to eat or eager to not eat. When I identify with the arguing selves I almost always give in to eating. When I identify with my Sober Self, I simply close the refrigerator door and get on with my day.
As I write this, I am aware that I have been identifying with my Addicted Self lately. While that is bothersome to me, knowing that I know this tells me my Sober Self is still at work. The key for me is not to stop my compulsive eating or break my addiction to all things salty and crunchy; the key is to rest as often as I can in the mindfulness of my Sober Self.
I am, as the Big Book of AA says, “powerless over my addiction.” And because this is so, I cannot put an end to it, which is why I identify as a recovering food addict rather than a recovered food addict. But what I can do is pay attention. And when I do this, I am no less an addict but much less an active one.
Listen to the podcast episode that inspired this essay here.