Addiction: Is Overpowering the Survival Instinct the Answer?


Elizabeth Bailey

Elizabeth Bailey



By Scott Kiloby



It’s fairly settled among scientists who have explored the mechanism of addiction in the brain that addiction is all about survival. Once addicted, the brain literally operates as if it needs alcohol, drugs, porn or caffeine in order to survive. We don’t need scientists to tell us this because many of us who have been addicted to something have experienced the “I have to do it” aspect of addictive cravings.

My own experience with addiction really showed me how the survival instinct is kicking in during moments of intense cravings for addictive substances and activities. This is why I prefer the term “compulsion” rather than “addiction” when speaking of such cravings. “I’m compelled to do it” felt much more true in those moments than “I want to do it” or “I would like to do it.”

Let’s enter the topic of willpower and control. Aren’t these also aspects of our survival instinct? Trying to quit using as a matter of force or willpower may seem like the answer until you really try it and realize that, at best, you are able to stop only for a short period of time. The addiction inevitably starts back up again or changes to a different substance or activity.

So what is the answer? The answer is gentle curiosity, acceptance and awareness. To be gently curious about a thought or sensation in the moment it arises changes one’s disposition to his inner experience. It takes willpower and control out of the equation and enters a simple observing of the thought or the sensation. And in observing it, without judgment, there is a natural acceptance of it.

Sometimes, when observing the thought, it has been helpful for me to say, “Thank you for arising, I love you, stay as long as you’d like.” This little phrase has the power to relax the resistance to the thought or sensation. Yet even when the resistance relaxes, the compulsion can still be there, albeit less intensely. So the phrase is sometimes not enough to truly quiet the compulsion.

It may seem odd for me to say this, but I have found the answer to truly be about doing nothing repetitively about the compulsive thoughts and sensations. By doing nothing, I don’t mean trying not to reach for the substance or activity. Doing nothing refers to simply noticing the thought and sensation from awareness itself, without trying to do anything with those arisings. But paradoxically, this doing nothing has to be done repetitively, over and over, whenever the compulsion arises. Gone are the days when I think that simply noticing compulsive thoughts or sensations in one moment provides insurance from them arising later. Compulsion really doesn’t work that way. Our brains learn to be addicted. There is a certain repetitive reoccurrence that happens. Quite literally, the compulsive thought or sensation, once it falls away in a given moment, easily comes back in the face of the right emotional trigger or environmental cue (e.g., a liquor store sign). Repetitively doing nothing undoes that learning process over and over, each time the compulsion arises. This provides the opportunity for the compulsion to wind itself down slowly over time. In a sense, I have not quit my addictions. They have quit me through this process of repetitively doing nothing.

It may seem even more paradoxical for me to say that there are certain techniques or skills that help to do nothing repetitively. Paradox or not, I’ve seen these techniques work over and over at the Kiloby Center for Recovery. One of those techniques is the phrase “Thank you for arising, I love you, stay as long as you like.” Another non-doing technique is to look from awareness when any addictive thought or sensation arises. Another is to use the Compulsion Inquiry. And another is to use restful tapping on the meridian points. Each of these techniques has the power to both quiet the compulsion and also take out all the willpower and control. These techniques are things that one can do to unlearn the process of constantly trying to fix or change your inner experience.  They help relax the survival instinct that kicks in and says “I have to use now” in order to change how I feel. All of these techniques help us to simply be conscious. Addiction only survives in our unconscious, when we literally aren’t aware of the inner experience of thoughts and sensations directly.

We were not born and raised with knowing what doing nothing really looks and feels like. We all grew up in a culture where trying to fix or change how we feel is the status quo. So it can help tremendously to learn the skill of doing nothing through these and other techniques. Trying to change our inner experience is non-acceptance of it. The great news is that once these skills are learned, we start to see, gradually, that being free of compulsion is quite natural. We start to realize that the very nature of our experience is presence and, in presence, we find less and less need to reach for things outside ourselves. Although these techniques start out as practices, they become so natural that we don’t have to try and quit addictions. They quit us simply because we are aware and naturally accepting of everything that comes and goes. Because addiction is all about reaching out towards something in an attempt to change how we feel and think in any given moment (non-acceptance), acceptance is the end of addiction.



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