Back to Recovery

Addiction and Unfindable Desires

An addictive desire for an object is a funny thing.  In the midst of desiring any substance or activity to which you feel addicted, it can feel like desire has a hold of you, as if it is something completely tangible, real, and findable.

But when you actually look for the desire itself, it starts to appear empty, even transparent—literally unfindable.

Let’s take the example of cigarettes (although this exploration can be done on any object of desire: person, place, substance, activity or other thing).  Each day, like clockwork, a smoker picks up the pack of cigaretts when she wakes up, then again in the middle of the morning, and then again after meals, and several times at night.  As if completely asleep in the obsessive desire, the hand moves to the pack, the fingers pull out the long, skinny cigarette, the hands light it, the smoke is inhaled and certain sensations arise in the body.  For a moment, the self, the world, and all its problems seem to float away.

Now let’s take a look at that entire sequence from another angle.  If you are a smoker or an addictive user of any substance or activity, look with me.  Take this angle the next time the desire to use arises.

The moment you have the thought, “I want to smoke,” look for the ‘desire to smoke’ itself.  Try to find it.  Look everywhere, as if you are trying to pinpoint it exactly.  Find out where it’s located exactly in your experience.  If the desire is truly there, as a real object in your experience, it ought to be immediately findable.

You only have to look within three realms of your experience:  thoughts, emotions, and sensations.  Thoughts appear in one of two ways, as words or mental pictures.  Look at the words, “I want a cigarette.”  Are those words, by themselves, the desire?  Chances are you will say, “no,” those are just words.  If that is the response, just keep looking for the desire.  But if you say, “Yes, that’s it,” then that means that some emotion or sensation is arising in the body along with those words.  So relax and bring attention into the body. 

Let’s say you notice a sensation arising in the body with the words.  Maybe it is a craving sensation or some sense of longing or urge in the chest area.  Rest and experience the sensation without the words, “I want a cigarette,” or any other words or pictures.  Is that sensation itself the desire when you aren’t labeling it?  Notice that it is only energy and that this energy, when you aren’t adding words and pictures to it, comes and goes.  It relaxes.  All bodily energy does this when you simply but gently observe it without any interpretation. 

Take brief moments of relaxing as thought-free awareness, in between the moments in which you are looking for the desire.  Just rest there in the experience of allowing present experience to be as it is:  the colors, sights, sounds, and sensations around you.  Relax labels about these things.  Just be.  Notice that in this moment, when you aren’t emphasizing the thought, “I want a cigarette,” and when you are noticing the sensations appear and then relax, nothing is needed.  In this moment, life is complete just as it is.  Sensations and emotions may be coming through, but for a few seconds, at least, they aren't hooking into any stories such as "I need this" or "I have to have that."  Just a few seconds of rest can be such a monumental insight into how the craving or desire is largely created by thought.  

Then look again for the desire.  It’s good to be a bit proactive with addictive tendencies.  Most of us don’t live a thought-free, sensation-free, or emotion-free life.  We experience these arisings.  If you try to forcefully ignore thoughts or sensations, chances are the desire for a cigarette will seem to arise again as soon as thoughts and sensations arise.

But really look for it.  Where is this desire?  Look at the thought, “I can’t live my life without smoking,” or whatever other thought arises.  Is THAT thought the desire?  How about the mental picture in your mind of the cigarette?  Is THAT it?  How can you smoke a mental picture?  

If you can see it is just a thought, notice that it comes to rest when you look right at it without judgment.  If that thought feels like the desire, it just means—once again—that some emotion or sensation is arising.  Bring attention again into the body.  Maybe this time what you are experiencing is emotion—perhaps anxiety.  Is the word, “anxiety” the desire?  See that it is only a word. 

Rest into that feeling itself, without labels on it.   Notice how it comes and goes when you aren’t adding a story to it.

Is that emotion the desire?  No, it’s just energy.  It carries no interpretation with it.  Emotions and sensations never speak. They never talk.  Listen quietly to the body and you can see that the body itself is never speaking.  It never forms words.  Energies in the body also never form words.  Only thought provides words and pictures—interpretations that associate a cigarette with the emotion or sensation. 

Is the word, “desire” the actual desire?  No, it’s just a thought.  But, again, if that thought feels like the desire itself, it just means that some emotion or sensation is arising with it.  Rest into the emotion or sensation again, without words and pictures. 

As you look through each of these aspects of your experience, unable to locate the actual desire itself, the desire starts to be seen as empty and unfindable.  You literally can’t find it.  The mind begins to relax its emphasis on the thought, “I want a cigarette,” even if only for a brief moment. 

Lastly, be easy on yourself.  You may still find yourself smoking a cigarette.  Addiction can feel like a very physical compulsion, as if you are driven to smoke by an unseen force or momentum.  Let all thoughts, good and bad, about smoking come and go while you are smoking.  

You can even look for the desire in the sensations associated with actually smoking the cigarette.  Is the color of the cigarette the desire?  No, it’s just the color white.  How about the shape of the cigarette?  No, it’s just a long, slender tube shape.  How about the soft feel of the cigarette?  Is that the desire?  No, it’s just the sensation of softness.

Where is the desire?  Pinpoint it.

How about the smell of the cigarette when lit?  Is that the desire?  No, it’s a smell.  How about the taste?  No, it’s not the desire.  It’s a specific taste.  How about the feeling of smoke tunneling into your lungs?  Is that the desire?  No.

So where is the desire?  Did you find it?  Notice that the more you look for this pesky thing called ‘desire for a cigarette,’ the more the whole thing falls apart.  Again, if you find yourself smoking still, it’s ok.   Look again the next time the desire seems to arise.  Try and find it. 

As you do this more and more each time you desire to smoke, the mind naturally and organically withdraws from its desire for the cigarette.  This doesn't happen by force of will, but rather by a deep surrender into what is.  It can feel as if the entire scenario in your mind about wanting a cigarette dissolves, over and over again as you fail to find the desire itself.  The cigarette itself, as a mental fixation, dissolves.  And in that dissolving, you find that you are complete as you are, without a cigarette.  This sweet and simple completeness is seen to be your very nature, not something attributable to an object outside of you.