The Ritual of Our Addictions

Photo: laihiu

So, after reading this brave post by my friend and fellow yoga teacher, Alicia, I got to thinking about the nature of our habits and our strong attachments to them. Alicia's blog post talks about binge eating in particular, but what she experiences--that absolute inability to take a step back and stop yourself from what your about to do--would resonate with anyone who has had any form of addiction (and yes, I think it's safe to say that any habit is a form of addiction), be it food, cigarettes, drugs, shopping, exercising, cleaning, etc.

What is it about these compulsions which makes them so attractive to us, even when we know we're harming ourselves? It's such a simple question, right? But when we're involving the deep emotional attachment that comes along with addiction, it's almost impossible to get a rational answer. Well, after years of struggling with one form of addiction or another and finding that I know myself so much better since I started a regular yoga practice, I have to say I think I have the answer. It's all about the ritual.

Let's look at religion for just a second here. Or, perhaps I should say 'spiritual expression,' which I vastly prefer. Ritual is an ancient means of expression for spiritual communities; there is a deep comfort in its familiarity. Throughout our history on this planet, we have looked toward the spiritual and, in our search for the spiritual, used ritual to comfort ourselves; by participating in lighting candles, dancing in a drum circle, praying on a Sunday, casting a circle, calling the corners, chanting while holding a rosary or mala (insert your spiritual preference here), then we are participating in an ageless and endless dance with those who came before us and with those who will come after.

I know. It's deep. But that's the point here, right? We have an undeniable and constant need to go deep. I can practically guarantee (although I haven't researched this) that addiction is waaay higher now than it has ever been in the past (I include food here--including starving, binge eating, and purging). Why? Well, we're so isolated for one thing. Even with the marvelous introduction of the internet and its ability to inspire community by making distance between like-minded people a non-issue, we're still isolated behind our screens. We walk with music pumped into our ears; we drive ourselves everywhere (often alone); we fear strangers so we no longer make eye contact on the street; and we more often than not spend our evenings watching television or sitting in front of a computer.

The danger here? All that's on offer re: t.v. and computers is the perception of community. Television shows (including reality television) center themselves around community. So by watching, you feel a part of something, but you are not actively participating. You have no role, no job. So while you may feel included, your deep need to do something important, to engage in the ritual of daily communal life, is not satisfied. The same is true for your internet travels; though you may actively take part in an online community, there is none of the visceral human contact which has made up our communities for generations.

Okay. So how the hell does this relate to addiction? Addiction does two things: one, it provides ritual. Let's take cigarettes (my all-time favorite former addiction) for example: you go outside, pack your cigarettes, find your lighter, light the cigarette, inhale, talk to other smokers (your community, your tribe), etc. Ritual needs stuff, and addictions give you stuff (i.e. the lighter, the pack of cigarettes, the particular brand of cigarettes) and it needs a dedicated space in which to participate (this used to be the smoking section, now it's somewhere outdoors, usually in an alley somewhere). By presenting this stuff and using it, you demonstrate that you are part of a tribe. The same goes for any drug--pot, alcohol, cocaine, heroin--you name it, it's got stuff, it's got community, it's got a place where you know like-minded people will gather, and it's got the comfort and emotional release (aside from the chemical release) of participating.

Food acts in much the same way. Any bulimic will tell you that there are certain foods which (forgive me) are infinitely more comfortable to purge than others (ice cream was always a favorite). Anorexics will tell you that there are certain foods they will always eat (because almost all anorexics do eat, if only barely enough to survive) like celery, tomato juice, lettuce, etc. Or, they'll starve all week and binge on the weekends. No matter how you break it down, it's all about stuff and ritual. The stuff is the food (or lack thereof) and the ritual is usually pretty set in stone--eating at the same time during the week (or day), the same exact brand or kind of food, a particular bowl or plate, and a specific and dedicated space or room in which to practice the ritual.

That yearning, that absolute undeniable need to participate in an addictions is simply (or not so simply...) a misplaced desire for community, ritual, and spiritual fulfillment.

Okay, so now what happens? Well, I'm not sure anything drastic needs to happen, at least, not right away and certainly not all at once. I think that, by introducing healthy rituals into our lives, we'll be able to step away from the ritual of addiction (and its attraction). I'm not saying go out and find your god or goddess (unless you dig that idea, then go for it), but I think it's important to develop some kind of ritual that feeds the soul. I don't think it's any coincidence that yoga is currently more popular than it ever has been in the past. There are all the components of ritual here: community, repetition, stuff, common knowledge, and a dedicated space in which to practice.

Obviously, it's easy for me to say go out and join a yoga class because that's what has worked for me, but follow your heart; find your own bliss. Ritual can come in the form of support groups, book clubs, religious organizations, sports clubs, cooking classes, whatever. Just make sure that whatever you choose has the same basic premise each time you meet--the same stuff, the same kind of space, the same kinds of people, because what you need when you're struggling to end addiction is something to replace the deep comfort you get while participating in the addiction ritual itself. Start slowly; know that you don't have to give the addiction up right now--just take a few steps at a time. Find your (alternative, healthy, supportive) tribe and, I promise, peace will follow.

Photo: AlicePopkorn

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