Last week I had a date to meet a friend for dinner. I arrived at the restaurant 10 minutes early and found a lovely spot out on the footpath under a leafy tree. As I settled into my seat, I found myself wishing I’d brought along something to read to pass the time. Then considered looking at my emails or Facebook on my phone.
As I went to reach for my phone I thought – “wait a minute! Here is a perfect opportunity to simply sit and practice being here, mindfully…” So I sat back in my chair, hands in my lap and looked around.
People at tables next to me, looking at their phones. Passers-by, phones in hand. A couple of teenagers at the bus stop across the road, heads down, eyes glued to their screens.
Again, I felt the almost irresistible desire to grab my phone and get lost in screen-land to fill in this unoccupied gap in time.
Instead, I took a breath and decided to become curious and… notice.
Ooooooh, discomfort in my stomach, sense of restlessness in my body as my arms wanted to reach for my phone. Thoughts arising about how crazy this all is, am I addicted to my phone? Is everyone? Nearly did a quick google search on ‘phone addiction’.
Waited. Felt the waves of urge rise and then start to ease away.
As I sat there another few minutes, noticing and breathing, the evening’s loveliness suddenly entered the picture.
You know those moments of golden light as the sun is making its descent? When the leaves on trees seem to glisten with that gold? I suddenly dropped into my presence in the midst of this evening.
Sitting and waiting for a friend. Under a beautiful tree. Smells of delicious food wafting across the pavement. Warmth on my skin from the early evening sun. A gentle breeze. Murmurs of conversation around me, the swish of a slow-moving car, birds chirping high up above me.
My friend arrived and I felt fully present for her arrival. I had just urge-surfed my way into the beginning of a beautiful evening with her.
The term ‘urge-surfing’ was coined by the late psychologist Alan Marlatt, Ph.D, a pioneer in the field of addictions research. His work centered around the study of the impulse to re-engage with addiction that recovering addicts (to drugs, alcohol, food, sex, tv, etc) feel so strongly, and the corresponding body sensations/thoughts that accompany this powerful urge to ‘re-tox’.
For me, noticing the urge to pick up my phone despite my desire to just sit was very illuminating. It’s not a powerful addiction for me. Yet I notice, not just for me but for many of us in our busy modern world, that the urge to be continually occupied/stimulated is a pressing one. Being occupied with ‘stuff’, after all, is a mark of honour in our society which values achievers who get ’stuff done’. The art of just sitting and being has been replaced by the dopamine hit of gaining ‘likes’ on social media, hitting the heights, being a ‘mover and shaker’, and getting someplace.
It all happens so fast, and what skills are being lost along the way? Going for the long-haul, enduring the pain of change and loss, being able to really ‘be’ with another person face-to-face. Being able to ‘be’ with ourselves.
There are many reasons why our society now yields some of the highest rates of anxiety and depressive disorders, and seriously mind-f&*king addictions than it ever has previously… technology and fast pace, loss of meaning, social isolation, loneliness etc. This isn’t just about the young mob getting whacked on ice. This includes the abuse of alcohol and prescription drugs by the over-40s set, as well as binge-drinking, weight disorders and other crazy behaviour in ever growing numbers across our society. Phone addiction is a real thing, by the way.
To find the way back into a sense of peace and wellbeing that is natural to us as humans is getting to be ever more obscure. It requires building capacity for the long-haul approach, the willingness to ride those waves of urge… to be able to hang in there through discomfort.
For me, mindfulness practice has been, and continues to be, an excellent approach to exploring and potentially letting go of urges to engage in activities that can harm us, or that prevent us from engaging in life. Take a look at this practice called ‘how to surf an urge’ for a beautiful formal mindfulness practice that almost anyone could use.
What do Yoga and Mindfulness have to contribute?
In the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, sutras 2.3 and 2.4 point towards the various ‘kleshas’ or afflictions of the mind that lead us away from that deeper and truer urge towards wellbeing, and connection with life. Quieting the mind through practices of meditation and breathing has been part of this tradition for thousands of years.
In the same way, on a slightly different path towards the same goal, the practices of Mindfulness Meditation (both formal and informal), are about the quieting of the mind… those busy thought patterns that can take us over, and cut off at the knees our ability to make good choices for ourselves.
You know those chocolate chip cookies lurking in the cupboard?
New Year’s Eve is long past now, and many resolutions have gone the way of the dodo as old habits and urges have simply taken back over. But don’t lose heart! By being willing to re-engage with a simple process of noticing when urges arise, what they are, how they feel in the body, being curious and open rather than striving and battling, you can start to see the wave-like pattern of any kind of urge. And bit by bit, that sense of confidence in your own abilities to flex and bend and live more skillfully grows.
It may start as a thought, the body reflects the craving urge, perhaps emotions arise. It takes practice, so start with something small… like your urge to occupy attention with your phone for instance. Or is that a small thing?
Creating change to hardwired addictions and habits takes time. There are times when engaging the help of a qualified counsellor or psychologist can be very useful, to untangle the stories and beliefs about ourselves that may be holding us hostage to harmful or not-so-useful approaches to life.
But, as you’re ready, the opportunity is as close as your next breath. You do have the power to find that quiet place inside, even if it takes going through the turbulence of crashing waves of urges. This is not a battle, it is setting out to explore the possibilities. With this gentle and persistent attitude, anything is possible! From little things like this, big things do grow.
PS. Check out my Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course, being offered for the first time in the Fleurieu Peninsula. Starts 8 May and runs for 8 weekly classes of 2.5 hours each, plus one full Day of Mindfulness. Find the quiet place inside.