How to Not Give Into Your Cravings Using the Power of Meditation

The reason we can’t control our cravings is we live on autopilot.

I am sick right now. Netflix seems a good escape from reality (anything but writing this article you know!). Engaging in distraction whether through Netflix or eating a cookie helps to take my mind off what’s happening. But again, that’s only escapism. This craving for dopamine hits isn’t taking me anywhere.

Fortunately, I have an ancient tool at my discretion that helps me moderate my consumption levels. It’s meditation.

This experience of craving is universal, and not to mention, it sucks. Whether it’s a mindless glance on your phone, a piece of dessert, a puff of a cigarette or something else — cravings are too familiar for all of us.

According to researchers at MIT, the brain’s prefrontal cortex is responsible for the moment-by-moment control of habits that are switched on at any given time. This is where most of our thoughts and planning take place.

The actions you do repeatedly are automated by the brain. And once they become automatic, the decision-making parts of your brain can go into a sleep-like state which makes you less aware that you’re doing it. This is why we say man is a creature of habits. Because after a while, your habits control you. This can be good or bad.

An example of a good habit from my life is drinking a glass of water after waking up. I don’t consciously think about it. The bottle is placed on my desk and I inevitably take a sip as soon as I wake up. On the contrary, an example of a bad habit is to never keep my shoes on the shoe rack. I remove them without undoing the laces and leave them near the door.

The more you repeat an action, the more automatic it becomes. The brain is trying to conserve its energy for important things. Once these links are formed in your brain, they are never completely lost. This is why a drinker who quits for a while can still come back to it easily.

All bad habits usually come from stress and boredom. Whenever we’re emotionally taxed, tired, bored, etc, we turn to our vices.

Even though we know that drinking, smoking is bad for us, our intellect and logic go south when we’re caught by emotions. That is why logically thinking through bad habits doesn’t work. Once it’s automated, the links are too tight to break.

Further, researchers like Judson Brewer at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts have studied the cycle of desire. They’ve shown how addictions operate through brain conditioning:

  • First, we sense objects of desire around us (e.g. TV, food, phones, etc.).

  • Second, our brains link these up as either pleasant or unpleasant. We then end up craving the pleasant — even if it’s something like alcohol that, by itself doesn’t taste good. We crave it because it leads to both a pleasurable experience as well as taking away unpleasant emotions.

  • Finally, the initial experience of satisfying a craving creates a new memory in the brain. We continue to seek out actions to satisfy the desire and thus an addictive pattern is born.

As Brewer points out in his new book, [The Craving Mind](, we are never in direct contact with the objects of our desires — only with mental representations of them in our minds. Everything in fact is in the mind.

And that’s good news. Because it gives us hope to be able to break out of it.

We cannot change the outer objects that trigger cravings. We can’t make Netflix go away, we can’t hide every dessert in the world forever. But we can change how we see our mental representations of those objects.

How Mindfulness and Meditation Help

Since we only have our mental images to deal with, mindfulness is probably the only tool that can help us cut those links. Brewer’s research suggests that “Mindfulness functions to decouple pleasant and unpleasant experiences from habitual reactions of craving and aversion by removing the affective bias that fuels such emotional reactivity.”

More traditional ways to resist cravings and break bad habits usually focus on removing cues, changing the environment, and so on. But mindfulness can sever the craving cycle from its source in the brain. Experiments and research about the success of mindfulness in breaking various addictions prove this.

More than two decades ago, Brewer taught a similar mindfulness course to smokers. Smokers in his course quit at five times the rate of those in a different group who took an American Lung Association class called “Freedom from Smoking” at the same time.

After closely paying attention to the feeling and taste of smoking at the moment, one addict was disgusted by how smoking tasted like stinky cheese and chemicals, which helped her quit. “If you want to change it, you have to rub your brain’s little…nose in its own poop so that it clearly smells how stinky it is,” Brewer writes in Unwinding Anxiety.

He used a simple strategy to use when cravings arise — RAIN:

  1. Recognize/Relax into what is arising, i.e. your craving

  2. Accept/Allow the craving to be there; don’t resist it.

  3. Investigate bodily sensations, emotion, and thoughts (for example, as, “What is happening in my body or mind right now?”)

  4. Note what’s happening on a moment to moment basis

This makes you aware and curious about your cravings. Instead of blindly giving into them, you can be aware of your emotions, triggers, and actions.

Gradually, the real reason behind the craving will emerge — was it the anger after an argument? Was it a mid-day pick-me-up?

By getting curious about your own self and behaviors, you can detach yourself from the limited identity. You’ll no longer think of (for example) smoking as something that’s a part of your personality. Instead, you can find a distance between you and the bad habit.

Moderation Comes After Control

We all want to be at the point where we can enjoy the things we love without getting addicted to them. This is possible. Brewer found his patients who overcame overeating habits with mindfulness could enjoy eating some chocolate without falling back into their old habits of addiction.

The point is not to detest every single bad habit. Smoking, on one hand, shouldn’t be done even moderately. But something as inconsequential as having a piece of chocolate every now and then can be managed.

To do this, you have to be mindful enough to question your motivation behind the act. Why are you having the chocolate? Is it because you’re feeling down and have nothing else to do? Or is it because you really want to have something sweet after your meal?

Once you know the hidden feeling you’re trying to cope up with, you can find healthier alternatives. For instance, if you feel down, you can call a friend, watch a movie, read a book, and so on. As another example, if you crave to check social media, you can find another way to deal with boredom or loneliness.

Once you gain command over your underlying emotions, which takes time, you can establish much healthier levels of moderation in your habits. But it’s only possible by being mindful of your emotions and having enough self-control.

Final Thought

A decade ago, when meditation was nowhere to be seen in the modern world, no one would’ve guessed that cravings can be managed by just being mindful of it.

In theory, the idea is simple. And so it is in practice. The reason we can’t control our cravings is we live on autopilot. We let them control us.

By cultivating a higher level of awareness we can pause and have a sharp look at them. We can see them for what they are — just thoughts. And then, we can consciously choose not to engage.

It’s simple. Don’t complicate it. Don’t complain about how hard it is. Just do the work to increase your awareness and you’ll be surprised how far it takes you.

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Written on April 1, 2021