Have you ever tried to quit a bad habit and failed? The modern day method of quitting a habit tends to be “just power through it”. This method involves expending energy to repress the pattern or behaviour that is undesired. More often than not, this type of repression leads to relapse, and failure. The real problem is that it’s dealing with the symptom, the undesired behaviour, rather than the cause. Desire is the cause of the behaviour. Dropping desire, is the way to deal with the root of the problem.

Repression versus dropping desire

What is the difference between repression of a habit or addiction, and dropping of a habit or addiction? I’ve heard many teachers speak about how repression is just as bad as addiction; they are two side of the same coin. Attraction, aversion. They are just a mental polarity, that is in relation to a focus on an object (where the object is the subject of the habit or addiction). To drop desire is completely different.

This teaching is deep, and can cause much confusion for people who are dealing with an addiction, or attraction to a sensory experience like being drunk/high, sexual union, eating food, feeling powerful/beautiful, etc. We all have various degrees of either attraction or aversion to one or many of these things. To confirm this, all you need to do is look at the types of things that marketers use to convince people to buy their products. Look at all the advertising, lifestyle stories, Instagram posts.

What I’m saying is that this teaching is confusing for most people. On one hand, the teacher is telling me to aspire to be ‘pure’, drop my ‘attachment’ to things and sensual experiences, basically aspire to live like a monk. But on the other hand, they say “do not repress your desires”. At face value, these two statements appear to be contradictory.

But they aren’t.

12 Steps to Bondage

Let’s explore a common repression technique that is used to get people off of harmful substances (in many cases unsuccessfully). At the core of most programs, there is the admission of powerlessness, then subjugation of “self” to a higher power. Admission of flaws, reliance on another to help direct towards salvation. In a way, it’s a bit of a trick.

If it’s going to work, eventually you have to believe that a higher power is always watching you. This makes it harder for “you” to get away with unconsciously consuming the substance. You become aware of your actions, and fearful about the knowledge of the higher power.

Combine that with group sessions and a guide who checks in with you to reinforce things, and now you have public shame, and the desire to appease your guide. So this carrot and stick method is combined with a splitting of your consciousness into competing desires.

This culminates in repressing that shadow part of you that still wants to drink, or consume the substance. It’s still there, it’s just become quiet. It’s been pushed into your deep unconscious, and is waiting for an opportunity to overpower these new patterns that have been implemented to control it.

How Repression Fails

The real problem with this method of repression is that it requires constant maintenance. They even train people in these systems to always identify as “a recovering alcoholic”. This is because with the method of repression, constant energy is required to ensure that the repressed does not pop back up and take control of the “self” again. Identifying as a “recovering whatever” is a constant reminder about how tenuous their connection to the state of being “not drunk” is.

Imagine, living the rest of life constantly having to look around every corner, fearful of a minor slip, causing a “relapse”. In reality, this fear of relapse IS key. And in fact, it’s indicative of the fact that the addiction is still there. Instead of being addicted TO the substance, the person is addicted AWAY FROM the substance.
Everything they do, is still in RELATION to the substance.

Dropping your desire

We know that addiction and repression are two sides of the same coin. One is attraction, the other aversion. Both in relation to a substance, activity, or mental object. OK, then what exactly is dropping a desire, and how is it different? And more importantly, how does one go about doing that instead?

Dropping a desire is more of a “letting go”, than it is a “pushing away”. It’s a much longer process, and requires a lot of awareness, and personal introspection. It’s also permanent. The key difference here is that there is NO fear of relapse, because one can take it, or leave it. It no longer matters.

Think about a man who has gone on a diet. Before the diet, he was always thinking about food, how to get it. During the diet, he’s still always thinking about food, but this time, how to avoid it. It is this kind of mind activity that is in question here – NOT the activity itself. The activity doesn’t really matter, it’s a result of a condition, not the root of the problem.

The root of the problem

Why do the masters tell you not to repress? Because these masters are trying to train your mind, trying to unify your mind, not split it. It is only through unification of the mind (you know, all those competing voices, desires, “shoulds”, and “should-nots”) that freedom can be found. Society has split you into a thousand internal voices; “I should be powerful”, “I shouldn’t be fat”, “I shouldn’t flaunt my sexuality”…..All these voices have been programmed into you, and it’s getting crowded in there.

Why do people think that adding ANOTHER voice (see the 12 step program) is the solution?

That which is poisoning you cannot heal you by adding more.

You need to train your mind.

You need to unify your mind.

You need space to breathe.

How do I drop desire

Many of your desires are purely a result of the chaos that is these thousand voices in your head. Without a clear direction they default to numbing out in order to get some space. Some quiet. This is where many addictions come from – not the actual substance, but the desire to quiet the storm of the mind. This in particular is very easy to deal with, a couple months of daily meditation will bring about a quieting of many of the voices that plague you. Following that, many negative behaviors like too much food, too much alcohol, etc, will just drop on their own.

How does this work? As the mind unifies, awareness grows. As awareness grows, so does wisdom. This means that perhaps during this time, you do keep drinking. Remember, you’re not repressing the desire, so when you notice yourself wanting to go out and have a drink – you go with it. The difference is that you are now noticing this happen, and making the conscious decision to pursue it. Instead of just blindly following a desire that you dislike, and have no control over, you are accepting responsibility for doing the action with full awareness.

Wisdom grows from awareness

The wisdom part comes after. The more you become aware of your decisions, the more you also become aware of the RESULTS of those decisions. Now you are no longer pushing the decision and the result into the category of “I don’t like this, but I have to do it”….Now you’re choosing to do it. And you see the results (i.e. hangovers, really bad conversations, toxic behaviors).

Wisdom grows with awareness. You are attracted to the substance. You do the thing. You note the results. You start to like the substance a little less each time. And you can’t ignore it, because you’ve accepted responsibility for the decision. Meaning you are now aware that you’re CHOOSING the results. This CHANGES you. Little by little, you flow away from the substance.

One day…you realize that you haven’t done it in a while. Huh. That’s interesting. Maybe I should try it again just to see if I still like it?

You go and try it. And then you start to wonder what you actually liked about it the whole time.

Shaking your head…you go to the next desire ?

Many desires

That is just the start of the path. We all have many desires, and some of them run deep. For example, sexual desire runs to the root of a primordial instinct, propagation of the species. I certainly would not recommend starting there, since it’s likely a process of years, and also not completely necessary unless you actually have a problem with it. There are many light desires that we can start with, and experiment with. Learn the process before attacking the tough ones.

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    2 replies to "The one mistake people make trying to quit a bad habit"

  • Lisa

    Fkn LOVE this post!! Another aspect of the 12-step is that Identity – is repeating I’m an alcoholic is reinforcing and entrenching a person deeper into this stuck state – exactly like you said – now in the away from mind set – which is equally not free.
    Oh thank gawd for fresh perspectives and rationality!!

    • cian

      Oh wow, I’m truly humbled by your comment, Lisa. Thank you so much!

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