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Michael Sigman: Meditation and Addiction: A Two-Way Street?

Nov 16, 2010 12:29:17 AM- huffingtonpost.com
Not too long ago, I had dinner with a neuroscientist who in addition to being a genius is a dedicated meditator. The way he explained the wonders of neuroplasticity -- how our thoughts and actions can change our very brain structure in ways that ameliorate anxiety, compulsive behavior and addiction -- was more electrifying than the endorphin jolt provided by the Nirvana-like pizza and the caffeinated Cokes we inhaled.

But when my friend waxed a bit too proudly about his meditation practice -- two hours every day in full lotus position! -- my fascination veered towards envy. Leaving aside the fact that sitting in full lotus position would be as feasible for me as diving in full pike position, I couldn't help thinking that maybe I could be a genius too if only I meditated longer and better.

The stress-reducing benefits of meditation notwithstanding, most people would rather do just about anything than sit still and do nothing. For those trying to develop a regular practice, even washing the dishes or doing laundry can seem like scintillating alternatives.

Then there are those few for whom meditation can become compulsive, even addictive. The irony here is that an increasing body of research shows that meditation -- in particular Buddhist Vipassana meditation -- is an effective tool in treating addiction.

One category of meditation addiction is related to the so-called "spiritual bypass." Those who experience bliss when they meditate may practice relentlessly to recreate that experience, at the expense of authentic self-awareness. A close friend who's done Transcendental Meditation for decades feels so addicted to it, she has a hard time functioning when she hasn't "transcended." Of course, many thousands have benefited from TM, including both my parents. But a quick Google search reveals this and other sources devoted to "kicking the TM habit."

At the other extreme are those, including myself, who never feel the bliss. Our compulsion to sit day after day arises from a fear that if we don't, the benefits of better sleep, increased clarity and greater insight will slip away. To be sure, this is a positive habit, like working out regularly, practicing a musical instrument or checking email every two seconds -- okay, scratch that last one. But we Type-A's need to be mindful of the fine line between the rewarding practice of these activities and an unhealthful attachment to them. As with the spiritual bypass, if you meditate too competitively or compulsively, you might be evading the truth rather than getting closer to it.

I worked out almost every day for years until injuries and doctors convinced me that taking off one day a week actually produced better physical fitness. I'm not saying meditators who feel they must sit every day should do the same, but it might be a worthwhile experiment.

Such recent books as Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code, Norman Doidge's The Brain That Changes Itself, Malcolm Gladwell's The Outliers and Geoff Colvin's Talent Is Overrated have fleshed out the advantages that accrue to athletes, musicians and titans of industry from what's come to be called "deep practice," in which full concentration and intense focus -- being in the moment -- can facilitate world-class feats and bring mega-rewards.

Meditation teachers and masters have long referred to their most revered colleagues as having "deep practice." But here the rewards aren't bonuses, chart-topping records or gold medals; they're what the rest of us prideful, envious, competitive and otherwise flawed seekers strive for: greater self-knowledge coupled with an understanding that everything, including our own sense of who we are, is constantly changing. As Alan Watts, a deep practitioner if ever there was one, said, "Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth."

Gotta sign off now. If I don't meditate soon...

Read more: Google, Lotus Position, Depression, Vipassana, Norman Doidge, Nirvana, Addiction, Meditation, Geoff Colvin, Daniel Coyle, Alan Watts, Malcolm Gladwell, Buddhism, Anxiety, Transcendental Meditation, Living News