Sunday, March 20, 2011

Breaking a habit: A true story

We learn a lot from day to day interactions with people. I happened to have one such interaction that reinforced my notion that every habit, however strong can be overcome. I was visiting a hospital in Ohio recently and while making morning rounds we were asked to see J.M. who was admitted with a serious heart condition brought on by illicit drug use. As I walked into the room, J.M. immediately burst out saying “don’t look at me as if I have a drug problem, I am a normal human being just like everyone else”. After proceeding with the examination and going over his plan of treatment, I wondered if his opening statement would give me an opportunity to pry into his drug habit. I then proceeded to ask him what his circumstances were right before he came into the hospital.

He said that he was on his way to the bus station to catch a bus to a city several hundred miles away in an effort to get away his present environment that was unfortunately conducive to his drug habit. On the way to the bus station, with just enough money for the bus ticket, he happened to run into an acquaintance. That meeting turned into a decision to buy drugs and his money for his bus ticket disappeared.  For the last several years his on and off drug habit had rendered him penniless and his marriage was broken. More recently, just before coming into the hospital, he was evicted from his apartment. This was a man that had a college degree and a well paying job at one time. For the first time in his life, he was facing the prospect of homelessness.

He proceeded to say that his “mind” kept dragging him back to his habit. In effect, he was a slave to his mind. He identified his mind with his drug habit. Every time he made the choice to pursue his habit, he said that he was powerless to overcome his mind. I asked him to identify this “powerless” thought with his intellect. You can also refer to this as the voice of reason, conscience, the inner gospel etc. In fact, this situation is quite common. If you carefully watch your thoughts, and you find a thought urges you into action, there is usually an accompanying thought that tries to nudge you in a different direction. For example, let’s say someone approaches you for help. Your first impulse may be to offer whatever help is required. Right after you have this thought of helping that person, you immediately get another thought that may suggest various reasons why you should not offer that help. Another example. Let’s say you want to go exercise. Once you decide to go exercise, you are immediately presented with a set of thoughts that give you all the reasons why you should not exercise. Listening to these thoughts, you might find excuses not to exercise.

To generalize this concept, if you have a thought of doing something good, another thought may appear right after suggesting why you should not pursue that course. Conversely, if you have thoughts that lead you to pursue counterproductive actions, you will have a second accompanying thought telling you not to go that route. Using your intellect, you can make a choice to pursue the better of the two sets of thoughts. Unfortunately, through the force of habit, you tend to repeatedly pick one or the other, irrespective of whether it is good or bad. By constantly remembering that the thought that leads you to repeat a habit is always accompanied by another thought that tells you otherwise is the first step in overcoming any habit. If you stop, think and find this accompanying thought, encourage it and strengthen it, you can overcome any habit.

For someone like J.M. who has hit rock bottom and is on the verge of homelessness, how you do get this point across in a manner that he would easily remember? I kept it simple for him. Since he said that his mind always made him seek drugs, I asked him to associate his drug habit with his mind. He had mentioned that he also had thoughts that told him walk away from his habit. However this was a very weak thought. I asked him to associate this weaker thought with his intellect. When I asked him what he had done to overcome his habit, he said that he had tried to do some service through his church group in order to distract his mind. In order to amplify a thought, you need a strong anchor. I asked him to anchor the thought that was telling him not to do drugs with this spirit of service that he had.

So, his drug habit was associated with his mind, and his intellect was associated with his spirit of service and thoughts that told him walk away from his habit. He mentioned that this made sense, but he needed a constant reminder if he were to pull it off. I taught him a simple technique using three fingers of his right hand. I asked him to use his thumb, forefinger and little finger in this exercise. He could assign either the mind or the intellect to the thumb. Since the other fingers in our hand depend on the thumb, if he assigned the mind to the thumb, the drug habit would follow and the forefinger represented this habit. The intellect or his inner voice would then be relegated to the little finger, powerless to act against the thumb and forefinger. On the contrary, if he associated his thumb with his intellect, his thoughts of not doing drugs, then the spirit of service would follow. The mind and his drug habit would then be associated with the little finger, powerless to act.

Since the right hand is connected to the left side of the brain and the left hand to the right brain, I asked him to associate both the right and left thumbs with his intellect and reasoning telling him give up his habit. I also asked him to join the tips of the thumb and forefinger while making this association to reinforce the good thoughts of doing service that was linked to his intellect. He was instructed to do this several times that day.

When I followed up the next day, I asked him to join his thumb and forefinger and see what thoughts coursed through his head. He said whenever he did this, all he could think of was giving up drugs and dong some good in the form of service through his church group. He proceeded to say that he was definitely going to make that bus trip and begin a new chapter in his life once he left the hospital. He promised to call once he made that trip.

I will give you an update once I hear from J.M...