The opposite of addiction

A few months ago, I wrote about opposites, and how the way we define opposites define the idea itself. For example, I wrote about how the opposite of not enough is enough, rather than too much. Thinking about how to define the opposite of something helps us define the thing itself.

In that paradigm, what is the opposite of addiction? Most people think about the opposite of addiction as abstinence. After all, if we are habitually engaging in a behavior, the opposite of that must be to just… not do it? But perhaps that’s not quite right. Addiction is complex, and involves much more than simply using a substance (or engaging in a behavior). It is often the behaviors that accompany the addiction that are as problematic and destructive as the use of the addiction itself. It is putting our focus on the addiction above all else, or prioritizing the addiction over the people we love, that makes it so painful.

Addiction, in this context, does not just apply to substance abuse. Yes, of course addiction to a substance such as alcohol, opiates, or amphetamines is problematic. But addiction can also apply to a behavior, and exists in a spectrum. We can all empathize with continuing to engage in behaviors that we know are not in our interest— think about paying too much attention to our phones, or exercising less than we need to, or eating things that taste good but feel bad. If we are honest, most of us can identify places in our life where this concept applies, even if not full-blown substance abuse.

A large part of the reason we turn to chemicals or our phones or food or sex is not because we want to, but because we are seeking distraction from discomfort with the present moment. We feel that immersing ourselves in the here and now is untenable, so we check out. Substance abuse is the ultimate distraction— the ultimate way of checking out of the present. But the idea applies to other habitual distractions that pull us out of the present moment.

If addiction in all its forms— whether full-blown chemical coping or being constantly pulled to our phones— is distraction from the present moment because we cannot tolerate being in the present, what is the opposite? Perhaps, it is meditation.

Meditation is a deceptively simple practice. Sit down, be present, notice what is happening. Pay attention both to our senses and our mind. It is the practice of noticing, moment after moment, without judgment, ourselves and the world around us. Whereas addiction is the never-ending pursuit of trying to escape the present moment— with either a chemical or a screen or something else— meditation is the conscious, intentional practice of fully immersing ourselves in the here and now.

Addiction is zoning out. It is not being present or paying attention to where we are, what we are doing. Meditation is the opposite of this— paying full attention to what we are doing, being complete attention to what it is that we are doing. With addiction, we are running from the thoughts and feelings in our mind, using something, anything to avoid what is in our heads. With meditation, we are putting our attention fulling in the present.

Most people that are engaging in addictive behaviors recognize that the behavior is causing problems. However, there are a legion of reasons that are given to justify, explain, or minimize the significance of the behavior. All of these lies we tell ourselves are generally uncomfortable to sit with– so we tend to push them away. While meditating, part of the practice is to just sit with our thoughts, and recognize them as they are. To accept our thoughts and interior world without judgment, to simply notice what is present. The opposite of denying thoughts and trying to push them away is not to avoid having the thoughts in the first place, but instead to just be aware of their presence and their impermanence. It is the practice of honesty, “Yes, I am having this thought. Yes, it makes me uncomfortable. And yes– it will pass, because it is impermanent. I do not need to act on it, I can just notice it.”

By defining the opposite of addiction as meditation, it gives us something to move toward. If we are trying to spend less time on our screens, for example, the absence of the screen is not necessarily success. Instead, we need to recognize that it with using the screen to pull us out of the present moment that is issue– and so, fulling immersing ourselves in the present moment is what we are trying to move towards. Putting down our phone to watch Netflix does not solve the problem; putting down our phone to be present with the people around us does.

Addiction is the epitome of checking out of the present moment. Meditation is the ultimate practice of being aware of the present moment. Addiction is the inability to sit with discomfort. Meditation is the practice of sitting with whatever arises.

Move toward the present.