Living With Our Habits

Dr Swami Karmananda Saraswati, MB, BS (Syd.)

The power of tantra to change our thought and behaviour patterns and draw us quickly along the evolutionary path towards higher awareness and dynamic, liberated living is greater than any other. The way according to tantra is simple - accept yourself and be aware. This is a realistic and practical approach to spiritual emancipation, for it teaches us to start where we are, here and now. By fully accepting ourselves, our strengths and deficiencies, the positive and negative qualities of our personalities, our productive, self supporting behaviour patterns as well as our self-destructive habituations, we can glimpse the pure and unhampered state of freedom of mind, heart and spirit, which is the birthright of every man.

If you are a smoker or a drinker, one whose nervous system is addicted to nicotine or alcohol and whose psyche is dependent on 'lighting up' or 'pouring a drink', then you must first fully accept this situation. Is your life a saga of repeated promises to give up smoking or drinking which you have been forever unable to live up to? If so, the chances are that you find your habit unacceptable and feel guilty even while you are indulging in it. Not only are you unhappy about your habit, due to guilt, but you pay a second bounty in being unable to even fully enjoy the times when you do smoke or drink. You are caught in a vicious circle.

The message for anyone plagued by a habit which he would really prefer to be without, but finds himself unable to discontinue, is to realize that there is another way to get around the opposition of the mind besides a direct confrontation and summoning of willpower. Of course, for some aspirants this is the most beneficial way in terms of strengthening the mind. Remember, however, 'that tantra is not only for those few of admirable strength among mankind, but addresses itself to all - the weakest and the strongest equally. Yogis say, accept that you are a smoker or a drinker and when you smoke or drink make a point of enjoying it fully. Then forget about this aspect of your behaviour completely and direct your mental energies into those spiritual practices which are most suitable, productive and enjoyable for your nature. Your guru, or teacher will direct you in this area. Re-channel the stream of mental energy from negative worry and guilt over your destructive habits and transfer it into steadfast and disciplined practice of your yoga sadhana.

If you do this, your life will begin to change rapidly. As your practice begins to bear fruit in your life, you will find that you are less anxious, more open and relaxed. Along with a more positive, attitude towards life, you will have greater enthusiasm and energy for your work. Tantra goes to the source of your craving and eliminates it easily and effortlessly. As your life is enriched, you will find that your slavish, neurotic habits have less of a hold over your awareness. At this stage you may notice that you have effortlessly and imperceptibly cut down on your tobacco or alcohol consumption to a large degree. When life takes on a natural, fresh fullness, you are automatically less inclined to reach for your cigarettes or the bottle. It is important to realize that your habits are with you for a reason. In fact, they serve as safety valves, allowing you a rest from mental tensions which are forever churning over in your mind, and which you, in ignorance, do not know how to release properly. Often, such habits as smoking or drinking, although harmful to your lungs, liver and nervous system, keep an otherwise explosive level of mental tension from premature and perhaps dangerous release in the form of anger, violence or self-destruction. In this situation it may be unwise to break these habits immediately. At this stage, it is far better to practice relaxation/meditation techniques such as yoga nidra zealously and allow the destructive habits to drop away over a period of time, as they are no longer needed.

A study of alcoholics in America is showing that meditation has a huge role to play in helping to remove the problem of alcoholism. Alcoholic patients at two Chicago hospitals are learning meditation and other self-regulation techniques including progressive relaxation, autogenic training, hypnosis and biofeedback under the auspices of Joseph Troiani of Loretto Hospital and Terence Gorski of Ingalls Memorial Hospital.*1

These are the equivalent of the yogic practice of yoga nidra and other meditative practices.

The researchers told members of the American Association for the Advancement of Tension Control that alcoholics use drink to cope with stress. That is, alcohol takes some of the pressure off their lives offering a safety valve, an escape from day to day tensions. Therefore, removing alcohol from the life of an alcoholic makes life more unbearable as he is left in a vacuum. It is as though the safety valve of a pressure cooker was taken away and the pressure inside increases to unbearable dimensions. Meditation has been found to be of great value in filling the vacuum. It acts as a pressure cooker valve, allowing the inner tensions to be slowly and safely released, as through the practice of chidakasha dharana or antar mouna, for example. Thus alcohol is no longer necessary to support our lives.

Troiani and Gorski emphasized that relaxation/meditation, techniques are useful once the critical phase of alcohol withdrawal is over, and that they should be used as an adjunct to medical and psychiatric approaches.

A University of Washington study on 'heavy social drinkers' showed that meditation (Benson's relaxation response), progressive relaxation (Jacobson's method) or a non-specific relaxation (restful reading twice daily, dubbed 'bibliotherapy' by the researchers) gave equal and significant reductions of alcohol consumption.*2

Another group received no therapy at all (a control) but most of these had reverted to their previous drinking habits after 7 weeks. Researchers A. Marian, R. Pagano, R, Bose and J. Marques noted that the groups focus of cure shifted internally. That is, they started to take responsibility for their own cure instead of depending on others outside of themselves.

The prospects of curing alcoholism are widely known to be very bad unless the subject is self motivated. This last study suggests that meditation and yoga nidra are effective therapeutic adjuncts in alcoholics who submit to treatment. To practice yoga and really change oneself requires a degree of willpower and motivation. From that point on the change can be gradually implemented.

From our own experience one of the best ways of strengthening the will is the repetition of a positive resolve or sankalpa during the practice of yoga nidra when the deeper levels of mind are open and also receptive. Repeating a single positive resolve with intensity and one-pointedness can radically alter one's habits and behaviour patterns is a short period of time. The sankalpa becomes firmly established in the deeper levels of consciousness, generating motivation and will, bringing direction and purpose into one's life.

Through these techniques we can overcome alcoholism and other self-destructive habits in our lives and find a new dimension of existence. At the same time we no longer have to suffer from guilt and psychological tension. Once we start to practice yoga, we gain insight and understanding and relieve the tensions that cause a vacuum is our lives, forcing us to resort to alcohol and other drug dependencies. When we are free from tension and are full of insight, addictions naturally fall away by themselves.


*1, *2. "Meditation, Relaxation Helps Alcoholics Cope", Brain Mind Bulletin, vol. 3, no. 7, Feb. 20, 1978.