Managing Addiction

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

How to manage addiction has been the topic of much research. Today we will look at an early investigation into the effects of meditation on marijuana smoking. Although the research process has undergone many refinements in methodology since then, I believe that this trial project provides some important indicators about the role of meditation in helping to change one's habits.

The study was conducted from January to June 1982 at the Gladman Memorial Centre, California, USA. Dr Todd Mikuriya and I decided to experiment with meditation in the management of mental habits by observing the effects of meditation practice on marijuana smokers. The subjects were seventy young males aged between fifteen and twenty-two, selected by Dr Mikuriya on the basis of their history of marijuana smoking. There is no limit to how many joints one can smoke a day; addicts say they feel a continuous need to remain high.

A very simple criterion for improvement was selected, which was no longer having the desire to smoke marijuana. The entire experiment consisted of a thirty minute meditation class conducted daily for six months. The class began with five minutes of shavasana, followed by twenty minutes of ajapa japa meditation and concluded with five minutes of Om chanting.

Relaxation practice

At the beginning of the class we asked the students to simply lie down and relax, while we took them through the practice of progressive relaxation in shavasana for five minutes. The sequence, as you know, is relaxation of the entire physical body, then awareness of the breath in the abdominal region, expansion of the abdomen with inhalation and relaxation of the abdomen with exhalation. We asked the students to become like a rag doll or toy and to make the body free from any kind of tension. Then we would check to see if any tension was being held by lifting up different parts of the body. This deep relaxation wasinduced for only five minutes.

Ajapa japa practice

After the relaxation practice, we asked the students to sit up in a meditative posture, keeping their eyes closed. Initially some would open their eyes so we gave them eye patches to wear because we did not want any visual stimulation affecting the state of relaxation in the brain. We then guided the students for twenty minutes in the practice of ajapa japa.

Ajapa japa, as many of you know, is another practice in whichdeepeningof concentration and internalization of awareness takes place. We began by witnessing the flow of the natural breathin the nasal passage. The actual flow of the breath in the nostrils was experienced by focusing the mind on the temperature of the breath during inhalation and exhalation. We intensified awareness of the cool sensation within the nostrils at the time of inhalation and the warm sensation within the nostrils at the time of exhalation.

At the time of the study, it was my understanding that concentration on the temperature of the air going in and out of the nostrils somehow helps to balance the activities of the two brain hemispheres. In hatha yoga it is said that the flow of the breath is connected with the activation of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The flow in the right nostril stimulates the left hemisphere and the flow in the left nostril stimulates the right hemisphere.

Subsequent research has shown that the flow of the breath in the different nostrils stimulates and alters the functions of the different brain hemispheres. I follow the very simple yogic theory that the right nostril is the location of pingala nadi, the source of heat and vitality, and the left nostril is the location of ida nadi, the source of coolness and tranquillity. Therefore, if we were able to merge the mind with the experience of breathing and the temperature of the breath, I thought it would be possible to induce changes in the patterns of the brain waves. This can be achieved through concentration and awareness of the fact that one is breathing in and out, and observing the temperature of the breath.

You can also do an experiment, not here because the environment is already peaceful, but in an environment where there is a lot of stimulation and stress, so you will see the result. At home or at work, when you are mentally and emotionally fatigued, feeling tired and drained of vitality, and there is nervous, muscular and emotional tension, simply close your eyes for a few minutes. Watch the flow of the breath in the nostrils and observe the temperature of the breath. By doing this you will feel a lot calmer and more in control of yourself and your expressions. This experiment will allow you to experience the change in the pattern of the brain waves, which you will feel subjectively as greater relaxation and control over the personal, emotional and intellectual expressions.

After observing the breath in the nostrils, we then asked the students to become aware of the movement of the breath in the frontal passage between the nose and the navel. Normally when we breathe in the air goes down into the lungs and when we breathe out the air comes up out of thelungs. However, in the practice of ajapa japa, we reverse the awareness factor, so at the time of inhalation the students had to imagine the breath was ascending from the navel tothe nostrils and at the time of exhalation that the breath was descending from the nostrils tothe navel.This practice internalized their attention and awareness so deeply that there would come a time when they would stop hearing the noises outside, although their ears were not blocked. By keeping the eyes closed, or by wearing eye patches, there was visual deprivation,and by observing the flow of the breath there was auditory deprivation.

We then introduced the component of mantra repetition with the breath. In ajapa japa, as you know, the mantra So Ham is used. So represents the sound of inhalation and Ham represents the sound of exhalation. At the same time, however, the mantra also creates a change in the vibratory dimension of the personality, which has the effect of making the mind more focused, tranquil and peaceful. After practising mantra repetition with the breath for five to seven minutes, we ended the practice of ajapa japa. The students then chanted Om verbally for five minutes, still keeping their eyes closed. This ended the thirty minute class.

Improvements observed

No longer having any desire to smoke marijuana was the criterion selected for improvement. The results indicate that during the six months the majority of students showed this improvement. After one month of meditation practice, six reported that they no longer felt any desire to smoke and three that they had reduced their intake. After two months another ten reported that they had stopped smoking and twenty that they were smoking less. After three months a further nineteen reported that they had reduced their smoking and fourteen no longer wanted to smoke. After four months another eight reported that they had stopped and six that they were smoking less. After five months another eleven had reduced and ten reported they had stopped. At the end of the six months, another seven no longer had the desire to smoke, four had reduced their intake and eleven still showed no change. So, during the six months, out of the initial seventy students, fifty-five reported no longer having any desire to smoke marijuana.

Family background

In order to find out why most subjects improved while a few did not, Dr Mikuriya decided to investigate their family backgrounds. He found that the eleven students who had shown no improvement had major problems with their parents. There were cases of violence in the family, or the parents had separated and the children had been left tofendfor themselves with no source of affection, support and security.

Another interesting point to emerge was that the fifty-five subjects who had shown improvement all had very good family environments, with parental support, consideration and kindness from other family members. They reported that they had been luredinto smoking with the idea of experimenting with something new.

It has been our experience that even those people who come from very disturbed family backgrounds can be helped in an ashram environment. For such people the ashram creates an environment of security and care, which helps them to manage their habits and addictions more efficiently.

The role of meditation

What I wanted to describe here was the role of meditation. We often tend to think that meditation is a process of spiritual enlightenment or greater spiritual understanding, but meditation is a very big subject. In English, the word 'meditation' represents a state of mental attention; it is not a means of attaining tranquillity but a method of becoming more attentive internally. We can even say that mental attention equals meditation. When you become attentive internally, you are forced to become a witness to what is transpiring in your inner personality. If I ask you to observe your thoughts, what are you doing? You are not in a deep meditative state when you are observing your thoughts, rather you have become alert and aware of a mental process.

Yoga says that nobody in this world has been able to experience meditation. We only experience different or varying degrees of concentration, focus and alertness, but nobody can experience meditation because it is a state of mind beyond the realm of time, space and object. So we do not meditate. We try to understand what we are feeling in the realm of emotions and intellect, and the social influences on our personality.

Paramahamsaji has said many times that in the state of meditation, the meditator, the object of meditation and the experience of meditation become one. When we start yoga, we see the three clear divisions of pratyahara, dharana and dhyana. These practices indicate development of an attentive awareness that makes us realize the inner and outer interactions of an individual. Once we are able to become attentive to our own difficulties, restrictions, limitations and problems, then often we are able to manage them spontaneously and more naturally. If there is a psychological imbalance, a feeling of not being loved or wanted, of being restricted, then when you begin to observe that imbalance you naturally find a balance. This attentive awareness is recognized as the observer, the drashta or seer in yoga philosophy.

Take a look at yourself and you will see others differently.
Put your hands in the hands of the man from Galilee.

This song indicates the process of yoga that allows us to perceive ourselves in our natural, optimistic form. Difficulties in life come when we are unable to understand a problem and our responses to it. Then all our expressions become a reaction to something that we are unable to adjust to or understand. We react to our family, our social conditioning, our social environment, and we react against ourselves by becoming self-destructive. So in order to appreciate the qualities within one's self and to understand the situations that influence us, self-observation and awareness of personal responses is very necessary. This can happen through meditation.

The lesson today is that there is no escaping from the realities, but we must understand and accept what exists within and around us. Therefore, adjust, adapt and express the best in yourself.