“It is likely that your view of happiness is the main obstacle keeping you from being happy. Please look into your idea of happiness. You may think you need this or that to be happy. It may be that if you abandon your view of happiness, happiness will be available for you here and now. All the conditions for happiness are already here.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh, dharma talk in June 2000
During my stay at Deer Park Monastery this fall, one of my biggest struggles was withdrawal from my sugar addiction. If you know me, you know that I LOVE sweets. Especially chocolate. When my life gets stressful, I escape into chocolate, cookies, ice cream, or anything else high on the glycemic index. I love the taste of sweets. But sometimes I don’t even taste them; I just gobble them mindlessly. After gobbling, I enter a pleasant state of oblivion, hovering dreamily a few feet above my body (and my problems) for a few blessed minutes. Then I usually get a headache, have a bad taste in my mouth, have trouble with my digestion, and want more sugar so I can feel spacey again. It’s a vicious cycle. The more sugar I eat, the more I want.
Of course, the nuns and monks at Deer Park are extremely healthy eaters. There’s no chocolate, meat, dairy, French fries, potato chips, or other fun-camouflaged-as-food at the monastery. I knew my retreat would be a prime opportunity to break my sugar habit.
On my way to Deer Park I was like a bachelorette having a last one-night stand. I stopped for a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream bar and then curly fries and an Oreo milkshake from Jack-in-the-Box. I felt jittery, jacked-up, driving 80 mph to get to the monastery.
“I have arrived. I am home.” These words, calligraphed on a small wooden placard, greeted me outside the door of my cabin. At Deer Park, every moment of daily life is seen as a chance to practice meditation. The emphasis is on enjoying life in the present moment, because in fact, the present moment is all we have. If we bring our full attention to it, then it comes alive. “I have arrived” means we don’t need to go anywhere but here; we can rest in this moment, here and now. “I am home” means we can feel at home with life as it is. If we relax in this moment, we are already at home.
I had arrived. I sat on the front steps of the cabin and listened to the monastery. From the meditation hall came the sound of nuns chanting in Vietnamese, along with a steady drumbeat and reverberating bell. There was the whistly song of crickets. But underneath all these sounds was silence. Vast silence. There was the sound of my breath, but there was also a pause between my in-breath and out-breath. That pause was the same as the silence. It was empty, spacious.
In my first week at the monastery I thought a lot about food. Mealtimes were very structured; the sisters ate every meal together at specified times. Most meals were shared in silence, so that people were not distracted by conversation while they practiced “mindful eating,” being fully aware of each bite. The food was vegetarian, abundant, and delicious. But there was no snacking between meals. So I thought obsessively about the Clif Bars in my car. Even after a completely satisfying dinner, when I wasn’t hungry, I had an overpowering desire to eat one of those Clif Bars for dessert. I wanted a treat. I knew this was my sugar-craving neurosis, but I wanted it. I waited until my roommate took a shower, then I went out to my car, got a Clif Bar and ate it. It tasted okay. I had a moment’s satiation. Then the predictable bad taste and heaviness in my gut.
Over the next few days, I still craved chocolate. I felt like Winnie the Pooh without honey. My cravings waned a little, but I still thought about food between meals. Then a dharma talk gave me some insight.
We all gathered in the sisters’ meditation hall to listen to the dharma talk, given by Thich Nhat Hanh (recorded in Vietnamese, played on CD, and translated for the English speakers by one of the bilingual sisters). Thây talked about desire, and how important it is for us to be aware of our desires and to “throw them out.” We can throw out our desires the same way we throw out thoughts when they come up in meditation, and bring our attention back to breathing in and breathing out.
He talked about our “pursuit of things that are harmful to us.” I thought about all the ice cream I ate in the week before coming to Deer Park.
To illustrate his message about desire, Thây gave two metaphors. First, he told a story about a man who is very thirsty, and goes into a house where there is a bottle of water. But someone in the house tells him not to drink it, because it’s actually poison. If the man loses himself to forgetfulness and doesn’t remember that this liquid is poison, gives in to his thirst and drinks from the bottle, he dies.
Thây’s second example: “If you go fishing, you use bait that is colorful and attractive to the fish. The bait may not even be real food; it may be plastic, but it is designed in a way that looks delicious to the fish. Inside the bait is a hook. The fish thinks it is getting a delicious treat but instead it is biting a hook.”
He gave these stark analogies to show that desire can make us forgetful and blind. When something looks yummy, even when it’s unhealthy or deadly to us, we pursue it anyway, overpowered by our desire. I thought about cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, caffeine, sugar: alluring poisons that have us hooked.
Desire is a muscular force, hard to resist. Every time we obey our desire and give in to a habit, that desire becomes a little stronger. One of the sisters explained that our desires and feelings run along neural pathways in our nervous system. Each time a desire is felt and acted upon, a certain groove is etched into the neural pathway. The more often we act on the desire, the deeper that groove becomes. Repetition breeds habit. It’s like memorizing a song. The more you sing it, the deeper its neural track grows, so that pretty soon you can sing the song without even thinking about it. You can sing it while doing laundry and making a mental note to buy popsicles. It becomes a reflex, a knee-jerk impulse, seemingly beyond conscious choice.
The more we feed our habits, the stronger they get.
Impacted by the dharma talk, I thought about antidotes to my habit:
1. Feed other habits instead. When we have an annoying song stuck in our head, the best remedy is to splash it out of the water with another song. For me, instead of feeding the sugar habit, I can feed myself a healthy snack. Since sugar cravings are thinly-disguised pleas for energy, a protein snack like yogurt, nuts, or a hard-boiled egg is much more satisfying for the tired cells of my body. Or, when I feel a gnawing for chocolate I can splash it out of my consciousness with another activity that releases endorphins and lights up happy neural pathways… running around the neighborhood, going dancing, writing a passionate poem. It might take ever-flashier distractions to veer me off the crash course of sugar addiction. The process takes patience.
2. Think of the hook inside that shiny chocolate wrapper. It will spike my blood sugar, then drop me into headachy tiredness.
3. Return to the moment. Realize what is happening here and now. If I am awake and reveling in the textures and colors around me, then my problems drop away. I am home. So I don’t need any escape, even chocolate.
A lot of us are hooked on unhealthy habits, habits that our hurtful to us. If we’re willing to pursue things that are harmful to ourselves, what does this mean about how we’re willing to treat other people? Maybe if we start treating ourselves with respect, we’ll be more motivated to treat others in kind.
We all have the ability to nourish healthy habits. There’s no time except the present moment to make this choice. Our bodies are miracles, functioning harmoniously in ways we don’t even know about. While I’m writing this, my bones are assembling blood cells, my lymph cells are fighting off bacteria, my kidneys are turning water into urine, and my brain is singing a song that’s been stuck in my head since yesterday. How does it all happen? Miraculous synchrony unfolds in our bodies at every moment. It lets us see the blue sky, hear crickets and drums and laughter, walk into sunlight and feel warmed, hold the hand of someone we love. These bodies are treasure beyond price. Why would we want to put anything but pure, clean, nourishing, life-enhancing substances into them? We have every reason to treat ourselves like sanctuaries.
All the conditions for happiness are already here. We’re home in the here and now. If we knew this, would we still chase things that are harmful to us? When we’re home, why go anywhere else?