The First World’s biggest addiction

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My people have a ritual, and in fact I performed this ritual as I sat down to write what you’re reading.

It goes like this: I take a spoonful of special seeds and grind them down into a powder. I run hot water through the powder, and collect the dark liquid that seeps out. I take the cup of hot liquid and bring it to my desk because I believe drinking it will make for a better working experience.

Coming to the desk with this liquid is a tradition for millions of us because getting down to work first thing in the morning is traditionally a less-than-comfortable moment. We welcome anything that seems to make it more comfortable.

This liquid does that. As I drink it, I can feel it has immediate effects on my experience. I kind of feel like dancing, but instead of dancing, I type. I always look forward to the next time I have a chance to do it, sometimes even before I’m done. I don’t do it too often because I know that by the third time in a day, the ritual makes me tired and cranky.

I’ve made the ingestion of this substance an ordinary part of my day, and in fact I own specialized equipment for preparing it: one that grinds the beans into a powder for me, and another machine that makes the powder into the drinkable liquid. Mine is a fairly fancy one that makes a super-concentrated form of the liquid. If you don’t have one (or even if you do) there are also stores whose sole purpose is to have professionals make this liquid for you.

Interestingly, these seeds don’t grow within two thousand miles of me. But I have steady supply through a convoluted channel of farmers, marketers and middlemen. We call the seeds “beans” even though they are actually the pits of a tropical berry, which most of us have never seen.

The bean-liquid industry is worth 100 billion dollars worldwide, but there is another mind-altering liquid whose sales are expected to exceed 1 trillion dollars this year. It’s prepared differently, through fermenting plant materials. We have tried fermenting almost everything to make this stuff, and so there are all different types.

Its effects on your consciousness are a lot more dramatic. It gives you a certain confidence and sense of freedom. Its side-effects are quite reliably awful though. It makes you more careless and less intelligent. If you drink a lot of it (and it is common to drink this amount on purpose) it will make you nauseous, irresponsible and difficult to be around. Still, it is almost as popular as food. 

The regular use of these liquids has become prominent in almost every society. Both made their way around the globe relatively quickly, and everywhere they went, they stayed.

The battle to be anywhere but here

The truth is we human beings are extremely interested in altering our state of consciousness. Even when we’re not using psychoactive substances to do it, we’re constantly trying to make our experience more bearable or more interesting by pulling out our phones, eating something, or flipping something on.

It is amazing what we will do to avoid letting a particular state of mind just be like it is without trying to change it. Why drink a liquid that costs a fortune and makes you fall down, unless you believe there is something seriously wrong with what you would otherwise feel like?

I think we underestimate how uncomfortable we are with most of our normal, unadulterated states. We try to have a lot more control over them than is really possible.

I just did it right now. A moment ago, I didn’t know what line to write next. I became uncomfortable for a moment, and almost got up to make coffee. Then I realized I had just finished a coffee, so instead I went to click on my Gmail, to see if I could find a hit of comfort there instead — even a small, temporary one that puts me right back into the same state a few moments later. It was such a minor discomfort that triggered this.

I have a whole arsenal of weapons I could have unleashed on my discomfort, which — if I hadn’t noticed what I was doing — could have led to an entire day of snacks, Netflix, apps and magazines. If I had gone down this road, I would have carried on until these activities became less comfortable than getting back to work, which does happen eventually, when that escapist glee runs out and turns into guilt.

Substances are especially popular weapons against boredom or discomfort, because they work a) immediately and b) reliably. They give us a kind of power we don’t normally have: direct control over a state of mind.

It’s natural for us to want to improve the quality of our state of mind. But we don’t need to. Most of us are so unaccustomed to voluntarily being with an unpleasant or uncertain state that we don’t even recognize those moments when we reach for the hammer-effect of substances or entertainment.

Even if we know some of these responses cost endless amounts of money, or reliably make us feel worse later, or do nothing but move a problem a few hours later into our lives, we still let the desire for an easier experience (right now) get the better of us. This need to attack all instances of discomfort with some kind of substance or technology becomes its own addiction.

What it costs us

The biggest downside to the state-avoidance habit isn’t that it costs us our money and our time. It’s that we are constantly forfeiting personal power. By reaching for the hammer (whether it’s a beer or a remote control) every time we’d like the moment to be a little easier or more interesting, we are training ourselves to be needy and dependent on circumstances.

By learning to allow different types of discomfort to simply stay in the room with you, without your scrambling for a button to push (real or metaphorical), you make discomfort matter less.

The pool of things you’re afraid of shrinks. It becomes a lot less important to control circumstances, because you know you can handle moments of uncertainty or awkwardness or disappointment without an escape plan.

On his blog, Jacob Lund Fisker often writes about the self-empowering habit of simply allowing discomfort to be a part of your experience sometimes. “Without discomfort, wants turn into needs and luxuries are treated as necessities.” He applied this principle methodically to all aspects of his life, and in five years it left him tough as nails and financially independent.

The more you dodge discomfort (or attack it with chemicals), the more you must dodge it, and the more it hurts when it finally corners you. And of course it will.

The key is noticing that moment in which you reach for the hammer — knowing when you’re trying to clobber your current experience into a more pleasant one. Knowing, and then refraining, is a powerful experience. Even if you do decide to take up arms against that moment, at least you are conscious of it.

No matter what you do, your life is going to be a largely uncontrolled parade of comfortable, uncomfortable and neutral developments. It can be quite a relief to let the comfortable and uncomfortable things arrive in their own time. Needs become simple preferences, and lose their power to strain the heart.

The bad parts become better because they don’t create desperation any more. The good parts become better too, because they’re not as hard fought and often arrive unexpected. And the in-between parts become at worst interesting, because they don’t have to be anything except what they already are.

***

Photo by Ben Cumming


Kenneth March 30, 2014 at 11:04 pm

Thanks for another great article David! It really ties well into the ideas of attraction and aversion, as well as committing to living in the present moment. I’ll be sure to start at least being more aware of why I’m drinking that cup of coffee or bottle of alcohol…it’s certainly not because of the way it tastes!

David Cain March 31, 2014 at 9:10 am

I luuurve the taste of coffee.

I also noticed, while drinking a beer after my no-alcohol experiment, that I really enjoyed the actual drinking part (the taste and the act of it) but the effects were just weird and dark. I thought it would be the other way around.

Mark V. McDonnell March 31, 2014 at 10:42 am

^^^^Ditto, particularly with respect to being surprised about it!

DiscoveredJoys March 31, 2014 at 3:57 am

I’m pretty certain it’s not an only human thing. Elephants eat over-ripe fruit to get a buzz on. Monkeys groom each other. Cats chase rolled up balls of paper. I think this demonstrates a deep need in animals (including humans) to be doing rather than just being, even if the action is just a distraction.

I can’t help thinking that one of the skills in living well is choosing the right distraction, some activity that supports the purpose you have chosen.

David Cain March 31, 2014 at 9:08 am

That’s true, we all do have an inclination to keep doing. But I’m talking about a much more specific mechanism: turning to a luxury item as a response to acute discomfort. Animals don’t have the infrastructure to react to discomfort in the same way. And cats are masters at settling into the moment, without any tools. I often wish I was a cat.

Kenoryn April 2, 2014 at 2:27 pm

My cat seems to have anxiety problems and periodically will just wander around the house, meowing endlessly. I wish I could just give him a beer.

David Cain April 2, 2014 at 4:23 pm

Catnip?

JIM April 6, 2014 at 1:25 pm

“I have lived with several zen masters – all of them cats.” – Eckhart Tolle

Tejbir Wason March 31, 2014 at 4:11 am

Very interesting read. Throughout I could not stop thinking how one’s profession factors into exposure to distractions. As a student of software engineering, I am training to deal with faulty code all day which can be very daunting and uncomfortable and which generates a moment when one is susceptible to distractions. I think the ability of letting oneself enter a state of absolute ambiguity is what separates successful software developers from the rest. Something students must learn as being part of the profession.
Earmarking this one for sure. I should come back and give this a read every other week!

David Cain March 31, 2014 at 9:03 am

I had a hellish experience when I was studying computer programming, precisely because of how I dealt with those “bug moments.” Writing is similar. Every sit-down session is full of snags, it’s guaranteed. But now I’m better at moving through them.

Alice Deeny March 31, 2014 at 4:35 am

I’m so glad I’m not the only one that reaches for my coffee cup when I need a distraction or shops rather than doing yard clean-up or a million other things I don’t want to start. There is this guy… an ordinary Mopar-motorhead-muscle-car guy, who teaches us avoidaholics to run to the uncomfortable zones because it’s where the hidden answers are to our uneasiness. Then he taps a few acupressure points (FasterEFT) around those feelings of discomfort to get rid of it once and for all. This post is very similar message. Love how that happens. Good post!

David Cain March 31, 2014 at 9:15 am

I guess that’s what I’m talking about, essentially. Spend time in the “discomfort zone” and it quickly becomes part of your comfort zone.

Frau_Mahlzahn March 31, 2014 at 4:57 am

Ha ha, and it was that small, little, barely recognizable moment of distraction and discomfort that made me click on my reading list for that short moment of comfort when really I have to finish my assignment…

Yeah.

Sigh.

So long,
Corinna

David Cain March 31, 2014 at 9:00 am

Haha

Michelle March 31, 2014 at 6:11 am

This article was timely and made me feel guilty

David Cain March 31, 2014 at 9:00 am

Monday seems to be the best publishing day for almost everything I write about.

Wan March 31, 2014 at 7:17 am

“This need to attack all instances of discomfort with some kind of substance or technology becomes its own addiction.”

Sometimes, we attack it with passivity. It’s easy to avoid discomfort but it’s not easy to face the repercussions afterward.

Gael Blanchemain March 31, 2014 at 8:29 am

Learning to accept things as they are implies the desire for a change. Tough paradox, but do we really have a choice?

David Cain March 31, 2014 at 8:59 am

I don’t think it always does. But even if there is a desire for change, real-time acceptance is still the best move.

John March 31, 2014 at 8:33 am

Do you know of Joel over at Impossible HQ? He’s big on taking cold showers to confront discomfort right from the get-go. Pretty interesting theory. By taking on discomfort that way, he is able to take on discomfort in any aspect of life.

David Cain March 31, 2014 at 8:57 am

Ah that’s a good one!

Ben March 31, 2014 at 8:54 am

Excellent piece. I have found meditation/mindfulness (which I have taken up over the last few months) to be hugely useful in making me aware of when I am feeling any kind of discomfort, which in actual fact is most of the time. Most of the time this discomfort is very subtle (e.g. a slight boredom, a tinge of social awkwardness) and the simple process of noting and acknowledging it is all that is needed, because this allows you to decide to accept it rather than it persisting at some subconscious level leading to reflex efforts to change the situation/escape the feeling.

I started reading this blog a year ago and it has been a great source of inspiration and catalyst to change. Thank you

David Cain March 31, 2014 at 9:21 am

Hi Ben. Yes, I have been meditating daily recently and have noticed an incredible change in my ability to notice discomfort when it arises. It’s a familiar feeling now: I feel a bit of darkness, like I’ve just heard bad news, and usually there’s a tightness in my stomach. Nowadays I can quickly find the source of it, and I can let it be there because it’s easy to understand why it happened. It never lasts long if I just watch it instead of fighting it. Meditation is so powerful.

Alex March 31, 2014 at 10:11 am

Every time there’s a lull in conversation in my parent’s home, one of them flips on the T.V., and then we have trouble talking over it.

“Most histories are uneventful
Those are the ones that no one tells
Never mind that they comprise most of our lives
That’s what we have television for
An endless loop of self-documentation
Stop-gap response to alienation
Always certain that greater purpose
Is waiting everywhere but here”

Those are lyrics to a song I wrote called Feeling Factory. I think they echo some of the ideas in this post, especially the “The battle to be anywhere but here” section.

Fairly new to your blog, I like what I’m reading.

David Cain April 2, 2014 at 2:57 pm

Hi Alex. That is a really telling moment. Maybe five years ago, I would turn on the TV as soon as I got up, even though I was in the kitchen and not really paying attention to it. I realized much later than I was using the white noise of the TV to fend off the intensity of a quiet moment, in which I could see everything I was doing. It seemed too harsh otherwise — I needed my attention to be divided.

I also noticed another tendency, which I think I have stamped out mostly now: Whenever I had an upset stomach or it was too warm, or I was otherwise physically uncomfortable, I would quickly lapse into a mental dialogue, about anything at all. Whenever I told myself to stop talking in my head, I would notice the stomachache or bothersome condition again. We often use our thoughts (or other stimuli) to defend us from having to pay attention to something unpleasant.

dfhutch March 31, 2014 at 10:32 am

In short, your insights are awesome (and addictive, ha!), content and delivery. Don’t stop(?)

onebreath March 31, 2014 at 10:56 am

This is a piece that will certainly give me pause when I instinctively yearn for that distraction – recognizing it is a need for distraction allows me choices in how to respond. I don’t think pushing through is always the answer, and yet there is power in knowing that getting up to get that cup is a mental break and a choice that I am making, NOT a necessity. As others have mentioned – it’s all about that mindfulness.

That awareness of the reason is particularly important. While the second and third cups of coffee or tea are usually not about the liquid, I think the first one is about the ritual for me. I enjoy the steps of the process and it attunes my mind to what I am about to do. So in that case, I view the making of the coffee as a mindful activity itself that can set the stage for my day.

Tessa~ March 31, 2014 at 11:31 am

More Wisdom… Thank you…

Will be linking to this post, in my own blog. I love pointing people here.

David Cain April 2, 2014 at 2:42 pm

Thank you so much for sharing Raptitude Tessa.

JOYCE March 31, 2014 at 2:29 pm

Thank you for the WHAT FOR? … the WHY? Now I can deal with the HOW.

Helen March 31, 2014 at 3:11 pm

Love this, I work with very challenging children and would love to get this idea across to them, but how? Many of them cannot work for more than 10 minutes without wanting a break! Personally I’m a big fan of stoicism but think maybe it’s beyond young people…any thoughts from anyone?

David Cain April 2, 2014 at 2:52 pm

Good question. I have heard monks and other spiritual teachers talk about how to pass teachings of acceptance onto children. They usually suggest something like this:

1) Child expresses disappointment (or boredom, or worry)

2) You ask them what disappointment/boredom/worry feels like like. Where (in the body) do they feel the feeling? What does [feeling] look like?

3) Ask them later how they feel, once they’re over it, and refer to the earlier feeling.

Children can be surprisingly articulate here. (“It makes my head heavy.” “It looks blue and spiky.”) Kids can learn to look at their feelings as things that come and go, rather than identify with them (I feel sadness, rather than I am sad.)

Aria Darabi March 31, 2014 at 5:51 pm

Great article, man. I’m guilty of playing video games when I should be doing something more important. It’s that escapist in me, he doesn’t want to face reality even though reality has him by the throat.

I certainly hope I can get over my ‘need’ for gaming and instead enjoy it minute by minute rather than session by session.

David Cain April 2, 2014 at 2:40 pm

Thanks Aria. Video games is a big one. In college I kept interrupting my studying to play Civ 2. I didn’t realize at the time that the greatest thing about that game was that it was NOT STUDYING.

Alex Petit April 1, 2014 at 1:24 am

I don’t know if you’ve seen it but comedian Louis CK did a bit on Conan a while back about why he won’t let his kids have phones because we use them as tools to mask our emotions. He goes on to describe a time he was starting to feel sad and resisted the urge to look at his phone allowing the sadness to overcome him which eventually led to a natural happy state. Of course when he says it, it’s a lot funnier. Worth checking out!

David Cain April 2, 2014 at 2:41 pm

I love Louis CK. That sounds familiar but I should look it up again.

Tobi April 1, 2014 at 3:36 am

To be honest David, this is terrifying.

For someone like Jacob Lund Fisker, isn’t it torture to see literally everyone he meets, loves and knows suffer from all of this while he doesn’t have to?

David Cain April 2, 2014 at 2:37 pm

I’m not sure, you would have to ask him. I’m not as practiced at this as he probably is, but I don’t experience the act of refraining as torture at all. It feels like the opposite: freedom.

Tobi April 3, 2014 at 8:39 am

Yes, it is freedom. I meant to say that seeing everyone else without that freedom would be the torture part. Especially if they’re people you love, and they won’t understand if you try to tell them or even show them this article. I guess you can’t save people from themselves!

Thanks David

Koobazaur April 1, 2014 at 4:37 am

Interesting read and seemingly on point. But i recently did a small experiment where i entirely cut out coffee and alcohol for a month and frankly… I didn’t notice much of a difference in anything, except occasionally having the craving but not giving into it.

I understand the psychology and classical conditioning/reinforcement that goes with what you are saying, so i was surprised to see such little effect on me. But i guess it let me get back to drinking with less guilt!

David Cain April 2, 2014 at 2:39 pm

That is interesting. I did a similar experiment a couple of years ago, but it was to study how I felt without those substances active in my system, not so much to study craving and reactivity. This article isn’t really about substance use — that’s just an obvious example of one way we respond to boredom or other kinds of discomfort.

John Doe April 1, 2014 at 5:29 am

I am uncomfortable talking about this right now. I’m not using my real name, of course. One day, I might.

Are you in good physical shape, David?

Have you figured out how to master the cravings for food that you know isn’t good for you? I have not.

I want to find the kill switch for sugar cravings. I am obese. I do not want to die, but I also have insatiable cravings for crap that I know are not good.

This article describes me, to a “T”. I have been having major pains in my left thumb, and I figured out why, when someone asked me a question… “Do you hold your phone in your left hand, primarily?”

Then it dawned on me, that this was a whole new class of injury… that may only be thought of a little bit. I know I’m not the only one who has had this issue, and frequently looks at their phone (as is evidenced by your article!)

I feel like, if these issues can be mastered in my own life… (the food first, phone much later) there’s little I wouldn’t be able to handle.

Signed,

A Desperate Dude :/

David Cain April 2, 2014 at 2:36 pm

Hi John D.

I have not mastered the handling of cravings, no, but I’ve been experimenting with watching them come and go in meditation.

Cravings are insatiable. They appear, and after a while they disappear, but they never stop appearing.

I am learning to notice what it feels like for a craving to appear, and then just sit there and watch the craving — what it does, what it feels like in the body, how it changes as you’re observing it. Learning to observe a craving gives you a chance to consciously choose how to respond to it. This kind of observation is the heart of what meditation is about, and I don’t know a better way to deal with cravings. Have you ever experimented with meditation or mindfulness?

IDPA April 1, 2014 at 5:31 am

On behalf of the IDPA, I register my strongest protest to this anarchic line of thinking.

The International Drug Peddlers’ Association represents pushers of narcotics, alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and other addictive substances.

We would like to point out that
literally thousands derive their families’ livelihood from making and selling these substances.

Besides, these comprise a substantial portion of the economy as a whole. The depression would go amok if everyone cut down these things.

We’re asking politely : stop this kind of anarchic propaganda immediately.

Or else.

David Cain April 2, 2014 at 2:30 pm

Oh no, it’s The Man!

The Man April 3, 2014 at 11:16 pm

Indeed it is. Hello to you too.

But seriously, what about this aspect of the issue?

Our whole economy stands on a pile of such pointless–and sometimes actually toxic–activities. Should all addictive substances and activities cease (or if not cease, shrink to a level of mindful consumption), then two things would happen. First, many would lose their livelihood. And second, the economy would collapse, poof, like a deflated balloon.

While I agree with your article myself, these concerns need to be addressed too, unless we choose to be content with mindful navel-gazing.

Bear April 22, 2014 at 3:03 pm

The ‘economy’ argument is bogus. Healthy economies are not static. All through history various industries have ‘died’, only to be replaced by new ones. Yes, there is temporary financial difficulty but, don’t we pride ourselves on our ability to adapt and change? Or, we can model after Big Oil and other factions who prey on ignorance and fear by using the “but we’d all lose our jobs!” argument. :)

Edward April 2, 2014 at 3:28 pm

Amazing, David! Once again, eloquently put into words something that is almost intangible and close to impossible to describe. When asked, I have a very difficult time describing to friends how I don’t really “want” anything anymore. “Don’t you *want* anything at all?!” “Besides world peace, an end to hunger, and maybe some sort of proper space exploration? …No not really. It would be *nice* to be on a warm beach somewhere, sometimes I crave a certain food, and I’d *prefer* to have a restful sleep tonight, but other than that… Want? No–nothing, really.”
Love how you tied that idea into mood alteration, consumption of substances, moderation, and happiness.

Melissa April 2, 2014 at 5:20 pm

I realized that when my writing gets tough–and this usually happens within the first five minutes–I turn to email, weather, and Stumble to escape that discomfort. Thank you for opening my eyes.

Terrance Moran April 2, 2014 at 6:08 pm

Every day I become uncomfortable, and upset, and I wonder how I can be at peace. And sometimes I drink or smoke or have food and I find depending on what I ingest I either get stronger and more focused or softer and more scattered.
For me the question is what state do I want to be in based on what I am doing or need to do?

Kabamba April 3, 2014 at 7:39 am

I am glad am not alone in the struggle. :-)

Tim April 3, 2014 at 12:37 pm

It is my belief no man ever understands quite his own artful dodges to escape from the grim shadow of self-knowledge.

The question is not how to get cured, but how to live.

Joseph Conrad (1857 – 1924)

sebastian April 6, 2014 at 1:24 pm

I stopped drinking coffee about two weeks ago. I couldn’t focus for a couple of days and the quality of my writings suffered.

Today everything is back to normal, without being dependent from coffee. The struggle paid off.

I think I will still drink a coffee here and there, but never again as a part of my daily routine.

Dave Whilock April 6, 2014 at 3:19 pm

I couldn’t agree more, us new generations constantly crave information and excitement, anytime and everywhere. I can’t tell exactly why is it like that, but what I do know is that these ‘altered’ states of mind can get pretty exhausting for me. On the other hand, they say it’s supposed to be good in preventing dementia and similar deceases.
I enjoyed reading your insight, this is a very interesting topic. Thanks for sharing.

Jason April 9, 2014 at 7:44 pm

Since reading this post a few days ago, it’s been fascinating to start paying attention to this little ‘discomfort’ I’ve had in quieter moments, when the distractions disappear – and the immediate reaction to want to quash that feeling with some substance / distraction.
I used to see these feelings as some bodily NEED, but it’s rather liberating to see it only as a minor discomfort we seek to avoid, and to try and be more present in observing this – even if afterwards I still go ahead and indulge in that coffee ;)

Olga April 12, 2014 at 9:42 am

Sorry David, but I can’t give up my cappuccino. Yes, I am wallowing in the depths of attachment, but it’s a small indulgence that makes me happy. =)

David Cain April 12, 2014 at 10:39 am

Oh I’m not calling for coffee abstinence here. I don’t think I’m giving mine up any time soon. I’m just suggesting we become aware of our tendency to respond to arising discomfort by comforting ourselves. It is really powerful and exhilarating to notice an instance of discomfort and decide to let it be there.

Kathleen May 2, 2014 at 10:01 am

I agree with you, David in that we crave conforming our discomfort. Reminds me of Brene Brown’s statement that we all numb ourselves be it with alcohol, drugs, organizing our things/buying more things. But, she goes on, we cannot selectively numb; if we numb the pain we also numb the joy. Good thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

karen May 2, 2014 at 10:06 am

astute observations. our senses are becoming dulled by our drugs, buttons and screens. wake up, get up, scream if need be, start living. but this does open a can of worms. because it means looking at yourself, your life, your choices. oh, and also what is going on in the world. enough to drive anyone to drink(!)

Juliana Calado May 2, 2014 at 11:57 am

I love this text: not only I agree with what you’re saying, but I see myself described in every word of it. Including the love of coffee.

I’ve moderated my psychotropic accessories for sometime now, only to realize I use some other sort of distraction.
thanks for the alert! I’ll be on the watch of myself ;)

Sabs May 3, 2014 at 9:24 am

Thanks you for sharing such mindful thoughts David! My therapist has always talked me through the importance of living the presence and recognising the feelings of the moment. I’m finally getting into it through meditation and I’m amazed with its power!

David Cain May 4, 2014 at 2:58 pm

Hi Sabs. That’s excellent. I’m going to be writing more about meditation and mindfulness in the near future.

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