Confessions of a Chocoholic: Staying Present in the Midst of Craving
Once upon a time I was a chocoholic.
I admit it. I binged uncontrollably and stashed chocolate everywhere so I would never be without it. Bonbons, truffles, chocolate-covered mints, assorted candy bars, and miniatures of all kinds were buried at the bottom of my purse, tucked in my pockets along with my keys, nestled in the depths of my desk to see me through deadlines, and stuffed in nooks and crannies all around my room. No question about it, I was definitely hooked.
Clearly this was no way to live—I had to do something. But what?
Eventually things got so bad I knew I had to do something—I was gaining weight and sleeping too much, and emotionally, I was on a rollercoaster ride: first rushing to the heights of sugared bliss and then plunging into the depths of despair. Clearly this was no way to live—I had to do something. But what?
As it turned out, a short time later I had an opportunity to move to an ashram. Great, I thought, what better place to overcome my uncontrollable bingeing. For some reason I had the ridiculous notion that all ashramites are pure beings who have overcome all worldly temptations, and just being in their midst would free me of my chocolate obsession. Once I was safely there I was sure I would become calm and centered, and my need for chocolate would vanish. I couldn’t wait.
But to my dismay I found that my addiction was not so easy to shake. It followed me around the ashram like a shadow, clinging to my every move. I was convinced that all the other residents were strictly faithful to the vegetarian, no-sugar diet. I assumed that unless I kept my vice secret I would be asked to leave. But as it turned out, I was not alone.
I don’t know how my secret got out—maybe the smell of chocolate lingered on me like perfume—but before long the news of my chocolate stash was on the grapevine. A steady stream of residents began to sidle up to my door, pleading for just “a little bit.” I became popular, it’s true, but for the wrong reason. I was the queen of chocolate handouts—which only served to strengthen my habit. Not only was I buying more chocolate but people started leaving it at my door! Alas! Instead of magically making my craving disappear, ashram life was making it worse.
Finding the Door
One day I stumbled back to my room in utter defeat. But while unearthing my stash, I suddenly thought, Wait a minute! My hand, filled with chocolate, was already halfway to my mouth. It froze as I began to realize what I was doing. Here I was, living in an ashram and succumbing to my weaknesses and those of the people around me instead of putting into practice what I was learning. I had just come from a lecture about the mind and the importance of witnessing what was going on in there. The gist of what the speaker was saying was that our thoughts lead to actions, and if we sit back and observe our thoughts we can understand why we do what we do, and then we can proceed to change our patterns of behavior, if we choose to. Well, here’s my chance, I thought, Let me give it a try. I put the chocolate down, promising myself that I could have it in ten minutes. (In hindsight, I suspect that telling myself that was the reason I was able to do this at all.) I lay down in shavasana, the corpse pose, and did a systematic relaxation. Then I allowed myself to be one with the breath, exhaling down through my toes and inhaling up through the crown of the head. When I finished the exercise, I just lay still and focused on diaphragmatic breathing. I didn’t count the length of the breaths or make any other effort. I just let my body melt into the floor, surrendering to the waves of inhalation and exhalation washing through it. That was all. And the desire for chocolate was gone. It was as easy as that.
And after the wave of emotion passed, I felt clearer, stronger, refreshed—as if a huge load had been lifted away. And the chocolate had lost its hold on me.
Well, maybe not so easy, for after I allowed myself to relax I realized something was nudging at the edge of my consciousness that wanted to surface. I wasn’t at all sure I wanted it to, but when it finally did, it was as if a bubble of pain had burst, and I found myself sobbing for no apparent reason. I simply allowed that to be as well. I didn’t resist it; I just accepted it for what it was, watching it and letting it be. And after the wave of emotion passed, I felt clearer, stronger, refreshed—as if a huge load had been lifted away. And the chocolate had lost its hold on me.
Not that I gave up chocolate altogether. I kept some around just in case I needed it. But each time I felt the craving, I repeated my simple exercise, always promising myself that I could have the chocolate if I still wanted it when I was finished. I seldom did. Sometimes I found the craving meant I was just
tired and needed to recharge my batteries, but more often than not, it meant there was another emotion-packed bubble that needed to surface and be released.
Discovering the Key
The trick, I soon discovered, was not to identify with what I was feeling. My analytical mind wanted to jump in immediately and take control, assessing the pain and looking at it from every angle to ferret out the root cause: Was it that I was the youngest child in my family? Or was it that my parents were too strict? Or not strict enough? And why not take it even further—maybe it had nothing to do with this lifetime at all. So where do I go with that—get a past-life regression? And so on and so on; once the process of analyzing starts, it can go on forever.
That’s why the yogis say it is best to just watch, observe, and let go with detachment. Identifying with the emotions only deepens their inner groove in the unconscious. On the other hand, experiencing with detachment and letting go allows the samskaras (unconscious tendencies of the mind) to evaporate in the light of awareness. As my teacher, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, often says, to throw out the garbage you don’t need to untie the bag and go through it bit by bit, analyzing each piece to understand why it’s in the bag. All you have to do is toss the whole bag away and be free. That’s what surrender is all about. So in the end, all that mattered was riding the waves of feeling, just like I was riding the waves of inhalation and exhalation. When I let myself just feel, the waves of emotion carried me to clarity—and the garbage washed out to sea.
At first I worked only with shavasana and breathing, but later I decided to take it a step further—after the relaxation I sat up and did some japa (mantra repetition). That took me to the next level. Now I was not only releasing unwanted samskaras, I was also connecting my mind to the Divine. It is like the biblical saying: “Be still and know that I am God.” Or as the Yoga Sutra says: “Yogash-citta-vritti-nirodhaha—Yoga is the control of the thought waves in the mind.” If the mind is concentrated, one-pointed, and anchored in the Divine, there is no room for the lesser samskaras to act out. Essentially they are starved to death for lack of attention. We become what we identify with. If we choose to identify with old hurts, then we stay hurt; if we identify with the Divine, then we become divine. By releasing old emotions I became open to receiving the flow of divine love and joy. The rush was better than chocolate! So after that, if I needed a quick fix, I went straight to the mantra.
If the mind is concentrated, one-pointed, and anchored in the Divine, there is no room for the lesser samskaras to act out.
I found that the longer I stayed in shavasana, the more my unconscious revealed itself to me. At first some of the experiences were overwhelming, but all I had to do was get up and go about my business (and maybe munch on a little chocolate to get me through). But as I got better and more courageous, I found I was not alone. My higher self was guiding me, giving me the strength to face my demons head-on. I soon realized that if I wanted to progress spiritually, I needed to be free of fear. And I found that when fear vanishes, cravings and addictions do as well.
The glorious day finally came when I knew for sure that my chocolate addiction and I had parted company. Someone sent me a box of Godiva chocolates, and instead of devouring them on the spot, I noticed I didn’t even want them. I kept one piece and gave the rest away.
Don’t get me wrong—there are still times when the chocolate urge threatens to devour me. But I have learned that whenever I get the feeling that I want to stuff as much as I can into my mouth as fast as I can, something unconscious is calling for my attention. And now I know that when that sensation arises, all I have to do is go within, calm my breath, concentrate my mind, allow the emotion to arise, release it, and be free. And yes, occasionally I say, “Oh, what the heck,” and indulge in a chocolate binge (delighting in each delicious morsel), allowing the samskaras to emerge later. But now I do it with awareness. I choose to do it. And that makes all the difference.
Originally entitled “Chucking Chocolate,” excerpted from Spirit on the Move: Personal Essays on Yoga in Daily Life, Himalayan Institute Press, 2005, himalayaninstitute.org.
Formerly a senior editor of Yoga International magazine, Irene Petryszak served as the Chairman of the Himalayan Institute from 1996 to 2008. She holds a master’s degree in Eastern studies and has studied and practiced yoga for 30 years in the United States and India under the guidance of Swami Rama and Pandit Rajmani Tigunait. She teaches meditation and yoga philosophy at HI.