Can an Ancient Mind Training Technique Help Smokers Quit?


Let’s face it, one (of the many) hard things about quitting smoking, besides the addictive substances, is that it’s a habit. It’s a real challenge to change any of the bad habits we have. Usually, the only way to kick a bad habit is to replace those undesirable behaviors with new behaviors, in other words–to develop new good habits.

Think of a bad habit—one you want to change—as partly caused by bad training. We trained ourselves by repeating the behavior over and over. We need new training in order to make a change. We have to repeat the new, desirable behavior, over and over. Because just like learning anything new, it takes practice. You can’t learn to play the guitar through sheer willpower alone. You have to practice.

As smokers “retrain” themselves to be non-smokers, one specific kind of practice could be uniquely beneficial in supporting that process—training the mind–through meditation.

Meditation has been around for thousands of years. People are often familiar with the term meditation as coming from many of the Eastern cultures such as from India, Japan and Tibet. In the past, most forms of meditation were part of various spiritual traditions—and all of the major religions included some form of meditation. In more recent times, secular forms of meditation have become more widely taught and used for a variety of beneficial purposes. Some movement practices such as yoga and tai chi are considered forms of meditation. Meditation is becoming increasingly popular as a counseling and holistic health technique, and in the general public for relaxation and stress reduction.

Meditation is thought to promote a calm, steady mind, and to harmonize the mind and body. In one way it can promote bodily relaxation, while at the same time it can increase the ability of the mind to focus with clarity. It can give us more insight into our fears, emotions, and motivations, and thus gain wisdom about ourselves and our lives. Meditation helps us see through and get past conditioned thoughts and reactions. It creates space between thoughts, allowing more time and energy to consider other options.

As a person who has practiced mindful awareness meditation for two years, I noticed an increased ability to stop myself from overeating, another common modern addiction. There are some similarities between the habits of smoking and overeating. In fact, one problem often complained about by smokers is that when they quit, they gain weight, because they replace the smoking with another bad habit—stress eating. My most frequent reason for stuffing in unhealthy food that I didn’t want, was stress.

I found that through training my mind in mindful awareness meditation, I was much more aware of my stress and the way sudden thoughts would appear, telling me to eat. Because I was able to notice the thought, I was able to stop myself in my tracks right at that moment, before I reached for the chocolate chips. Just like in meditation, where you practice noticing a thought, I found myself able to notice in those few extra seconds, the connection between my stress and the sudden desire to eat. Just like letting go of the thought in meditation, I could let go of the craving, then take a look into the reality of what was causing the feeling—I could more quickly and accurately pinpoint the emotion behind it.

This sense of control allowed me to choose a more healthy way to deal with the feeling. I was also getting better at tuning in to the real sensations in my body—did my stomach really feel hungry, or was I tired? And I had more self-discipline to walk away from the food. The self-talk I did to remind myself that I did not want the suffering that came with overeating, felt backed up by a new strength.

Mindful awareness meditation is one of many kinds of meditation, and the one I recommend, although people should find what works best for them. In mindful awareness meditation, we sit cross-legged on a pillow or cushion so that the knees are just a little lower than the hips. It’s also fine to sit in a chair. It’s important to sit up with the back straight, yet be relaxed. Let the arms fall naturally from the shoulders, with hands resting on the thighs. Eyes are softly open, looking slightly out and down. Start by simply noticing your breath. As you breathe in, say silently to yourself, “Breathing in.” As you breathe out, say silently to yourself, “Breathing out.” Notice as thoughts arise, then watch them float away like clouds. Do not worry about being right or wrong. Pat yourself on the back for trying, no matter how it goes, even if all you do is get into position and take a few breaths. It’s a start. See if you can do three minutes the first time. Then try for five. Be gentle with yourself.

Research has suggested that meditation might increase self-discipline, motivation, and ability of delayed gratification. Some studies using MRI’s have shown unique differences in the brains of monks who have been regular meditators for a long time. One study of smokers who wanted to quit and who began a meditation program seemed to show an increased ability to quit. They also started other new, good habits in their lives and relationships. In other words, there is a growing body of scientific evidence to support the connections between mind training, the ability to change, and positive behaviors.

Look it up, read about it, and ask around. Chances are there is a meditation teacher in your area. If not, there are many good videos available to purchase or to view online. Just like with anything new, be patient with yourself, and put your time in by practicing, and you will be rewarded.

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