I read this quote in a Brené Brown newsletter last week. She was talking about her food addiction. (She doesn’t give any attribution for the quote and I couldn’t find any, either.)

“Abstinence-based recovery is like living with a caged, raging, tiger in your living room. If you open the door for any reason, you know it will kill you. The non-abstinence based addictions are the same, but you have to open the door to that cage three times a day.”

That really says it. When I was battling with deranged, disordered eating during my 20s and 30s, it felt exactly like that every day. Opening the door to the cage, I didn’t know if I was going to find myself, an hour later, weeping into an empty quart of ice cream, or triumphantly washing my dishes after consuming a tiny salad. It was almost always a crap shoot.

I fervently wished I could just abstain, the way I’d learned to abstain from cigarettes. So much simpler and easier. But apparently we have to eat.

Likewise, there have been many times when I’ve wished I could abstain from thinking. When I was younger I did not know how to control my thinking, or how to avoid following negative thoughts into a bad mental neighborhood. I couldn’t tell which thoughts were real and which were just stories I was telling myself. I couldn’t get my thoughts to fucking quit harassing me! And I seemed to take a kind of sick pleasure in certain types of negative thinking. I was fully identified with thinking-as-compulsion.

We are, most of us, addicted to thinking, as much as we are to anything else in our lives. Humans are addiction-prone animals.

Meditation is a kind of temporary, abstinence-based recovery plan for this addiction. It’s like fasting in relation to disordered eating. Fasting can stop the whole compulsive cycle temporarily. It gives you a breather from the addiction and helps you learn to tolerate whatever emotions cause you to run to the fridge.

Meditation reminds you how it feels to just let the mind come to a stop. You get off the amusement-park ride of the incessant mind-chatter, and just give it a break for a while. It helps you learn to let thoughts and feelings come and go, without engaging or identifying with them. 

The other day I was cleaning the bathroom. Not my favorite chore, and one I usually put off until I can’t stand it any more. But I was scrubbing out the sink and suddenly I noticed that my mind was absolutely quiet, and I was enjoying what I was doing as much as I enjoy anything else. 

What’s so great about this is that it happened on its own. There was no effort involved. It’s like the first time your dog walks nicely by your side and doesn’t pull on the leash. My mind and I were cooperating peacefully. It had stopped on its own. Of course I spent the rest of the day trying to make it happen again, but, baby steps.

And it reminded me a great deal, in terms of sheer relief, of when I began to realize that I no longer had any desire to eat when I wasn’t hungry, or to keep eating when I was full. It’s so great when there’s one less tiger in the living room.