This morning as I was meditating, I was grabbed by an impulse to get up before the meditation had finished. There was energy in that impulse as it attempted to propel my body away from meditation and into the tasks of the day. Impulses, urges and cravings are interesting phenomena to explore as we cultivate mindfulness. They take different forms. There is the constant desire to check social media. There is the craving for food or alcohol that leaves a person feeling powerless. Or it could be an urge to do or say something inappropriate that might take you over the line in terms of acceptable workplace behaviour. And then there is the impulse to reach out to someone who is suffering and comfort them.
Here are some impulses, urges and cravings that I observe almost daily:
- mid-morning coffee desire
- impulse to scratch an itch
- 3 pm urge to stop working, coupled with a craving eat something highly calorific
- urge to go to the toilet
- impulse to withdraw from emotionally intense situations
- craving to eat when delicious food is around
- impulse to retaliate and say something sharp when I feel disrespected
There is useful information in all these impulses. So, a starting point is not to demonise them. Developing the capacity to choose which impulses to follow and to delay the gratification of certain impulses, is a normal part of human development. We are doing it daily. We are also unaware of, and following impulses, daily. As I paused in writing this to think of an example, I noticed that my hand was at my neck, gently touching a rough piece of skin that I have been contemplating getting checked by a dermatologist. A perfect example of an impulse, a behaviour, and the awareness only coming in retrospect.
Fascinating research done in the 1960s and 70s at Stanford University established that children who were able to resist the impulse to eat a marshmallow that was offered (knowing that they would get two marshmallows if they waited), had better outcomes later in life – academically, economically and in their physical health. There are important benefits to the individual and to the community when we can stay with the discomfort of an impulse and allow it to pass without allowing it to determine our behaviour.
“… every piece of common vulgarity, is due to an inability to resist a stimulus – you have to react, you follow every impulse.” Nietzsche
What is needed for a healthy response to the various impulses and urges that arise is a capacity:
- to be aware of the presence of the impulse (as it arises)
- to assess the likely impact of following the impulse
- to choose an appropriate response (that may be different to what the impulse is propelling us to do).
It sounds so simple! If only…
The first and the third steps are both particularly challenging. We live so much of our lives on automatic pilot, that it takes concerted training to develop present moment awareness. Both formal mindfulness meditation and regular pausing during the day to tune-in to our inner experience and notice what is happening are well established strategies to enhance awareness.
Formal mindfulness meditation strengthens the connection between our pre-frontal cortex (sometimes described as the brain’s executive control centre) and other regions of the brain, especially the limbic system (associated with emotions and reactivity). As we train the mind through mindfulness meditation our capacity to self-regulate urges is strengthened. Practising being with discomfort, without reactivity, is an important building block. A specific practice for working with cravings has been described as riding the wave of craving or urge surfing and is taught as part of mindfulness-based approaches in addiction treatment programs. There are interesting changes in bodily sensations, thoughts, emotions, intentions etc that are part of the experience of an urge. Feeling the power of the urge and meeting it with presence as it comes and goes is a skill that we can develop.
When an urge is present, it narrows our attention around the desire and the justification for following the urge. Broadening perspective can be an important part of a skilful response. For example, pausing and taking into consideration the long-term effects of following the urge. What would a future version of yourself (say next year) like you to do with this urge? Broadening perspective might be to take into consideration the effect of following the impulse on others (texting while driving). Pausing and broadening of perspective increases the possibility of choosing the best option. Over time, we can gain more freedom from the impulses, urges and cravings that don’t always have our long-term interests at heart.
This morning’s urge to cut short a meditation offered an opportunity to explore the different elements of an urge – the physical sensations in the body, the thoughts and emotions. Knowing the down side of simply following each urge, I was grateful for the appearance of an urge during meditation. Every time an urge arises and we insert a space between stimulus and response, we are strengthening our capacity for thoughtful, healthy choices.
Happy urge surfing 😊
Kathryn Choules (PhD)
Dr Choules is a certified instructor of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction from the Medical School of the University of Massachusetts and a Senior Teacher of Meditation (Meditation Association of Australia). She has been offering mindfulness programs, workshops, training and retreats in Western Australia since 2013. With many years’ experience in government, academia and the community sector, both in Australia and overseas, she understands the challenges and benefits of finding calm amidst the storm of modern living and the modern workplace.