On akrasia: starting at the bottom
[ Why theorizing about your addictions fails to help you combat them: an addict-thinker’s version of “just do it.” ]
For a few years, I’ve struggled to overcome several addictions. I’ll list them here briefly: (nicotine, nail-biting, overeating, physical inactivity, and sleeping late). I call them addictions because it’s the simplest word, but they could also be called akrasia or maladaptive behaviors.
Whatever we call them, they are just behaviors which (a) I would like to stop doing because they negatively impact my body and (b) for whatever reason, are very difficult to stop doing. For years, I’ve been obsessed with beating these addictions. I’ve thrown everything I can at them, but they won’t budge. Why is that?
I claim that the reason I haven’t been able to make any headway is that I’ve been approaching the problem of addiction (and more broadly, the problem of my life) from the top down. By switching to a ‘bottom-up’ approach, these addictions (and my life) have become much more manageable.
For as long as I can remember, whenever I’ve run into a problem, I’ve always found that there is some way I can mentally or abstractly frame the issue that makes it resolvable. There has always been some near-correct understanding I can achieve that makes solving the problem feel easy and natural. The exception is, of course, anything that resembles an addiction.
For the past four years, I’ve been trying to apply this ‘understanding-first’ way of solving problems to my addictions. I take space and allow myself to think creatively and rationally until I arrive at some crystallized strategy. This can be a simple strategy, like “I just need to take it one day at a time!” or something a bit more complex, like “Negative intention (trying not to do something) goes nowhere. Rather than focusing on what I won’t do, I’m going to focus on what positive thing I am doing. By doing this, I’ll escape my addictions indirectly.” And so on… I’ve probably tried on hundreds of ‘understandings’ to see if they give me any power against addiction—so far they haven’t. I come up with what seems like a good plan, then it fails.
When it comes to addiction/akrasia, I argue that understanding cannot come first. For instance, I always hate knowing I’m about to exercise, and I dislike the feeling of exercise itself. I can’t access the felt-sense understanding of why I should exercise… but after I work out, I feel a rush of goodness. I feel clear-headed, refreshed, and relaxed. Although I find it near-impossible to access a state of mind in which it feels easy or natural to go to the gym, going to the gym always changes my state of mind to something more open, easy, and capable of natural insight. The same is true about normalizing my sleep schedule, eating healthy foods, practicing nicotine-sobriety, etc. In all these ‘addictions’, I encounter my capacity to understand why I’m taking care of myself after doing so, not before.
This is what I mean by top-down and bottom-up. In a top-down framework, I try to come to some understanding in the abstract that helps me get a handle on my problems a priori. In a bottom-up approach, I just do what simple actions I know to be right, and those actions themselves transform my experience to a point where understanding becomes possible. My favorite metaphor is to imagine myself as a flower. Any state of feeling-mind is a flowering, not a root. I need wide roots, a flexible stem, and bright leaves before there is even the possibility of a flowering. Just like a flower can’t grow from the top down, we can never make fulfilling our basic health needs contingent on our feelings or our ‘understanding’ because our bodily health itself determines our capacity to tap into our expansive awareness. Our bodies are like subtle-spaceships that carry us through the fabric of life; without healthy, capable bodies, we are just stuck in the dark.
With this realization, I’ve been restructuring my life starting at the bottom. Prior to any conceptual understanding, in complete blindness and faithful ignorance, I just take care of my body. I do those simple things I know are good (exercise, nicotine sobriety, healthy eating, consistent sleep). If I’m uncertain, I just ask “what’s my most basic unmet need right now?” and fulfill it. Moving upward from the bottom, I encounter less-basic needs like my employment, my relationships, my creative hobbies, my need to get outside in the sun and the air, the cleanliness of my room, etc. I address them in turn as they arise. As I move in this trajectory, fulfilling my basic needs from the bottom upward, I notice that I am more and more likely to experience insight, epiphany, expanded awareness, and joy. Taking right action isn’t easy; it doesn’t feel right, and sometimes it doesn’t even seem like the correct thing to do. I can’t really understand it a priori. However, once again, I encounter my capacity to understand why I’m taking care of myself after doing so, not before.
If you’re struggling with an addiction/akrasia and find yourself trying to understand the issue before you tackle it, I invite you to simply ‘start from the bottom’ in blind faith, do the thing without thinking about it (be a zombie if you have to) then just watch as understanding blossoms later.
(I’m aware this isn’t a perfect solution—but it feels like an important part of the puzzle. I still struggle to take care of my body, but it’s much easier when (a) I accept that doing so won’t feel or seem right until after I do it and (b) I acknowledge that my very capacity for expansive understanding is dependent on my body’s health, not the other way around.)