Poisoned by Craving

Alcohol-AddictionI like eggnog.  I make it for myself from time to time.  It tastes good but I don’t crave my homemade version.  Normally, I can’t buy commercial egg nog in the store during the holidays because I am lactose intolerant.  But about a year ago, I noticed Lactaid was making eggnog during the winter holidays in quart size containers.

Having to abstain from foods you like over and over again can create some pent up desire.  So when I saw it in the cooler, I had to try it.  It was good.  Really good.  I drank the whole carton and went back the next day for more.

I tried to moderate my intake.  I’d pour half a glass … then go back half an hour later for another half of a glass … several more times.

Then came January first and they stopped making it.  I was beside myself.  I visited several grocery stores hoping to find it.

It was then I knew how much I was really craving the stuff.

I’m going out on a limb using the word ‘all.’  All of us know the experience of craving.  I noticed myself inspecting the shelf in the refrigerated section where I first found Lactaid Eggnog, every time I passed by it in the Price Chopper near our house … for the next six months, hoping some might appear.

As someone well versed in the theory of Buddhism, I recognize my inner experience in the Pali term ‘tanha.’  The literal translation of the term is ‘thirst.’  Every time I saw the shelf was empty, I felt a tiny bit of sorrow, of what the Buddha called ‘dukkha.’  It was obvious to me that my thirst or craving for egg nog was causing me unhappiness and suffering.  My yearning for Lactaid egg nog rubbed my nose in the Buddha’s first and second Noble Truths: We are frequently dissatisfied with the way things are.  The source of that dissatisfaction is our wanting what isn’t and rejecting what is.

The Buddha taught the middle way, the path of moderation, releasing craving and aversion and cultivating equanimity and acceptance.  I’d like to discuss another way to look at this process that is science based.  It is the science of homeostasis.

Coined by Bradford Cannon in 1926 and originally described by Claude Bernard, they used the term to describe regulatory processes in living organisms.  If our body temperature goes up or down too much, we get sick.  If our eyes feel dry, we blink unconsciously to keep our corneas moist to prevent blindness.  If our blood sugar isn’t carefully regulated, it can be life threatening.  Many, many processes in the body have intricate feedback loops to keep us healthy and happy.  Those many interlocking processes are finely tuned to support our experience of being “normal.”  I’m awed they all work together as well as they do!

Those inner processes depend on our brain and senses to regulate what happens outside our bodies.  When we are hungry, we need food.  When we are thirsty we need water.  When we are tired we need sleep.  When we are cold we need warmth.  If we don’t get enough food or water or sleep or warmth, we may die.  And if we get too much food, too much water, too much rest or warmth,that too may imperil us.  We need just the right amount, when we need it, to maintain our homeostasis.

When I drank my first half-glass of eggnog, if I needed food and water, that need was likely small and easily satisfied by the first couple of sips.  Something else besides the forces of homeostasis got me up for the second half-glass.

Craving interferes with the process of homeostasis and unbalances the system.  Thankfully our bodies have all kinds of other mechanisms to stop the process of desire from over regulating ourselves.  One of those processes is a sense of being full.  I might have had that sense of being full after the second half glass.  But it didn’t stop me from getting up for the third half-glass.

You see, I might have had a little self-judgment about not being able to stop with just one half glass of egg nog.  That might have caused a drop in my endorphins and initiated a blah feeling.  Or the sugar rush might have been starting to wear off as the spike in insulin to cope with all the high fructose corn syrup I’d just consumed caused my blood sugar to drop.  This might have engaged a second regulatory process to increase endorphins and blood sugar by having another half glass.

Now magnify and intensify this process and replace it with alcohol, methamphetamine, cocaine or heroin.  These substances have far greater impacts on our bodies and create much greater disruption of our homeostasis.

As research has shown, those prone to become alcoholics metabolize alcohol in a special way that produces a strong pleasure response.  This is not true for everyone.  I know it doesn’t happen for me.  I intensely dislike the feeling of being inebriated, which doesn’t take more than two or three drinks.  I know for others, after two or three drinks is when they start feeling good, and want more of it.  The inner experience is quite different but the biochemistry of the effects of alcohol on our homeostasis is the same.  Not good.  It’s a poison.

So the addiction process starts out harmlessly enough.  Addicts use a substance to regulate their emotional homeostasis, often to feel normal.  They habitually use the substance to regulate their mood, often when they are feeling down, to elevate it again.  This may work long enough to condition the habit deeply and powerfully.

Then the emotional regulation process begins breaking down.  Tolerance develops and more and more of the substance is needed to get the same effect.  Meanwhile the toxic effects of the substance begin to accumulate.  The more the substance is used to make the addicts feel better (the way they remember it working) the worse things get.  Stopping using makes everything feel even worse. This leads to a complete breakdown of homeostasis, the very process the addict is trying to fix with the substance.  And given the mental impairment that goes along with substance abuse, the brain can’t correct the errors in understanding how to bring the system back into balance.

The addicts feel trapped.  They don’t know how to fix themselves by themselves.  They need help … but often don’t know it or resist the idea that another can help.

I hope you heard in the readings from the Big Book and the Small Book that there is no one right way to deal with addiction.  Each person’s biology is unique. The ways addiction manifests for each person is different.  Each substance has its own unique aspects too.  Just because one person can quit cold turkey and never have another drink doesn’t mean another person can do it too.  The Anonymous approach works for many, many people … but doesn’t work for everyone.  Rational Recovery using Rational Emotive Therapy might work for some people but not others too.  Let us be grateful for the variety as it helps more people abstain from substance abuse and live healthier, more satisfying and productive lives.

What interests me as a minister and religious leader is the higher power concept.  Alcoholics Anonymous created this concept as a way to point at God without using the term God.  Is Higher Power just a stand-in term that points at God … or did AA stumble inadvertently on something else?  And why does even a willingness to consider believing in a Higher Power, “get results?” Why does believing in a Higher Power have anything to do with being able to stop drinking anyway?  Lots of God loving and believing priests are active alcoholics.

Alcoholics Anonymous is based on the Christian conversion experience that has been universalized as a spiritual process.  Though the Christian elements haunt some AA meetings, great effort has been put into keeping the Higher Power concept non-Christian.  But without a doubt, the Higher Power concept does have a strong faith component.  It is faith in the Higher Power that supposedly does the inner transformation work and liberates the addict from craving.

If you read the Big Book, it is pretty clear that faith is shaped like a Christian conception of God even if those terms are not used.  AA lowers the faith barrier to the experience in that conception with the Higher Power language.

What captures my attention and interest in the whole process that AA describes through the 12 steps is the reliance on experience.  Believing “gets results.”  If it didn’t then why do it?  AA is arguing for an experience based approach to spirituality.  You try believing then you get results which then reinforces the process of believing.  And believing in what?  A power greater than yourself.

I am a true believer in a lot of powers greater than myself.  Every time I board a plane and defy gravity by climbing to 37,000 feet inside a metal tube of compressed air, lifted by wings, I heavily believe in powers greater than myself.  There is no way I have the power to get that plane off the ground by myself. I believe in using stop lights to regulate traffic.  I believe in the medical system to offer me care to support my health.  I believe I can buy safe and healthy food when I shop at the store, trusting many powers greater than me that regulate the food supply.  I continually marvel at all the fresh food waiting for me any time I walk into the market.

For me, I find it very easy to believe there are forces much greater than me into which I can tap for assistance.  In seconds I found out who created the idea of homeostasis by checking it out on wikipedia, clearly and without a doubt, a power of knowledge greater than me.  I carry a phone in my pocket that gives me power far greater than my simple little brain.

You see, the Higher Power concept is a very simple, yet effective way for us to begin to recognize the limits of our own ego, our own sense of self.  When we are willing to see that we are not alone in the world;  when we are willing to see that we are tightly bound into an interdependent web of existence of which we are a part, everything begins changing.  The Buddha talked about this as anatta, as non-self.  Jesus pointed to it with the words, Realm of God.  What is really real is we are a very small part of a much, much greater whole.  The self-aware experience of being part of that whole can be an experience of love without an object, what the Greeks called agape.  And agape can overcome craving.

So, I’m good with the Higher Power concept.  But I’m also good with the No Higher Power concept.  Sometimes people are so locked up in negative associations with the word God or theological conceptions that they disagree with or have suffered for not believing in them that they can’t get to a place to see them as metaphors for real living processes.  And there are effective ways to use reason to alter how your brain works that reestablishes the process of homeostasis again.  Both are fine, depending on which one works better for you.

And this wonderfully parallels what Unitarian Universalism is trying to do.  We don’t pick sides.  If faith works for you great!  If reason works for you great!  I know I love them both and affirm them both.  I don’t see them as contradictory but as two different lenses to view reality.

What matters in addiction is stopping the substance abuse.  What matters in Unitarian Universalism is connecting to our core values, affirming them and taking the values we cherish and living them in the world.  However we come to affirm those values, either by faith or by reason will work and get results.

All this matters because we live in a world addicted to material progress and it is killing us and killing the planet.  Many of the humans who are destroying our world are poisoned by craving and don’t know it.

Whether by faith or by reason, let’s get better and help both ourselves and the planet get back to homeostasis.


One of the best parts of the AA program is the catchy quotes and slogans.  I’ll conclude our service with a few of them.

“When I stopped living in the problem and began living in the answer, the problem went away.”

“From experience, I’ve realized that I cannot go back and make a brand-new start. But through A.A., I can start from now and make a brand-new end.”

“The program works, if you work it.”

“Let go and let God … One day at a time.”

“Easy does it, but do it!”

“Keep coming back!”


from The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, Chapter 4, titled “We Agnostics” (fourth edition)

Many times we talk to the new man and watch his hope rise as we discuss his alcoholic problems and explain our fellowship.  But his face falls when we speak of spiritual matters, especially when we mention God, for we have re-opened a subject which our man thought he had neatly evaded or entirely ignored.

We know how he feels.  We have shared his honest doubt and prejudice.  Some of us have been violently anti-religious…We were bothered with the thought that faith and dependence upon a power beyond ourselves was somewhat weak, even cowardly.  We looked upon this world of warring individuals, warring theological systems, and inexplicable calamity, with deep skepticism…

Yes, we of agnostic temperament have had these thoughts and experiences.  Let us make haste to reassure you.  We found that as soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commenced to get results, even though it was impossible for any of us to fully define or comprehend that Power, which is God…

We needed to ask ourselves but one short question. “Do I now believe, or am I even willing to believe, that there is a Power greater than myself?”  As soon as a man can say that he does believe, or is willing to believe, we emphatically assure him that he is on his way.
from the Preface of The Small Book by Jack Trimpey

The Small Book is a primer to help recovering alcoholics and other substance abusers to become their own therapists and achieve the “unmiracle” of No Higher Power sobriety…

I have a fundamental respect for Alcoholics Anonymous.  When I reached out for help with my own alcohol dependence, it was there—a fellowship of concerned human beings helping themselves by helping others.  I have been to many of their meetings and I learned some important information about alcohol dependence.  I have friends who still attend AA.  It does much good for many people, and I know it.  I also know that there’s a lot that is rational within AA.

But thousands leave AA each year, disgruntled and ripe for relapse, unable to make use of a very good program…most leave because the 12-step program is faith-based.  As a means of survival, people in AA have faith in something other than, or greater than, themselves, and they implore newcomers to share that faith.  This is well intentioned, for it has been an effective way for some to halt the self-destruction that results from alcohol or drug dependence.  AA veterans, the refore, will be very persuasive in urging newcomers to surrender reason to faith.  In AA, one’s attempts to reason are commonly regarded as “part of the disease of alcoholism” in the sincere hope that, by surrendering to some higher authority or group mentality, one will change for the better.

AA is not a wrong program, but for those who examine it and find it unhelpful, irrelevant, or disagreeable, it is the wrong program.  This is a book for those people—a vindication of their point of view and the power of reason, and at the same time a challenge to them to overcome the ideas of dependency and powerlessness that have been so destructive.


Spoken Meditation

This meditation is  a creative composite of the poetry which introduces each chapter of the book “Restored to Sanity: Essays on the Twelve Steps by Unitarian Universalists” recently published by Skinner House press:

O Great Spirit of Life and Love,
For defeat, For being licked,
For being sick and tired of being sick and tired,
For giving up, for enough finally being enough,
For the path of descent that finally reaches
The place known as the bottom,
I am profoundly grateful.

I know I cannot do this alone.
I need a power that is greater than myself
To restore my life to sanity.

O thou Love, that has carried me through the
Most difficult of times,
The stories of struggle have touched me,
The practice of the twelve steps has changed me,
The goodness of sobriety has held me…
And I have found contentment at last.
For I now live not for myself alone, but for others
For all the pain which cannot be fully repaired,
Dedicated to the service of others.

May the result of my practice, be a life transformed,
May this spiritual awakening continue on,
Until the dayspring breaks,
And the shadows of addiction, flee away.

Choosing To Be Free

Woman with sunset or sunrise in the background with arms out and broken chains hanging from her wristsElephant slavery begins when they are small babies. One ancient training practice is to chain the elephant’s leg to a stake in the ground. This limits her ability to freely roam around. As the elephant grows bigger and stronger, she could easily pull up the stake and go foraging for food. She doesn’t. Even with the hawser unconnected and visibly lying on the ground, the feeling of the manacle around her leg is enough to restrain her, as if connected by an unbreakable invisible chain. This highly intelligent creature remembers the feeling of restricted movement and simply stands still whenever the shackle is in place. Bound by invisible chains to habits, behaviors and attitudes we too learned at an early age, how different are we from this elephant in our actual behavior?

In 2002, eleven-year-old Shawn Hornbeck was out riding his bike in his rural Missouri hometown. Shawn was abducted by Michael Devlin, a 41-year-old pizza parlor manager who was generally known as an innocuous, nice enough kind of guy. Devlin abused and tortured Shawn … with a very strange twist, Devlin acted out a fatherly role pretending Shawn was his son. He even gave Shawn the freedom to go outside. This all happened in plain view of his neighbors and only an hour’s drive from where he went missing. Shawn even assumed his abductor’s last name. Shawn made friends, played video games and even used the Internet freely-yet he didn’t attempt to escape. His captivity was finally discovered four years later when Devlin kidnapped another boy, Ben Ownby, who was discovered with Shawn four days later.

This kind of identification with and sympathy for abductors got a name in 1973 during a six day long bank robbery in Stockholm. Those held captive by the robbers started defending them, even after they were let go. What is now referred to as the Stockholm Syndrome has deep roots in our sub-conscious mind. The longer someone is held, the more likely it can happen. Some may remember the heiress Patty Hearst joining up with the Symbionese Liberation Army who had kidnapped her.

Why does this happen? One explanation that makes sense to me arises out of evolutionary theory. If you think back across the enormous span of human development, our ancestors mostly existed in small tribes. What anthropologists have observed, and recorded history confirms, is when neighboring tribes go to war with each other, the winners often enslave the losers, especially the women. Even without war, abductions from neighboring tribes, especially of attractive females, has probably been going on for a very long time. The ones who resisted were likely killed and didn’t leave behind any ancestors to contribute to our contemporary gene pool. But those who were compliant, adapted to their new setting and produced children, contributed genes that selected for that behavior. In this way, some researchers think submission to authority has been baked into who we are, setting up the development of larger scale civilization, and interfering with our yearning for individual freedom.

While being submissive may have value for scaling up civilization, it can be a huge liability in relationships. The attempt by one person to control another can easily degenerate into emotional, psychological, and physical abuse. Mostly it is wives who are abused by husbands. Quite often the women do not leave these situations, sometimes defending their abusers even after suffering bodily injury. From the outside of the relationship, this willingness to stay with an abuser doesn’t make any sense. An explanation may be the evolutionary glue that keeps people together long enough to reproduce and raise children embedded in our tribal development.

And, like slavery, helplessness and hopelessness can stop the process of resisting abuse.

Reading Frederick Douglass’ autobiography (I have an excerpt at the end to look at)  opened my eyes to the demoralizing and dehumanizing effects of captivity. The mind numbing suffering field slaves experienced is captured in these words:

If at any one time of my life more than another,I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey. We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him. I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of [his harsh] discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished … the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me ; and behold a man transformed into a brute! p.63

Douglass’ servitude was real and unchosen. Yet what broke him was Mr. Covey’s ability to activate his capacity to submit. This willingness to submit rather than resist, to allow invisible chains to hold us and interfere with seeking freedom, also operates in far more subtle and insidious ways in the human mind, Think of compelling habits exhibited in the way many of us consume unhealthful food and unwholesome media to which we submit. What about the prejudices we unconsciously act out with our eyes and our attention. And then there are the life denying and self-limiting beliefs we’ve developed to lock ourselves in the prison of our own design. “I can’t do this. I can’t do that.”

Well, today I declare that we are capable of breaking the bonds of submission. We have the inner power to unlock these invisible manacles and move toward freedom. As Walt Whitman put it:

Great is Liberty! Great is Equality! I am their follower, … Yours is the muscle of life or death – yours the perfect science – in you I have absolute faith.

Our minds, the gift of consciousness, can lift us from being brutes. Reading opened the door to liberation for Douglass. Through reading his awareness grew to help him see his own inherent dignity and the corruption of slavery. Before reading he knew the oppression of slavery in his body. The physical hardships were terrible to him, but he didn’t understand the evil of the institution itself. Reading the abolitionist arguments opened his mind to the moral injury of slavery and hardened his defiance.

That defiance took the form of resisting the inhumane abuse of his master, Mr. Covey by striking back. This could have easily gotten him killed but luckily for him it didn’t. After fighting his master for two hours, finally exhausted Mr. Covey left him. Douglass describes the effect of successfully defending himself from abuse:

This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force-the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, how ever long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me. p. 73

It thrills me to read this to you because in it we see the flowering of the dignity of the human spirit. This is the awareness of freedom that begins to lead us out of bondage.

Yet this moment of fortification of spirit is not enough to secure one’s freedom. The flush of courage can be washed away by the fear of consequences. It can be mighty hard to sustain the drive for freedom. Just a little hunger and thirst in Sinai had the Jews wishing they had stayed in Egypt by the fleshpots over the fire and not followed Moses through the Red Sea to freedom.

Because our courage and new understanding can be tender and easily shaken, we need others who can support and encourage us. Douglass needed a network of abolitionist support to plan his escape. Domestic violence shelters, like Equinox here in Albany, can support the inner growth and fortification of the spirit to stand up for oneself and one’s children and begin to end their abuse. Peer support groups are some of the best ways to deal with substance abuse and addictive behavior patterns. Groups like Weight Watchers have been perfecting the psychological methods and techniques to help people establish healthier eating patterns. Evolution has also selected for group bonding that can be harnessed to seek freedom.

Yet, no matter how well we recognize those invisible chains and how many people are around us supporting us, we still have to choose freedom. And not just once. We need to continue to choose freedom to follow our own inner guidance rather than be compelled by our past conditioning and habit. That takes patience and persistence … and risk.

The safer thing to do for Douglass was to remain a slave and not try to escape. Like the elephant allowing the manacle to bind him, many slaves did a rational analysis and decided it would be safer, not more pleasant by any means but safer, to not run away and risk death or recapture. Recapture could mean being sold to a plantation in the deeper south where they imagined their suffering would be far worse. Better to just stay with the devil you know.

This choice of freedom over security is huge for most of us even with our far more comfortable lives than what slaves endured. The consequences of our choice of freedom are unknowable in the moment the choice is made. And often we are not making it for ourselves alone. Our families and friends will have to deal with the consequences of our actions.

Before he departed for freedom, Douglass wrote about the sadness he felt leaving his friends behind. He writes:

I had a number of warm-hearted friends in Baltimore,— friends that I loved almost as I did my life,—and the thought of being separated from them forever was painful beyond expression. It is my opinion that thousands would escape from slavery, who now remain, but for the strong cords of affection that bind them to their friends. p. 106

And sometimes we can do no other than to choose freedom. It was that for Douglass or die trying. Douglass writes about how he felt when he made it to New York City:

It was a moment of the highest excitement I ever experienced. I suppose I felt as one may imagine the unarmed mariner to feel when he is rescued by a friendly man-of-war from the pursuit of a pirate. In writing to a dear friend, immediately after my arrival at New York, I said I felt like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions. This state of mind, however, very soon subsided; and I was again seized with a feeling of great insecurity and loneliness. p. 107

Choosing freedom is a moment that creates the next moment. There is no final ending choice but one that conditions the next moment of choice. It is a path to be walked every moment of every day. And some days we veer off the path, and later find our way back.

What I can testify to from my own choices to move toward freedom is the inner satisfaction and sense of creating meaning for my life those choices have yielded. And Unitarian Universalism celebrates and prizes those free choices. May we be so emboldened to choose freedom, not just for ourselves but for the good and benefit of all.


from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave by Frederick Douglass

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, ” If you give a negro an inch, he will take [a yard]. A negro should know nothing but to obey his master, to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best negro in the world. Now, said he, “if you teach that negro (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty, to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment,I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. p. 33

I was now about twelve years old, and the thought of being a slave for life began to bear heavily upon my heart. Just about this time, I got hold of a book entitled ” The Columbian Orator.” Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book… I found in it a dialogue between a master and his slave. The slave was represented as having run away from his master three times. The dialogue represented the conversation which took place between them, when the slave was retaken the third time. In this dialogue, the whole argument in behalf of slavery was brought forward by the master, all of which was disposed of by the slave…

What I got from [this book] was a bold denunciation of slavery, and a powerful vindication of human rights. … The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. … As I read and contemplated the subject, behold! that very discontentment which [my master] had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come, to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish. As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. p. 40

Managing Connectivity

I’m old enough to remember what life was like before email and FAX. When I moved to California in 1977, the only way I could communicate with my family and friends was using the telephone and by sitting down and writing a letter. People felt very, very far away back in Delaware. In those days, I felt isolated and lonely for old friends I hadn’t seen or heard from in a long time. My connectivity was slow and sparse.

Contrast that to today when my connectivity is very fast and furious. I have over 840 “friends” on Facebook. Some of these people were kids I went to grade school with. Many are UU ministerial colleagues across the world. A number of them are my wife Philomena’s huge extended family. I can virtually visit with old friends at any time by checking out their Facebook time line.

Like many of you, I connect with many people using email. I’m also on Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Google+, and have tried other emerging social networking sites. I’ve got 50 meditation buddies who use the same meditation timer (Insight Timer) application for my smart phone. I exchange a couple of supportive messages with them in the morning after my meditation. And then there are the face to face relationships I have within circles of Unitarian Universalism, the Capital Region, of course FUUSA and then Buddhist and meditation connections.

I’m similar to many people younger than I am who are even more widely connected. At any moment I could reach out to probably virtually touch a 1000 different people. And 100’s of people every day are striving to get my eyes on their emails, status updates, and alerts.

It can all be just a little overwhelming. And it only seems to multiply. I remember 15 years ago feeling overwhelmed by just the email I was getting. The idea I could add to that seemed unthinkable. And yet I’m checking (briefly) other social networking sites pretty regularly.

So for many of us, the challenge isn’t so much getting connected as managing the vast networks of connection we already have and making room for new relationships and connections.

One of the valuable lessons I learned from community organizing was to differentiate public and private relationships. We can only sustain a small number of intimate private relationships with a spouse, children, extended family, and close friends. These are the people who can call you up in the middle of the night and you’ll willingly take their call. Most of my Facebook “friends” do not fall into this category.

Whereas we can only have a small number of close private friends because of the time it takes to maintain these kinds of personal ties, we can have many, many public friends. Many of the relationships we have with each other at FUUSA fall into this category. We know some of each other’s personal story. We’re happy to help each other out on a project for the congregation. We might even offer some support to each other. But the level of expectation of personal support from the relationship is limited. Understanding the distinction between public and private relationships can be every helpful to contain the social burden added when widening one’s social network.

A useful tool that is essential for managing the huge amount of communication that comes with having a wide network of connection is filtering. I have over 100 email filters that sorts my email into different mailboxes. That allows me to follow threads of conversations in sequential emails in that mailbox. I dip in and out of these mailboxes, monitoring discussions using subject lines and key words so I filter out what doesn’t interest me or doesn’t require my immediate attention.

One of the most important lessons though of electronic communication is when not to use it and pick up the phone. When I feel some strong feelings come up in response to an electronic message and am tempted to respond passionately to it, I now know to stop, take a breath and look for a non-electronic way to respond. Electronic communication can be so easily misunderstood or the emotional tenor so easily misjudged.

Overall, I am much happier being highly connected as long as I take control of moderating how much I do and when I do it. Self-discipline makes the difference.

Celebrating the Wheel of Life

Circle with six pictures of a tree throughout the yearWheels and circles are very helpful. They give us a picture of what a cycle looks like. You start at one point. You follow the outline of the circle so that it continues to get further and further away and then it starts getting closer again until you get back to the beginning. Out and back. Out and back.

Life is full of these rhythms of moving away and returning again. If you feel your breath, it goes out and comes back in. Touch your wrist and you can feel your pulse as your heart beats. The blood goes out from your heart to the tips of your fingers and toes in your arteries then finds its way back again to your heart through your veins. Each day we get up, move around and do things. Towards the end of the day we get tired, crawl in bed and fall asleep.

The cycle of each day has many repeating parts. Every morning when I get up I go downstairs to the basement and sit quietly in meditation. I like to do some exercises then make a pot of tea and have breakfast. Just about every morning I sit for a little while with my wife Philomena on the couch as we watch a recorded episode of the Daily Show from the night before.

There are bigger cycles that happen every month. I pay the electric and gas bill every month. I pay my cell phone charges every month. I pay our mortgage and my car loan every month. I send a donation to FUUSA and some charities every month. I write my newsletter column every month too. For youth and adults with jobs, there is happiness at least once a month and usually twice a month when we get our paycheck.

We make our lives this way because we have great comfort with cycles and wheels. They help us remember that if there is a part of a cycle we don’t like, it will end soon and we’ll have a break from it until we have to do it again.

I do a lot to take care of my teeth beyond brushing them because I want to keep them for a long time. Every night before I go to bed, I floss them, brush them and clean between my teeth with a special tiny brush. Sometimes I don’t want to do one of these things or use mouthwash to kill germs that try to sneak under my gums. Knowing that once its done I will not have to do again for a while makes it easier.

What causes us unhappiness is when cycles stop. If we get too much rain, we want the sun to come back. If we get too much sun and everything dries up, we want rain. When the wind is really strong, we desire calm. But if we are sailing, we don’t want calm we want a brisk breeze. When gardeners plant their zucchinis, they get excited with the first flower turns into the first zucchini. Then there are suddenly many more zucchinis than one family can eat and they need to be given away.

When a puppy or kitten is born, we have great joy. Philomena and Andy and I visited my Aunt Lois who has two little kittens named Socks and Licorice. They are adorable and reminded me of when our two cats Shakti and Bodhi were kittens. When we enjoy being with them, we don’t think about the day when they will eventually get very old and die, as both Shakti and Bodhi have done. This is the sad part. When the cycle ends, almost like the wheel breaking.

Our minds don’t want to believe that the cycles will come to an end. I didn’t want Shakti and Bodhi to die but I couldn’t stop that from happening. With birth there is joy and with death there is sadness and loss. The sadness I feel for Shakti and Bodhi remind me how much I loved them and cared about them. Yet that sadness didn’t stop me from feeling joy when meeting Socks and Licorice. Knowing that someday I’ll be sad when they die, didn’t interfere with my joy.

I find comfort knowing that the joy I felt when Shakti and Bodhi were kittens didn’t come to an end forever. I could feel it again for Socks and Licorice. Not exactly the same mind you. Shakti and Bodhi had different personalities than Socks and Licorice. But the feelings of joy were very similar.

All cycles operate in a similar way. Each day we live is different yet there are many things that are the same. Even each breath is different if we watch them carefully enough, which is what people do in meditation. Certainly the events of each month are very different but October of 2012 isn’t at all like the October of 2013 and will be very different from the October of 2014. And each of those months started with green leaves on the trees and ended with brown leaves on the ground.

Even the biggest cycles we care about operate this way, the cycle of birth and death. There was a time when we were not. Then we were born. There will be a time when we are not. We will die. And for each of us, I hope that is a long time away. A man named Ernest Becker thought it is very important for our well being to think that way. The leaf shudders as it sees other leaves fall from the branches around it this time of year, not knowing that new leaves will appear next spring.

What helps a lot, if we do worry about dying, is accepting that we are part of cycles, circles if you will, that are much bigger than we are. A fundamental problem of how our brains work is worrying we are somehow separate from all the cycles and circles. It makes us think we are all alone.

Resolving that problem is what religion is all about. As Unitarian Universalists, we say there are many ways to fix this problem rather than just one. Each of us will discover some religious tools will work better than others. But no matter how we work out this problem, we believe that we all have goodness in us. We are part of a interdependent living process and belong in it. Each of us will work out our own solution to the problem of feeling separate and alone. Unitarian Universalism tells us that however we solve the problem, our lives have value and can be meaningful, even when we struggle and forget.

We are part of the circle of life. That circle didn’t begin with birth. That circle will not end with death.

Let us be grateful that we are part of that endless circle.

Liberating Habits

Woman doing a yoga pose with the sun setting over the ocean behind her.Here is the service on habits I did this Sunday to kick off a series of three sermons on Purpose.

Call to Celebration

The Buddha encouraged his followers to make four great efforts:



  • to prevent from arising negative states that have not arisen
  • to let go of negative states once they have arisen
  • to give rise to positive states that have not yet arisen
  • to sustain positive states once they have arisen.


These efforts encourage the cultivation of positive patterns as a means to help overcome negative patterns. But although they are simple, they are by no means easy…

Beneath the surface of our consciousness lie numerous mental and emotional patterns that, when certain conditions arise, prompt us to behave in a destructive, self-defeating manner. These patterns are easily triggered and once triggered take us to those same familiar but painful places. Yet, if we spend time cultivating constructive and positive responses in their place, we will discover that they have the capacity not only to weaken the power of our negative patterns but even to disable the trigger mechanisms that spark them. Much of Buddhist meditation and mindfulness practice consists of a systematic cultivation of positive patterns that enable us to engage creatively with those negative patterns that cause us pain.

Batchelor, Martine (2007-06-27), Let Go: A Buddhist Guide to Breaking Free of Habits (p. 18-19). Wisdom Publications. (Kindle Edition)


Hundreds of habits influence our days— they guide how we get dressed in the morning, talk to our kids, and fall asleep at night; they impact what we eat for lunch, how we do business, and whether we exercise or have a beer after work. Each of them has a different cue and offers a unique reward. Some are simple and others are complex, drawing upon emotional triggers and offering subtle neurochemical prizes. But every habit, no matter its complexity, is malleable. The most addicted alcoholics can become sober. The most dysfunctional companies can transform themselves.

However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits’ routines, and find alternatives. (p. 270).

Duhigg, Charles (2012-02-28). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business . Random House Publishing Group. (Kindle Edition)

 It takes around 21 days to form a habit. That means repeatedly practicing said habit and stopping yourself when you aren’t employing it where it should be used. Adjusting your behavior in that way for 21 days forms a habit that you will from there onwards no longer need to work on so vigorously. After that 21 days it will have become a part of your normal thinking and behavior and thus will reinforce itself automatically…

All great habits of people with great character are learned. Some consciously, others by a process of acquisition over time and as a result of other habits. The beauty of bad habits, if there is such a thing, is that they are often easily acquired. This is because you often do not realize you are forming them, you are doing the behaviors for whatever reason you choose to and the habits form. The beauty of that is that it can be applied to good habits. This means no obsession over results or progress is necessary, actually it’s a hindrance. All you need to do is apply the behavior when it’s necessary, and trust your mind to do it’s job.



Good habits guide us away from trouble. Bad habits get us into trouble. No surprise here.

The surprise is how hard it can be to undo bad habits and create good ones … unless we understand how the habit formation process works in our brains. Changing bad habits and creating good ones is much easier than you might think once you know how.

Rats and people form habits in similar ways. Researchers at the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have done some ground breaking work measuring the brain activity of rats running mazes. They put a rat in a T shaped maze, at the base of the T, and let it explore. On the hidden left side of the T, there was a piece of chocolate. The rat could smell the chocolate but couldn’t see it. The rat got very excited moving round sniffing and seeking the chocolate. Researchers measured a lot of activity in the rat’s brain as it searched. Finally it found the chocolate through a random search. Very quickly the rat learned to run to the end of the T and turn left to get its reward. What was interesting to the researchers was the steep decrease in brain activity. The rat stopped thinking and just reflexively ran through the maze. How different are we when passing a cookie on a plate, or drive past a Starbucks or McDonald’s and automatically pick up the cookie or turn into the pickup lane for something to eat or drink?

Brains are energy hogs, more than any other organ, using up to 20% of the available fuel. Habits reduce our brain’s energy consumption … and can save our skin. I wouldn’t want to be thinking too hard about what to do when a tiger appears out of the jungle and starts sniffing my scent. I’d want my plan already programmed in my head. Soldiers drill their routines over and over to make them automatic. Hear a loud sound or see a flash, don’t think about it, drop to the ground immediately.

Imagine if we had to figure out each morning how to stand up, put our clothes on, brush our teeth, make breakfast, and all our other routine tasks as if we’d never done them before. We’d be exhausted before starting our day. Habits have been critical to our survival as a species … but also a source of a lot of problems.

Dr. Wolfram Schultz, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, does research with monkeys. He wanted to understand what happens inside their brains during the habit formation process. His subject for this experiment was an eight pound macaque named Julio.

He inserted a very thin electrode in his brain that allowed him to observe neuronal activity as it occurred. Then he put Julio down in front of a computer monitor. When yellow spirals, red squiggles and blue lines appeared on the screen AND Julio touched a lever at the same time a drop of blackberry juice came down a tube near his lips.

Julio really, really, liked blackberry juice.

At first he didn’t recognize the connection and was restless. It didn’t take him long to make the association between seeing the shapes, touching the lever and the reward. Once he figured it out, he stared intently at the screen without moving. As soon as he saw one of the colored shapes appear, he pushed the lever, got his reward and smacked his lips contentedly. Dr. Schultz measured a spike on his instruments of neuronal activity he associated with Julio’s pleasure sipping the blackberry juice. Julio had formed a strong habit pattern.

Dr. Schultz didn’t let poor Julio just play with the lever and get his reward. He sometimes didn’t give him any blackberry juice when he pushed the lever. This made Julio agitated and angry. What Dr. Schultz measured on his instruments was even more interesting. The more Julio repeated the habit, the spike of neuronal activity moved forward from receiving the juice to seeing the shape on the screen even before pulling the lever.

When Julio anticipated juice but didn’t receive it, a neurological pattern associated with desire and frustration erupted inside his skull. When Julio saw the cue, he started anticipating a juice-fueled joy. But if the juice didn’t arrive, that joy became a craving that, if unsatisfied, drove Julio to anger or depression. (Duhigg p. 47)

Combine craving with habit’s non-thinking, automatic quality and we start to get a sense of how powerful habits can become. Habits don’t sit in our minds like a computer program that can be easily erased by flipping a switch. Habits are laid down as synaptic connections. Once they are made, they are there for the rest of our lives. Rats, taught to run a maze will remember how to run it for the rest of its life.

That’s the bad news about habits. They are permanently wired into our brains and cannot be removed. They can however be changed.

To understand how, we need to better understand cues, behaviors and rewards, the three elements of a habit.

Habits begin with cues, something that triggers them. Cues predominately come from one of five sources:

a location
a time of day
the arising of an emotion or urge
an interaction with another person or
An action or sensation that precedes the habit starting.

These can be identified by asking five questions about a habit activation.

Let’s say you have an urge to buy a soda, a common habit. Ask:

Where are you? (sitting at my desk)
What time is it? (3: 36 P.M.)
What’s your emotional state? (bored)
Who else is around? (no one)
What action preceded the urge? (answered an email)

If you were to do this over several days, you’d find variation in all but the primary driving cue for the habit that would be unique for each person.

The cue initiates a sequence of behaviors that stimulate a reward, some positive affect that motivates the behavior. Like the cue, the reward may not be obvious. The reward that is sought may not be sweetness of a Coke. It might be the caffeine lift. It could be the stimulation of the bubbles. It could be the exercise of walking. It could be passing an attractive person’s desk and stopping to chat.

To modify a habit, it is critical to understand both the cue and the reward.

Now, for the hard truth about habits. Because of the physical mapping in the brain of cues to rewards, they can’t be removed. We can’t forget them. The cues and the rewards remain intertwined for the rest of our lives. This is sobering to reflect on as we consider initiating or repeating unhealthy behavior patterns. On the other hand, initiating and reinforcing healthy behavior patterns can program them into our brains. (This is a great gift to our children, establishing life affirming habits that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.)

What we can do is substitute a new pathway between the cue and reward that is far less destructive and far more healthy.

That’s what Mandy did to solve her nail biting problem. And a big problem it was. She nibbled on her finger tips so much, she had scabs all over them. Those scabs caused her to walk around with her hands in her pockets so no one would see them. Embarrassment about the appearance of her fingers with missing nails interfered with her dating and spending time with her friends,. Yet she just could not stop the nasty habit she had repeated daily since childhood. Finally she broke down and sought a therapist skilled in habit reversal training for help.

First the therapist helped her identify the cue that triggered the habit. She would run her thumb along the surface of her nails. If it caught or she felt some tension, into the mouth they went. Mandy was surprised by the cue question because she hadn’t even considered that there was a cue for the habit. She was only aware of the habit when it was already well underway.

Mandy was also unaware of the reward she was getting from causing herself all this discomfort. After considering several different alternatives, she finally landed on the sense of completion she experienced after biting all her fingernails.

The next step was to make her aware of when she felt the cue. The therapist gave her an index card and asked her to put a check on it when she felt the urge. She came back the next week having checked the card 28 times. But something had changed already. She had only chewed her nails three times that week. Her awareness of the cue had given her a new option. But that wasn’t quite enough.

Now the therapist introduced a new behavior for her to do when she felt the cue.

Whenever she felt that tension in her fingertips, he told her, she should immediately put her hands in her pockets or under her legs, or grip a pencil or something else that made it impossible to put her fingers in her mouth. Then Mandy was to search for something that would provide a quick physical stimulation— such as rubbing her arm or rapping her knuckles on a desk— anything that would produce a physical response. (Duhigg p76)

After a few weeks, the nail biting habit, one that had tormented her for years, was gone.

Nathan Azrin, one of the developers of habit reversal training says:

It seems ridiculously simple, but once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it. It seems like it should be more complex. The truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.” (Duhigg pp. 76)

This is good news that can give us hope. Hope that we can change our habits if we understand our cues and rewards then rewire them with new behaviors.

But it doesn’t always work since the old habit is still there along with the new one. Sometimes those habits revisit us when we are under stress.

The most heartbreaking for me are cases of addiction relapse. An alcoholic has been in recovery for years, hasn’t touched a drop, then has an emotional crisis. A beloved relative or pet dies, a relationship breaks up, a job is lost and all of a sudden the old urge takes over. The patterns of behavior are right there in the brain waiting to be reactivated by an unanticipated cue. It’s why in Alcoholics Anonymous, the expression, once a drunk, always a drunk lines up with what we know about habit formation. The patterns don’t go away even if new patterns are added. The risk of relapse cannot be eliminated.

But some people under stress do not relapse. One critically important factor in preventing relapse is belief.

Is it belief in God? Not necessarily. There are plenty of devout believers in church who are active alcoholics and drug users. Not a few priests who serve communion become dependent on the sacramental wine outside celebrating the Eucharist.

The concept that AA uses of the Higher Power points to something outside the self. My favorite higher power that worked for one fellow was a bed pan. He chose his bed pan as his higher power, worked with it, and it worked for him.

The key insight of belief in a higher power is the process of believing itself. Firm belief that somewhere, somehow, there is some resource that is dependable and not self-created or controlled that can be called upon in a crisis to help, does make a difference.

Is it God in disguise? Is it the Spirit of Life? Is it the Power of Creative Imagination? What the alcoholic discovers, and usually discovers in a crisis situation, is that the process of having a belief is enough to not drink for one more day. And that is sufficient.

J. Scott Tonigan, a researcher at the University of New Mexico who has studied AA for over a decade said:

I wouldn’t have said this a year ago— that’s how fast our understanding is changing—but belief seems critical. You don’t have to believe in God, but you do need the capacity to believe that things will get better. “Even if you give people better habits, it doesn’t repair why they started drinking in the first place. Eventually they’ll have a bad day, and no new routine is going to make everything seem okay. What can make a difference is believing that they can cope with that stress without alcohol.” (Duhigg p.85)

So if we want to be free of bad habits and develop good habits we need both determination and we need faith. One or the other is not quite enough. Enduring change requires effort and the confidence there are resources that we can rely on to see us through.

May we seek those resources as we strive to bring peace to our troublesome habits and to our troubled world.


William James, whose story of overcoming youthful ennui could be an inspiration to young people who have yet to set upon a meaningful purpose to guide their lives, sent a letter to the philosopher Charles Renouvier, who had expounded at length on free will. James wrote to him:

 “I must not lose this opportunity of telling you of the admiration and gratitude which have been excited in me by the reading of your [work]. Thanks to you, I possess for the first time an intelligible and reasonable conception of freedom.… I can say that through that philosophy I am beginning to experience a rebirth of the moral life; and I can assure you, sir, that this is no small thing.”(Duhigg pp. 272-273)

 Let us use our self-determination to shape our habits in ways that lead to freedom for ourselves and others. Let us not squander our most precious asset, our will.