Cold turkey is the addict’s dream. One day you simply stop; you put it down, let it go, break free, rebirth yourself and walk on. A heroic act of will and then your stumble turns to a walk and then a sunlit run.
For some addictions like alcohol or heroin the pull of the substance is so strong that cold turkey is in fact the only way out. One sip of whisky, one injection can be the trap door that opens up and shuts out to the dungeon of destructive dependency.
While that is true for some less malevolent but still unhealthy addictions—to mildly harmful substances or unhealthy behaviors—cold turkey may not be the best way.
Not at least according to Charaka, the author of the 5th century Ayurvedic classic “Charaka Samhita,” one of the three most authoritative texts on Ayurvedic medicine. Here is Charaka’s advice on how to change a bad habit:
“In the first time period, reduce the amount you engage in the behavior by 1/4, in the second by half by 2/4, in the third by 3/4 and in the fourth you will be free.”
The “time period” chosen must suit the needs of the individual.
This moderate approach, though it is gentler on the system than cold turkey, is actually harder to pull off—at least in the beginning.
When we try to give up a certain behavior—snacking between meals, eating refined sugar, or using electronic media for example, we often feel we just want to be rid of it. If we were to set the goal of reducing the visits to certain site by only 1/4 times for a few days this would involve some unpleasant things.
The first such thing would be being honest with ourselves about exactly how much we engage in the actual activity, a necessary starting point to our plan. Second, at the time that we decide to disengage from certain behavior, we often feel a redemptive aversion to it, which makes it difficult at least in the beginning, to expose ourselves to it.
Last and most important, to stop cold turkey, makes us feel heroic and as if we are already free. It lets us feel a bit of the freedom we will eventually have, lets us feel as though the hard work may not have to go on too long, that perhaps it is already close to be over.
But the fact is that we are not free. In most cases we will need to go on resisting the urges we are trying to abandon every day for some time—in some cases forever. It will get easier, yes, but it may be a while until it is easy.
The danger with cold turkey is that giving up a behavior abruptly can be very, very difficult, and in some cases, shocking to our body and mind. After an initial period of success, we may find ourselves overwhelmed by powerful desires to take it up again. Ironically the very feeling of false freedom can lull us into thinking that one look at a crack book, one cigarette or one cookie will now do us no harm.
What follows is familiar to all of us who have struggled with addictions. A feeling of heroism, purity and freedom vanishes like a wisp of smoke. Sullied, weak, bound, we often feel suddenly helpless and lost. The very feelings which are often at the root of addictive behaviors—helplessness, anger and self-loathing, trigger a relapse.
Compared with this all too likely scenario, Charaka’s wisdom is apparent.
To give up something slowly requires patience and humility. We must admit our vulnerability and be gentle with ourselves. We need to be mindful of how much we are engaging in the activity and be precise about our new self-imposed limits.
The benefit is that our system can slowly adjust to the reduction of the behavior and find time to replace it similarly slow with other things that nourish us in better ways. This “slow and steady” approach is both more certain to succeed in long term and less stressful on our body and mind; it is also more tolerant of slip-ups. Since we don’t have a sense of false freedom and purity, a slip-up is more likely to feel like the small setback it is, instead of a debilitating fall.
Maimonides, the great 11th century physician of Unani medicine (Graeco-Arabic) agreed. “Always change a habit slowly”, he advised. “Habit and regularity represent a fundamental principle for the maintenance of health and the cure of disease.”
What Maimonides means is that slow change is the healthiest and most reliable.
“It is not good for a person to change his healthy habits suddenly […] even if one’s habit is contrary to good medical practice, one should not separate from it but should adjust to that which good medical practice advises gradually so that the change will be felt as little as possible.”
The advice of Maimonides and Charaka is grounded in the wisdom of the ancient world, whose physicians generally advised slow change.
Though this might at times go against our desires, for many of us it is the surest road to freedom.
Matthew Gindin, R.Ac., is an acupuncturist, ayurvedic counselor, meditation, qigong and yoga teacher living in Vancouver, BC. He began teaching meditation and yoga after living as a Buddhist monastic for three years. He regularly lectures on yoga philosophy, Buddhist psychology, holistic medicine, and Jewish spirituality. Being curious and perhaps a little too thoughtful, Matthew has explored and practiced neo-Shamanism, Tantric Yoga, all of the major schools of Buddhism and Daoism. His core spiritual commitments are to the contemplative life, positive action in the world, and his home tradition of Judaism whose two core demands, “love God” and “love people” are what he tries to live up to. He blogs for Blue Waters, Blue Mountains and Talis in Wonderland and he has his professional site as well.
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Assistant Ed: Gabriela Magana/Ed: Bryonie Wise
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