As a holistic health counsellor, I treat many people who have had an addiction of some sort in the past. They come to see me because they want to make changes and become healthier but they often mention having to give up just one ‘last vice’ before they reach this goal. One of the most common ‘last vices’, particularly for ex-drug addicts, is cigarettes. However, I don’t believe there is a ‘last vice’ because once we start on the path to health and self-realisation and undergo daily practice of meditative techniques, we naturally constantly refine our energy fields. Along the way we become less tolerant of all the substances that go into our bodies that have no beneficial effect. So the journey of self-realisation is an ongoing process of throwing off what weighs you down – like losing ballast in order to ascend. As one vice or addiction is overcome, you simply become aware of another. It is surprising just how many of these there are, and how your perception of what a vice is changes. When I finally managed to stop using speed, I was thrilled at being able to get by with only alcohol and marijuana. Then when I stopped using marijuana, I noticed what my Winfield Reds were doing to me. When I was on speed though, cigarettes were the least of my worries. When I finally managed to quit smoking – what I thought was my ‘last vice’ – to my surprise I started to really notice the effects of various foods, particularly sweets. Then caffeine came to my attention and on it went. If you had told me twenty years ago that my definition of a vice would go from being speed to sugar, I would never have believed it!
The TCM / Energy-medicine basis for addiction / cravings
In my work I have noted that these vices, addictions or cravings are connected to specific organ dysfunctions or imbalances which stop the Chi from flowing freely. Because an imbalance creates discomfort or pain, when we experience it we are naturally inclined to suppress it. The easiest way to do this and feel normal or balanced again is to override the imbalance via an external mechanism, such as sugar, drugs, coffee or cigarettes, that forces the Chi to flow. This creates a temporary but illusory experience of perfect organ function. So, from the perspective of TCM and energy medicine, addictions or ‘vices’ are in fact the result of a craving for balance and free-flowing Chi rather than for a substance. Cravings, addictions and vices are an indication of our deep-seated need for perfect organ function and an unobstructed energy field. We all experience cravings and have addictions because we all have organ imbalances due to blockages in our energy fields that have formed progressively through our lives. They say that if you give a true spiritual master a drug such as LSD, it won’t affect them because they are perfectly balanced. For the rest of us though, the worse our imbalances and blockages, the more intense the discomfort and the stronger the desire or craving for balance and free flow. Heroin addiction is an example of the most advanced case of this.
Although clients present to me as being ‘addicted’ to certain substances I view it as a reliance on an external mechanism to generate equilibrium. I believe we all face cravings in some form or other and addressing the underlying imbalance is the only way to become free. Dealing professionally with people with various addictions for nearly twenty-five years, I have identified five major groups of cravings/addictions, which resonate with the Five Element model of Traditional Chinese Medicine:
Each of these groups is affiliated with a certain organ because in Traditional Chinese Medicine organs make up our physiological, spiritual and emotional reality. These groups are independent from each other and need to be treated as such. In my experience, as a one-time chain smoker but also as a therapist, one of the most difficult addictions to deal with is cigarettes. Heroin addicts often find it easier to get off heroin than cigarettes. I myself found it easier to get off speed than cigarettes and many recovered alcoholics or drug addicts continue to smoke cigarettes. In that context, cigarettes seem like the lesser evil but it is really replacing one addiction with another, and quitting smoking is very hard. I think this is because most people mistakenly approach it as they would a drug addiction. But from the perspective of the Five Elements it is distinctly different. Cigarettes operate via the Metal Element rather than the Wood Element.
As an acupuncturist I have treated many smokers over the years. However my focus always has been on the body-mind connection rather than treating the presenting symptoms. Physiologically, cigarettes are connected with the Metal Element and its associated organs the Lung and Colon. Lungs are associated with ‘accepting the past’ and with ‘embracing the future’, while the Colon is associated with ‘letting go’. This organ connection is evident in people with sluggish bowels who need a cigarette in the morning to move their bowels. The cigarette ingested via the Lungs becomes the external mechanism to artificially correct an imbalance and stagnation in the Colon.
Emotionally, the Lungs are associated with sadness and grief and I have identified underlying and unresolved grief issues, such as relationship break-ups or family separation, in many smokers. Unresolved grief issues lead to imbalances in the Metal Element, which indirectly interferes with the smooth flow of Chi and control of the emotions. I believe one reason cigarettes are so hard to give up, is because they artificially help to control emotions, particularly grief. Crying – an expressed emotion of the Metal Element – is the natural way to alleviate grief, it represents ‘finally letting it all go’. Grieving people are encouraged by outsiders to ‘just let go’ but you can’t ‘let go’ just because someone tells you to, ‘letting go’ requires body-mind unification. But if this is not possible, due to many reasons, smoking can provide a temporary space for ‘letting go’ as it operates via body and mind due to the Lung and Colon connection. This is why a person who has unresolved grief issues often finds that cigarettes provide some sense of relief or comfort. They then want to repeat the experience. By the time the discomfort of the side-effects of smoking leads to the desire to quit, the underlying reason for the addiction is hidden from the conscious mind.
In these cases, from the body-mind perspective, the switch for kicking the smoking habit is via the unresolved grief issue. I am not claiming that as soon as the grief is resolved that the cigarettes will go, but becoming aware about the grief and connecting onto it consciously while treating the Metal Element imbalance and stagnation, accelerates the process. In many cases the smokers had no idea that they were smoking for a reason. But I have treated many smokers who tried all sorts of techniques to quit, such as nicotine patches, but went straight back to smoking when challenged by certain exterior circumstances, even after being smoke free for years. Not one of them had fallen back to using nicotine patches but rather to smoking. There is obviously more to it than just being addicted to a substance. The grief connection applies when giving up drugs as well which is why so many addicts become dependent on cigarettes. When I gave up drugs I no longer had a way to feel balanced or happy. I missed the highs and I felt loss, emptiness and grief. Smoking cigarettes seemed to temporarily fill that emptiness, it offered a sense of comfort. I now see that this was via their action on the Metal Element.
The moment you inhale cigarette smoke it initiates the body-mind interaction of Lung and Colon and the emotional aspects associated with these. If you want to give up smoking after giving up drugs, it is necessary to approach it within the Metal Element and to acknowledge and treat the underlying issues and face the feelings of separation, loss or grief rather than driving them deeper into the subconscious. Ex drug-users who have become dependent on cigarettes often describe themselves to me as having ‘addictive personalities’. The term has a fatalistic ring to it but the way I see it is ‘addiction’ is experiencing something that seems beneficial that you don’t want to let go of. An ‘addictive personality’ can be an asset because it means you are sensitive to imbalances and committed to feeling good. These are the pre-requisites for the journey of self-realisation.