I listened to a fascinating interview with Anna Lembke on the Art of Manliness podcast. She is Chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic at Stanford University. She was speaking about her book, Dopamine Nation. I was surprised at what I learned.
It’s an oversimplification of her premise, but she explains how and why the relentless pursuit of pleasure leads to even more pain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and It plays a role in how we feel pleasure. The brain produces it as a result of actions that are meant for us to feel good. The result is the body wanting more of what is creating the new state of mind.
It’s this cycle that leads to addiction. And she is very graceful in describing addiction as a means of easing pain. It makes sense in the mind of the addict. They don’t want to hurt any longer. Thus the continual return to the substance or behavior that relieves the pain.
In November I wrote about my process of learning how to allow myself to feel lonely. Loneliness is my most neglected of emotions. I became very skilled at ignoring it from a very young age. I would bury it in activity or busyness, and that was a very effective strategery.
Until I started living alone.
I went for a while believing it was no big deal. I’m a disciplined person. I know how to get things done. I know how to structure my day and be productive. But my body wanted to send me a message, and Anna Lembke was its prophet.
My iPhone is my connection to the outside world. It is both a blessing and a curse. My body started showing me what it meant by the latter.
The phone has become a priority in my day. I would check it first thing in the morning to see if I missed a text or notification, and I would check it right before bed. I carried it with me everywhere, even in the house, yearning for feedback in some fashion sent from a person on the other end. I would pick it up anytime I sat down to eat, or sitting in the doctor’s office or waiting on a friend.
In the words of Anna Lembke, my body asked if we could take a dopamine fast.
I reflected on this sensation. I found that I had begun to lose my ability to be fully alone and fully present in that state. I was filling every possible inch of personal space with data from my phone. I decided that can’t be healthy, So what would this fast look like?
It’s been quite simple to fashion a plan. As with all plans, it’s only as good as its implementation.
Every plan needs a goal, and mine is to become more mindful of my body in its state of aloneness. I’m looking to be alert and pay attention. Dr Lembke says it’s a counterintuitive proposition. We all want to feel better, so why would I want to move into the direction of not feeling better? Why would I want to make friends with the very condition I’m trying to avoid?
Her assessment is that it gives the body relief from its imbalance. The body is always seeking harmony, and harmony comes from knowing how to live amid both pleasure and pain, both of which are processed in the same part of the brain.
Pain can’t be avoided, but it can’t be ignored, either. Pain can be relieved, but that relief comes at a price. And the body knows when it’s being asked to pay too much.
I’ll revisit this topic in the future. I don’t have much to say on the matter because I’m on the first tee on the front nine in this round. But it’s an intriguing pursuit, so much so that I felt compelled to write about it this rainy, lonely afternoon.
Make Room. Don’t Hold Back