The River of Want and Addiction

Personal Problems

I’m an alcoholic. I chose not to continue dying. So I learned about the neurophysiology of addiction. It works like this:

Imagine a river. It is a strong running river, the current rippling the surface and throbbing beneath. It travels in a long straight line through the forest. The banks of the old river rise to a crest of dry soil on either side.

It rains. In the rain coming down the river swells up. Up and up, the rippling surface of the flowing water rises. The river climbs its banks.

Along one side of the river, the water finds a groove in the soil. It touches the groove, gingerly at first, feeling it. Choosing more. The flow reaches out past the bank, a finger of water reaching up and curling over the edge.

Water rushes, following up and over. The finger reaches further. It discovers a shallow trough in the soil. It fills the trough, picking grains of soil from the bottom and churning the grains outward as it flows. The water swells further. Rising. Brimming. It shoots forward.

The rivulet sprints towards the treeline on the bank of the river.

This is how a brain grows and develops. Our brains are a growing pattern of electrochemical flow, similar in structure to other patterns of this growing universe. Like the arms of a tree sprout forth from the thick trunk body, and smaller branches sprout forth from those, our neurophysiology blossoms forth. We grow and learn, associate and change through experience and imagination and choice. As arteries sprout arterioles, which sprout capillaries, or nerves sprout forth from the spinal cord – there is expansion and connection and flow.

The mind, seen as a physical thing, is the river of the brain seeking the sea of experience.

All wanting may be seen to move in this way. A swell of dopamine, a reach outward, the feeling of current and flow as we strive and connect.

Addiction may be seen this way as well. Water finds low places.

Dopamine is the rain, the elixir of both want and pleasure, connecting our desires and our actions. It has done this for millions of years, in the brain of anything more complex than a lizard. The primal desires we share with mammals are the ancient depths of the river, carrying our want toward lands of animal satisfaction.

As humans, we may associate anything with anything else – so our imaginary satisfactions may be as simple as a hug or as abstract as a smileyfaced text message. As we want and seek and experience, the brain forms associations, and carries our want into new realms.

We find ourselves flowing toward places of creation, production and achievement in life.

We find ourselves carried, over and over, into dark realms of addiction.

Addiction happens when the deep channels of mammalian want, rivers with channels carved deep through the neurophysiology of newborn infants, become connected to behaviors that do not ultimately enhance our survival.

The brain begins with key evolutionary triggers, telling us what to seek out in our environment. Calories. After that, with our big human brains of association and imagination, things get wonky.

The man smelling the doughnuts in the cubicle beside his, and struggling not to grab one, disagrees with his own brain about what constitutes “maximized probability of survival.”

In our free will, in our choice, we connect our rushing primal desires to new experiences we imagine. Such abstractions have allowed mankind to invent wheels to protect our precious bodily storehouses of calories, and to imagine that somehow putting seeds in the ground now means sweet corn later. The myriad of absurd connections available in our minds is responsible for progress, art, and folly.

Our imaginations may be singular, but the drives onto which imagination and association are tied, are universal.

The fresh brain of an infant knows “sweet.” His face relaxes and registers pleasure when a sucrose-dipped pacifier is placed in his mouth by a doctor. A first association between primal desire and sensory information is formed, and that baby might just like pacifiers or dangling stethoscopes and white smocks forever after. A torrent of dopamine came down with that first hit of sugar, the banks of the river swelled and pushed into new associations.

Later, that baby discovers what candy is. Candy asks us for very little imaginative abstraction – it is an immediate and simple push of our most basic motivating button. The sense of sweetness in the mouth indicates the presence of easy glucose in the bloodstream, a distilled rocketfuel for the human brain. It’s a short trip between the rushing river of Calorie Intake and the lowland of Snickers and Wonderbread. We’re all born with a nascent sugar habit, and it doesn’t take many Halloweens for it to develop into a lifelong addiction.

Later, that grown baby drinks his first beer. New associations are formed. The first sip might come as a branch from the river of Social Connection. As his buddy hands him a can and looks on expectantly, that grown baby reaches out for new experience.

We’d like to be productive achievers. Wanting “good” things. Brimming with associations between survival and stuff like “helping others” or “making money” or some sort of noble activity. Something nobler than passing out on other people’s couches. Some of us make productive associations early on, getting good grades and hugs and collaboration, riding a whitewater of psychosocial development headed straight toward “the good life.”

The rivers of motivation that flow to such behaviors, may just as easily flow elsewhere.

Habit is when our primal rivers find their way through new ground, and begin to flow stronger through the associated territory with repeated action. The soil is moved, and the new habits become deeper, taking more and more of the rainfall.

Addiction is when we cannot seem to stop the flow, and we get carried away in the current.

Alcohol. Soda. Pornography. Whatever floats your boat. The first time you tried it, whatever your addiction happens to be, it was you that curled a finger over the riverbank. It was you that branched the flow of a primal river into fresh territory of sensation. The soil took new form as the current spread it, the neurophysiology of your brain changed, and your associations made a path for dopamine to travel between your limbic system and…

Something new. Whatever it was. Behavior and sensation that is, perhaps, not so survival-enhancing.

All addiction is wanting run amok.

The rain stops and comes again. Easily finding its groove and reaching outward once more. The finger reaching becomes an arm, reaching further into the forest. The rain continues and the bank of the river is now cut, the soil, once a barrier, now welcomes the water through the forest.

The once-rivulet is now a brook. The rain continues and the brook stretches. It reaches further and further. The torrent goes on. The brook is now a stream. The arm of the stream rushes, the fingers trickle further and further out.

The stream rushes and reaches. Finding its way further and further, reaching for the sea.

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Want Your Body

Personal Problems

I was fat. I was a fat kid who grew into a fat teenager. Then I grew into an obese man. I wanted to “lose weight.”

At least, I thought that was what I wanted.

I focused on losing weight, and did it successfully. I lost 70lb as I became an adult.

Then I found that 70lb.

I focused on losing weight once again. And found it again. I dieted. I repeated the process, and it took me a long time to notice what was going on.

I eventually found out that I wanted something other than “losing weight.”

There are very basic desires that humans share. We all want life. We want growth. It is difficult to reconcile the “loss” of anything with this basic desire.

We want to spring forth from the soil of society and uncoil our cotyledons toward the sun – we want to self-actualize. Our personal development is a form of growth.

The American Dream is but a new and stylized rendition of this Biological and Psychological Dream. Our economic and social development is a form of growth.

We pass on the best ways we have learned how to grow. We teach our 2.5 children how to live. Safe within picket fences, our DNA and our values will grow strong enough to live beyond limitations. Our legacy grows through our children, and they grow up.

Then we set them free to live and actualize themselves, and grow in new cycles.

Growing as much as we can and passing on what we are is not a new idea.

The American Dream goes back hundreds of thousands of years. Creating a┬áresource-rich niche for our selves and families, and filling it with as much good stuff as possible, has been the goal of humanity for quite some time. Only the 2.28 cars in the driveway is “new.”

Do Americans want to “lose weight,” or do we want to be “bigger, better, faster”?

It may be time for us to become more honest with ourselves. We may not want 50-inch bellies.

Yet in a basic biological and psychological sense, we all want to be bigger.

We want our own vitality to be bigger, so we can be better human beings that attain our desires faster.

If we’re honest about how a body and a mind works, it can help us make new choices. But this honesty requires that us to admit something that nobody wants to admit:

The conscious mind is not The Boss of You.

If your conscious mind was truly the boss of your body, you would simply order it to do your bidding: “Lose weight now!”

You may have tried this.

I thought I wanted to lose weight. I found out that I wanted to be vital. And being lean is related to being as vital as possible.

My focus changed. But it took a long time.

I once knew a man who successfully lost 150lb in 6 months. He even made a joke about it to me. It was the kind of thing that sticks in a young man’s mind. My father said we could put this on his tombstone:

“Lose weight now ask me how.”

Chemotherapy is a way to lose weight.

And somehow, even with that epitaph in the back of my head, even after noticing repeatedly that “successful weight loss” had nothing to do with health or vitality, it still took me a decade to see past what our culture has been telling us.

“Weight loss” was not what I wanted.

Our bodies are made of muscle and organs and bone and fat and water, and all of those show up on a scale. A scale may tell you how much total weight has changed, but it cannot tell you whether you are losing water or muscle or fat.

Few of us want less muscle. The numbers on a bathroom scale tell you little about what is happening in your body.

These numbers may not indicate whether or not you are heading in the direction you truly want to go.

Checking your bathroom scale to see if you’re “reaching your goal” is like looking at your odometer to see if you have driven to Disneyland.

If you want to use numbers: try bodyfat percentage or blood tests.

Numbers are useful. But measurement is not the same as getting to know your own body.

When we are lean and vital, we can feel it.

To get to know your body better, try not rejecting any part of it.

Fat is a part of a lean and vital body. Fat is always a part of what we physically are.

We have no human ancestor who was incapable of storing and using bodyfat.

Modern bodybuilders who strive for veiny abdomens, sometimes strive for 3% bodyfat. Some get very close to that goal, often with drugs.

Andreas Munzer was an Austrian bodybuilder famous for getting even closer to 0% by the age of 31. His abdominal muscles and veins were well-defined. His autopsy revealed less than 3% bodyfat after his organs failed.

Fat is a part of a whole system of interrelating pieces that function together. At the barest minimum: a properly functioning 120lb female body is still made from 16lb of fat.

Yes, she can continue to burn fat off past this point. It will cause hormonal disturbances, then death.

A very lean and vital woman is 14-24% fat in total weight. We can add another 10% to that and still be both healthful and shapely.

A very lean and vital man is 6-17% fat. We can add another 10% to that without causing problems.

Once you pay attention to precise measurements of bodyfat for enough time, you discover that a healthy human body does not have a specific “point” of lean, optimal function. It has a range.

This is because our bodies have grown to create bodyfat, and to burn bodyfat. We alternate between both. This is a cycle that occurs for each and every one of us, whether we are aware of it or not.

This cycle is part of what we are.

We can try to “cut off” from what we are. We can attempt to “tell our bodies what to do.” There is a certain charm of masculine authority in forcing things to happen.

The body is always capable of burning bodyfat for fuel, but any attempt to “force it” to “lose weight” will show short-term results at best.

If we want bodies that we enjoy for their abundant energy and shape, forming a better relationship will help. With a better relationship, we can ask our bodies for what we want.

We can also try attacking part of what we are.

Many of us are “cutting off” parts of our digestive system, or sucking the “bad” parts of ourselves out with a sharpened straw. Do we hate fat? We want the “bad” parts gone, we want to cut off from them. We want to force them to do our bidding. And if that doesn’t work, we’ll try deceiving our own bellies with “one simple trick.”

Hatred and attack and deception are not effective foundations for a good relationship.

We, consciously, are not the boss. We are not kings who rule over the complex ecology of self any more than we reign over our own hearts, forcing them to beat.

We, the conscious part of us that makes choices, may “have” physical bodies. To some extent, we get to order them around. It may feel like we force ourselves out of bed sometimes. That doesn’t mean that we get to choose which parts of a recursively interacting complex system are “good” and “bad.”

Being able to grab a refrigerator door when we think about it, does not mean we are in charge of every part of our bodies.

We cannot even “grow our fingernails” on purpose.

Yet our minds do influence what happens inside us and around us.

We may make choices of action that signal our endocrine system in the direction we want our bodies to go. We may find ways of eating and moving which signal this elegant environment of self to grow what it is that we want.

We can focus on creating ourselves as lean and vital.

Look toward growing and evolving a purer you. Focus on this forward momentum. Find yourself filled with lift, with intensity of purpose and energy.

Focus on vitality, and you’ll notice you move more. You’ll find a spring in your step.

Parts of you will grow and other parts will grow lean. You’ll dance easy, arms and legs not bouncing off of themselves, but moving free in the air.

Want your own energy and spirit, unfolding and growing in choice. Want a lean and vital you. It IS possible.

Want your body.

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My Before Picture

Personal Problems

My eyes were two dead clowns found floating in a still lake.

The skin of my face was pale and half-cooked pastry, a “Bourbon puff” as it’s called.

My belt was invisible. My pants did not fall, so the assumption could be made that I did, in fact, own a belt. A slab of lard hung down an inch past the bottom of the beltbuckle.

That picture could have been taken at many times during my life. It would show a guy courting death in an on-again-off-again relationship. I was addicted. Fat. Depressed.

Was that “Before?” I guess that depends on making up an arbitrary timeline. Before what? A “Before” picture of a human being might show two teenagers behind steamed-up windows in an old Chevy. The “After” would be a gravestone.

We are all in process, inhaling and exhaling and repeating. We choose more life or more death, and if we are honest about it we know the whole thing is a cycle.

Will we die? Yes.

Will we live? Yes.

How much?