By Leo Babauta
Much of our lives is spent numbing out to what we’re experiencing.
We don’t want to feel uncomfortable, so we seek comforts and procrastinate.
We don’t want to feel fear, so we avoid uncertain situations.
We don’t want to stay in the present moment, so we distract ourselves with technology, or get lost in thoughts about the past or future.
And we are so good at numbing ourselves to our experience. This is not a judgment — I do it too.
But what if we blocked all of our exits, and stopped ourselves from numbing out or escaping being present to our feelings and the moment in front of us?
What if we committed to not running to our favorite numbing methods?
Favorite Numbing Methods & Some Alternatives to Numbing Out
Let’s consider the some of the most popular kinds of numbing methods (see if you do any of them) and consider some alternatives to Numbing Out:
- Procrastination and running to distractions — when you feel like a task is too overwhelming, too difficult/uncomfortable, to uncertain/scary, etc. Alternative: What would happen if, whenever you don’t feel like doing a task, you just stopped and felt what it’s like to not want to do the task. Pause and feel your discomfort, your resistance, your aversion to doing the task. Feel the insecurity in your body. You might be able to do the task anyway, after feeling this.
- Social media, messaging & online reading. It’s all very interesting! But it’s also taking you away from feeling anything, because your mind is on your device. You also can’t notice the present moment, right in front of you. Alternative: If you couldn’t check social media or your messages, or read anything online, what might you do instead? You might open your awareness to everything around you right now, keeping your attention on that for a few minutes. You might check in with yourself and notice what you’re feeling, and let yourself actually feel it. That might not be a pleasant feeling if you’re feeling irritated, anxious, insecure. Feel it anyway.
- Video games. Games can be engrossing and tons of fun, and addictive. Much like social media, you can’t actually feel anything or notice anything around you (or within you) if your attention is completely absorbed by the computer game. Alternative: Same as with social media and online reading above. Feel. Notice. Be in the present moment. See what it’s like to stay.
- TV & watching videos. Same as video games and social media — we watch because it’s pleasurable, interesting, fun. Nothing wrong with those feelings, but they numb us to our inner feelings, from loneliness and sadness and anger and frustration, from guilt and loss and pain and feelings of inadequacy. Why feel those things when great TV shows or Youtube channels are available? Because avoidance never solved anything, it only makes it worse. Alternative: Feel. Stay in the feeling. Open up to it. Be in the middle of it, immersed, curious, relaxing into it, being courageous. Also see what it’s like outside!
- Busyness. Maybe you barely ever go on social media, play video games, watch TV shows or videos, or lazily read online … you work like a maniac! From the moment you awake until you’re crashing for the night, you are constantly busy. And avoiding being present. Avoiding feeling whatever you’re feeling, which is probably some anxiety and insecurity. Alternative: Stop. Don’t take any action for at least 10 minutes. Just recenter yourself in the present moment. Feel the insecurity. Notice the urge to do something, and just sit with the urge.
- Porn & sex. Many people run to sexual gratification when they’re feeling tired, lonely, sad, tense. It’s a way to get a quick pleasurable hit, and a feeling of release. And a way to avoid feeling the feels. Alternative: Don’t let yourself run here. Block it out for a month (see next section below). Be present with the feelings. See what it’s like to feel an urge for release without actually acting on the urge. Woah, you’re moving beyond your teenage mindset!
- Addictions. Alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, gambling, biting your nails, and also many of the other things on this list are some of the most common addictions, and every single one is a way to numb out to the difficult feelings we don’t want to face. You are triggered to go to your addiction when you need stress relief, when you’re tired, lonely, sad, angry, tense. They are classic ways to not feel these feelings. Alternative: Refrain from running from the difficult feelings, and actually face them. Feel them. Fully feel them. Be present with these feelings. You’ll find that, while they’re not comfortable, they aren’t unbearable. You’re stronger than you think. And then, once you get more comfortable being with these feelings, you can also give yourself compassion. Talk to a friend. Meditate. Do some exercise. And more compassion.
- Comfort foods, shopping, other comforts. When you’re feeling sad, lonely, tired, stressed or inadequate … what do you do to comfort yourself? Common choices are foods, drinks, shopping, or many of the other things on this list. Sure, comforting yourself isn’t bad … but do you let yourself feel it first? Just feel what you’re feeling? Or do you want to exit that feeling right away. Alternative: It’s OK to feel sad. To really feel it. It’s OK to feel stress. Allowing ourselves to feel everything, to fully face it and fully feel it, is not a negative thing. It’s actually loving, to not reject your feelings and the present experience. Try it once today and see if you can be friendly to whatever feelings arise in you.
- Lashing out. When we’re feeling insecurity, we often feel it as frustration or anger, and lash out at others in various ways. This can, of course, be hurtful to the other person and harmful to our relationships. Alternative: Try not lashing out, but instead allowing yourself to feel the insecurity. Just be in it, without having to resolve the feeling. Just stay in it, without having to take it out on someone else.
There are other ways to numb out, to avoid feeling, to exit … but you’re getting the idea by now. Note the ways you exit, and see if you can avoid exiting instead.
Consider Closing Your Exits
What if you committed for a month (or three) to not going to any of your usual exits, your usual numbing out methods? What would that be like for you?
If you created a practice container (see below) for not going to any of your exits … you’d be forced to feel. Forced to be present to your experience.
It wouldn’t be easy. But nothing worthwhile is ever easy. You are going to do this because:
- You want to learn to be fearless with your fear, courageous with your feelings, and finally fully experience them instead of avoiding them.
- You want to be present to our experience and the current moment, appreciate the life in front of you instead of constantly avoiding it.
- You want to explore a more mindful, intentional way of being. And change your relationship with life.
To do this, you have to close your exits. Not let yourself run. Create a container for yourself, so that you can go deep into this practice.
Creating a Container for Closing Your Exits
A practice container is simply a sent of boundaries, rules, agreements, structure … to hold you in practice.
For example, if you go to a yoga class three times a week, and have a teacher leading you through practice, with rules for not checking your phone or talking during practice, this is a structure that helps you go deeper into the meditation — it’s a container for your yoga practice.
You’d set the same kind of container for sitting meditation (no going on your phone or laptop, for example, or otherwise you’re not even meditating), for relationship practice, for therapy. Structure helps you see when you’re running to your exits, helps you set an intention for practice and stay with that intention more, helps you to explore in safety.
Some ideas for creating a container for practicing not exiting or numbing:
- Decide on a practice period. Set a period for your practice (let’s say 1 month) and commit to it. It’s ironclad.
- Define your exits. Set the things you’re not allowed to do during this period. For example: no social media, no video games, no porn, no alcohol, no pot, no sweets, no fried foods, no going to your favorite online sites (reddit, youtube, blogs, news, etc.).
- Define other triggers. Highlight other triggers: when you find yourself being busy without intention, or procrastinating, pause and practice for a minute or two. When you find yourself mindlessly going to food, pause and practice.
- Set allowable things. Create small containers for things you need to do … for example: messaging and email just twice a day at predetermined times. Sex with partner just once every two weeks. Other things you might want to allow yourself to do: yoga, meditation, going for a walk and being present to the world around you, talking with a friend when you’re struggling and being open-hearted with them, taking a bath or drinking tea but being fully there with the experience and your feelings as you do it.
- Define your practice. Set what kind of practice you want to do when you’re feeling urges to go to addictions, distractions, etc. For example: when you feel the urge to exit, you’ll pause and first turn inward, noticing what you’re feeling. Then give yourself at least a minute to actually feel it, dropping into the sensations of your body, fully feeling it, being curious with it, being friendly towards your feeling. Also allow your awareness to widen beyond your body, noticing the sensations of the world around you, feeling it as pure experience.
- Commit to others. Tell your plan to others. Ask for them to hold you to this commitment. Make sure they’re the kind of people who won’t let you off the hook, who will love you fiercely in this practice. Tell them you’re going to report daily on an email thread.
- Report daily. Start an email thread for your commitment to others, and report to them every single day. Ask people to check on you if you’re not reporting.
Can you do this? Absolutely you can. Your fears, resistance and rationalizations for why you can’t do this are exactly why you should.