The slide of time and addictive cravings

I’ve written about the benefits of stretching your sense of yourself outward, freeing it from the repetitive, stagnant “now” of addiction, extending it all the way from a distant but familiar past to a wished-for future. But how can we turn this abstract idea into an exercise, a therapeutic method, for recovery, for whatever you want to call the next stage?

I’ve been thinking vaguely about a workshop I’m to give in Australia this July. So I ask myself: what on earth do I have to offer front-line workers in addiction? What can I suggest that’s concrete enough to help real people struggling with addiction in the here and now? Well an idea finally came to me while I was meditating this morning. I do sometimes get good ideas while meditating. I’m no expert meditator by the way, and I know you’re not really supposed to be thinking things through. But sometimes new perspectives just appear, and I value them.

So here it is:

What if, either alone, maybe in a guided meditation context, or maybe in psychotherapy with an expert, what if the cravings, the fondness, the attraction of getting high kind of slid down a slide of time, from the present to the past. After all, those cravings don’t really belong in the present tense, that’s not their home. They come from long ago. From the dark oppressive helplessness that followed something awful, some period of abuse or chaos. They come from a depression that started when you were a teen. Well, didn’t they? I know mine did. And they show up in the present, in the now, in the “should I or not?” of today, as stubborn visitors. They continue to visit you in the present. Like unwelcome guests, they don’t leave when it’s time for them to go, even though they’re taking up half the house.

So imagine the whole continuum of your life as though it were a slide or a slope. Let those desires slide backward in time, and follow them, observe them, see where they land in the past, see where they really belong, like an observer on an archeological expedition. When I try that exercise, I get a rush of self-compassion and self-understanding, and, as a bonus, present-tense cravings pack their belongings and clear out.

rounded shoehorn

It’s like an overcast sky when the clouds start to part and little bits of sun filter through. And then you realize there’s a whole blue sky waiting on the other side of the clouds.*

Then continue the metaphor: imagine the slope of your life continuing upward, rising, unfurling, as it opens into the future. That future really is different from the past — and the present. This is not an abstraction. It’s a completely different place, a place you’ve never been to, but a place that sends tendrils of possibility, rays of hope, back to you, now, in the present, where you’re sitting wondering about and yearning toward freedom and change.

Maybe a better image is that of a cone…maybe an ice-cream cone. After all, there’s only so much mileage you get from a shoe horn. Maybe picture an ice-cream cone and let all the slush gravitate to the bottom, which invariably starts to leak. So the goo leaks out the soggy bottom, and what’s left on top is…I don’t know, the good stuff, the untasted slanted snowconeflavours? The chocolate sprinkles?

Maybe a snow-cone?

I can’t quite find the right image. Any ideas would be appreciated. It would be nice to develop this metaphor so that I could actually talk about it, elaborate it, teach it. Here’s another image that might work better, because you can see the “bad stuff” emitting downward and out the bottom while the “good stuff,” the possible future, radiates from the mouth of the cone.


Try it and see what you think. For me, this is unfinished business, a rough draft. But I’m sure there’s a palpable feeling to letting the present-tense sludge slide back into the past, where it really belongs, and then…then, I don’t know, the sky’s the limit.



*I got this metaphor from “Andy,” the guide for the Headspace meditation app. I think Headspace is fabulous. Try it!

66 thoughts on “The slide of time and addictive cravings

  1. Peter Sheath April 4, 2017 at 4:24 am #

    Hey Marc that’s a great meditation. I’ve been doing lots of stuff, for both clients and myself, about bringing yourself into the present. When you finally land there it opens up a new world that often liberates people from the shackles of the past and the worrisome projections of the future. It’s almost as if past and future thinking become the turbo charged fuel for anxiety and depression in the present. For most people it’s an extremely difficult concept to grasp and, subsequently, becomes almost impossible to do. The mind is a cunning beast, always trying to pressgang you into your past or problem solve your way into the future. This excercise seems like a very good way to go with that, in a passive observer kinda way and turn it into something very positive. I’m gonna try it later, thanks for sharing.
    I read your piece in the Guardian about ket and I thought it was awesome. I think we’ve dismissed the whole, so called, recreational drugs scene for far too long and completely ignored any of the therapeutic benefits. We continue to throw really dangerous chemicals down people’s throats, like antidepressants, anxiolytics, antipsychotics and mood stabilisers, often paying scant regard to the environmental, iatrogenic and long term impacts. Personally I think we’ve probably got the biomedical answers we need for many of these issues right under our noses, problem is that big pharma can’t make gazillions out of it and the ridiculous governance we’ve created won’t shift an inch.
    Namaste my friend x

    • Marc April 4, 2017 at 4:46 am #

      Yup, the tendency is to force your way out of the disaster of the present tense, as you say, by pressuring you to DEAL WITH your past or shoving your way into some alternative way of being (a future). The sort of method I have in mind is indeed much more relaxed and intuitive, which is why the metaphor of a slide seems so central. It’s really a very intuitive experience.

      I’m sort of stunned by the fact that you can “be here now” in meditation and, at the same time, extend your sense of yourself back into your wounded childhood…and it all somehow works together to grant you self-compassion.

  2. Peter Sheath April 4, 2017 at 4:26 am #

    “You can destroy your now by worrying about tomorrow.” Janis Joplin

    • Cheryl G April 6, 2017 at 8:14 am #

      And look what happened to Janis….His can I not worry about tomorrow though? All my yesterday’s led me to today. Because of yesterday’s choices 7 yrs ago, left me with 3 felonies my today and tomorrow’s chances have been let down with rejection for employment and.ability to rent . All due to background and/or credit checks. How is it that I not worry about tomorrow?

      • Marc April 9, 2017 at 5:45 am #

        Point taken, Cheryl, But worrying about tomorrow is what we do 99% of the time. But you don’t need to make it 100%. You can take 10 minutes a day and let yourself slide back and forth between the past and the future, imagine the continuum, let it slant so that the sludge flows out the bottom. Try it. It’s just an exercise. See what happens.

  3. Mark April 4, 2017 at 5:11 am #

    The most striking image for me, Marc, is the guest who won’t leave and takes up half the house. That, unfortunately reminds me of certain American politicians. ;-(

  4. matt April 4, 2017 at 7:00 am #

    There is nothing verboten about focusing and working things through during meditation. It’s just another “type” or stage of meditation…penetrative insight.

    I like your metaphor of the snowcone…or maybe even a wave… with peaks and troughs that oscillate through life, through time. Another image from the East that helps me is that we are not individuals…but relationships. I don’t exist without you and you don’t exist without me. Subject…object. Take that image one step further to your relationship with yourself. There isn’t just one Marc. There are all the Marcs on the time continuum of your life. Another way is to take time out of the picture altogether, take away the strictures of our relationship with the past and the future. A Buddhist idea that I often find helpful for my staying in the moment: In the west we typically think of time and the universe expanding outward. What if we think of it happening all at once? Of all my experience and potential of the past and the future happening right now. It leaves a lot less to regret and worry about, and just keep it moving…

    • William Abbott April 4, 2017 at 3:04 pm #

      Heavy stuff here. Matt is right though; during meditation we are ” being” with whatever happens whether your snowcone or a strategy about a talk in July.. so its all under the wisdom idea of mindful awareness practice.

      Am caught by the continuum of your life.. Many in modern physics look at time aka experience as a hologram -layers of experience you can view a part of as part of the whole.

      Thats an idea worthy of further thought .

      • Marc April 9, 2017 at 5:52 am #

        It sure is.

    • Cheryl G April 6, 2017 at 8:18 am #

      Yes, I just keep moving. As the drippings from the snow cone, I look at all the bad the drugs led to in my life. So. Sometimes the rainbow of color in top, the now is more appealing and pushes the bad so far down though.

      • Marc April 9, 2017 at 5:53 am #

        That’s a useful image, Cheryl. The idea of one kind of experience pushing the other away, not like you’re doing it deliberately… Rather, it’s automatic, because the colourful stuff just wants to be there.

    • Marc April 9, 2017 at 5:50 am #

      Matt, those relationships with oneself….yes, that’s something I actually try to focus on in therapy. It’s a powerful moment when the client connects with a past self who is suffering and, for the first time, possibly ever, feels compassion: you poor kid…you are in such misery. I have tried this a few times and the client seems to reliably get big waves of sadness, a deep scooping out of ancient swampland…truly a cathartic event.

      As for the timelessness perspective….sounds pretty cool. Quantum mechanics and Buddhism meet up once again.

      • matt April 9, 2017 at 8:20 am #

        It helps to put those “secondary” emotions into perspective– like anger, resentment…secondary because they emerge from something else that happened. We get angry about feeling wronged or rejected, resentful of something that was done to us. And if we continue to remain angry at ourselves or others, it’s about something that isn’t real anymore. The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh talks about viewing anger as a little child that is a part of us, that we can recognize, acknowledge and then let it go. Say hello, pat it on the head, then turn it around, gently smack it on the fanny and send it on its way.

        • Marc April 9, 2017 at 5:30 pm #

          I get all that except one thing: why call them secondary? They seem to me primary. The anger (or helpless rage or rejection or whatever) that Richard (below) felt wasn’t really toward the ATM at all. Never was. It “wouldn’t take his deposit” …that sense of rejection seems a reappearance of something primal, not secondary.

          • matt April 9, 2017 at 11:22 pm #

            I know it’s semantics, but “secondary” in the sense of not primary… not in the sense of not primal. Indeed, anger can be very primal. But it’s a reaction to something else that happened or another negative emotion or experience, like rejection. People are not inherently angry. Something has to make us that way. It’s not a baseline emotion. We may lose track of what it was that caused it and confuse its attribution, but it doesn’t just arise unbidden.

  5. Richard Henry April 4, 2017 at 9:20 am #

    I knew Ice Cream would come out sometime, somewhere…

    Great metaphor… something I can definitely relate to…hahaha…

    I like to find the route of where the cravings are coming from and put them right back where they belong. It’s for me the need to escape the present feelings I’m having that are routed in a memory of my past.
    Many times this feeling (craving) is compounded by the experiences I had with a similar event from my past.
    Like the other day when I was mad… the banking machine would not take my deposit I needed in there for a payment. Yes… I punched the machine, not to damage it, but to let out some frustration.
    I have learned today, to look from the outside in to determine the true underlying issue. I know anger is a manifestation of Hurt, Fear, and or Frustration…
    The true Frustration came about a half hour before hand, from someone who I felt was trying to belittle me, which was a reflection of a time in my past, of a similar situation.
    My automatic brain response was to escape,… today I can walk away as in the past I would have wanted to drink.
    So the moral of the story is when your have a craving… Identify the true underlying issue, look from the outside in and put it in its rightful place, in the past, and that past event, not in the present situation…
    Identifying and recognizing where it comes from (craving) helps me bring closure, and peace of mind today…
    Just like taking that first lick of ice cream it brings me back to a happy time, a place I choose to have in my life today…
    Thanks Marc always a pleasure.
    Respect Richard Henry

    • Cheryl G April 6, 2017 at 8:29 am #

      Well put. Thank you for your input. Reactions to my past experiences do not have to be how I react today. I’m working on that and have managed pretty well over past 5 months.

    • Marc April 9, 2017 at 6:28 am #

      Richard, I think I get what you’re saying more than ever. Just the other day I realized that this “identification” thing…finding the feeling-memory underlying whatever is bothering/pulling you in a given moment…is potentially incredibly powerful. You can even do it on an almost second-by-second basis. I tried this in meditation. Maybe it would be harder while riding the bus, though not necessarily. I guess making it a habit would be ideal. When I do it I get stuff like this:

      they don’t get me — hurt, shame

      someone’s mad at me — anxiety, wanting to hide

      I should be better — shame, guilt

      someone is blocking me — anger, hurt, loneliness

      Stuff like that. It’s very concrete. If I focus, I even get imagery transported straight from childhood or adolescence. It’s some semblance of Freudian thinking: everything that’s happening has already happened — I”m just reliving it.

      • matt April 9, 2017 at 7:46 am #

        …and what are we missing when we are continually reliving the past instead of reconnecting to it and reinventing it? We are continually and continuously not where we are supposed to be… where we actually are. In the here and now, where all of our experience intersects.

        • Marc April 9, 2017 at 5:32 pm #

          Yes, for sure!

  6. Minerva Smith April 4, 2017 at 10:51 am #

    I saw a tv show (actually Australian, Offspring) on Netflix last night where a character, Billy, who often struggles with her own issues, had a wish jar that she referred to, as just something she is doing right now, probably therapeutic. I know it is a bit of an old idea, but it had a nice, simple twist to it, a kind of do something as tangible as put your wish in the jar and put it in a spot that you can think about, a kitchen shelf etc, and consider it when you are low/ rattled. I liked it, it felt a bit anchoring yet whimsical.

  7. Karen April 4, 2017 at 5:10 pm #

    What about a plant growing, as a metaphor for the process you’re talking about? As a plant grows, you don’t know what it’s going to look like in the future. Addiction is not present in the seed, but at some time during the growth of the plant, it appeared, and blighted the growth of the plant. If the plant continues to grow and the addiction diminishes, at some point it will become just a scar, all but buried in the healthy tissues growing around it. Plant growth is kind of like a cone, in that it starts from a single point and grows outwards.

    • Marc April 9, 2017 at 6:34 am #

      Lovely metaphor. It captures the feeling — the palpable sense — of moving onward, and when you look back you can see where you came from. Maybe you can see the scars back there, the ones you’ve now moved beyond.

      • Karen April 10, 2017 at 6:20 am #

        Why has this thing published my address???

        • Marc April 10, 2017 at 8:20 am #

          Karen, the comment that consisted of your street address came from your email address — at least whatever email address you wrote from next. There is no way that my site would have access to your street address.

          I’ve deleted that comment — I assume that’s what you wanted. And I am making my reply to you public, partly because you’ve used the blog site to communicate about your problem…but also to reassure others that we would never publish anyone’s address — either email or street address. Hope this resolves the issue.

      • Karen T April 10, 2017 at 5:46 pm #

        Bloody hell it’s done it again! Instead of my brilliant and witty reply, it’s posted my address! Thanks for removing the last one, can you do it again? Actually I discovered that there are many, many Peters Avenues all over the world, so I’m probably safe. 🙂

        • Marc April 10, 2017 at 6:03 pm #

          Ok, I removed it. But this is quite strange for me too. For one thing, I can’t find the comment I returned to you. Weird!!

  8. edwin Evers April 4, 2017 at 5:21 pm #

    youre storyin a way touched me deeply. I dont know why. I am clean for about 4 years now. But still I know what craving in any way can do. We even are craving on thoughts. Always trying to keep our brain busy attaching to whatever it can attach to

    • Marc April 9, 2017 at 6:36 am #

      Yes, the thoughts that spiral in familiar and unhelpful ways — we get pulled from one to the next by something very much like craving. A gravitational pull. Striving is another word that often comes up.

  9. Mark in Australia April 4, 2017 at 11:57 pm #

    What if the addiction is icecream?!?

    I really like the slide metaphor. Although the idea that the future is high in the sky sounds like effort. Like it’s atop a mountain yet to hike.

    I’m picturing the slide, almost like a set of scales, which once the past has slid off to the left, I can then find the “balance” in the middle and can feel centred, able to walk off the scales to the right with ease as it tips me down towards whatever path I choose.

    • Cheryl G April 6, 2017 at 8:34 am #

      Yes!! What if it is ice cream, or pasta, rice..any food. That’s where I am now. I’ve developed some intestinal issues, as well as a gut!! Addiction to alcohol and drugs has been replaced with food. I believe thus was my very 1st addiction as a 9 year old. Now to apply your metaphor to this one.

    • Marc April 9, 2017 at 6:45 am #

      That’s a great addition to the metaphor! I’ll play with that one. I guess the reason I liked the shoe-horn (quite intuitively, not much thought involved) was because it changes near the “top”… See how it starts to slope downward to the right (from the viewer’s perspective)? It’s true that the metaphor needs to show the “freeing up” feeling of moving future-ward, like it’s not trudging up a mountain.

  10. YC April 5, 2017 at 7:41 am #

    Hi Marc, wondering if you’ve done any reading/learning about narrative therapy. Some of what you’re describing above (about re-framing the story of cravings, having compassion for self/where you came from/past decisions) reminds me of that work. I am an addiction physician and appreciate your work developing the learning model of addiction. I, too, have been wondering how using this model would change the way I approach my patients. I’ve also been wanting to learn more about narrative therapy for some time. There may be some synergy here.

    • Marc April 9, 2017 at 6:56 am #

      Hi YC. I don’t know anything about narrative therapy. I just googled it, and it seems to have evolved out of family therapy, led by a guy named Michael White. Is that what you mean? All this stuff seems interesting to me in a way it never did before… Please send a link or two.

  11. matt April 5, 2017 at 9:10 am #

    I’ve thought about this a lot, Marc…from my own experience. The way I view it is in terms of awareness and acceptance. Frankly, there is no way for me to predict my mental state from one moment to the next. I don’t have access to all the emotional or situational stimuli that could trigger me and make unwanted echoes of past feeling memes bubble up from the basement to trigger me and harsh or warp my experience of reality. That basement and that foundational bullshit are always gonna be there. They lend to my compassion as well as to my bent self-concept. Once I recognize that that’s the foundation…that’s what I’m working with…then I can build something on top of it. A nice house that other people admire and don’t mind coming in and staying awhile. A strong resilient house that can weather a storm, even though it’s built on rubble.

    • Marc April 9, 2017 at 7:00 am #

      Yes, the basement’s always gonna be there. I have a few private clients now. And I think each of them has asked me about this explicitly. Basically: do I have to continue to live with this shit? When is it going to go away? And I try to answer: it’s not. But it gets a lot easier to bear when you get to know it and stop fighting it.

      • matt April 9, 2017 at 8:31 am #

        Notice it, let it go, then come back to reality. The essence of mind training. What things like meditation practice help us practice doing. “Do I have to continue to live with this shit?” Umm…no. But everybody has to come to that realization on their own, and what method is gonna work best for them.

        • Marc April 9, 2017 at 5:37 pm #

          Yeah, sure. Still, we can gentle them through the realization. Isn’t that all psychotherapy was ever able to do? That wart on your nose…it’s not going to go away, but it’s not as bad as you think. Not as big, not as ugly, and definitely not your fault.

          • matt April 9, 2017 at 11:55 pm #

            Psychotherapy, mind training, realization, self-realization…etc…and drugs…all means to an ostensibly similar end. Weren’t we talking about snowcones? 🙂

      • Hildur Jonsdottir May 2, 2017 at 11:15 am #

        There is an old metaphor from Greenland that comes to my mind, I think it has been around for a while so you might have heard of it. It has been immensely useful to me during my recovery. Your line: “Do I have to continue to live with this shit,” sparked my memory of it. It is as follows: During the long winter, where there is frost and snowfall, the greenlanders throw their waste in a heap outdoors, for it to be covered with snow in the next winter storm. So a new layer is added to the heap to be covered again, and then another and another. Each layer freezes into the same thick chunk of ice. When spring arrives, it is no use to try to clear it up all at once, the only thing to do is to let each layer appear one after another as the chunk of ice thaws. So one layer thaws, and you clear it away, then another, then another… . In recovery, spring has arrived. Let the rays of the sun thaw a layer after a layer, for you to deal with bit by bit. You cannot force your way prematurely to the bottom of the pit but you can rest assure that every layer will finally be revealed and dealt with. This corresponds beautifully with a very central Greenlandish concept of time, that can be aligned with your metaphor Marc. Times does not pass, time is not spent – time accumulates and time arrives. No time goes away, time only comes.There is always time ahead of you, every moment represents you receiving the great gift of time. This concept of time has helped me to transcend my own past and has been of great value to me trying to fondly say goodbye to the egocentric, self-criticising, anxiety-ridden drinker I once was and be welcoming and greatful for the present and the future.

        • Marc May 3, 2017 at 5:22 am #

          This is a truly beautiful metaphor, and that way of conceptualizing time makes the hairs stand up on my arms. In fact, my only regret is that not many people may read this, as it is a response to a post that is a month old. Would you be willing to take these words, maybe extend them a bit, and let me post it as an independent blog post? You might want to take the Greenlandish concept of time as an intro….then copy the part about the layers of waste verbatim, then end with something more about time collapsing continually into the present (if I understand you correctly). I really love that image. Let me know.

          • Hildur May 3, 2017 at 6:37 am #

            Thank you Marc. I will write this. Since english is not my mother tongue I would welcome some editing if that is all right with you. I can only write from a purely personal point of view – I am not an academic, not a scientist and not a professional in the treatment of addiction. But I love your blogs and appreciate greatly your continous effort to combine knowledge in all the above fields to enlighten our understanding of personal as well as shared experiences with substance abuse.

            • Janet May 26, 2017 at 10:34 am #

              I agree, Hildur, please write more. What about a Guest Memoir on this site? I would like the hear more from you.

            • Karen T August 12, 2017 at 4:48 pm #

              Your English is fine . . .

  12. Cheryl G April 6, 2017 at 8:41 am #

    Thank you Marc. I enjoy reading your …articles, and everyone’s input. This is a lifelong journey for me. I live in the USA. Florida. Home of “Its 5 o’clock somewhere” Came here at age 18 in 1982 for beaches booze and boys! I got what I wanted and them some.

    • Mark in Australia April 6, 2017 at 7:05 pm #

      5 o’clock somewhere. In Australia we say “it’s 12 o’clock somewhere” giving us an excuse to drink in the morning! Goodness me

  13. Deb W. April 6, 2017 at 10:08 am #

    In looking for an explanation beyond the pathological, in some evolutionary explanation for this impulse, I wondered if, to paraphrase Brian Wilson, I just wasn’t made very well for these times. I think you’re on to something when you work to find a greater vessel for your experience, rather than burrowing in the relief promised by a substance, a burrowing, I believe, which creates a tunnel out of which it is difficult to pull oneself.

    For me I need space, as a metaphor and a reality. I think that’s why the God thing works for some people, unfortunately not for me. So I try time the ocean, the sky, the universe… (looking up at the moon at night, imagining our planet from there), and try to make that as physical as possible. Maybe it’s about perspective, or relative relationship.

    There’s a book by a man named Les Femi called Open Focus I picked up at a zen retreat bookstore, it’s a form of biofeedback I think, wiht exercises for creating “space” in your mind. There was something about that that began to work for me, that started me thinking about space as an antidote for the mental “collapse” that can precede my desire to find a way out of discomfort.

    • Marc April 9, 2017 at 7:16 am #

      Space is a powerful metaphor, indeed. I don’t think I use it quite the way you do, but sometimes I look “outward” from “here” during meditation or just walking down the street….and then I get a sense of movement– stuff coming into me, openness, love, good stuff like that….as though I’m at one end of a conduit. I try all this stuff out on my clients too, to see what works for others.

      Reading these comments is pretty amazing. It seems we’ve all found metaphors for personal use, so to speak, and they overlap, but not completely.

  14. Carlton April 6, 2017 at 3:17 pm #

    If this description of your recovery experience resonates with other ex-addicts it may gather gravity and interest if others support it.

    Although my experience was quite different, the common denominator is that we do not have to depend on the belief addiction was a disease, and that fact will itself be attractive and helpful to a percentage of addicts, even those on the front line.

    • Marc April 9, 2017 at 7:19 am #

      For sure. That’s more or less the starting point for me. People often ask: if it’s not a disease then what is it? And that’s where all these interesting psychological “exercises” help concretize things. If a change in self-perception has this kind of power, then surely the thing that’s troubling us is psychological, i.e., not illness, not pathology.

      • Carlton April 12, 2017 at 8:45 am #

        Yes, A persons struggle to keep and maintain an addiction in ones life can lead to major changes in self-perception.

        The change of perception that it is the Addiction, not Sobriety that requires maintenance, can be the beginning of a sea-change of self-perception and freedom from an addiction and the recovery process itself.

        Here is an excerpt of an exercise I made up to help with this:

        The JUGGLING Analogy:

        During the recovery phase, people kept talking about “keeping all the balls in the air”.
        by which they meant, “Maintaining Sobriety”.

        However, trying to continuously and consciously “keep all the balls in the air”, was clearly an impossible and endless task, and in a fit of desperation, it suddenly occurred to me that this juggling analogy was backwards.

        It was the Drinking that was being actively “Maintained”, not sobriety.

        Sobriety was when all the Juggling balls were simply on the floor…naturally lying around and requiring no maintenance to do so.

        This notion kept coming back to me..and the common sense-ness kept growing.

        This change of perception began to feel like a basic and universal “common sense” type-thing again.

  15. Andrew T April 12, 2017 at 2:49 pm #

    I love this so much! I can relate to everything you said. I tend to find me self-stuck in the past or the future far too many times in one day.

  16. Fred April 12, 2017 at 4:19 pm #

    Marc, I love the idea. I have done something similar with my clients who struggle with addiction, though I don’t actually use any visual metaphor. I just ask them to visualize themselves when they were younger, observing what was going on, and sensing into what that younger self was feeling and needing. I then invite them to visualize switching places with that younger self – so that the young self can see the present self and realize that the future self is available in that past, and for the past self to say something or request something from their older, current self. Then switch back, and have their current self visualize responding (kindly) to the younger self. The exercise can be extended to include imagining a future self (I usually suggest imagining a future self who feels that their life is heading in the right direction), and to have the present self observe the future self, and vis versa (switching perspectives, and have the future self respond (kindly) to the current self.

    The exercise helps loosen the grip of the content of our present thoughts, experiences and stories in exchange for a broader, more flexible perspective on life’s possibilities.

    I stole this exercise from a workshop I did with Kelly Wilson, one of the founders of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). He’s a former/recovered addict who has written wisely and compassionately on addiction. His book “The Wisdom to Know the Difference” is directed toward the person who wants to recover and I recommend it. The book uses the principles of ACT, and it also helps those who are interested in 12 step see how some of the 12 step principles overlap with the ACT approach (though the book is NOT a 12 step-based book).

    I like the thing you’ve added – to reframe the cravings (or other troublesome present moment experiences) as being direct messages from the past. Maybe a good metaphor is a tin-can telephone. We hear something in our left ear, and think it’s right here with us, but in fact, there is a string stretching back from the can on our ear, through time, to a past self, who’s talking into the can at their end of the phone. Visualize looking down the string to that younger self (embodied deep in our somatic experience and neural structure), and visualize walking over to them, and begin the dialog… I think I’m going to use that!

    • Marc April 13, 2017 at 5:18 am #

      Thanks for this, Fred. What you’re talking about is partly what I do with clients. I ask them to go back and visit the self they were then, and that’s usually pretty painful, so I say I’m going to go with them. But I don’t normally switch it around and ask the younger self to come up to the present. Maybe I’ll try it, but I have a feeling it’s more difficult, more abstract. As for the tin can and string…hmm, I’ll think about it, maybe try it. But I think the sliding idea is important–it gives the exercise a dynamism — you can feel in your body.

      You might want to read George Ainslie, or at least visit his website. He’s the master when it comes to this sort of time travel. He comes from academia but he has incredibly potent intuitions about what it’s like to get stuck and how to get unstuck. He calls it intertemporal bargaining. His work builds on the whole notion of delay discounting.

      I just ordered the book you mentioned. Thanks for that too!

      • Fred April 13, 2017 at 10:04 am #

        Thanks Marc. The idea with switching perspectives is not to bring the younger to the present, exactly, but to invite the client to shift perspectives – from the initial position of their present self looking at the past, to one of entering into their past perspective and imagining (from there) an awareness of their future self, (now present).

        But maybe we just proved your point that it is a bit abstract! I’ll keep an eye out for whether clients get lost or it gets too heady. So far I haven’t noticed that.

        I really like the feeling of “sliding” but I don’t like the visual of a children’s playground slide – too steep, not long enough, and too hard to go up when it’s helpful to reach into the future. Maybe a nice metaphor is sliding along a frozen river – back into the past, then, at times, forward into the future.

        I’ll look at Ainslie. Thanks for the tip! Fred

        • Marc April 14, 2017 at 1:31 am #

          Not that kind of slide! The idea was to let the cravings slide away from the present self. Perhaps a toilet is a better metaphor (!) except that I want to respect those desires as they slide away. I never meant for them to climb back up the ladder! In my image, the present self stays present, but the wounded sense of needing something extra (e.g. drugs) slides back to the past. The present self only observes, seeing where it lands, as I said, like an archeologist. That’s where the self-compassion comes in. You feel deep concern or empathy for that wounded past self, but you stay present.

          • Fred April 14, 2017 at 1:45 am #

            Interesting! I took “slide” way too literally, and it makes more sense on second reading and with your explanation. We guide the client to understand, and visualize, the craving as an artifact of a past life and send it back there, while responding compassionately to that image of the past wounded self which was hooked. Very nice!

          • Carlton April 14, 2017 at 8:47 am #

            Hi Marc,
            Yes, its clearer now thanks, and the toilet works :-), How about something like album or movie you used to always play, but play less and less, or something like that?

            Also, “wounded ” implies something is “broken”, .which is more in line with the disease model.

            People that innately feel addiction is not something that needs curing or healing, may relate more to a different apology.. like the illusion or impression that an addiction “does” things, that cannot otherwise be done or something..

            • Carlton April 14, 2017 at 8:53 am #

              …analogy that is-

          • Tina June 6, 2017 at 12:43 am #

            I know it’s a late reply but I just came across your page tonight. What about the image of you on a boat out in the sea, traveling to the happy/calming/peaceful place you’re making your journey to….and having to pass through a “super cell” sort of storm to get to where you’re going. You can only remain in the present on the boat and hold on through it, because otherwise you’ll fall off..and that’s no good. But after you pass through it, suddenly you’re through the other side and where your happy place is in your vision and you’re eagerly back on the journey to it!! Yes if you look behind you the storm is still there, it won’t just vanish like it never existed…but you survived it and moved forward and can appreciate even more the journey, your preserverance through it, & the arrival to your “happy place” that you are traveling to.
            Does that mental image make any sense I hope?

  17. ~angelbrite~ April 13, 2017 at 4:54 am #

    The only power we have is in the NOW. The power is in the present moment.
    This is the power of recovery! & I am only finding out about it now.. How exciting!!

  18. Mark April 13, 2017 at 6:45 am #

    Interesting that this research doesn’t consider offering the real thing …

    I say: “Accept no substitutes!”

    • Marc April 14, 2017 at 1:33 am #

      An extra dose of opioids would likely accomplish the same thing, only (shucks) they’re illegal and addictive.

  19. meshkogo June 22, 2017 at 4:22 am #

    your explanation makes a lot of sense The only power we have is in the NOW. The power is in the present.
    This is the power of recovery. thanks for your informative article.

  20. meshack June 23, 2017 at 2:04 am #

    Boost compassion:
    Meditating with Head space for three weeks may enhance compassionate behavior toward others.
    Meditation has been shown to promote subtle improvements in focus, attention and the ability to ignore distractions.(head space)

  21. Norma July 23, 2017 at 10:58 am #

    This is a very lovely and useful article. You’ve explained it so well. This is very helpful thought. Thanks Marc!

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