Nothing about the waiting room of the Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic, where Jud Brewer teaches addicts to meditate, quiets my mind. I’ve meditated with Jud before as part of a weekly group he leads in Dwight Hall, but here harsh lights hum above off-green plastic chairs while patients and nurses negotiate paperwork and urine samples. It’s the kind of setting that inspires leg-tapping and clock-staring, not unattached self-awareness. Yet Brewer has managed to transform this clinical scene into a temple of mindfulness, where patients come to kick their bad habits simply by learning how to pay attention to their next breath.
Brewer, now a professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, was engaged to be married and about to head to medical school after graduating from Princeton in 1996. “On paper, everything looked pretty good,” he says. But when he and his fiancée broke up that summer and he found himself unable to sleep, Brewer picked up some meditation cassette tapes. He needed to get through his break-up and first semester of medical school without “becoming a jerk,” he says.
Fourteen years later, after giving up animal research in accordance with the Buddhist precept of non-harm and coming to the field of psychiatry because “it’s all about mindfulness,” Brewer now devotes his professional life to studying the medical uses of mindfulness training.
He seeks to help smokers, cocaine addicts, and alcoholics reshape their relationship with their cravings through meditation. Over as little as four weeks, Brewer teaches his patients to pay attention to the physical sensations that make up a craving — tension, tightness, clinging — as well as how to bring an attitude of acceptance towards that experience.
Your mind will wander, he says. You will crave. Don’t battle your thoughts, just watch them. In the isolation of silent meditation, the addicts begin to realize that their heads won’t explode if they fail to act on these sensations. “They see it’s impermanent,” says Brewer. “Craving is a sensation in the body. I don’t have to act on it. I have freedom to choose what to do.”
The results are striking. “One guy went from 30 to ten cigarettes in two days because he started paying attention to how habitually he would smoke,” Brewer says. “It was so automated … He just needed to pay attention.”
Brewer shows me a model that explains this shift. It’s a diagram mapping the connection between our inner experience and our behavior. A brain is fed sensory information, processes it as pleasurable or not pleasurable, and then turns either emotional response into a desire. Your girlfriend texts you, you want more. You get a bad grade, you want a cigarette. The craving becomes behavior, habit, personality.
Traditionally, psychology tells us to resolve this inner churning by substituting carrot sticks for cigarettes. It acknowledges and leaves alone our impulses, instead telling patients to talk through their negative thoughts and find healthy coping mechanisms.
But Brewer says the Buddha teaches something different: “That was the big breakthrough that the Buddha had. Say there’s a fire burning. You can’t just take your burning logs and put them into a different fire. You have to pull the logs out so the fire burns off on its own.” Instead of reacting to one fire by starting another — resolving your anxiety by eating more chocolate, say, or even going for a run — the Buddha asks that you detach yourself from the fire and watch it die down on its own.
As I sit in one of Brewer’s recent mindfulness sessions, I’m looking for new fires for my own burning logs — food, motion, anything to save me from the dangerous terrain of my wandering thoughts. I’m not alone. We all struggle with craving, especially in an age when Facebook, Twitter, and texting have us constantly looking for the next unpredictable hit.
At the end of the session, I leave with a sore butt and a slightly elevated heart rate, as I usually do. Yet as I walk out from the dark calm of Dwight Hall with a group of fellow cravers, I realize that it’s not just the addict who, as Brewer says, “speaks the language of the Buddha.”