What Are You Actually Craving?

I’ve been thinking a lot about cravings lately. And not because it’s December and chocolate is everywhere I turn. 

Primarily, it has come out of my recent meditation retreat experience. In my last post, What is a 10-Day Silent Meditation Retreat Like?, I explained how a key principle of Vipassana is letting go of cravings. The idea is that cravings (along with aversion and hatred) create suffering. 

But, my focus also came from studying habit science. Understanding how cravings play into our habit formation. 

Whether from the teachings of Buddha or present-day researchers, one thing is clear: the craving you are having is not about the thing itself. The craving is about changing your current state

And, I want to explore this on a couple of levels. The body and the mind. 

CRAVINGS FROM THE BODY

Your body is highly sophisticated. Every moment, countless biochemical reactions are occurring to keep you alive. It’s all happening on its own, usually without our attention. 

But, when something is off balance and the body doesn’t have what it needs to fix it, it needs our attention. 

A very simple example is water. When the body lacks hydration, it sends the signal of thirst. We don’t want to feel thirsty, so we drink (hopefully water). 

The craving for water is not about the water, it’s about our desire to stop feeling thirsty. 

Overfed & Undernourished

Unfortunately, right now many of us live in a culture where we are overfed and undernourished. It means we may get more than enough calories in our diet but we lack essential nutrients required for our health. 

I could write an entire other post about why we are lacking nutrients, but I’m choosing to stick with the consequences. 

When we don’t get important nutrients, our body can’t function optimally. This could be macronutrients, like our essential fatty acids (omega-3 & omega-6) or essential amino acids from proteins. It’s also micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals. And, of course, water. 

When these critical elements are missing, our body will create a craving in an attempt to get what it needs. So even when we have enough energy from food, we will continue to crave more in the hopes we consume necessary nutrients. 

Beyond Food

Nourishment is the simplest example, but our bodies are also concerned with many other things. Oxygen, temperature regulation, sleep, pain management, reproduction, etc. 

If we are physically uncomfortable, the body triggers us to change our state. It might not seem like a typical craving, but we are craving a change. 

And, when the body gets what it needs to survive, physiological cravings subside. 

That leaves us with another kind of craving. 

CRAVINGS FROM THE MIND

As a nerd, I feel inclined to clarify I’m aware the mind is part of the body. And our brain needs nutrients, oxygen, and sleep, too. 

But in this case, I’m talking about psychological cravings. These are the cravings outside of the body’s biological needs. 

Our psychological cravings are all about wanting to feel different. 

Escaping the Unpleasant

This is a big one, in my opinion. When we feel uncomfortable in any way, we crave escape. Very few of us want to sit in our discomfort. 

And discomfort means a lot of things. Boredom, loneliness, sadness, anger, irritation, embarrassment, anxiety, uncertainty, confusion, etc. I’m sure the list could go on for a while. 

These feelings trigger a craving to change our state. To stop the feeling. 

Instead we want to feel good. Maybe even neutral. But we feel the need to do something to stop the discomfort. 

Feel Good Cravings

Many of the common cravings we have are for things that help us feel good – at least, for a bit. 

Whether it’s food, substances, technology, shopping, travel, etc, the appeal is a change in state. They can alleviate the discomfort, even if just temporarily. 

But, the temporary part is a problem. 

The pleasure we experience doesn’t last and we end up back where we started. A cycle of cravings that may never be quenched. 

Just like the body, we need to address what’s actually missing. Then the cravings can subside. 

MY PERSONAL THEORY

During one of my retreat walks in the woods, I realized I had my own theory about cravings. 

The more our lives are out of alignment, the more cravings we experience

The further we get from ourselves and the life we want to live, the more we will seek a change to our current state. 

Being out of alignment means something isn’t right. We need to course correct. But it can be a lot of work and not always clear where to even begin. 

So we do what’s easier. Escape discomfort by seeking pleasurable experiences. Even the temporary ones bring some relief. But not only is the relief fleeting, it may compound the problem. 

Escaping pain doesn’t address the root cause. It just masks it. 

SO NOW WHAT?

First and foremost, you have to notice the craving. 

Not always as simple as it seems. We have to snap out of auto-pilot and pay attention to when we are having a craving. 

Second, ask yourself what you are actually craving. 

What is the state you want to change? Is something physical at play? Does your body need something? Or, is it psychological? Are you emotionally uncomfortable? 

Third, consider whether you can address the cause of the craving instead of focusing on the craving itself. 

If you can identify what’s driving the craving, you might be able to respond to the motivation instead of the craving. For example, if you feel the pull to open your social media for the 5th time this morning, what’s the motivation? The craving might be checking Instagram or Facebook, but the motivation might be wanting to feel connected. Can you address the desire for connection instead? Call a friend. Facetime your family. Make plans. 

Finally, when you feel balanced, ask yourself how you can be proactive. 

Are you nourishing your body? Getting enough sleep? Managing stress?

Are you living a life aligned with your values? Are you taking steps towards being the person you want to be? 

Start doing these things that support your livelihood and well-being. 

When you address your internal needs, the external ones start to feel less important.