I had the pleasure of sharing lunch yesterday with a good friend who told me about her two year old daughter’s occasional “need” for chocolate at midnight. Don’t worry; she made it clear that the little rascal does not actually get any chocolate at midnight, but who hasn’t had an absolutely insane need, like eating chocolate at midnight, at one time or another? I believe we had plenty of those insane needs as two year olds, and I hope that we all had a parent as wise as my friend to make sure we didn’t get what we thought we needed.
I have to confess that I have the occasional insane need too. Just the other day, after what seemed like the hundredth snowfall of this winter season, I actually looked at real estate listings in Florida! Now, that might not seem like a terribly insane need but asking my wife to pack her bags and move to Florida would cause an awful lot of insanity in my life (“too many bugs and things that crawl in Florida” she says). On top of that I have an active clinical practice, I teach in a Masters degree clinical education program that means the world to me, and I’m involved in a professional organization that is dedicated to improving the lives of Delawareans affected by mental illness. And just a mile from my home is the edge of hundreds of acres of pristine forest known as the White Clay Creek State Park, where there are scores of trails for running and biking and contemplating. In other words, I have a great life here in Delaware. But in that moment, with a combination of snow, sleet, and freezing rain cascading across the windshield of my car, my feet frozen and my fingers a bit numb, moving to Florida seemed like an awfully good idea.
Did my friend’s little girl “need” chocolate at midnight? Of course not, but in her two year old mind, in that moment, perhaps with an hungry belly, it sure seemed like it to her. Did I “need” to move to Florida last week in the middle of that snowstorm? Of course not, but in my mind, in that moment, with a body hungry for warmth and comfort, it sure seemed like it to me. Adults and children alike, we all have our moments of intense need. The men and women of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) have an acronym that can help us all to understand this phenomenon: HALT (“Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired”). Our friends in AA have it right; when the human drive system, the part of our brain/body that “wants” is aroused, that “wanting” sure feels like a “needing” and it’s hard to resist. Our brain/body creates a sensation that feels like an imperative. It is as if the person is being dictated to, commanded to act in response to the brain/body’s arousal. And when we acquiesce, when we feed the arousal of wanting we feel pleasure and relief. If repeated often enough, the sequence of wanting, needing, feeding becomes conditioned, then habituated, and then a mindless routine leading to more pain, and more clinging.
I think that we all cling to some sort of chocolate at midnight. It comes in many forms; for the person in a hurry, it’s the way people drive on the highway. For the teenager with a secret crush, it’s the attention of that someone special. For the person struggling to succeed, it might be a fantasy of wealth and excess. The most difficult pieces of chocolate, at least for me, are those that involve losing something. A beloved parent dies, and I argue to myself that it’s not fair, that he died before his time. A therapy client relapses into his alcohol addiction, and I see myself as a failure, and that can’t be tolerated because I must always succeed, at least in my mind. A dear friend’s situation changes and she has to move far away, and I want her to stay because it’s so good to have her near. All of these things I want, all of these things I need in order to be happy. But it’s not these things that are making me unhappy, it’s that I cling to them as if they were the conditions of happiness, and they’re not.
So instead I choose acceptance, I choose to ride a road that includes dying fathers, relapsing clients, and friends who move away. It hurts to not have these pieces of chocolate, but the hurt soon fades, and in letting go I see new ways to honor my father, another pathway to help my client, and a thousand ways I can continue to enjoy my friendship, even at a distance. It turns out there really wasn’t any chocolate at midnight to cling to, only my mind clinging to ideas of chocolate as if ideas were reality. And breathing in I notice these ideas, breathing out I feel solid and stable, knowing I live and breathe as these thoughts and feelings and sensations pulse in and around me. And that these thoughts and feelings and sensations come and go, wax and wane, are ephemeral. There is nothing really there to cling to, just an illusion that I created by myself and can uncreate as soon as I practice acceptance.
What is your chocolate at midnight? What ideas and feelings and sensations do you cling to? What illusions do you have about the way things “must” be? Don’t feel bad, we all have them. A thousand pieces of chocolate may exist in your mind, and they may all be a source of pain for you, but in clinging to them that pain is transformed into suffering. Let go, allow the clinging to dissolve into acceptance, and feel your suffering dissolve too. You may still have pain, but pain comes and goes, waxes and wanes. And in the accepting your mind becomes free to see other paths, other ways of being.