Is smoking a physical addiction or a mental habit? Dr. Max Pemberton thinks he knows the answer
One day, after years of being addicted to smoking, English psychiatrist Dr. Max Pemberton had an epiphany! He realized that this long-term habit was not a physical dependency on nicotine. It was a mental addiction to the habit of smoking. In his article on canada.com, he writes:
“I realized that the real problem was the psychological dependence. This was underpinning my belief that I loved cigarettes and needed them and it was this that I needed to address. This also explained why the gums and patches hadn’t worked – I was mentally addicted to smoking. So I began thinking about the psychology of smoking.”
Dr. Pemberton’s eventual freedom from his long-term habit as a result of understanding the mental factors of addiction, gives an old problem a new, much-needed perspective. And, it comes at a time when prescription remedies for nicotine dependency are found wanting, and worrying questions about their safety are being raised.
The good news is that Dr. Pemberton is not alone in his epiphany. Realizing that nicotine dependence may be a mental habit, rather than a physical impulse, is also being studied by health professionals in North America. They are looking at the effects of meditation or mindfulness on cessation of smoking.
If dependency on nicotine is in thought, then a right change in consciousness can bring freedom. Pemberton’s concept of being imprisoned mentally and then discovering his freedom reminds me of the old story of the canary in the cage. Like Pemberton, the bird, long imprisoned, had given up trying to escape his environment. Having accepted his fate, he sat on a perch, observing the world through the bars of his prison. Then, one day someone left the door of his cage open. Even though the canary could see the door was open, and even inspected it, he remained in the cage – so conditioned, even comfortable, in accepting his imprisonment. What was needed was not a way out of the cage, but out of the mental trap.
As a pastoral caregiver and counselor, Rabbi Yaacov Kravitz understands the mental side to addictions such as tobacco or food. The word “addiction” in Hebrew means slavery. Rabbi Kravitz likens the story of Moses leading the children of Israel in their exodus from Egypt to an individual’s journey out of this mental slavery to freedom.
Rabbi Kravitz explains that, although the Children of Israel were free once they crossed the Red Sea, like the canary in the cage, they had yet to mentally claim and then realize (“to make real”) their freedom. The backsliding, the return to old habits of thought, the desire for the predictability of dependency in times of challenge and fear, echo the human struggle to realize a spiritual and mental freedom that enables us to fly free from the limiting environment of the human mind.
He explains that as the children of Israel slowly discovered that freedom through a closer relationship with the divine, it changed the way they saw themselves and freed them from imprisoning habits. As they deepened their understanding of that relationship, even in times of stress and fear, they could see and accept their innate right to independence.
We don’t have to accept that we are helpless prisoners to a craving of any kind. Each of us can experience that same epiphany – that light bulb moment when we realize our innate freedom from slavery and accept our right to a sphere of thought and action unlimited by human thinking.