Dopamine Fasting & Prevention

Dopamine fasting doesn’t mean the absence of dopamine, as the chemical is needed for so many natural and healthy processes in the body.

Dopamine fasting is the latest wellness trend in Silicon Valley. It is a detox from that feel-good high when dopamine is released into your system with food, sex, drugs, alcohol, social media, TV, technology and any other sources of pleasure you identify psychologically as a reward.

Dopamine fasting doesn’t mean the absence of dopamine, as the chemical is needed for so many natural and healthy processes in the body. Dopamine is a motivational chemical, which is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter, and is an important part of the reward system of the brain. Too much dopamine is associated with longing and craving, overuse of our pleasure centers, and eventually with addictive behavior, as we become habituated to greater and greater doses of the reward in order to feel good.

In neuroscience, this anticipation of reward is called “wanting,” and is often activated by triggers. For example, a smoker may have quit, but when the circumstances are right, e.g. taking a coffee break, the brain’s reward system is triggered, leading to a strong urge to light up a cigarette. Not succumbing to the cigarette, to social media or chocolate, doesn’t reduce the level of dopamine in the brain, because dopamine is needed for everyday functioning, but it does reduce dopamine stimulation and activity. The brain is re-educated to break the cycle of habituation.

Earlier this year I had to cut a ribbon for the opening of a new Heartfulness center. The scissors were blunt, so I had to almost tear through the ribbon with them. When we become habituated to rewards, releasing more and more dopamine into our system, the same thing happens – our gratification from the reward becomes blunt through overuse. We need progressively greater and greater doses and more frequent doses. A lot more energy is invested for the same reward and we become saturated.

There is also a flipside – we avoid pain and suffering, so our “pain scissors” are underused and extremely sharp. We become highly sensitive, and cannot deal with pain when we encounter it. Our level of resilience becomes less and less.

This whole cycle affects our happiness. If we think of happiness as the satisfaction of desires, or in the terminology of neuroscience the satisfaction of “wanting,” then both the number and magnitude of our desires matter. If there are 10 desires, and 5 are fulfilled, there is 50% happiness. If 10 are fulfilled, there is 100% happiness. The more desires, the harder they are to fulfill. Happiness is inversely related to the number of desires. Also the magnitude of each desire matters: perhaps my desire for social media was half an hour a day, 3 days a week, 2 years ago, but now it is 4 hours a day, every day. Its magnitude has grown, because of this “wanting.”

In a desire-less state there is no “wanting,” and this is the ultimate happiness. But is it possible to lead a life without any desires? No. So the best we can do is to minimize desires, from more to less, and dopamine fasting is one way to do this. We recalibrate our system by reducing the amount of stimulation to the dopamine neurons. Then we are less dependent on the need for rewards.

How to live with desires and not let them affect us? The key is to arrive at a state of inner contentment. In Yoga, inner contentment or santosh is one of the Niyamas of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga. And it is this state of contentment that most of us are searching for, the reason we try to fill the void with “wanting.” We search for contentment through rewards, and that is okay within reason, but even when have those rewards, we will not be happy until we experience real inner contentment. The reward for external things is temporary and potentially addictive, whereas inner contentment is permanent.

Heartfulness Yoga gives us a practical a 5-step process to inner contentment:

Meditation: We learn to ignore the pull of desire, master our emotions, and develop mastery over the thinking process. As it deepens, we also transcend the pull of feelings and emotions in the heart. Transmission provides the necessary support for this to happen.

De-conditioning: We remove the underlying impressions that provide the subconscious hooks for “wanting,” through the daily cleaning practice, a very helpful detox.

Prayerful connection: At bedtime we connect with the higher Self, using a prayer that also reminds us of the barrier caused by “wanting.” Instead of trying to remove desires with our ego, we engage the highest help available.

Lifestyle: We have a set of simple guidelines for living, known as the Ten Maxims, to help us align and refine behavior and character.1

Constant Remembrance: We allow the meditative state to remain throughout the day. Part of our attention remains inward and the remainder flows outward to complete our daily duties. In such a state, we remain unaffected by “wanting,” even during the most active part of our day.

The inward turning of the senses is known as Pratyahara, another of the steps of Ashtanga Yoga. Pratyahara is actually dopamine fasting, because the senses are focused inward on the higher Self. Before every daily meditation we practice Pratyahara, then we start meditation with Dharana, which means to bring thoughts and emotions from a scattered state to a single inward-focused thought. In Heartfulness, that single thought is “The source of divine Light that is already present in my heart is drawing me inward.” This thought is the springboard into meditation, Dhyana, which allows us to go deeper in order to experience the presence of the divine Light in the heart. Then, through Dhyana, we go beyond experience to become one with the source of divine Light, and that is Samadhi.

When we experience that ultimate connection of Samadhi, what significance could Facebook or Instagram possibly have? We may use them for worldly reasons, but they will no longer be rewards. In that regard, Heartfulness Yoga is a preventative so that dopamine fasting is no longer needed.

Remember the analogy of the scissors? What if we could accept pain when it comes, rather than always looking for rewards and pleasure? In his Maxim 5, Ram Chandra reminds us, “Always be truthful, accept miseries as coming from God for your own good and be thankful.” You may ask: “Why be thankful for miseries?” Because problems and challenges strengthen us. Take the analogy of physical exercise: With exercise there is resistance, which makes our muscles sore, but also makes us fitter. We need that workout to stay healthy. Similarly, with mental and emotional exercise, there is pain, and there is resistance that makes us mentally fitter. The trick is to accept such challenges without resentment, and welcome the things that are good for us. Evolution needs effort. When we do nothing at all, everything falls apart; it is the law of entropy.

As we develop more and more tolerance for pain, even small pleasures make us happy, like watching children playing or going for a walk at sunset. Our pain scissors will be blunter and our happiness scissors will be sharper. Compare this with a life full of rewards, where we continue to want more and more, and destroy ourselves in the process. What will you choose?

This happens even in childhood, as parents continually give small children games, phones and toys as rewards. Their “pleasure scissors” are already blunt from overuse at a very young age. What will they be like as adults, and how will they manage the problems and challenges that life will inevitably bring?

So in order to reduce the time you spend watching TV, on social media, or eating for pleasure, become aware of the cues that trigger the “wanting,” and try to understand why you need that feel-good boost. If you are on your phone all the time when you are alone, put the phone on silent so that your reward system is not triggered by sound cues. This will help you to be more successful in dopamine fasting.

If you thrive on continuous excitement, simply reduce or abstain from those behaviors that cause you stress or that feel addictive. A dopamine fast will create a pause, allowing you to slow down. You don’t need to abstain from everything, only from those behaviors that are problematic for you. The idea is to give yourself a break so that you can rebalance. Ultimately, however, the best solution is prevention, so there is less and less need to fast.

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