Urge surfing is a term coined by Alan Marlatt as part of a program of Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention that his research project helped to develop as an alternative resource for people recovering from addictions to alcohol and other drugs. Urge surfing can actually be used to help with any addictive behavior or pattern such as emotional eating, smoking, compulsive shopping, etc. It can also be applicable overall as a tool for staying focused from all of the distractions that arise in our lives that may keep us from being more fully present with ourselves.
Through research, what Marlatt found was that urges for substance use rarely last for very long. In fact, they almost never last for longer than about 30 minutes, if there is no opportunity to actually use a substance. Research found that people admitted to a detoxification center where there was no access to their drug of choice often found it remarkable how little craving they actually experienced and/or how their cravings would move through in a short time.
This is fascinating! It is this internal struggle that feeds the cravings and attachments. Marlatt likened trying to fight cravings to trying to block a waterfall from flowing. We end up being flooded. Urge Surfing invites us to use mindfulness to step aside and allow our cravings, impulses & urges to simply flow right past us.
Urge Surfing Exercise (adapted from Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention)
- Find a comfortable position sitting on a chair or the floor
- Begin with a few mindful breaths
- Observe yourself for any sensations of discomfort such as restlessness, an itch or body pain such as a headache, back pain or knee pain
- Notice you natural response to rub, scratch, or move as a way to resist your discomfort as it arises
- Notice any thoughts that may arise such as “I wish this itch would go away”, “This itch is driving me crazy”, or “I would love to scratch this itch”…
- Remember that these thoughts are just that – simply thoughts; you may wish to label it, “it’s just a thought”.
- Whenever you notice thoughts arising, gently and lovingly bring your attention back to your next breath and awareness of your bodily sensations
- Begin to notice how the position, shape and quality of your discomfort shifts over time. Continue to feel it as best you can, noticing how the intensity and shape changes with each cycle of the breath. You might inquire, “Is it stronger during the in breath or during the out breath?”
- If you find your thoughts going onto other matters, such as your to do list, a situation at work, your plans for the weekend, etc., remember that these are “just thoughts”. Gently and lovingly bring your attention back to your breath and body sensations. And, notice how these sensations may have changed.
In this exercise, you have begun to observe the changing nature and impermanence of urges. When you notice the physical sensations with interest, you are directly facing the urges rather than feeding them through resisting them. As we try to eliminate our urges by distraction or talking ourselves out of them, we often just intensify those urges. Research has shown that trying to suppress a thought, feeling or sensation, including pain, rather than decreasing it, actually increases it.
In Mindfulness, rather than avoiding our thoughts, feelings or urges, we simply notice them. If we can simply let an urge be – non-judgmentally – without feeding it or resisting it, we will soon notice that it begins to rise, subside and finally drift away, just like an ocean wave. It may come back again but as you become able to stay present with it, you will notice that these feelings will become less powerful and less frequent, too.
As an additional resource, visit the Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention website which offers lots of resources including a series of audios on mindfulness practices.
I hope you’ll take some time this week to explore Urge Surfing and Mindfulness practice! As always, feel free to share your thoughts and reflections in the comments below.
And, if you’d like to join a virtual community exploring mindfulness and meditation, come join my Facebook group, Meditation & Mindfulness In A Rapidly Changing World.