Book Review: The Craving Mind by Judson Brewer

If I were to tell you that you have a mind like a sea slug, you’d probably be offended. That’s the first thing Dr. Judson Brewer does in The Craving Mind and I liked the book so much that I read it twice. Brewer is a doctor, psychologist and addiction researcher, so when he says you (and all other humans) have a mind like a sea slug, he means that you have a mind that is always looking for a reward.

For evolutionary reasons, our minds are wired to look for good stuff (food, mates, hospitable environments, etc.) and avoid bad stuff (i.e. toxins or danger). As early humans, this was great because food and stuff to make us feel good were not so readily available. Now that those items and lots of other distractions are not only readily available but actively offered to many of us, it’s easy to see how the constant search for a reward can lead one to become addicted to alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, or even things like food, sex, or technology. 

So, what is the answer to this problem? Brewer suggests that mindfulness and compassion are the answers. He found mindfulness as he was pursuing all the letters after his name and became enthralled when it helped him manage the physical side effects of stress and a broken heart. After pursuing the practice and going on meditation retreats, Brewer focused his research on addiction and began using FMRI scanners to understand what mindfulness had to do with addiction and how it might help people overcome it. What he learned was that simple awareness (mindfulness) and flexibility in dealing with physical discomfort (compassion) were incredibly useful tools for addressing addictions of many kinds. 

In The Craving Mind, Brewer traces the history of his research of mindfulness practices and weaves it together with his own personal story of how mindfulness shaped his life. Brewer uses his own story in an engaging and human way to illustrate the scientific concepts that underlie his work. Though Brewer’s aim is not necessarily to explain meditation practice, his explanation of the science of the mind includes many insights about meditation practice.

Most notably, I was surprised yet gratified by how prominently compassion practices featured in Brewer’s work. Perhaps because of the title or Brewer’s background in psychology, I expected that his work might emphasize focus, calm, and awareness instead. That is by no means absent from the book since Brewer explains how important simple awareness of how one’s addictive conduct actually feels can diminish it’s allure. 

Brewer explains, though, that awareness needs a helper and he demonstrates that compassion is a powerful partner to mindfulness for treating addictions, getting over one’s obsession with the self, and living a happy life. He describes in detail how the RAIN practice popularized by Tara Brach is a powerful antidote to cravings and that individuals taught the practice can learn to “surf” through a craving, rather than succumbing to it. Near the end of the book, he explains that the heart practice of joy is perhaps the secret ingredient to maintaining a meditation habit and a happier life. Since our brains are looking for a reward, Brewer explains, we can give ourselves that reward by cultivating, noticing, and getting curious about the experience of joy. Not only will this make meditation practice a whole lot more pleasant, it also can make life more joyful. 

If you meditate long enough, you could probably figure out a lot of what Brewer tells us in The Craving Mind for yourself. After all, his book is really just talking about the second of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths: that the origin of suffering is craving. Anyone who has practiced meditation enough understands that the mind is always wanting to draw nice things in and push nasty things away and that this push and pull is suffering. Even so, The Craving Mind is a nice addition to the wisdom on this topic because it tells us how craving creates suffering and how mindfulness and compassion can help us end (or at least reduce) it.

This helps because meditation is a process that takes time to work. Our minds are set up to crave, so we often struggle to accept a new way even when that way could be good for us because new things can be uncomfortable. By offering an explanation of the science of addiction and mindfulness, The Craving Mind may reduce the doubt that new meditators often experience as they embark upon a path in search of greater calm, peace, and joy. So, if you want to upgrade to sea slug version 2.0, check out The Craving Mind to see if it helps you find healthier rewards for that mind of yours and a little less suffering.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, for a simple guide to creating a meditation practice of your own in 30 days. And to share mindfulness with your little one, check out my new children’s book, Mommy Needs a Minute.

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