Many people seek to change their lives without changing what they do. The “person in a hole” metaphor describes this best:

Consider a person who is lost in life, and aimlessly wanders into a field full of holes. Disorientated by past experiences, they fall into the biggest hole. The sides are steep and they can’t get out. But they were lucky. They happened to be carrying their toolbox with them. Without thinking, they start using a shovel to dig themselves out. But this doesn’t work, obviously, so they start digging with greater intensity. However, this just leaves them deeper in the hole. Feeling weary and dejected, they finally give up. Suddenly, like a blessing from the skies, a person walks by with a ladder and throws it into the hole. Finally, some luck. But what do they do? They pick up the ladder and try to dig themselves out of the hole.

This metaphor is analogous with many people who are struggling with life. A person suffering from depression might stay in bed for weeks. A person suffering from social anxiety may never leave their house. But this only makes things worse, leaving them deeper in their holes.

This metaphor also describes my own life-long battle with anxiety and addiction. My hole was anxiety, and I tried to use drugs to get out of that hole. As my drug use and anxiety got worse, I used more drugs in an attempt to escape. Then someone introduced me to meditation. Finally, a ladder to get out of the hole. But what did I do? I used drugs to help me meditate, falling deeper into my hole.

Awareness as a vehicle for change

Like many addicts, I had the knowledge that drugs were killing me, but I did not have the awareness. As soon as I became aware, everything changed.

“We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change” — Sheryl Sandberg

So, what is awareness? Awareness is the “aha moment”, the “lightbulb moment”, the moment when you realise the truth of your ways.

For the person in the hole, it is the realisation that digging deeper is not the answer. For the person who is depressed, it is an understanding that staying in bed might be easier, but it won’t help them to recover. And for the alcoholic, it is the realisation that drinking only makes things worse.

I got a taste of awareness when I hit rock bottom in 2013. After an intense detox experience, I was drawn towards mindfulness-based practices and slowly found clarity. I decided to spend more time in nature and less time in my head. I began to contact reality: feeling, seeing, and hearing the world through sensory experiences.

My newfound sense of awareness led to big changes in my life. It wasn’t forced, however, it just happened naturally through increased awareness. I began to exercise regularly. I overhauled my diet. Instead of avoiding my emotions, I embraced them. I became a student of life and went back to college to study psychology and philosophy. Most importantly, however, I began to reconnect with people.

“Sobriety is not the opposite of addiction, connection is.” — Johann Hari

Building awareness

Not everyone is lucky enough to be bitten by the bug of awareness. Most people keep digging deeper to get out of their holes.

But you can build awareness:

  1. Get out of your mind and contact reality.Introduce a meditative practice into your life. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Focus on your breath for a few minutes each day. Listen to the birds singing in the morning. Feel the water touching your skin while you shower. Notice sensory experiences — it really is that simple.
  2. Spend time in natureStargazing and mountain walks are great. You can even learn from animals. They don’t get depressed about the past or anxious about the future. They live in the moment. Eckhart Tolle puts it best: “I have lived with several Zen masters — all of them cats”.
  3. Develop the art of self-observation. Next time you feel agitated or overwhelmed, mindfully observe any difficult thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations without engaging. Just observe, and let them pass. When you practice this regularly, your mind will no longer control you.
  4. Feed yourself with good quality books. Anything from Eckhart Tolle is a great start for teaching awareness. But my personal favourite is “Awareness” by Anthony de Mello.

Take away message

If you find yourself digging to get out of your hole, it’s time to try something different.

I know, change is scary, especially for people trapped in addiction, so take baby steps. Focus on your breath for a few minutes each day. Read a page from a good quality book each day. Go for walks in nature.

Change is difficult, but with increased awareness, anything is possible.

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  • Brian Pennie

    Brian is a PhD candidate studying the neuroscience of mindfulness, a practice that provided him with the foundations to recover from long-term addiction.

    On October 8th 2013, Brian experienced his first day clean after 15 years of chronic heroin addiction. Instead of perceiving his addiction as a failure, he embraced a second chance at life and went to university to study the complexities of human life. He graduated with a degree in psychology in 2017 winning several awards, including a fully funded PhD scholarship in Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience. Since then, he has become a lecturer at University College Dublin, published academic writer, motivational speaker for mental health awareness, and personal development consultant in both commercial and private settings. With a relentless belief that we are what we think, his mission is to show people that change is possible, demonstrating actionable steps through a lived experience.