How NLP Helped Me Stop Smoking Pot

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Dave Berman

This is the story of how I used Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) to stop smoking pot. You may be able to apply some of these techniques yourself, whether for pot or other habits you want to break. If you need help to accomplish your goal, please call me about private NLP coaching sessions.

I first smoked pot as a college student in 1990. Initially it was just occasionally and recreationally. By 1995 I was using it more frequently, often with the intention of breaking free from “thought loops” I perceived as stressful. At some point in those next two years smoking pot became a daily habit that continued for many years, even as I evolved into a successful professional adult. I did not sense a problem until 2010 when I realized this behavior lacked the mindfulness that was otherwise common for me. By September of that year I recognized at least part of me wanted to change my relationship to pot, though this highlighted an internal conflict with another part that kept me smoking.

At this point I’d been studying NLP on my own for several months and had just committed to attending an NLP Practitioner Certification course in Phoenix during the second week of October. I knew I’d be going without pot during that time. Synchronistically, a few friends talked about taking time off from pot, alcohol, caffeine and all other intoxicants during the month they dubbed “Octsober.” Since I anticipated the first few days without pot might be challenging for me, it seemed like a good idea to join them in observing Octsober and get a one week head start before the intense training in Phoenix.

As part of my independent NLP study, during this same period last September I watched a series of videos featuring NLP co-creator Dr. Richard Bandler. In retrospect, two things in particular stand out. First was his repeated reference to unconscious learning, that people watching his lecture could expect to integrate lessons while sleeping. The second piece was an anecdote about helping heroin addicts quickly kick the habit via hypnosis by having them imagine both the physical experience of shooting up and being sober, and then when fully conscious again, realizing that both states can be accessed in the mind even without the drug.

Obviously I’m oversimplifying Bandler’s story and process, but when Octsober first arrived, I woke up sensing I’d been processing that story in my sleep the night before. I had no desire to smoke pot. Whatever internal conflict I’d previously experienced had temporarily ceased. I was entirely congruent and knew I could stop smoking pot at least until I returned from my NLP training on the 16th. This was a lot easier than I expected!

Now, I had not yet set the intention to permanently and completely stop smoking pot and after 20 days began to smoke again, although not every day. This reflected an increase in mindfulness about the behavior and drew the internal conflict into sharper focus. That was a good thing for me because there are multiple NLP techniques for resolving internal conflicts and I started exploring applying them to myself. This further raised my awareness, but did not immediately dissolve the conflict. Instead it revealed the need to define what my “relationship to pot” would entail once I changed it. Would it mean no pot ever or just under certain circumstances? I spent the next two months revisiting this question and smoking sporadically. My relationship to pot had in fact already changed but this didn’t feel like its final disposition.

In the middle of last December I spent a weekend in San Francisco reuniting with several old friends one at a time. This “relationship” issue was a topic I discussed with each of them, repeatedly telling the same story that concluded with the same unresolved status. As I drove back home to Eureka, these conversations replayed in my mind and I thought “enough is enough!” I didn’t want to hear myself tell that story anymore and it was time to update it. I concluded that to really decide the terms of the new relationship, I had to first demonstrate to myself the confident ability to easily abstain from pot for at least 30 days. Only then could I really make a choice from a position of strength rather than struggle or compromise.

Again some important mental processing must have occurred as I slept that night because when I woke up the next day, December 20, two important things happened virtually simultaneously. One was a massive reframe of my thinking about what pot is. Intellectually, I have always valued and revered pot as a medicinal plant, even though my behavior regularly extended beyond such appropriate use of it. I realized if it had been morphine or Tylenol or any other medication that I’d been mindlessly using, I would certainly know this is inappropriate for me and stop or get help. This thought formalized a profound shift in my story about and relationship to pot.

I also created a second and perhaps even more powerful experience that morning using the NLP technique called “Mapping Across.” This was also a very quick process that used my visual representation of smoking pot and eating hamburgers. I discovered that when I simply imagined smoking pot, the picture my mind conjured was about three inches in front of my face, right between my nose and mouth. I pictured hamburgers about two feet in front of my left hip. As a vegan I do not eat dairy or meat, including hamburgers. There is simply no desire. When I moved the pot smoking picture into the location of the hamburger picture, the desire to smoke instantly disappeared. This represents what I’ve referred to in other articles as “reorganizing the mental filing system.” A few months later, my colleague Meredith Aldrich drew this cartoon reflecting my experience.

On the strength of these two changes, the next 90 days passed with no pot smoking or even temptation. That old inner conflict just didn’t present itself during that time, though it did return in an updated form. Between mid-March and mid-May of this year I smoked pot a few times. On each occasion I first wrote in my journal about why I was making the choice and how I would be able to later determine if it was a good choice (employing a traditional NLP approach of asking “what do I want?” and “how will I know when I’ve got it?”). The reasons varied. Once it was to stimulate an appetite at 10pm on an evening when, quite oddly, I hadn’t wanted to eat that entire day. Another time it was for a headache that hadn’t responded to Advil. A couple of times I used it to relax my mind when it seemed rather full and meditation didn’t bring me clarity or serenity.

In each of these instances, my goals for smoking pot were met. My experiences provided me the evidence I identified in advance to demonstrate to myself that the choice to smoke was OK. This was a great degree of mindfulness for me, and I was pleased with that, yet there was a new internal conflict emerging. How often was it OK to find a justification for smoking? Could I really feel honest and congruent presenting myself to NLP clients wanting my help to break habits if this was the outcome of my own process? Would it be effective or even credible for me to get up in front of an audience (particularly young people) and talk about how I’d used NLP to change my relationship to pot, but not to eliminate my use of it completely?

Questions can be a powerful tool, and in NLP there are many common questions that can begin a transformational process more effectively than directly offering a client advice or solutions. Much to my surprise, in early May I encountered a question like this during a meeting with Chris Evans, a counselor at McKinleyville High School. We were discussing how I could present NLP as an option to students challenged by substance abuse or other behavior issues.

I was honest with Chris about how my relationship to pot had transformed, including this current stage of occasional use. He seemed interested in the process and techniques I was describing, as well as the versatility of NLP’s many applications. Then he asked me something that took a while to have its full impact: was the journal writing before and after smoking actually a process of rationalizing?

At the time, I told him I did not think so because I believed my limited smoking was for medicinally appropriate reasons. But this question stuck in my head over the next few weeks. Naturally I kept finding ways to reinforce my initial answer. Then I started feeling that my whole writing/smoking/approving process was about determining whether I had a rational reason for smoking. If it was rational, then it made sense to do it, right? But seeking out a rational reason is the very definition of rationalizing. Suddenly this meant I had a different answer for Chris’s question, one I didn’t want to give him originally because rationalizing seemed to imply concocting a bogus explanation.

I found myself confused, and can appreciate the possibility that reading about my thought process may be confusing to you. Such brief disorientation is actually a common indication that the structure of a belief is starting to loosen and about to change. Put another way, when effective NLP questions do what they do best, the mental process of accessing the answer to the question can begin the rewiring of neural pathways (“reorganizing the mental filing system”). In this case, I concluded that the goals identified for my “rational” uses of pot were reasonable goals but that pot was not necessarily the best and certainly not the only way to achieve the goals. I decided that given the overall excellent state of my health, I could adopt the new belief “anything pot can do, NLP can do better.”

It is important to understand that beliefs are often contextual. So this new belief that NLP could serve me better than pot was an idea I was only applying to myself. I pass no judgment about other people smoking pot, including recreationally, but especially for medically appropriate purposes such as cancer, arthritis, or multiple sclerosis.

As I finish this article, it is once again Octsober. It has been about five months since the last time I smoked pot, which coincided with the elimination of that final bit of internal conflict. Since then, I’ve had no desire at all to smoke pot. Any physical or emotional sensations I experience that might have once led to that behavior choice are now dealt with using NLP techniques for transforming sensations and managing energetic states.

It is also worth noting that this entire story has taken place as I’ve continued to be routinely surrounded by pot in so many familiar ordinary circumstances, including living in a community widely regarded as being the world’s most abundant area for top notch pot cultivation. Pot is recognized as the biggest cash crop and primary economic engine of Humboldt County, CA.

If I can stop smoking pot under these circumstances, so can you, if that’s an outcome you desire and to which you commit yourself.  When you’re ready to make that change, please give me a call.

UPDATE 12/21/11 12pm: This article has been published in the December/January Isis Scrolls magazine, widely available throughout northern CA and southern OR.

UPDATE 1/23/12 7pm: This is now the second article of mine to be republished by the North Coast Association of Mental Health Professionals (who have also invited me to become a member). See page 4 of the NCAMHP Winter 2012 Newsletter (.pdf).

UPDATE 5/14/13: Today marks two years since I last smoked pot.

UPDATE 5/14/14: Three years, no problem.

UPDATE 5/14/15: Today marks four years without pot.

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Dave Berman is a Life Coach and Certified Practitioner of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). He offers private and confidential sessions on a sliding scale in his Arcata, CA office and remotely via Skype. Referrals and inquiries are welcome. Learn more at www.ManifestPositivity.com or call (707) 845-3749 for a free consultation. Subscribe to future articles from Manifest Positivity:

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Posted: 10/8/11
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About the Author:

Dave Berman offers Life Coaching, Laughter Coaching, Laughnosis and Hypnotherapy. He earned a B.S. in Communication from Cornell University and has extensive experience as a public speaker and workshop facilitator. His book, "Laughter For the Health of It," co-written with Kelley T. Woods, is available here. For speaking or writing requests, or for a free coaching/hypnotherapy consultation, write to Dave, connect with manifest_positivity on Skype, or use the Viber app to call his mobile number from anywhere in the world +1 707-845-3749. Connect with Dave on Facebook, Twitter, or subscribe to future blog posts via RSS or by e-mail.
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