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TAKING CARE OF THE SELF: Recovery and Addiction
By Melody Swan
I had a tough life growing up as I was a fighter. The diversity and adversity that came into this life was then met with great resistance. I had the “resilience gene.” Many times I won my fights, but many times, I was knocked down, face-in-dirt, only to get up again with fully formed fists. I grew up as an Air Force brat with four brothers and sisters, the middle child, the black sheep. Our family motto: “He who yells the loudest, gets the mostest.” I yelled the loudest.
And I yelled about righteous things. “This is not fair!” I exclaimed, “I deserve to be loved! I need attention and approval!” And on and on. I was a warrior because I lived in the war zone of dysfunctional family life. Emotionally absent and abused mother, alcoholic raging father; my parents, not being able to face their own emotions, shamed me for mine. I did what any young warrior would do: I rebelled loudly and experienced even more suffering.
And then began the escape. In the early years, it was through drugs and alcohol – lots of it. It was the early ’70s and I was a hippie. I hitchhiked around for years consuming massive amounts of alcohol and hallucinogens to ease my internal suffering.
Later, as I was forced out of reckless living, I tried different religions, traditions, workshops, exercises and teachers from every path; therapy; then college, marriage, careers; more religions, etc. I tried anything to be free of obsessive thoughts and emotions – my own inner world of turmoil. But alas, nothing would abate the pain. And so I drank more, seeking relief. Then, finding myself face-in-dirt again, I just drank more.
I would later learn to see that what I was seeking in alcohol was union with spirit, albeit the wrong spirit. “Alcohol in Latin is spiritus,” said Carl Jung. “You use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison.”
In 1984, I found a 12-step program that began my journey to recovery. I stopped using drugs and alcohol and began showing up for “life on life’s terms.” I found that the spirit I was seeking existed within, right in the very heart of my life. Instead of the escape from my life, I began showing up in the embrace of my life. This meant meeting life as an adult, aware presence. I was asked to meet both the internal landscape – thoughts, emotions, sensations and experiences – and the external landscape – people, places and things. The 12-step programs call it “living in the solution.”
In 2001, my firm, Cowgirls Design, was hired as the art director for Mandala. As I designed the pages and read the articles, I began to notice the parallels between the Buddhist teachings and the 12 Steps. Both acknowledge the basic problem that human beings experience in this world (suffering), and both offer very specific teachings for the solution.
When 12-step programs talk about living in the solution, they talk about living in a spiritual solution: out of the problem, out of the bondage of the small afflicted, addicted self and into the broader, expanded truth, the “sunlight of the spirit.”
Twelve-step programs are for addicts, those in afflicted states. They say that addicts are “a little twist off,” that they have a peculiar twist of perception, a “dis-ease” of perception. A dis-ease of perception simply means that we are not at ease with the way we think and feel. This is because we think we are separate, isolated beings, instead of part of a whole. But all human beings live in afflicted states. We are all “a little twist off” and we all have a dis-ease of perception. This is sometimes called the human condition.
Those we call addicts in our culture – those addicted to substances, those who act out – are just those of us who display these afflicted states in larger, more noticeable and painful ways. These outward visible addictions are just a symptom of the core problem: thinking, believing and acting as if we are separate, the cause the suffering. But, there is a solution.
The definition of a solution in chemistry: a homogenous mixture composed of only one thing. In such a mixture, a solute is dissolved in another substance, the solvent. As a metaphor, the “I”, the separate self (the solute) dissolves into the expanded energy (the solvent), sometimes called God, the force, The Great Way, buddha-nature, the field, the universe, emptiness, the unmanifest, higher energy, etc. The result is the solution: the melting of the me of “who I think I am” into the larger pool of consciousness that is the whole truth. It is not really a melting because the sense of the “I” still exists, but is not separate from the larger world of the “we.”
I like the use of the word “solution” over “answer.” The solution is a state of unknowing, a sense of expansion, a feeling of openness, of peace. And in that sense of expansion, many and all answers are accessible. This is actually the true meaning of recovery. Recovering true self, buddha-nature. The deeper meaning of “being sober” is “being awake,” awake in expanded perception. And to be awake in expanded perception takes a living practice. We do not stay in solution unless we consciously apply awareness.
In 12-step programs we say that “it only works when you work it.” It takes vigilant work and practice, the continuous and perpetual work of awareness. This work is not difficult. Nor is it rare. Only the mind thinks it is difficult and rare. It is quite ordinary. We were designed for this. We were designed to do the practice of being present. A wise and inspirational slogan of 12-step programs is “One day at a time.” But we don’t really mean that. We mean, “One moment at a time.”
One moment at a time we practice surrender. We were gifted with the appearance of afflicted suffering, and then given the phenomenon of surrender. I call it “the mother practice” of surrender and it seems to me to be applicable in all traditions. All paths seem to do one thing: enact, empower and effectuate the dissolution of the separate self. All paths seem to be the support for the mother practice of surrender. This is the practice that, above all others, should ride shotgun in the psyche.
Melody Swan is owner/designer of Cowgirls Design in Taos, New Mexico, USA. She has been the art director for Mandala print and eZine since 2001. She also works as an awareness advocate, spiritual mentor and energy healer with a focus on addiction and chronic illness. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
TAKING CARE OF THE SELF: Recovery and Addiction
By Amy Cayton
I’ve had a lot of karma with addiction in this life: starting with conception and my parents’ addictions, then coming to do volunteer counseling at a residential treatment ranch, and then embarking on my second professional career as a psychotherapist and addiction specialist. Often I’m asked if conventional treatment is necessary for people struggling with addiction or if it can be enough to just practice Dharma. Generally, it seems to me that transforming our minds through the practice of Buddhism can resolve all our mental afflictions. But, it also seems to me that there are some things from conventional addiction treatment that might inform our struggles. I’m suggesting our approach doesn’t need to be either/or. Of course, Dharma practice can resolve all our sufferings, but not all of us have minds that never need another approach, another entry point or a way to take a different look at things.
In the field of addiction treatment, there’s an ongoing controversy about what comes first: addiction or diagnosable destructive emotions? There’s also a controversy about where addiction come from: is it first the brain that is different so people become addicted or is it people become addicted and then their brain changes? It seems to me that all kinds of what-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg arguing is symptomatic of an underlying either/or point of view. It was such a relief to meet the Dharma after working with people and addiction for 12-plus years and find that in Buddhist psychology these arguments just didn’t matter.
In Buddhist psychology addiction is a mental affliction primarily characterized as attachment-based. Addiction is both there in the beginning and develops as people move along through their lifetime. Grasping attachment is often where we start, and that imprint and habit can become stronger and more destructive as time passes. And, of course, some addiction issues are especially difficult to transform because that grasping karma of attachment has developed over countless lifetimes.
According to James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente’s stage theory, people manifesting addiction are typically described as being in different stages: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance and relapse. This stage theory is readily translatable into a Dharma view, which can be a more powerful way to help people with addictive issues because of where the teachings come from, the profundity of mind training practices, the impact on karma, and so forth.
When translated into a Dharma context, it is useful to think of pre-contemplation as that time when people are not even introduced to mindfulness or the idea that their reality comes from their mind. Contemplation is that time when people can begin to develop some mindfulness that helps them then to see the grasping which has overtaken them. Preparation is transitioning from mindfulness to analytic meditation on the specific afflictions of a particular person’s mind. Action is practicing the four opponent powers, meditating on the eight worldly Dharmas, committing to engaging in virtuous actions, using lojong slogans to further train the mind in the development of method and wisdom, and using tong-len to deepen compassion for self and to serve others. Maintenance is finding the meditations and practices most helpful for transformation of the mind and staying inspired to continue with joyful perseverance. And relapse is what happens because although aspiring to have our buddha-nature fully developed into the enlightened mind, many of us are still aspiring for and have not, as yet, actualized the end of suffering!
When we see that theories like Prochaska and DiClemente’s can be mapped onto Dharma practice, we realize that an either/or mentality causes us to sacrifice useful tools for personal transformation. And as any addict (or practitioner!) will tell you, in wrestling with the mara addiction, it is best to be open to all the different kinds of available help.
Amy Cayton has been serving FPMT as a consultant since 1998 and has been integral to the development and facilitation of service trainings for the organization. She has a Ph.D. in Sociology, a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology, and over twenty years of counseling experience. In 2001, she founded Skillful Strategies (now Balanced Mind), a business psychology and consulting firm that facilitates positive transformation in the workplace. Amy has been a serious Dharma student since 1997 and has attended a number of long retreats with Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Amy was also the partner and staff trainer for Gelatomania, a universal responsibility project for engendering world peace in Santa Cruz, California.
TAKING CARE OF THE SELF: RECOVERY AND ADDICTION
As part of Mahamudra Centre’s work to develop a Buddhist-based program for the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction, Ven. Choyni Taylor recently presented a series of workshops for counselors as well as those in recovery, based on her new book Enough!: A Buddhist Approach to Finding Release from Addictive Patterns. The workshops offered practical step by step methods to finding freedom from addiction and compulsion and the negative thoughts that fuel them. Bryce H. who has been involved with MMC’s addiction program had this to say …
“The Buddhist contribution to the field of drug and alcohol counseling has generally been centered on using mindfulness to foster client awareness of feelings and cravings. However, research also points to the role of complex ‘information highways’ involved with the attention, behavioral and motivational centers of the brain being engaged in the abusive or dependent use of substances. These centers reward us for behavior that helps us survive (drinking water, eating food, having sex, raising our children, etc.). These are engaged and rewarded by the neurotransmitter dopamine. Drugs that can make you dependent will also activate these centers and provide that neurotransmitter to guide you to the reward of the drug. The best way to undo this is to learn to build new pathways and new coping responses. To learn and develop new pathways, the brain must practice. This can be done through visualization.
“Ven. Chonyi’s workshops were very helpful. She elucidated and designed a series of meditations/visualizations that guide the client to rework many of their dysfunctional pathways. With her background in psychotherapy, Venerable also worked with the emotional background to these events.
“All of the counselors (and I spoke to most of them) who attended remarked how useful it was to learn concrete ways of dealing with these embedded information pathways. In addition, Venerable showed us how to design visualizations directly with the client and how to integrate the Buddhist approach to wisdom and compassion for both the client and ourselves. Brendon, a social worker, said of the teachings: “Venerable taught us really useful ways to design meditations that engender wisdom and compassion for ourselves and for our clients and help us both to rework redundant emotional patterning that could lead to suffering.”
Those wanting to work on their addictive patterns were similarly impressed and found Ven. Chonyi’s workshops practical and transformative.
Turn to page 49 of the January-March 2011 issue to read an excerpt from Enough!: A Buddhist Approach to Finding Release from Addictive Patterns by Ven. Chonyi Taylor.
Those of us with addictions often turn to the Dharma looking for a cure; perhaps a deepening of a spiritual awakening has already intervened. Even if we have no idea that we are addicted, or that there is any reason to stop, something about our life is not working. But are we prepared for feeling worse before we feel better? Amy Barton-Cayton, psychologist and Buddhist practitioner, tells.
“When I began practicing the Dharma, I already had over a dozen years of recovery having used twelve-step models and psychology to confront my obvious (once I knew what to look for) and not so obvious addictions/delusions. I also had as much time counseling people with a variety of psychic wounds, and especially those struggling with the abuse/shame/addiction cycle. But even though my outside looked intact, inside I still felt broken and empty. In fact, the spiritual seeking I had done before and after the twelve-step programs had reached a plateau and become intellectual rather than felt. My experience was that the world and my life were getting worse rather than better.
“Then I went to a teaching on karma and really felt worse as I saw the real why of the karmic causes behind the decline of my life and the increase of the deadening inside. I didn’t feel better until we reached the part of the teaching on purification and accumulating merit, and then I saw life and I weren’t so hopeless after all. I was also able to see the way my addictions (especially to people) and recovery programs had helped prepare me for the profound path of Mahayana Buddhism. From diminishing my ego (not enough, yet) and recognizing the self-cherishing of a mind that thinks it is the worst, I was prepared to stay through the ‘got worse’ part until getting to the ‘it’s better’ part. It has taken Vajrasattva practice and retreat, as well as putting into daily practice the life dictated by my cushion practice, that has helped me to really ‘be my own therapist’ and to follow (albeit imperfectly) a path of true transformation provided by my kindest root guru, Lama Zopa Rinpoche. This is the path that has gotten my insides and outsides matched up on the ‘better most of the time’ path …”
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In Buddhism, we are not particularly interested in the quest for intellectual knowledge alone. We are much more interested in understanding what’s happening here and now, in comprehending our present experience, what we are at this very moment, our fundamental nature.
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