[A friend told me she was suffering from a difficult compulsive behavior that was bringing her daily suffering, and I sent her some input on Buddhist ideas about working with that. I expanded what I wrote to her and am posting it here]
In Buddhism, it is taught that, ultimately, liberation comes though insight. It’s difficult for me to explain what “insight” means in this context, but I suppose in simple terms you could call it, seeing existence as it truly is. The traditional teaching, though, is that deep insight usually requires a concentrated focused mind, and that developing concentration usually requires a foundation of ethical behavior.
A key way that “ethics” is defined in Buddhism is to not engage in addictive behaviors. One of my Zen teachers once said, “The kindest thing you can do to bring benefit all beings is to give up your addictions.”
Lately, when people I meet traveling have been asking me for Buddhist meditation instruction, I have been telling them that the best first step they can take on the Buddhist path, before they ever sit cross legged, is to identify their biggest active addiction, and … give it up. I suggest to them that they give some thought as to pleasure in their life that they can admit, if they are honest, has negative consequences for them and others.
In Buddhism, there are two classic ways to deal with compulsive and addictive destructive behaviors.
The first is to simply not do them, by force of will. This method correlates with the “ethics” (shila) and “concentration” (samadhi/samatha) stages of the Buddhist path.
This action is often combined with setting an intention for abstinence – making a vow – in relationship to a community or a mentor. In the old days, that would be a Buddhist sangha or teacher, but in the modern USA, I suppose a twelve-step community and/or sponsor, a men’s circle, a therapist, etc. are what work for many people.
Another important part of this method is to intentionally focus awareness on other things besides the temptation. In formal meditation practice, this might look like developing a deep rich awareness of the inhalation and exhalation of respiration, as a means to release addictive thoughts of anger, sexuality, etc. And in daily life, the technique of focusing your attention elsewhere might look like getting help in moving out of an addiction or compulsion by taking action on career goals, doing daily yoga, taking classes, making an effort to eat more healthily, etc.
A final key part of the “Just Don’t Do It” strategy is to learn to enjoy what one of my teachers calls “preview pleasure.” The idea here is, just as you can enjoy the two minute preview to a movie without ever having any intention to see the full two-hour feature, so you can also sit there and enjoy the feeling in your body and taste in your mouth *imagining* how good the cookies in the other room would taste, without ever getting out of your chair and acting on the temptation. (this, of course, requires being mindful enough to be aware that you are craving, which is a mindfulness that takes intention and cultivation.)
Here is a relevant quote by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, from his excellent book “Mindfulness In Plain English” : ” ‘Discipline’ is a difficult word for most of us. It conjures up images of somebody standing over you with a stick, telling you that you are wrong. But self-discipline is different. It is the skill of seeing through the hollow shouting of your own impulses and piercing their secret. They have no power over you. It is all a show, a deception. Your urges scream and bluster at you; they cajole; they coax; they threaten; but they really carry no stick at all. You give in out of habit. You give in because you never really bother to look beyond the threat. It is all empty back there. There is only one way to learn this lesson, though. These words will not do it. Look within, and watch the stuff coming up – restlessness, anxiety, impatience, pain, addiction, compulsion – just watch it come up, and do not get involved. Much to your surprise, it will simply go away. It rises, it passes away. As simple as that. There is another word for self-discipline. It is patience.”
So: besides simple abstinence, the other technique for dealing with addictions and compulsions, besides simply not doing them, correlates with the “insight” (vipassana) stages of the Buddhist path. The method here is, when in a situation of temptation or addictive acting-out, just let it play out, but to try to be as aware as possible. We can be aware of what are the emotions we are experiencing , what and where are the feelings in our bodies, what thoughts are going through our minds – how strong each of these factors are, what shape they have, how they are changing as the seconds roll by, noticing the moment energies appear and the moment they disappear … we watch the experience unfold, as closely as possible, with a spacious, allowing, gentle, and open mind. A Gestalt psychotherapy teacher I once studied with called this, “Being upright while falling down.”
Sometimes this open awareness stops the addictive craving and/or the addictive episode, but sometimes it doesn’t – we make no demands on the experience. But, even if the compulsive behavior doesn’t stop, if done well, being aware in an open, precise, and allowing way will lessen the addiction’s seductive power in the future.
I’ve seen this second methodology abused by people as an excuse to keep doing an addiction (OK, one of those people has been, umm, me). But it is also super-cosmic rocket-ship-direct-to-Infinity when done right.
There’s an old story: two monks went in for interviews with their Rector. The first monk had his interview first, and he asked the teacher, “Father, is it OK if I smoke while I pray?”
“ABSOLUTELY NOT!! What nonsense!!”, thundered the Rector in reply.
Dejected, the first monk slumped out. A few minutes later, though, the second monk came out of his interview, smiling, and announced that he had gotten the permission that the first monk had been denied. “What did you say to him!?!?”, asked the unhappy monk. “Oh, I just asked,’ Father, is if OK if I pray when I smoke?’ ”
So – if you smoke (overeat, over-porn, can’t stop boozin, self-mutilate, etc) – I suggest, pray, be mindful, be sensitively aware of the changing flow of energy, while you do.
Here are a video interview and a written interview transcription in which my teacher Shinzen Young discusses how meditation can help with addiction recovery: