“Pain is not a punishment; pleasure is not a reward.“—Pema Chödrön
It begins with a vague feeling of unease. Something isn’t quite right but you cannot put your finger on it—or maybe you can, but there’s nothing you can do about it, or there’s too much to do so it’s easier to just put it off, for now. Maybe you’re overworked, overwhelmed by your responsibilities, unhappy in your job or your relationship. Maybe it’s all of the above. You’ve reached a point where you have put off dealing with something for so long that you can’t even remember when the problem began. You need a vacation but there’s no time or money. So you get used to what has become the norm for you: unease, restlessness, dissatisfaction, a constant feeling of irritation or maybe a depression that you’re unwilling or unable to acknowledge. But you don’t always feel this way, because you’ve found something that brings a momentary sense of relief. And it feels so good to have that reprieve from the rest of your life, that you tell yourself that it can’t be that bad—if it helps you get through another day, what’s the big deal?
Addiction comes in many forms, whether it’s alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, gambling, television, shopping, food, or destructive relationship patterns. Whatever your drug of choice, there’s no denying that it makes you feel good, at least in the moment. But the moment can never last long enough, and eventually you’re always just waiting to relax, because you can’t do it on your own. So then, what is addiction if not another form of attachment? Granted, attachment comes in degrees and addiction is its most intense expression. But in this way, on some level, we’re all addicts looking for our next fix.
“It’s our nature to want happiness and not want suffering. Thus, Buddhists do not ask that one give up the pursuit of happiness, but merely suggest that one become more intelligent about how happiness is pursued.“—Jeffrey Hopkins
We seek serenity, peace and acceptance. Sometimes this search seems to end when we’ve discovered a substitute for facing our problems head-on. The false sense of security then blinds us to the truth, and we pursue what we believe to be serenity at the expense of being present in our lives. In extreme cases, the people who suffer the most are our families and our friends. But sooner or later, the point comes when we have to make a choice, or the choice is forced upon us. To stagnate and lose our sense of self, or to find another way forward.
Fortunately for most of us, our addictions are not destructive to the point where our lives end up in shambles. But they can still be painful and leave us feeling helpless, especially if the coping mechanism we have come to rely on is a pattern that has been going on for a significant period of time. If we can recognize them for what they are, however, we can move forward to living healthier lives. It isn’t easy to let go of a relationship that no longer serves us, or to turn away once and for all from a substance, or behaviour pattern that we’ve come to rely on for comfort and support in a difficult time. The good news is that we’re all stronger than we imagine ourselves to be, and by reminding ourselves of this simple truth, we can move forward.
We are never alone, no matter how much it may feel that way. Tapping into a support network is important, whether it’s our friends, family or a spiritual practice community. Cultivating these relationships, sharing our experiences and listening to others on the path, we come to understand that on some level, we’re all dealing with pain, insecurity, fear or loneliness. In a very real sense, we’re all seeking the same things, but many different roads can take us where we want to be.
As Buddhist practitioners, we already know that the Buddha spoke of desire as being the root of all suffering, so we must begin by recognizing how our own misplaced desire has brought us to our current situation. In recent years, there’s been an adaptation of the 12-step program for Buddhist practitioners, which merges the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
1. The truth of suffering: accepting the truth of our addictions, and how they make us suffer.
2. The truth of the origin of suffering: we admit that our addictions have been our refuge.
3. The truth of the end of suffering: we see that cessation of craving and clinging is necessary to end suffering.
4. The truth of the path: we make a decision to follow the way of liberation.
5. Right view: looking at our lives fearlessly and acknowledging the truth.
6. Right thought: being mindful that we create the causes for suffering and liberation.
7. Right speech: forgiving ourselves, and asking for forgiveness from others.
8. Right action: being willing and able to make amends with people we have harmed.
9. Right livelihood: realizing we are all connected, we simplify our lives and select a vocation that supports our recovery.
10. Right effort: realizing that following this path, no matter what, is joyful effort.
11. Right mindfulness: following the path of kindness, being mindful in each moment.
12. Right concentration: carrying the message to all people suffering with addictions.
This might seem like an extreme approach to harmless behaviours such as eating a tub of ice cream on Friday nights to celebrate the end of the work week. The truth is that at its root, the origin of the behaviour is the same. Whatever the coping mechanism, it is always only a substitute for being present and awake to our lives as they really are, and dealing with our frustration, our exhaustion, or our dissatisfaction.
It is a road to follow for the rest of our lives—but we have the tools available to us, in each moment, if we can remember that we are enough. This moment can be enough if we would only open our eyes to it. We know that we can make better choices, and we can support our loved ones through a difficult time. We have the power to take control of our lives, to sit with the discomfort that arises, to acknowledge our pain and to take care of our emotions instead of drowning out the experience of this moment. Sometimes it’s unpleasant; sometimes it’s difficult. But there’s no way out except by gently moving through, one step at a time, firmly rooted in the now.