I had a conversation with my teacher, Nephyr, about addiction from a Thai medicine perspective, like did it have to do with spirits or missing kwan*? Her reply to me was that she thought that, “kwan and other spirit stuff could be involved, but the first thing that pops into my mind for root of addiction is meditation and mindfulness training. People often don't want to hear that because it takes work of course, but really that's what's going to be most beneficial I think.”
Getting off of opiates is hard. Getting off of anything one is addicted to is hard. It takes work and let's face it, people don’t want hard work. If you have let go of an addiction or two, you know what hard work is. I am lazy myself and often want to take the path of water, but when it comes to having a meditation practice, I have found that the work I put into it yields many gains. It isn’t like swallowing a magical pill, but I find myself able to catch my emotions that much more quickly. We know that emotions are hard for addicts. Wait, let me rephrase that, we know that emotions are hard for humans. If there is something that helps me to be more objective about my own emotions, sign me up.
In Buddhism, there are 6 realms of existence, one of them being the realm of hungry ghosts. The realm of the hungry ghosts is not only a really fantastic book on addiction by Gabor Mate, but it also refers to the realm of addictions, of strong desires that cannot be fulfilled. Hungry ghosts are depicted with big bellies and tiny mouths. They cannot get enough. They are always looking for satiation of their cravings outside of themselves but are never fulfilled.
Whether we are addicted to binge-watching the next new thing on Netflix, buying too many classical CDs, snorting coke, or shooting heroin, the general feeling of needing to escape is human. Some of us have chosen really destructive paths to our escape, and some of us have chosen vanilla paths to our escape. What form of escape is okay? The realm of hungry ghosts really is about seeking what is outside of oneself to satiate the feelings of unease inside. In the human realm, though we experience the hungry ghost, we also can change our destiny. We can learn to look inside ourselves to satiate our feelings of unease, cravings, etc. This is where meditation and mindfulness come in.
Unless you live under a rock, you have probably heard the terms meditation and/or mindfulness. Meditation has been around for a very long time. We know it has been practiced at least since around 1500 BCE, and probably longer. Just because something has been around for a long time doesn’t make it good for us, but meditation has withstood not just the test of time, but also the test of science. Meditation helps with anxiety, concentration, pain relief, and more. The Dalai Lama got together with an entrepreneur, and a neuroscientist in the 80s and opened the Mind and Life Institue. If you are interested learning more about the science behind meditation, this is an excellent place to start.
My path to a meditation practice started with yoga. I practiced yoga once a week for years. To me, this was movement meditation. Though I only practiced once a week for 90 minutes, the benefits paid off while I was in labor with my second boy. Yoga was my introduction to the power of mindfulness. I have tried to do guided meditations and fallen asleep during them. I have done journeying meditations successfully and not so successfully. At this point, I have been meditating on a regular basis for a short while. Somedays, I know it is helping and other’s I am not so sure. Currently, I am meditating on the elements: earth, water, fire, and wind. It was a homework assignment for a class I was taking a few years ago that I never did. I wasn’t in a place where I could commit to daily meditation, now I can.
For meditation to really be effective, one has to, you know, actually do it. How do we actually do it? Meditation is difficult for so many people. A few weeks ago I saw a Facebook friend post about her not understanding how people meditate. How can we turn off our minds when they won’t shut off? Usually, there are a few things that the people that say they can’t meditate have in common: they have not had someone teach them from scratch; they start trying to meditate for way too long; they often think meditation is about shutting off thoughts.
If the first time someone meditates is 10 minutes, they are going to most likely fail, even five minutes can feel like an eternity if you have never meditated. If the first time someone meditates is in savasana after a yoga class, and they fall asleep because once again they are asked to ride a bike without having practiced before, they will fail, or fall asleep. I always fell asleep in savasana because suboxone sedated me, and I had also spent 90 minutes in a movement meditation, and my body was ready for a nap. If you are starting off meditating start with one minute. Use a timer for this. Insight Timer is a great meditation timer. Feel your breath move in and out of your body for one little minute, that is all. When you master the minute, bump it up to two minutes, keep this up until you reach the desired time you want to reach for meditating. That is a very simplistic recipe, and things are not usually simplistic. The take away here is to start slow to gain momentum.
The key to meditation is not to turn off thought. Thoughts do not have an on an off switch. We can observe and not react to them. If you think about your thoughts thinking too much, your thoughts will come at a breakneck speed. That’s okay, practice non-attachment, don’t go down the thought rabbit hole. Let it race by and then let the next thought race by. Perhaps you can use your breath as an anchor. I like to view it as a thought ocean, whenever I start to get taken away by the thought waves, I swim back to my anchor.
Starting and maintaining a meditation practice takes work. It is like starting an exercise regimen, only it takes way less time. But we humans are funny creatures, and we like to take the path of water. We will often shy away from things that are challenging, only to find ourselves restless and uneasy, which causes us to continue the cycle of the hungry ghost as we ease that unease and restlessness with some form of escape. The lock is unease can be opened with the key of meditation and mindfulness. It can help us break the cycle of the hungry ghost. When getting to the feelings of unease, of wanting the change how we feel, instead of acting on it, we sit and watch and listen. Often when we do this, the feeling will go away, because, if we know one thing about feelings, it’s that they change. The more rooted we are in this practice of mindfulness, the easier it gets. This is a gem in recovery.
*An excerpt from Seven Peppercorns by Nephyr Jacobson about kwan: "Kwăn is the life force, animating spirit, or life force essence of the components of the body. It is a concept that has its roots in pre-Buddhist Animism... Kwăn are ... a life force spirit for each component of your current life body. When you die, the elements of your body return to pure element (think of the body decomposing into Earth and your last breath exhaling into the Winds of the world). Likewise, the kwăn simply dissolves into pure spirit."
P.S. Of course, addiction treatment is not as easy as a meditation practice. This is one tool in a basket of many tools. I just happen to believe it is a powerful tool.