This will be the last blog post adapted from the original series of articles I wrote for Plus Seven magazine in 2020. Henceforth then, I will (with some relief) abandon any attempt to present a coherent unfolding of linked ideas creating a single body of work, and just write about whatever comes to mind in any given week. Bring on the random, oh happy days.
Right now though, to draw this phase to a close, I would like to discuss an overarching factor, which perhaps frames everything else I have had to say on the theme of Buddhadhamma as a means to overcome addiction: The factor of faith. Or another way to put could be: the question of “why bring religion into it?” All we want to do is get off drugs, right? What need for all this evangelising?
It’s a very good question. One that I myself asked 19 years ago when, as I described in “Part 1 – Monk’n’Drugs’n’Rock’n’Roll” I found myself shying away from the 12-steps approach to recovery, deterred by what I then considered to be blatant and unnecessary “Jesus smuggling”. Which, obviously, I was waaaaayy too hip for. And then wound up being a monk. Hmmm…
Well, for a start – last week I mentioned the empirical, evidence-based, approach generally favoured by Buddha, and also previously alluded to the “Parable of the Arrow”. These could be in large part summarised by saying something like: “If the building is on fire, and someone points to the exit, then you don’t stop to argue about why it happens to be that way, rather than in another direction”.
So yes, in this case, it does seem that this door may well open to the outside, while many others turn out to be broom cupboards, and possibly smoke-filled ones. And it isn’t just me, and Alcoholics Anonymous saying that – here’s Dr. Carl Jung, although with a bit more speculation about why that might be the case:
“His craving for alcohol was the equivalent on a low level of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God…
…you see, Alcohol in Latin is “spiritus” and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum”
It was hard to pick a quote to illustrate this point – and not only from Jung specifically – because it turns out that Googling pretty well anyone who comes from the world of hands-on psychotherapy or similar, and that ever seriously accepted the difficult challenge of working with chronic addiction [and is being honest] will supply you with a smörgåsbord of statements along the lines of “Chronic addiction is a right sod. Treating it often doesn’t work very well, and when it does, it’s hard for me to take all the credit. It’s very difficult to predict factors of success in any individual case, but when you look at those few who make it – some kind of spiritual awakening always seems to be in there somewhere.” So there.
Of course, once we have made it to the exit, there’s no harm in a little speculation about why it happens to be located where it is. And it may reveal other useful stuff.
One quite convincing hypothesis that I have heard from a psychologist, putting it in very dry and sciency terms, was that it’s a matter of neural pathways, and structures of associated experience. Your memories of using drugs, desiring drugs, and trying to obtain them, are built in to a lot of other stories. If it has been a daily thing for some years, there’s not much left that you can be engaged in that doesn’t connect directly to a memory of doing something similar before, when you were stoned. And that then connects directly to every other memory of being stoned, and whatever else you were doing then. Everything is just one – or at most two – degrees of separation away from using, so there is always a tangible absence, like a recently deceased friend [this is like a malign form of mindfulness].
So that’s bad enough, but it gets worse. Similarly, after a little time has passed there will be moments when you’re doing well – you’re getting stuck back into constructive activities, which are rewarding, you’re happily absorbed in that, and you’re not thinking about your friend (human or chemical). Then the thought begins to form, “I’ll finish doing this, and then I’ll call… oh”. It’s like being bereaved all over again. It’s a dark irony that even making progress can almost work against you, since it can be followed by a backlash that seemingly returns you to square one, day one. Clearly, you can’t stay in this condition for long without relapse becoming a very high probability.
It’s worth mentioning here that a quick patch for this in the early days is to have a schedule, and make it a busy one. This will minimise the opportunities for floating, undirected thought to drop into its well-worn grooves. But you can’t spend the rest of your life afraid to sit down.
Now, at certain points some degree of direct self-denial will of course be needed. You have to be able to say “no” to yourself, or you really don’t stand a chance. But there’s a huge difference between saying “no” twice a week, or 300 times per day. Even the most determined and strong-willed person has bad days and weak moments, and even the smallest of weak moments are costly in this game. So we can maximise the chances of those moments passing without leading to any destructive chain of events by trying to wipe and re-install the entire system. The more you throw out, the more chance there is that the thing that really needs to be thrown out, stays out – it no longer has a perfectly-shaped hole that it could easily just snap back into.
And going beyond that, we then start actively building new structures and contexts, that aren’t at all connected to the old druggy self. The psychologist compared it to trying to fix a faulty machine by reaching inside and tinkering with the malfunctioning part. It can work up to a point, but beyond that, it is far easier to take the whole thing apart and rebuild it. It’s actually a very good analogy, because a damaged moving part in your engine usually starts affecting the other parts in ways you can’t easily see or predict. They may even be worn to the point that they no longer work well with a factory-fresh replacement. And they may well then start to damage the new part you install to replace the broken bit, ie. recreate the original problem. Most satisfying – it’s not every day that an analogy holds up through multiple stages like that. Yep – it’s turtles all the way down.
I, of course, being a shameless Buddhist propagandist, would like to seize this opportunity to briefly reiterate that the concept of Anatta – the absence of a “true” permanent self, explored in the preceding two articles – is a very useful viewpoint from which to fearlessly approach such a disassembly, and the eightfold path a very handy blueprint for re-assembly in a better-functioning, and ever-evolving configuration. I’ll just leave that there…
But returning to faith in general, not just belief in any single idea – we could be cynical here and say “Alright, but this all seems like, at best, common sense. Still doesn’t get us to “God” (or somesuch), and so okay – try a new shade of lipstick, start dancing Tango…” And, joking and cynicism aside, those probably would indeed be pretty good things to do. It does also suggest that my own “spiritual awakening” having taken place in a new country, and even having to learn a new language; may have been significant factors, which I of course acknowledge. But the explanation went further still:
A spiritual awakening disassembles the machine very thoroughly, but then also puts it back together with no single piece quite the same as it was before. Because it changes our view of the purpose, meaning, value, or at the very least direction, of life. Back in analogy world – it changes what this machine is for and what it does, even if it re-uses many of the original parts. So this change resonates down to even the most basic and simple components – why do I eat? That I might be nourished to better do the Lord’s bidding (for instance, if that’s your bag). Everything is aligned differently now.
So when it comes to the addict component, and deciding whether or not that too should be bolted back in: Instead of a load of old familiar triggers already in place, calling out to it that “it’s not really a party until addiction shows up” [analogy open-season now – I know that engine parts don’t really talk to each other. Or indeed party] it can be evaluated for what it is – rather than what it means to you – and a much calmer, cooler, choice made about what to do with it. It isn’t so much like having a part of yourself ripped out.
This might then – to be super-cynical – suggest that believing in anything would do just as well. Even something stupid. Perhaps even especially something stupid, since that would require you to rip up your logic and critical thinking too, and stupid ideas often have an advantage over better ones of being easily grasped and attractive, because they tend to over-simplify problems. Humbling as that may seem to any fervent advocate of the healing power of their religion, and its timeless truths (me, for instance); the evidence seems to be in, that this may indeed be the case. So, praise be (to whatever) – and whatever floats your boat sounds good to me. That’s one way of looking at it.
However, firstly: it isn’t possible (for most of us, I imagine) to just decide one day to have a major spiritual awakening event, simply because it would be quite handy right now for its fringe benefits, such as giving up a nasty habit more easily. I would expect there to be a necessity for some kind of genuine, spontaneous inspiration which is going to arise in different ways for different folks. And if there is to be anything robust and enduring about it, I would think that the less tension there is between that inspiration, and your rational mind; the better. It wouldn’t constantly be in danger of collapse, and your sobriety with it, should you happen to wake up one day and decide that dinosaurs may have been real after all, and the Earth probably isn’t just 6000 years old (for instance).
And of course, there’s a cost/benefit thing going on. A spiritual awakening can’t just be something you do for a little while to help you out of a hole, and then back to business-as-usual. You are going to have to live the rest of your life like this, or it isn’t an awakening, it’s just – I don’t know, getting up in the middle of the night to visit the spiritual bathroom, or something. You’d better make sure you truly stand by all this dogma you’re going to be espousing, and that the resulting born-again person is going to be at least fairly palatable.
One very obvious example of an unpalatable result is when faith leads to intolerance. Fury towards blasphemers, persecution of unorthodoxy, and an allergy to rational debate [not limited to the traditionally “religious” sphere, btw]. These kinds of symptoms suggest to me that the kind of integration I discussed above has not taken place to any significant degree, but been compensated for by the dumb comforts of tribalism. An irrational tribal belief, of course, relies on unanimity with others for its power and appeal, so dissent and doubt are downright dangerous to it. By contrast, beliefs firmly rooted in personal experience of their utility in transcending our own inner demons, and also in accord with other aspects of our psyche – such as our intellects – are far harder to threaten.
Another common one is a fanatical insistence that every tiny particular in our chosen source of inspiration is hugely important and immutable, even when they are unclear in translation or interpretation. Or when they seem clearly more appropriate to the time and worldview in which they were formulated than to our own, and perhaps at odds with the core, and more timeless, message. The casual acceptance of slavery in the Old Testament might be a good example of this. Those symptoms suggest to me a neurotic clinging to detail, in the absence of seeing the big picture – that true communion has not taken place. The Holy Spirit replaced by the Holy Accountant. It can also lead to a lot of infighting (as well as outfighting).
[nb. this is in brackets (and italics) and smaller because it might sound a bit Buddhist-supremacist: The Buddha, just before he died, told the monks that they should feel free to change any of the discipline rules as they saw fit. The sect I belong to, Theravada, chose not to, which is problematic at times, although it has certain strengths. Other sects took him up on that, which means that we’re all perfectly orthodox, as long as we keep the Four Noble Truths front and centre, and nobody has to get cross with anyone. That’s pretty cool. End propaganda transmission…]
Faith, just a teensy bit more
So – where does that leave us? With reasonable, well-mannered, or even cautious faith? Is there even such a thing? And if so, is it any good? How does it stand up to the more fierce or feverish kinds of belief, for putting lead in your pencil? Doesn’t it sound a bit too calm and sensible? A bit wishy-washy, perhaps? Can you just talk yourself into properly robust faith? Reason yourself into belief and conviction? So many questions…
Well – I can’t really speculate on what might be possible for some, but I can tell you how it happened for me. It was a double-pronged kind of a thing, a pincer movement between my rational, sceptical, too-cool-for-school mind, and what we could call a “mystical experience”.
The former of those is actually going to be the main subject matter of this article, so let’s deal with the latter quite quickly, and explain what I mean by that rather flamboyant expression, “mystical experience”. I have already sketched an account of what happened – it was my first experience of “letting go” and flipping into a really concentrated state in meditation, which was cunningly induced by my first teacher, Phra Hans, when he dropped a surprise mini-marathon sit on me and my companions in the detox, after only a couple of weeks of light practice, and only basic instruction. This is described in “Part IV – Jedi Hobbit”. But if you can’t be bothered to refer back, I could summarise it rather drily as “detached awareness”, or more bombastically as “experiencing tranquility, but not as in – just a bit less neurotic than usual, rather – as a overwhelming active force that pushed other concerns aside, and felt awesome” [in both senses of that word].
Being catapulted into this state demonstrated to me, in a non-theoretical and undeniable way, that there were other modes with which my mind could experience existence, and in which my perception of suffering/happiness, boring/fascinating, desirable/undesirable, (to pull out just a few things) could be utterly different to how I had always presumed such things to work. Nobody could now persuade me that such a reality did not exist. Without having experienced this, though – I could not know such a thing for sure. Someone could tell me about it, and I could decide to be “convinced”, but the experience really defies full explanation, and so my belief would be shaky, and liable to change again on a whim.
The word “mystical” often carries a negative connotation these days, suggesting hocus-pocus, showmanship, or even blatant trickery – usually by someone who does not wish to be scrutinised too closely, and so doesn’t give you enough in the way of facts or joined-up thinking to give you a firm enough grasp of what their position is, that you could effectively challenge it. That’s bad mysticism, and there’s quite a lot of it about.
The more precise and respectable use of this term in a religious context is: Something that can only be directly experienced, because the essence of it is beyond words, and with an expectation that this experience will change you in some way. Oh – and awe is often mentioned as a component. So you can’t really get that from a sermon or a book (or even a Youtube video). Until it has been experienced and properly apprehended then, it may well appear “mysterious” in the common usage of that word.
But, thrilling as they can be, my feeling is that mysteries are there to be solved, rather than maintained, so my own preference is for a fair bit of mystical experience, but not so much mystical doctrine. I’ll go get the awe and wonder for myself, and I have no particular need for teachers adding to the sense that there is still lots more to figure out here. I want teachers who help me to unpick and unpack – to “integrate” the experience into daily life and more normal modes of consciousness.
Powerful and irreplaceable as they are, mystical experiences alone should perhaps not be treated as too much of a Holy Grail. In themselves they are not necessarily “good” for a start – by the definition I gave above, you could probably say that committing your first murder would tick all of those boxes. Neither are they completely reliable – they can be manipulated, which is a standard tactic of dodgy cults. And they can be misapprehended, especially in hindsight, with the passing of time, unless the experience is continually returned to – as with a regular meditation practice – with a determination to keep “refreshing the page”, and to subject experience to analysis and even sensible doubt.
Otherwise, clinging to some sense of profundity years later, just because we truly felt that “something happened” at the time could be of no more real value than some hazy memory of a teenage acid trip in which we realised that “everything is like – everything. And also nothing. But that’s like – okay. And your head looks like an octopus. Octopus head!!!”
So, yes – the pincer movement. The continual interaction of the wordless with the wordy, the embracing with the sceptical, and constant openness to the new, and to wonder; with critical thinking, cross-referencing with other experiences, and to other sources of knowledge. Those kinds of dynamics are what do it for me. They my faith not only alive but healthy. This kind of spiritual awakening is a continuing process, not just a memory of one particular “Hallelujah” moment.
In contrast to the “stone the blasphemer” school of faith, for me, being prepared to question any belief that I hold, any teacher, or any text, is in fact a constant joy of reconciliation with the Dhamma. Kind of like snuggling up again after an argument, if you’ll forgive the implied comparison between the Dhamma and a girlfriend. Or perhaps an enduring marriage, which has weathered storms without ever quite crashing on the rocks, is a more dignified analogy. It is, yes – and probably more apt, because the result should be robustness, and confidence, not just snuggliness. But I can’t truly have those unless – paradoxically as it may seem – the readiness to actually walk out, to rip it up, is very real. The Dhamma can handle it without losing its cool, and I slightly cautiously suggest that perhaps any genuine truth can.
Others may beg to differ, of course. Many people feel that a sense of awe, or a strong conviction are sacrosanct, or even taboo things. And so scrutinising such things too closely cheapens them. Is sacrilegious. I’m not going to snipe at that – not as long as it works for them, and doesn’t lead to awful behaviour towards infidels. I have learned (eventually – it took a while) to tread softly around others’ core beliefs. One thing I very firmly believe, over and above anything that’s particularly “Buddhist” is that: we all need some kind of a sense of meaning to existence, and that we won’t thrive without that. I’m not going to justify that bold assertion, that’s me coming over all empirical again – I tried life without, and it turned out badly. Bigly badly, in fact, so let’s just pull that arrow out, and worry about the cosmetic surgery later.
If that last sentence strikes you as contradictory to my preceding argument about the need to monitor faith with rational scepticism, well I have two responses to that: Firstly, that sometimes there are contradictions even between truths, however much we might sometimes dislike that truth. A key factor in sincere critical thinking is to be able to entertain multiple ideas in our minds at once, without freaking out. And sometimes one idea will win out over another, but sometimes it may not have to – the trick is to hold differing imperatives in balance. Secondly, much as I pointed out with regard to the Four Noble Truths, in the P.S. to the whole series on Buddhist philosophy – these ideas are presented for application to ourselves, not to impose upon others.
Which kind of brings me full circle – back to the question of whether faith can be adopted because we can see that it would be useful. And perhaps also back to being a blatant Buddhist propagandist [despite all my apparently chill, broad-minded, ecumenical, broad-church posturings] because, as I have been trying to convey in the previous four pieces discussing Buddhist philosophy, the Dhamma is a means of fixing a problem. If it seems to be fixing it, then I guess we could say that it’s “real Buddhism” by that measure, even if parts of one’s practice or understanding seem to be missing or shaky. And if it isn’t, then it’s not – no matter how wise, devoted, learned, accomplished, virtuous, or dogmatically correct you feel it is making you.
So – yeah. Yes you can.
Now, in what seems to be becoming a somewhat predictable surprise twist – all of the above was written as an updated new introduction to a previously written article outlining what Buddha has to say regarding the role, and function of faith, and trying to frame it more specifically in the context of addressing addiction issues, for the purposes of this website. But a quick scroll up informs me that I have, in fact, just written a whole new article, which is plenty long enough for now, methinks.
Please do stick around – that was just the support band…
Here’s a link to the full text of the letter from Carl Jung that I quoted from
And here’s a link to a video with a fuller explanation of the “brain-science” explanation of how spiritual awakening works with addictions