Hello! So, after a hiatus of several months, I’m back on the blog. Why?
When I first put these pieces up online, in early 2021, my initial motivation was: After nearly a year of travel restrictions, we had seen hardly any non-Thai patients at the detox in Thamkrabok monastery. Speaking to old friends back in England, and elsewhere, had made me keenly aware that anxiety, boredom, and interweb loony-tunes (to name but a few..) were impacting very badly on the substance-abuse-inclined, under lockdowns and economic chaos, while access to help, whether from us, or anyone else, was simultaneously drastically reduced. Bad combi, that.
Frustrated by my inability to offer assistance or fellowship face-to-face, I thought I should make a project of taking everything I thought I knew, everything I had learned here, and chucking it all up on the intertubes as a stopgap. I hoped that this might be a useful, or at least welcome, resource for people who might be feeling very alone and without immediate options (besides the off licence*). For those – and it takes a certain kind of person – suited to, and attracted by, Thamkrabok; I hoped that my writing might encourage and prepare them to come and detox here, as I had done, as and when that again became feasible.
* for non-native English speakers/our American friends from across the pond: off licence=liquor store (I speak your language, I come in peace)
For those less suited, or able, to come here, I hoped that my words might help them to find the right fighting spirit, perhaps give them a few nuggets of usefulness, or at the very least amuse them and keep them company, until such time as they were able to seek help elsewhere. In either case though, I thought that it wouldn’t be for much longer. So I gave the writing kind of a medium level of effort, comprehensiveness, meticulousness, and deep soul-searching – expecting it to be largely redundant within quite a short frame of time. And I ended it where I did, somewhat abruptly, in order to focus on other things.
Three significant factors have changed since then.
The first is a growing awareness that I don’t know nearly as much as I thought I did about addiction, and freedom from addiction. The principles and processes I have described may have been very specific to a person (me), time (20 years ago), and place (Thamkrabok Monastery, obviously). I’m no longer entirely convinced that all of that is the whole story, even for me as I am now, so it would be terribly arrogant to suggest that it should be for you.
One unexpected, but very welcome benefit that came of publishing those pieces was that they stimulated a number of conversations around the subject – some that are still continuing – with a number of people. Some of these I had known previously, and some I had not. Some were fellow travellers – in the process of doing battle with their own addictive urges, and some were experts in other fields – nursing, psychology, therapy, etc., trying to bring their knowledge and experience to bear on this same, very challenging and often unrewarding problem. One person (to my knowledge – maybe more!) was both of these things.
So I have learned a lot, and still have much more to learn. And not just in a purely academic sense either since, like a keen-but-reckless Victorian amateur scientist (think Doctor Jekyll) everything gets tested on me first. That’s in my dual role, both as addict, trying to ever increase my understanding of, and mastery over, the curious impulses to get off my nut and blow up my life, that periodically waft through my consciousness; and the larger role and quest that I have subsumed that into, as a Buddhist practitioner – trying to perceive, understand, and be uncontrolled by, the forces of craving, aversion, and delusion that are the common enemies of all humanity. Or perhaps I could reframe that more simply as – my role as a human, trying to be a bit happier, a bit less of a butthole, and a bit less mental. That might be a better way to put it actually, particularly in view of this second factor:
The second factor is that: When I published, I thought that, with vaccine rollouts underway in developed countries, and the rest of the world surely soon to follow, everyone just had to hang on for a few more months, trying to not do too much more damage to themselves and innocent bystanders, until – as we used to blithely take for granted – anyone who liked the sound of what I was blethering about could simply book a reasonably-priced budget flight to Thailand, with its easy visa-free entry for travellers from most western countries, rock up to the gates of Thamkrabok, and let the old well-oiled machine take it from there.
Well, here we are approaching the end of the year, and there’s still no sign of anything much like that getting going. Thailand is currently in the process of desperately scrambling to re-open the country in time to catch the winter high-season for tourism, but Covid is still barely controlled here, and vaccination as I write this has reached just over 40% of the population. Entry requirements remain complex, confusing, and ever-changing, so the airlines are lagging behind with re-establishing flightpaths and cheap deals (understandably, given the chaos). Plus, I gather that everyone out West except Jeff Bezos is broke now…
So, for mainly those reasons, I am resuming this blog, and the primary aim of these first few new pieces will be to re-tool and re-purpose what is here already from “Hey – consider coming to Thamkrabok, if you don’t know how to kick your habit with what’s in front of you, here’s a little bit about what we do…” to, “let’s explore what might help us to kick it, wherever we are”.
I’ll start by reviewing the more universal elements, as I perceive them, that were underlying the story I told of myself, kicking heroin and coke in a monastery back in 2002, and I’ll try to extract the essence, without relying on overtly “Buddhisty” trappings. At times, I will cross reference this with stuff I have learned about from others, where we think we have recognised some common theme or principle that seems to correspond with how they approach such things in Psychology/Therapy/12-step/Hare-Krishna/whatever. Or rather – not just “whatever”, but more “whatever works”.
Because of course that’s what matters here. What helps us to address and defeat the problem? In addiction, as in life-in-general. That was Buddha’s only yardstick, and so I will try to make it mine, as opposed to any kind of dogmatism, team-loyalty, intellectual laziness, or anything resembling [shudder] marketing.
And how do we know what “works”? Well – has to be real-world testing, doesn’t it? You can only get so far in laboratory conditions. We need data. One (of many) dividends that has come from my now being in contact with a number of professionals is having the benefit of their experience with hundreds of cases, and with follow-up to assess long-term outcomes. Here at Thamkrabok, we often don’t really know how things turn out for many people we may form brief (if sometimes intense) relationships with while they are here. If we see them again, then it’s mostly the extremes of the bell-curve: those few who have done great, hold a special place for us in their hearts, and come back to visit and practise Dhamma. And then there are those who crash and burn fairly quickly, and crawl back asking to give it another try (either openly, or sometimes pretending to be among the former group). Oh – and sometimes we hear that someone has died.
All this can contribute to a very misleading impression of what “works”. I’ll admit that for a long time I probably defaulted to something like a lazy view that our principles were excellent, all-encompassing, simple, and foolproof (from talking to the A-students), but that some people, inexplicably, would just never get it (from observing the F-students). What I hadn’t known so much about was the middle, the hump of the bell-curve – with their grey areas, their struggles, their good days and bad days, small victories, and little slips. Those who could easily go either way. Which is very arguably the most important demographic by far. Both because there’s something at stake, and also because this is actually the vast majority of people.
And I am among them. That’s the third factor that has changed. Well, not so much that in itself, as perhaps my own keen awareness of it, which came partly as a result of the intense self-scrutiny which writing these pieces has required, plus a few encounters which may have rattled my complacency a little. But mainly my willingness to talk about it in a setting such as this. That I didn’t before wasn’t pride or secretiveness, just a desire for simplicity. Given the original mission statement, I just wanted to sound as encouraging, confident, and unambiguous as I (in good conscience) could, before handing off the actual hard work of helping you to slay the dragon to someone else, whether that be my estimable colleagues in the detox at Thamkrabok, or some therapist/sponsor/mentor/whatever, of your choice, somewhere else.
Well, now it seems we may have a bit of “mission-creep”. So all cards should be on the table – and if I’m going to take this further and deeper than where I left off – then no, I don’t have all the final answers, or any cast-iron bomb-proof solutions for myself or anyone. But I have a keen interest in getting closer to them, and no time for horsing around, since I too have a horse in this race, and no intention of ending up hors de combat.
And so to work. For me, anyway. For you, I’ll now just briefly try to summarise what you are letting yourself in for, should you choose to continue reading (what I think you are in for, anyway. Once I start writing, things tend to take on a life of their own).
Well, as I mentioned above, the first task is to try to extract some more universal principles out of the overtly Buddhist framework I have hitherto given you, in the hope that they be of use in other contexts.
After that I am going to fix a glaring omission from the original series, which is a dedicated article about an often-misrepresented thing, usually called “mindfulness” in English; and how that might be applied to the task of learning to live without familiar friendly poisons. That will be particularly with reference to my own experience of stopping smoking cigarettes, which (disgracefully, perhaps) I only finally kicked this very year, and in which the application of mindfulness, plus a little bit of Sajja [the quality of integrity, or the formal practice of manifesting said integrity by making vows, previously discussed here] was more-or-less the only tool in my box that I made use of.
That was interesting, as well as productive, since in the past I have tended to crash into addiction head-on, whereas this was more a matter of drawing alongside for a while, before slowly but firmly nudging it off the road. This gave me a chance to get a good look at it, and what I saw was not entirely what I had expected, or indeed wanted, to see. I’ll go into that later (I am fully cognisant that my attempt to précis may appear as clear as mud at this moment).
That might well divert me briefly into a comparison with another quite well-known approach to beating addiction, and considering how well (or not) that might play along with some key Buddhist principles that have already been discussed here – the unholy trinity of “kilesa”, or Craving, Hatred, and Delusion, and also “The Middle Way”. Hopefully I will not get too bogged down in that for too long.
Because then, after THAT…
I really want to get stuck into my main new theme, which for me where I’m at now, is really the whole (remaining) story of my current relationship with destructive compulsions of all kinds, including substance-related ones. And I’m wondering to what extent it was really the big, submerged issue, all along. To wit:
What about those times when we take all of that good stuff that we already know, that perhaps has already worked for us, perhaps even spectacularly well. We take all of that helpful, wholesome, logical, soul-nurturing, positive stuff, with its easy-to-follow instructions, and tangible, demonstrable, proven benefits, and we put it over in THAT corner, over there, and we don’t look at it. Instead, we look at the bottle in our hand (or syringe, or razor blade, or gambling website, or marriage-wrecking affair, etc., etc.) and we say…
Every time we dive back into whatever swamp we have painfully crawled at least some way out of – whether it’s bailing on the front-end of a detox attempt, or a later relapse after some measure of stability has been achieved – it begins with a “fuck it” moment.
The fuckit-factor can effortlessly blow away any other factor, no matter how beneficial it is, and how beneficial we know it to be. Ignore it at your peril. Many people do, because it can seem like there’s nothing that can predict or touch it, and no way to study it when it isn’t actively rampaging. When it is rampaging, we of course don’t want to. So, instead, we pour a lot of time and energy into building all this other stuff, that could seem pretty robust, right up until “Fuckzilla” rises out of the Pacific depths and eats Tokyo, sweeping all that stuff aside, like cardboard tower-blocks. But most of the time of course, we can pretend he isn’t there, and that there will be no sequel.
This theme – and in fact the main reason why I have decided to continue this blog, rather than just tying up some loose ends, or even dropping it completely – has emerged from reading back all that I have written so far, measuring it against experience, and realising that it contains something that I no longer quite believe.
This isn’t any one thing that I have described or explained – I stand by all of that, it’s good stuff, it works. If you want it to. And that “if” is what I’m going to try to get at.
What I no longer quite believe is an unstated prior assumption that I now perceive to be suffusing the whole thing, and that I think is so common in “beating addiction” material and commonly accepted wisdom; that we usually fail to even notice it let alone question it:
The assumption that the failure of any attempt to quit should be framed in those terms at all – as failure. Have we failed to succeed? Or have we in fact succeeded at “failure”?
There is an axiom oft-quoted by many psychotherapists (or psycho-suchlike, I’m actually a little hazy on the precise distinctions) regarding consistently problematic behaviours. So ofted is it, that nobody seems to be able to quite remember who originated it (although I have heard it ascribed to Carl Jung more than once), which states, roughly:
“When you can’t figure out someone’s motivation for things they do, however bizarre – look at the results of their actions. Surprisingly often, it is precisely that” (I suspect it sounds better in German). Sometimes it’s as simple as it seems.
Not always, of course. Let’s not dismiss the possibility of minds so neurotic (or even psychotic) that they really cannot see how this leads to that, or that they really are incapable of exercising control over impulses that arise. Let’s not dismiss the possibility of a truly unexpected and overwhelmingly stressful event, combining with immediate opportunity, leaving one in the position that half a bottle of vodka has gone down one’s neck before there is any reasonable chance of mindfulness re-establishing itself, and therefore the possibility of exercising something resembling free choice.
But those kinds of things don’t actually happen (for most of us, hopefully) all that often. I’ll speak for myself, and perhaps I’ll also be speaking for (or at least to) enough other people that there will be some value in continuing this line of investigation, when I say: “Yeah, but so often it isn’t really like that. Is it?” Even though that’s usually the kind of story we tell.
Every “fuck it” moment that I remember having did not feel – if I am being honest, which I hope I am – much like how we tend to describe these lapses in shamefaced, perhaps tearful, confessions that we make to spouses, family members, friends, or AA groups. They mostly felt, well… okay, actually. Or even pretty good. I don’t really recall any moments where, beset by unbearable pressures, a sobbing, struggling me felt inner demons taking control of my limbs, which I helplessly watched selecting and paying for, a bottle of whisky, or a packet of fags*, and shortly afterwards using those to alter my biochemistry despite my desperate protests. No, I did all that. Pretty calmly, on the whole .
* American friends: “a pack o’ smokes”, NOT a homophobic slur popular among your people
I knew there was a cost, and I was accepting it. Or even embracing it. Even though I knew that I’m far better, happier, nicer, richer, less pompous, more effective, more employable, more likeable (by self and others), cooler, prettier even – when I don’t. But I did. And I could again, at the drop of a hat. Why? That’s pretty weird, eh?
It might be worth clarifying a couple of points with regard to this theme:
Firstly – What I am currently intrigued by is Fuckzilla, his own bad self. Not so much the eating of Tokyo. To (reluctantly) drop this metaphor: Every addict who has got to the point where they are even considering quitting, let alone those who already did, years ago; has lost the illusion that there is any significant pleasure, per se, left for them in the actual getting monged bit. At least not beyond the ephemeral relief of physical cravings (if applicable), and scratching the neurotic itch of a mental habit. The former can be reliably removed by a couple of weeks in detox, and the latter by a few months following a different routine. If you really want to.
You see, that’s the really interesting conundrum. Statistics incontrovertably prove that quitting a chronic addiction is one of the hardest, or at least most-failed-at, undertakings known to modern humankind. But on paper it looks easy. Let me rephrase that – in practice it is easy, and that’s experience talking. So what’s hard? I can only deduce that it is finding and/or maintaining the will to put it into practice.
What currently intrigues me is the allure of, and possibly even addiction to, the actual “Fuck it” moment. Crazy as it might sound, especially to anyone who has never been in the grip of a chronic destructive substance-abuse pattern, my thinking right now (no conclusions yet – we’re jamming live on-stage here) is that perhaps this might be humankind’s true radioactive nemesis, far more so than any particular chemical compound. This is what I want to explore.
This is of course touching on what could be called the “dark side”, or to be unfashionably old-skool sounding – the Satanic. The idea that turning away from “the light”, embracing destructiveness and entropy, might not be simply an unfortunate thing that happens as a byproduct of our lapses. A mere absence of the “good” (however we are defining that), which we blithely assume (or at least claim) to be our motive force.
Could it be an active force unto itself, and one that comes bundled with its own brand of, or perhaps take on, happiness – evil glee. The negative counterpart to the “wholesome” positive feelings that accompany “good” or constructive achievements and aspirations.
Buddhism contains a devil-concept, embodied and mythologised in a figure named “Mara”. Mara is not as big a player in the Dhamma as Satan is in Christianity, and he tends to be downplayed still further, especially by Western Buddhists, who often seem to find such talk a bit embarrassingly spittle-flecked and Presbyterian-sounding, and certainly not hip, modern, or New-Agey enough for them or their constituency. But he was hip enough for Buddha. I don’t have all that much that I want to say about him right now – I am currently reading up on him and contemplating muchly. Get back to you on that…
But secondly, regarding the Tokyo-eating bit: My own F-moments, have – curiously, one might think – never fucked it all the way back to cocaine or heroin, my former cruel masters. And – curiouser and curiouser – that hasn’t actually been difficult. There’s no significant pull, even when it is right in front of me, as it has been on numerous occasions, the muzik-biz (from whence I hail) being what it is. One should never say “never”, except to say, “never be complacent” (or indeed “never say never”, where you get to say it twice… or come to think of it, in quite a lot of other phrases… anyway – never be complacent) and I haven’t been. I have very closely monitored myself for two decades for signs of the old madness, and it really does seem to be burned out. I’m not talking about “being strong” or sensible, here – the idea of me being coked up seems about as attractive to me now as any other source of meaningless anxiety, and the idea of being opiated (except perhaps immediately following some kind of horrific crash-and-burn incident) about as alluring as a bad case of shingles, with erectile dysfunction and eye-watering body-odour thrown in to sweeten the deal.
Nevertheless, I have repeatedly done myself in, in a less dramatic, ongoing way, with cigarettes, despite having quit with very little attendant suffering (and in fact, immediate pleasurable benefits) several times. And from time-to-time done myself in somewhat more dramatically with alcohol. Which I have never had any physical dependence on, and was never my drug of choice back in the bad old days.
This contributes greatly to my thesis that I have always been far more the captain of my own ship than I may have cared to admit. I accepted the cost/perceived-benefit of coke and smack, until one day, I no longer did. And then I found a way out of them, despite whatever immediate obstacles, enabling factors, or hardships presented themselves. I no longer accept the cost of cigarettes. And as for alcohol, well…
I can be a real dick when I’m drunk. Rudeness, unreliability, aggression, solipsism, irresponsibility, adultery, even violence… can seem like not such a big deal. And if I drink past a certain point, then memories of what happened can seem a little conveniently out-of-focus. I’m not claiming blackouts here – I’m actually cursed with a fairly complete history of my life’s deeds and misdeeds written in my skull. But just blurry enough to not intrude in any urgent way on the consciousness or conscience the next day, certainly not compared with my need for a big glass of water. Self-pity is a wonderful cure for many other troubling issues, particularly ethical ones, and is of course the major defining symptom of a hangover.
Were I 15 years old, and surreptitiously sipping coke (a-cola) with cheap vodka mixed in at a school disco, then I could perhaps credibly claim that I hadn’t known what kind of things were likely to happen. But I am not. So I guess that if I were getting hammered right now, then I would have to admit that I am knowingly saying “yes” to all of this tawdry smörgåsbord of possibilities.
There’s a tantalising ambiguity to the phrase I used above – “I can be a real dick…” between an interpretation of “this could happen”, and “I grant myself permission”. To what extent, then, could the things I have called “the cost” of relapse, perhaps be renamed, “the goal”? Or in other words: am I actually now just left with the remnants of addiction to being a dick? Or in other, other words:
TRIGGER WARNING – This exploration will include discussion of ethics, and possibly scenes of mild moralising, which some viewers may find disturbing. Discretion advised (safe space available).
But, you know what? I have done that thing that I do, and run on much further than I had intended. I set out to outline what I wanted to end up talking about at some future point, and found myself actually talking about it. Prematurely, perhaps. There are loose ends to be tied first, and my thinking will almost certainly evolve further on these newer themes. So this seems as good a place as any to pause.
But please do check in again, if any of this sounds at all interesting or useful. And if not, then good luck to you, and I hope you find something that’s more your groove – the interwebs are vast, and cavernous, and contain many things. And there are many roads leading out of addiction, and out of darkness. If you truly wish to find them. If not, then seek as you may, you’ll find only more stuff that sounds like horseshit to you, and is easy to dismiss or find fault with.
I am going to try to up the work rate here to about one new piece per fortnight, at least with the early pieces, where I already know, more-or-less, what I want to say. Hope to see you again. Well – actually, to be seen. Coz I can’t actually see who is reading me (of course).
May all beings be free from suffering,
Phra Peter Suparo,
Wat Thamkrabok, Thailand, 5th November 2021
Thanks and acknowledgments to Karin Wenger – lady of letters, seeker of truths, scourge of tyrants, and keeper of a fine liquor-cabinet.