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Escaping the Karma of Addiction, an article in Insight Journal, Summer 2008

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Better than drugs: compassion

Even if I wake up from auto-pilot and find myself on Dope Street, I still have a thousand options in front of me.


At last we talk about compassion. All beings suffer, all beings experience anxiety and stress, and all beings have a desire to be happy. Let’s return to the first iteration of Buddhist ethics, “How does it feel?” What are the physical sensations of hatred, of ill-will, of cruelty? The whole point of doing good things for people is because it makes me feel good.

When I work with clients, using a language they understand, I tell them the purest, cleanest shot of dope you will ever take is doing a kind deed for someone else, while the worst withdrawal you’ve ever had is by being cruel or unkind. It can be a revelation for people to comprehend that doing good can feel good, since it goes against so much what we are normally taught. I was raised a Mormon, and what was presented to me in Sunday school is that doing good things is really difficult. When you tell clients it can actually feel good, they say, “Oh, I never thought about that before.” But it’s true. The Buddha explained that the reason why it physically feels good to do good is because we’re feeling the karma of our former actions coming to fruition.

Experientially, this results in a lot of interest in loving kindness (metta). It is something consistent through all the world’s traditions, and it is where the mind resides on the spiritual path. Some people get the sense that metta is like praying for someone or sending them positive vibrations. But it is not really about changing the environment in any way, it is about changing what’s going on in your mind, as you encounter others and as you encounter yourself. By evoking a sense of empathy, and identification with all human beings, we are going to experience the immediate benefits of generating loving kindness.

Healing from addiction also has a lot to do with learning to replace harmful addict scripts with more healthy scripts. Not all these scripts, we find, are just justifications to use drugs or alcohol. Some of the most deeply toxic ones are things like “I’m no good,” “I wish I had that car,” “I wish I earned more money.” I’m sure none of you have ever had that kind of thought. It’s remarkable how we’ll accept hearing things from ourselves that we would never accept from others.

The key factor in all of this is awareness, the ongoing awareness of what’s happening in the mind-body over time. We train people to be aware of some of the feelings they’re having, some of the thoughts they’re having, and learn to see whether they are coming from that unwholesome addict-self. With that awareness, they can be encouraged to avert the mind from these unwholesome thoughts, leading to unwholesome behaviors, and to turn instead to more wholesome thoughts and to different behaviors. Even if I wake up from auto-pilot and find myself on Dope Street, I still have a thousand options in front of me. I can still choose. I know this to be true, and am helping other see that it is true also.


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