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

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Karma also means the freedom to let go

I tell them the purest, cleanest shot of dope you will ever take is doing a kind deed for someone else.


The second aspect of the Buddhist teaching on integrity is that you are the heir of your actions. Nobody on earth should understand more clearly than drug users and alcoholics the consequential way that our universe works. I commit action A, consequence B arises. I could have that happen over and over and over in my life when I was using heroin, but I never drew the line between action A and consequence B; it was always through a series of missteps and miscommunications that I was picked up by the police. It had nothing to do with me, right? I always thought that one of the best headstones for an alcoholic or an addict would be “It’s all your fault.” What is that about?

The whole point is that the universe operates on certain fundamental rules, whether we want to accept them or not. The law of karma is: Wholesome actions result in positive consequences, unwholesome actions result in negative consequences. When you assist clients in drawing these lines between action A and consequence B, you begin to see clouds lifted from foreheads. They think, “Wow, I never realized that when I got stopped in the car it had something to do with them watching me cop heroin.”

So, draw the lines for clients. The good news about Buddhism -making friends with this whole concept of not-self- is this: At every moment I’m presented with an infinite amount of potential in terms of my choices. I can change at any time, because I don’t need to carry around the baggage of my past. I want you to think about it in the context of today; you are a very different person than the person who walked in those doors at nine o’clock this morning. You’ve had different experiences, you may have meditated for the first time, had different thoughts; you’re a very different person. At the level of physiology, every six years, every molecule in our bodies is changed out and we become literally a different person. The same can be true psychologically. You don’t need to carry around the baggage of the past.

Further, and I think this is key: There is an escape from the trap. One of the most brilliant expositions about alcoholism and drug addition that I’ve read comes to us, through the 12-Step program, from the big book about Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s written by a doctor who doesn’t believe in the spiritual stuff, but is grounded in the empirical evidence of his work with alcoholics and addicts. He identifies a continuing cycle of spree and remorse by which the addict is caught, and he says that what always generates the energy for this cycle is not the spree but the remorse. If I can let go of that remorse, if I can let go of that past -make amends for it certainly- then I move into a place where I am changing and options open up to me over time. At any moment there is this link between sila -right speech, action, and livelihood- and karma, on the positive side.

The spiritual self does take responsibility for its actions, does recognize change, and is willing to learn from the past rather than use it as a weapon, as a lot of people do. I like the Zen story of the master and student preparing to cross a river when a woman comes along and asks for help crossing over. The master picks her up, places her on his back, carries her across the river, and sets her down on the riverside. The student and master then walk on for three days, until the student suddenly turns to the master, livid, and says “I cannot believe it! You are a monk, yet you touched a woman. Her garment was all up around her legs; it was a disgusting display, I am horriffed.” The master replies, “You must be a very powerful man, because I just carried her across the river, but you’ve carried her all the way from there to here.”

Learning to let go is one of the hardest parts about penance, alternately making amends and then beating ourselves up for it. Being able to let go of it, and recognizing that is not me, that is not mine, that is not a permanent piece of who I am -it’s tough. If you can’t do that, then you are again on that larger cycle of spree and remorse. But whether by twelve steps or by the eightfold path, you can put that behind you.


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