How Addiction Prepares You for Buddhism

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How Addiction Prepares You for Buddhism

By Nathan A Thompson 05/08/18

I started to suffer less which was a revelation because, up until then, the things that removed life’s splintered edges had always hurt in the long run.

Image: 
Buddha statue
Addicts have strong firsthand proof that "craving causes suffering," a core principle of Buddhism. Image via Author.

When I was 15 years old I experienced timelessness for the first time. It was a clear, cool day in England and the air smelled of fallen leaves. Peter and I slushed through piles of them having bunked off school.

His parents were out so we walked around the side of his red brick house and sat on a bench in the back garden, smoking weed, waiting for the magic mushrooms to kick in. A couple of hours later everything was iridescent and I felt a holy throb in every molecule.

I’m not sure how much this experience contributed to my later heroin addiction but, when you tease out the existential and religious factors, I’m sure it had some impact. It wasn’t the experience per se but my reaction to it.

I assumed that the transcendent space I found that day was True and Right while the world of my parents, teachers and the forces of culture were Fake and Wrong. This justified continuing to use drugs while growing embittered at society for rejecting the truths they revealed.

My friends and I initiated ourselves into powerful mysteries, walking a tightrope between sanity and insanity, swallowing tabs and chewing fungus in night time parks, parent-free homes and parked cars. With no one to correct or help me contextualize these experiences, things started to spin out of control.

I took mushrooms a lot. Then LSD, ketamine and all the rest until I forgot about the transcendent spaces in the hunt for more extreme experiences. My trips got darker and my mind become infested with cravings.

I became addicted to weed, then speed, and, after a brief period of sobriety, started on cocaine. Predictably, pathetically, this led to crack which almost always leads to heroin – I never met a crack dealer who didn’t also sell heroin.

After a stint in rehab I found myself sober, vulnerable and filled with rage. “It’s like you’ve blocked the sun from your life with a big pile of garbage,” my 12-step sponsor said. “You must do the work of cleaning up.”

So I cleaned up. It was gruelingly difficult. Now I’ve been off drugs over five years and completely sober for three (I took longer to quit social drinking – read about that here).

The most helpful thing I learned from the 12-step program was the idea I needed a “necessary spiritual experience” to recover, an idea the program’s founders attributed to Carl Jung who apparently pointed to the long history of drunks reforming after finding religion.

Post-rehab I knew I needed to reconnect with the sacred. I got clean to spare my family the pain of my addiction but that wasn’t enough to keep me sober; I needed a reason to live.

I took to Buddhism and Ashtanga Yoga. Almost immediately I had a spiritual experience. As I practiced the Buddhist path, I learned how to consistently access sacred spaces in the depths of my heart and mind.

Image via Author.

Buddhism solved the problem I was using drugs to cope with: the loss of connection to the sacred and the accompanying nihilism. Sure, magic mushrooms and other psychedelics gave me that connection initially and if I had a guide and a context for using these medicines, things might have been different. But, as they were illegal, I had to hide away, growing increasingly confused, even psychotic, and then needing drugs like heroin to shut my mind down.

Buddhist practice allowed me to work slowly towards accessing divine states in a tried, tested and safe manner. I met a Zen nun who continues to teach me today – without her guidance I could have again gotten lost, perhaps even fallen again into psychosis (a documented pitfall of intense meditation practice).

She was quick to stop me chasing after peak experiences, those everlasting moments. She wanted me to practice ethics, put my life in order and become a better human being. “If having experiences were the point of meditation, you would have been enlightened ages ago,” she said.

So I followed ethical guidelines, studied Buddhist scriptures, cultivated virtuous qualities of character, meditated and twisted myself into pretzel-like positions on the yoga mat. I started to suffer less which was a revelation because, up until then, the things that removed life’s splintered edges had always hurt in the long run.


Image via Author.

Rather than being a period of lost time, I found that my experiences as an addict provided a crash course in Buddhist philosophy, especially the Four Noble Truths. The Buddha’s first two Noble Truths say there is suffering and it’s caused by clinging and craving.

I knew all about suffering. People don’t start taking heroin because they’re super stoked with life. The thing that really bugged me was that there didn’t seem to be any point to suffering. It seemed that being a self-conscious human was to be torturously aware of the painful pointlessness of existence.

And craving? I knew that in and out. During my addiction, it controlled my life. Needing heroin animated me, making me run down dark streets looking for a fix, or lie to my landlord about the burned spoons in the bathroom.

Buddhism, with its emphasis on ethics and curing craving, was perfectly-positioned to solve these problems and, due to my visceral experience of suffering and craving, I started with a thorough understanding of the first two Noble Truths.

The third Noble Truth says there is a way out of suffering which was the reason I started practising Buddhism. I mean, it wouldn’t have worked for the Buddha to just say there’s suffering and it’s caused by clinging and then bye.

I knew I was on the right path when I started to suffer less and less. The path itself is laid out in the fourth Noble Truth. It’s called the Noble Eightfold Path and is a practical guide to ending suffering.

Ashtanga Yoga has a similar eightfold system that dovetails nicely with Buddhism. In fact, there are many similarities to be found across spiritual traditions. Some techniques are shared with the 12-step program and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

Addicts can be seen as becoming that way in the hunt for transcendent experiences; they come to recovery because the spirits they find behind a bar or in a dealer’s grubby fist have stopped working. Like Carl Jung and the founders of the 12-step program, finding reliable, safe spiritual experiences is key to recovery and should form the basis of a new ethical, useful life.

With its emphasis on practice over belief, Buddhism is primed to be an answer for recovering addicts who balk at higher powers and want deeper answers than those found in CBT clinics. For such people, years spent suffering and craving in addiction can provide a deep understanding of key Buddhist concepts.

Walking back from Peter’s house that day I remember falling leaves and feathers in the air. I couldn’t forget the experience but couldn’t remember it very accurately either. What exists beyond ordinary consciousness can’t appear within the confines of the waking mind; there is only the feeling that somewhere, around the corner of reality’s curtain, it’s still out there.

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