The Rock 'n Roll Buddhist Doctor Treating Addiction

By John Lavitt 01/18/17

Dr. Stephen Dansiger uses Buddhist mindfulness combined with EMDR to help people process the root trauma behind their addictions.

Dr. Stephen Dansiger
Dr. Stephen Dansiger went from punk rocker to sober clinician.

In his new book, Clinical Dharma: A Path For Healers And Helpers, Dr. Stephen Dansiger, PsyD, shows how his personal practice of Buddhist mindfulness has informed his clinical approach. With Noah Levine, Dr. Dansiger helped set up the Buddhist addictions rehab facility, Refuge Recovery Centers. At Refuge, he has developed and instituted a methodology for addictions treatment that uses Buddhist Mindfulness and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy as the anchor. After a wild punk rock exploration in New York City in the late 1970s, Dr. Dansiger got sober and became a master EMDR therapist. He wanted to find a way to help people process the root trauma behind their addictions. The Fix spoke with him about his new book and personal life story.

In the late 1970s, you played at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. How does that inform your sobriety today?

You know how people say that drugs and alcohol saved their life at first? That is true for myself as well. It seemed to be the answer to a deep-seated question, and I can say the same thing about music, but in a more lasting and positive way. From the time I started playing drums when I was eight years old, music worked for me. When I started playing those gigs in New York, I was just 16, and I was a bit innocent. Although I had started my using, I would say punk rock in particular and rock and roll in general saved my life. Being in that scene and scenes like it, all the way up to 1989 when I got sober, really defined my life. For example, I went to see Richard Hell and the Voidoids at CBGB's instead of going to my high school prom.

When I look back, I definitely have a lot more stories about how the substance abuse hurt my music and my music career than I have about how it fueled my success. For me, it was self-medicating at first, and then it went over the top and became a true impediment. It prevented me from realizing what I wanted to do with my music and in my life. In terms of that scene, I do feel incredibly fortunate to have survived it, but I also feel incredibly fortunate to have been in that place at that time. People have compared it to Paris in the 1920s, and it was a very exciting time to be making music and being creative.

I also want to note how many creatives I have met in sobriety. I have been able to connect with so many talented people because they are sober as well. As a therapist, I have found it meaningful to work with people struggling with the question, “How do I be an artist and how do I be creative while staying sober at the same time?” It means so much to help people address that question.

You were the drummer for King Missile and for Pianosaurus. During that time, you were partying hard while pushing the creative envelope. Do you miss that wild side?

The wild side you mention really has two very distinct parts. The first is the wildness of the partying because I was using, and then there is the wildness of the creative side. I feel like I have never had to give up the latter. For years, my therapist back in New York City was helping me to understand how much creativity could be experienced by being a therapist. It took me a long time to believe him, but that changed when I went ahead and did it.

With Pianosaurus, we played rock and roll on toy instruments. We made a commercial in Japan, and we were on The Arsenio Hall Show and in People magazine. Although that external success was fun, what I really miss is running around and making really cool music. Time passes, and we all go through phases in our lives. I actually needed to stop playing music for a while when I got sober. King Missile got signed right after that point, and I didn’t get to play on the record; that was tough. Years later, however, I toured with Maggie Estep, and we had an amazing time. All my band mates were sober, and we made records and went on the road. It was wild to contend with the drinking and drug use all around us, but it was even better to make music sober and be able to truly value that experience.

In the preface to your new book, Clinical Dharma, you explain how “I wrote this book in some ways to help myself, and I hope it can provide a snowball effect. We need each other, I think. We need each other in order to help each other.” Is helping each other the same as being of service? What would a snowball effect look like?

When I think of the relationship between being a helper or a healer, and this idea of being of service, it was all a major discovery for me upon my entry into the 12-step programs. Back then, I wasn’t a bad person and I wasn’t someone who didn’t care about others, but I didn’t go out of my way to help others. When I was shown how the path of service could help me stay sober, how I could help myself by helping others, I was kind of blown away by that idea. It surprised me how well it worked in practice. I sank my teeth into it, and, since then, I have spent the majority of my life in one helping position or another, whether as a member of a 12-step program sponsoring people, or as a professional. Over time, I have realized that it’s all in the spirit of service. Any volunteer or paid job that I’m doing works better if I view it from that perspective.

I have come to realize we need each other in order to be of service to each other. We need each other in order to make a community sustainable, and that is the snowball effect. In Buddhist practice, the three jewels of the three-jeweled practice are Buddha, Dharma or Teachings, and Sangha or Community. The snowball effect is the belief that a larger and larger community can be built if we continue to help and be there for each other.

Dr. Gabor Maté believes you often cannot address addiction without first dealing with the root causes of trauma. Do you believe underlying traumas need to be addressed to foster real recovery?

Like Dr. Maté, I do believe that if I don’t work with the underlying traumas, a sustainable recovery most likely will not be achieved. This understanding has been shown through both anecdotal evidence and research. If the original traumatic material remains untouched, then is it really surprising when someone relapses over and over again? Trauma-informed care is not new, but given what we have learned, it needs to be a priority. Our goal at Refuge Recovery Centers is to get into trauma-focused care. At Refuge Recovery Centers, we give trauma training to everyone who works at the center and EMDR therapy training to all the clinicians.

Addressing trauma is not the single answer, but it often feels to me like the missing piece when it comes to sustained recovery. Traumatic memories can be devastating, even for people in long-term recovery, and I see too many of those people suffering and near relapse. I would love for more people to be aware of and utilize what’s available so we can reduce all this unnecessary suffering. Led by Noah Levine, who paved the way for Refuge Recovery Centers, we fully believe that in order to treat the addiction, you also need to address the underlying trauma.

Your MET(T)A method focuses on “2600 years of research theory and practice of the Buddhist psychology of Mindfulness.” In 12-step traditions, a higher power is defined as a power greater than ourselves without specifying a religion. By focusing on Buddhism, are you excluding other traditions?

That’s a great question because it covers how the 12-step programs have changed over the years. I’m obsessed with the words in the third step—“as we understood him”—and the whole story behind how those words became part of the step. Early on, given the perspective on the higher power that they were bringing to the table, which was Judeo-Christian, they had to consider the consequences when one person in the early group went out and drank because he reacted badly to that perspective. It made them realize that if they didn’t open this up to everybody, they were going to be in trouble.

Today, many of the alternative programs to 12 steps like SMART Recovery are based in non-faith based and non-spiritual solutions. Out of respect for these other ways of finding recovery, at Refuge and with the MET(T)A METHOD, we really see Buddha as a psychologist. In his teachings, Buddha went to great pains to tell people that he taught only one thing: suffering and the end of suffering. I believe that perspective makes him one of the best psychologists ever. He saw the causes and the symptoms of that suffering as being craving and aversion, or, essentially, addiction.

The eight-fold path that Buddha laid out to end this suffering is essentially a non-theistic spiritual path. When Buddha was asked metaphysical questions about God, he would brush them off as not important. He just wanted to talk about ending suffering. In addition, Dr. Bob, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, once wrote a pamphlet where he noted that the eight-fold path of the Buddha was the spiritual tradition that most closely resembled the 12 steps.

At Refuge, a majority of the clients are in 12-step, but they also work a Refuge program by using Buddhist mindfulness as a spiritual tool. If clients have been put off by the higher power concept and don’t like the 12 steps, the Refuge program often becomes a viable alternative for them. They don’t need to envision a greater power out there, but they are able to use Buddhist mindfulness to look within. The practice of Buddhist mindfulness and meditation does not get in the way or undermine any other spiritual practice.

In the close of Clinical Dharma, you write about the practice of mindfulness, how, “There is no magic formulas to arrive at this. There is only practice.” When it comes to spiritual enlightenment, do you believe practice is the key? Is practice the key because the goal is not the finish line, but an ongoing journey?

That’s a great way of stating what I meant. In my mind, practice is the most important part of a spiritual journey. As William James expressed and the Big Book highlighted, most people seem to benefit from a spiritual experience of the educational variety. If you want to experience a spiritual experience that is more explosive and life changing, you are more likely to access such a firsthand experience if you have a practice. When I’m teaching meditation, I remind people that five minutes each and every day is better than 30 minutes on Saturday and none the rest of the week. By making it a part of your everyday experience, you integrate the practice and make it a key part of your long-term recovery and even long-term happiness.

On your website, you mention how you spend a lot of time these days “wrangling and entertaining (your) six-year-old daughter.” How has being a father informed both your personal recovery and your work as a psychotherapist?

My daughter just turned seven, and I feel like the last seven years have given me the gift of having absolutely no problem in accepting and understanding that my needs don’t come first. I have shown up for her since the beginning with energy and joy. Before, I would hear people say things like, “When you have a child, you won’t know until you get there how much you will love that child.” There seemed to be tons of those clichés, yet today I am a walking cliché in that respect.

As a therapist, fatherhood has increased my capacity for patience, it has increased my capacity for loving-kindness, and it has increased my capacity for appreciative joy and equanimity. I have become so much better at providing care without an asked for return. With her, the practice of those qualities is so pure, and it filters into every other aspect of my life.

You really never know what’s going to happen or what’s going to change in your life. When my daughter was born, I thought my productivity would go out the window. Instead, I am more productive today than I ever was before. By being really present for her, I have been able to be really present for the rest of the commitments and passions in my life. Who knew? I guess I didn’t know until I knew.

I truly value the gift of being in the moment with my daughter, and that gift has changed over time. The in-the-moment experience was very different with the baby version of her than it is with the seven-year-old version. It’s incredible how quickly and dynamically children change as they grow. I have the teenage version of being in the moment to look forward to, but we can talk about that when we get there. For now, I am happy to be able to enjoy today with her, with my wife, and with all the wonderful gifts that come with being sober and being alive.

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