I’m putting together an eBook for people interested in using mindfulness to overcome addiction problems. I will be giving this book away for free on my website. I’ll also share the chapters on here as I write them. Here is part two in the series – if you haven’t yet read part one, you can start here.
There are lots of theories to explain why some of us become addicts. Genetics or faulty wiring in the brain may have put me at higher risk, but my decision to abuse alcohol was tactical. I felt overwhelmed by life, and I needed something to help me cope.
The thing I loved most about drinking was how it made me feel numb to the world. It meant I experienced life like a dream so everything appeared less threatening. This numbness calmed the turmoil inside my head, and I couldn’t understand why everyone else didn’t appreciate the benefits of intoxication.
I became a serious drinker at age 16 because it offered me an easy escape. I was in pain, and I didn’t have a better solution. It never crossed my mind to question the nature of my discomfort – I became so obsessed with running away, I didn’t bother to investigate what it was I was running away from.
Imagine spending decades of your life on the run from some terrible monster only to discover that there was never anybody actually chasing you. Imagine travelling the world in search of some precious object only to find that it was in your pocket all the time –duh. That’s what happened to me.
My life felt unbearable because of one mistaken belief – ‘it shouldn’t be like this’. It was this thought that sent me on a quest to fix something that wasn’t broken. I had all these expectations about what my life should be like, and the fact that life wasn’t like this became the source of my suffering.
What if your addiction problems are basically the result of a similar misunderstanding? Choosing intoxication is always a rejection of the present moment – you choose to medicate your brain to make the present moment better– but what if there is nothing actually wrong with the present moment?
I suspect the real reason many of us turn to alcohol or drugs is we have a low tolerance for the ups and downs of life. It’s not that we are weaker or less capable than others, but we just interpret these challenges in an unhelpful way. Our sense of ‘it shouldn’t be like this’ means we feel threatened, and when reality continues to behave contrary to our expectations, we feel overwhelmed.
Of course, it isn’t just addicts who suffer because of a mismatch between their expectations and reality. It is just that our coping strategy is particularly unhelpful. We use alcohol and drugs to mask our disillusionment, but this only further separates us from reality.
The more out of touch I become from reality, the greater my suffering. It means I’m swimming against the tide and so more likely to bump into stuff. Drinking alcohol was a rejection of reality, but it was not something I could ignore for long. The comfort of intoxication became harder to achieve as my escape route became my prison.
I don’t believe alcohol is evil – it’s just incapable of providing the sense of inner-calm I yearned for so deeply. Substance abuse is a Ponzi scheme that will leave us completely bankrupt unless we waken up to the danger in time.
I would have gladly accepted ill-health, and dying a few years early, if alcohol could deliver what I once thought it could. It might even be unreasonable to expect us to give up our favorite drug if it actually did make us happy.
In 2004, I went on a 26 day meditation retreat at Wat Ram Poeng in Chiang Mai. I turned up on the first day still in withdrawals (not something I’d recommend), but I was able hide these symptoms enough so the monks allowed me to stay.
The program at this temple was intense. By the end of the first week, I was meditating 12 hours per day – alternating between sitting and standing practice. Every few days, the head-monk would increase the number of hours he expected me to sit for. This was all building up to what they call a ‘determination’ – 72 hours of constant meditation with no sleep.
I experienced some bizarre mental states during my time at Wat Ram Poeng, but it was the long periods of mindfulness that affected me most profoundly. The serenity I had always yearned for was there in the one place I’d never thought to look – the present moment. The world appeared more vivid and something as simple as an ant on the footpath filled me with wonder.
The most surprising thing was how this experience of mindfulness felt so familiar – it was just like coming home. There was also this huge sense of relief because I no longer felt the urge to escape.
It should have been obvious that this mindfulness was the answer I’d always looked for, but I still didn’t get it. Once again, my expectations started to pull me away from reality. I experienced periods of bliss as a result of my intensive meditation practice, and I assumed that this was the real fruit – mindfulness just felt too simple to be the solution.
I drank again after Wat Ram Poeng. I was on such a post-retreat high that I felt invincible – I wanted to prove to myself I had beaten alcohol can could now drink safely. Obviously, it didn’t work. The pain of being a drunk felt so much worse this time because I’d tasted mental freedom. It took me 2 more years for me to quit for good, but this experience with mindfulness was the turning for me.
I didn’t need to go on a meditation retreat to become mindful. This experience is always available to me, and it is always there for you too. You don’t need to spend years meditating, and it is not a reward for good behavior. Mindfulness is just a choice – you are always either mindful or mindless – but it is too easy to forget we have this choice.
Buddhism is credited with creating powerful mindfulness techniques, but the Buddha didn’t invent mindfulness. It is a natural state that all humans have experienced at one time or another. It is something that comes easy to use as children, but we can experience it less and less as we get caught up in our beliefs, expectations, and judgments.
Back in the eighties, I met an old man who was a wonderful example of the power of mindfulness. This guy lived in rural Ireland, and he probably knew little about Buddhism or mindfulness practices, yet he had still managed to tap into this well of serenity. Just being around him was calming, and I knew from the moment I met him, he had something I wanted.
The way this old guy behaved with his family gave me hope. I was fifteen years of age and distraught by my parent’s breakup. I’d started to profoundly distrust people because I knew they would all let me down eventually. But the interactions between him, his wife, kids, and grandkids, showed me how a family be completely at ease in each other’s company.
I only got to have a few chats with him, and it was the first time I’d felt really listened to in my life. He didn’t seem to have any strong opinions about anything but appeared genuinely interested in what I had to say. I always walked away from our conversations feeling calm and optimistic, and I bet this is the effect he had on others as well.
The thing that surprised me most about this old man was that he had once been an abusive alcoholic. I was just starting my journey into addiction, but he was someone who had come out the other side. I often thought about him during the years that followed, and he reminded me there was another way.
Perhaps you think I’m being illogical to credit this guy’s serenity on mindfulness. You may even wonder if he was putting on some type of act. I can never know for sure, but it just felt so obvious to me that he was living in the moment and at complete ease with the world – this for me is what mindfulness is all about.
Mindfulness doesn’t mean you get to live happily ever after. Life is a banquet of emotions and experience, and you don’t get to choose just the stuff you like.
What mindfulness can do is change your relationship with the universe, so you no longer feel as threatened by the bad stuff. It will help you see that you already have everything you need to able to embrace life fully and experience a sense of serenity in your life. It’s not a miracle cure for addiction, but the results can be miraculous.
Coming Soon – Chapter Three – How Mindfulness Works