Following is a special post to Littlebang.org by Paul Garrigan – author of a book ‘Dead Drunk’ which describes his journey to overcoming alcohol addiction at one of Thailand’s most famous temples – Wat Tahm Krabok.
(Anyone else have any blogs to contribute? Send them in. Book reviews, or other topics relating to Buddhism or meditation….)
Paul is a Thailand resident these days, and many of you will meet him in the near future …
A Buddhist Path through Addiction
It is quite common for recovered drunks to find religion. We are not the type of people to do things in half measures so when we get religion we really take it seriously. For decades our loved ones may have needed to cover for the fact that everything we touched turned to brown smelly stuff; as soon as we get sober we start lecturing family and friends on their moral deficiencies. I’m aware of this propensity of ex-addicts to turn into zealots and it is something I try to avoid. It is true though that Buddhism is an important part of my recovery from addiction; without it I doubt that there would be any recovery for me at all.
A Buddhist Path through Addiction
My first contact with Buddhism and meditation occurred during my early teens. I had lost my faith in Christianity at around age fourteen. This came about due to a growing terror of death; life seemed pointless and I just didn’t have faith in the Christian message. I began attending martial arts and this brought me in contact Buddhism and Taoism; the teachings of the Buddha resonated deeply with me. It was then that I first began meditating.
This contact with meditation impressed me a lot. I felt certain that the peaceful states that I experienced were only just the tip of the ice-berg. Throughout my next two decades of addiction I’d return to meditation practice every time I managed a sober period; never long enough to make any real progress. On good days I was able to use mindfulness to see alcohol cravings rise and disappear, but these ‘mindful days’ were too infrequent to make much difference. It was enough to keep me convinced that meditation was somehow the key to my problems.
I eventually ended up living in Thailand. I became certain that the answer to my addiction was to ordain as a monk. I had images of living in a cave away from everyone or wandering on Thudong through the Thai jungles; I’d prove all my critics wrong by becoming an arahant. The problem was that I’d need to give up the booze first of all; something that wasn’t going to be easy. I started turning up at temples drunk looking for advice. The Thai monks were very tolerant; I’m sure they realised that I was a bit insane.
In 2004 I was able to stay sober long enough to go on a 26 day retreat at Wat Rampoeng in Chiang Mai. I turned up at the temple still going through alcohol withdrawals but by the time I’d left my mind felt freer than I could ever have imagined. I drank again and the pain was worse than ever; the transition from a relatively clear mind to an addicted mind was torturous.
It took me another three years to finally put the booze down. It was then that I entered Thamkrabok temple and got the help and support I needed. This help was given freely by some wonderful monks and lay people. I give Thamkrabok a lot of credit for my transition to recovery, but I also know that the seeds were planted long before then. Without my experiences with meditation I’d never have believed that such a path was really viable for me. Learning meditation didn’t stop me from becoming an addict, but it left an impression on my mind that helped guide me back to sanity.
My life in recovery has been so wonderful. The monks at Thamkrabok told me that if I kept my sajja (vow) not to drink that great things would happen in my life – they were right about this. One of the most important things for me has been finding a path. Meditation is taking me on a journey and I have no idea where it is going to lead; I trust in the path though.
A Buddhist Path for Addicts
The path of the Buddha has a lot to offer addicts. I don’t even think you have to be Buddhist to benefit from the teachings. What it is on offer is practical tools that require no faith just the willingness to give them a go. The most important lesson for addicts is annata or no-self. When cravings arise they can seem to appear from nothing; if we observe them they return to where they came. The more we observe our cravings the more we realise that they are not who we are; cravings are just a process and we can choose to not act upon them.
The idea of no-self and impermanence can provide great consolation and hope for the addict; a leopard can change their spots. Through meditation we can see that there is no real solid self; change is happening all the time and we just have to get out of its way. Once we stop being fooled into believing that our cravings are who we are then there is an escape from addiction.
My early desire for a spiritual path came from terror of death. This fear was a big part of my addiction; every time the idea of getting sober would enter my thinking it would be followed by “what is the point?” Life seemed pointless to me if it just ended in nothing. Buddhism has convinced me that the problem was my thinking. I’m not going to die. Not because I believe in a heaven or reincarnation but because Paul never really existed in the first place. I am coming to see that life is more like a process that we mistake for a self.
Addicts can become a bit consumed by their beliefs in recovery and I don’t know how much this is true in my case. For me Buddhism is not a religion I believe in but just something I do. I have no desire to covert other people to my way of thinking. I do like to point out what is available and how it has helped me – this seems like the right thing to do.