Addiction and Impermanence

handprint in sand

handprint in sandOur bodies are impermanent. We already know this, but I don’t think too many people like to think about it. This morning a yogi friend of mine passed way from her second round of breast cancer. She was a good practitioner and a very solid member of our spiritual group. In the early 70s she lived with Yogi Bajhan where she learned her yoga. Every time someone near passes, and it seems to happen with some frequency, I find myself needing to meditate on impermanence. I’ve been meditating like this today and thought that the experience would be relevant to discuss as I was finishing up this article.

Impermanence is an easy concept to understand, on the face of it. Everything changes. Or as we say in 12-Step, “This too shall pass.” But to know it in our core we should experience deeper states of realization, or siddhi in Sanskrit. It seems to me that to get there, we need some life-jolts to shake up our normal state. It’s just too hard to “will” ourselves to the deeper levels. I think to do that may take many lifetimes. But if we choose to meditate during these heavy waves of suffering, we might find a more penetrating insight that we can feel deep in our hearts.

Our states of mind are impermanent, yet we cling to them. I’m an addict, with the predisposition to become addicted to mental states that seem to offer relief. Let’s call this the addicted state. It can be based on many components, e.g. childhood memories of wishes un-granted, love unrequited, critical validations that never came and our fantasies that those wishes are in fact coming true when in reality the opposite is happening. Perhaps it’s trigger by dangerous romantic relationship with someone who is as unavailable as ice in hell. Yet we don’t stop.

These states aren’t real, but we get hooked. We stare longingly into the eyes of a stripper as she gazes back like we’re her Messiah-the only one to truly understand her in a lifetime of confusion and her own addictions. Perhaps it’s the sparkle of the digital poker machine or the smell of sugary treats that triggers us into our addicted state. This state is supported by some far out ideas and feelings. Anyone around us can see that we’re stuck in pure fantasy. Maybe our addiction is codependent-we feel we can save someone-not financially-but spiritually. Some of us like the wounded ones, because it feels like they really need us: “Her eyes, her eyes sucked me in like a black hole sucks in all the light in a universe until you can’t see light, can’t even see the hole any more. It’s as if nothing exists, as if nothing ever existed.” But we don’t see it when it’s happening. In that moment, whatever the primary addiction, the smack of that “connection” fills our veins with ecstasy. But it isn’t real, isn’t permanent and is not healthy. This kind of blind spot takes lives.

In this situation, we’re somehow able to create a state of mind that, dream-like in it’s quality, seems to medicate the pain that we feel deep down inside. Who knows why the pain is there, but it’s there, and the more we meditate and observe what arises, our response to what arises and the repercussions of those responses, we see how pervasive our suffering really is. At least that’s been my experience as an meditating recovering addict. The pain relief of the object of our addiction isn’t an excuse to become an addict. It’s just a big part of the reason why it happens, why anything that offers temporary relief runs the risk of becoming an object of attachment. We can be a little attached or in full-blown addiction. But it’s a continuum of attachment and one that is hard to spot if we’re not on our game and working with someone who can point out our processes with enough insight, love, care and sufficient logic to help us see the light. But it’s so easy to be blinded by the light of love, be it love of a lady or a needle or an idea of a real, concrete self that truly exists.

In our brains we fixate on that state and try to duplicate that state and become willing to go to any lengths to create and maintain that state or even retrieve a short glimpse of that state. We think the state is bliss. But it’s not bliss. Bliss-the enlightened state-is permanent. This pseudo-bliss addicted state is based on agitation, fantasy, trauma and desire. We fixate on it, to the exclusion of all else-morals, ethics, basic needs, effect on others-as if our life depends on it. But our life does not depend on it. It drains us of our life sustaining energy. It depletes us of reason, self-control, integrity. Sometimes we even become fixated or addicted to the state of suffering caused by our addiction to false bliss or true pain.

The problem with the addicted state and our fixation on it is that we refuse to accept that it is not real, not permanent and not what we have convinced ourselves that it is. However, as anyone who has lived through teenage heartbreak knows, this too does indeed pass. But there’s knowing it on a mental level, where we tell ourselves that we understand the concept of impermanence, and there’s a deep, experiential knowing of this Buddhist principle, where we feel it at the core, at the root, at inception. That’s where delusion dissolves and we begin to break free. My Zen teacher used to say, “A little crack opens up..and the light comes in. That’s the beginning.” But the beginning of what?

If we merely learn that we’re addicts, that’s not enough to create lasting sobriety. We have to have a spiritual experience that is lasting. But that experience, however personally defined, has to be one of ongoing development. A one time white light is not enough and in the long run, has little power to save us. Yet, like the addicted state, spiritual enthusiasts may cling to the memory of said spiritual experience, ruminating, fantasizing, reliving-at the expense of Presence to life as it is and the further deepening of spirituality that can free us from suffering.

The first time I came across this idea was in Philosophy at community college. Patanjuli said in his Yoga Sutras that any spiritual “skills” such as clairvoyance should be abandoned as distractions on the path. If we went down the road of psychic skills as if it were the goal, we’d wind up back where we started. So when my teacher tells the story of people who come to him asking him what mantra he can give them to bring them back to some early moment of spiritual realization they may have had, I understand. He always says, that is not the main point. It’s another experience, yes. But the main point, the essence of all of our spiritual teachings is to become free. Even the concept of freedom has many people convinced that they’re enlightened. Let me share something with you, if you think you’re enlightened, you’re not. There are very subtle obscurations all along the path to total liberation and we need to be aware of them. That’s why Gurus exist.

In 12-Step we say, “We can’t do it alone.” That means we need a sponsor and a home group and a consistent presence in the sober community. Kind of like a super spiritual 12-Step sponsor, having been there themselves, a Master teacher can call us out on our fantasies. We have to be able to abandon our fantasies to become Buddhas-no matter how deep, how subtle, how enticing they may be. In fact, I submit that the potentiality of the state of addiction is just as powerful, if not more so, at the more subtle levels if for no other reason than for it’s sheer undetectability. That’s why Gurus have to operate on our minds, in our minds and in our dreams and deepest hearts. As we say in 12-Step, “My mind is a bad neighborhood to hang out alone in.”  Yet so often this is the case in the mind of the meditator who is committed to the path of compete realization. The more we probe, the darker the tunnel. We must ultimately find our own light, our secret treasure, our Truth. But a Guru in whom we can trust without question is indispensable. But having been damaged by authority figures, how can we possibly learn to develop that much trust in any human being? Good question. I dealt with it in the 12-Step Buddhist.

For now let’s end with the notion that all states except the state of enlightenment are impermanent states, empty of inherent existence and projected by the mind. Anything short of Buddha realization is obscuration. How do we cut through this ignorance, caled the root delusion? There are many ways to cut through these, some slow, some quick. But since none of these feed the ego, few of us, as Joko Beck would say, really want enlightenment. After all, the world of distractions is infinite. One of the ways to remove ignorance is the practice of the Six Perfections. But how can we practice these perfect ideals in recovery? After all, the literature says, “Progress, not perfection.” Below is the commercial for my new eBook. (-:

Perfect Practice: How Everyone Can Use Buddhist and Recovery Tools for Greater Happiness

At our Summer 2012 Retreat we walked through the Six Perfections (Paramitas in Sanskrit) as they relate to the “maintenance steps,” which are Steps 10, 11 and 12 of the traditional 12-Step program. That retreat was so powerful that I decided to write up a  practice manual that would enable anyone, Buddhist or not, addict or not, to practice with some of tools that we have in recovery, and in Dharma. This workbook is now available as a Kindle eBook on Amazon. It’s $2.99 and available at this link: It would be awesome if you would share this link with your peeps!

If you don’t have a Kindle, don’t worry. You can download a free app for any computer and most smartphones here:

In a while I’ll put this out as a Print on Demand and most likely audio as well. But for now, check it out and let me know what you think. As always, Amazon likes and reviews are highly valued. Be sure to let me know if you post one!