Mike Papas has been practicing Zen for 30 years. He’s studied mainly with Joko Beck and her successor, Larry Christensen (as have I) here in Portland. I asked Mike to lead some Zen talks, walks and meditations at our 2011 2nd Annual 12-Step Buddhist Winter Retreat. By the last session many people, Mike and I included, had been sobbing. Here are Mike’s post-retreat thoughts about addiction, recovery and Dharma.
Post 12-step Buddhist retreat at Breitenbush with Darren Littlejohn
I’ve never been to an AA meeting or an NA meeting, no one has ever told me I was an addict nor have I ever admitted it or thought about it much, but like you I have experienced many Saturday mornings where friends had to tell me where I was the night before and what I said, how I behaved. I used to practice what I called suicidal drinking. That was when I was so depressed and lonely that I would do anything to escape the pain. What I learned in college was that if I drank enough beer and smoked enough pot I would reach a state where my mental activity was basically just blotted out. On some level I was functional, walking, talking, dancing and even driving, but some big chunk of my mind was just plain unplugged and the painful mental activity stopped.
I consider myself lucky in that I hit bottom pretty early. I felt that my only choice was to blow my brains out, but prior to that I had read a couple books on Zen, which just made a lot of sense to me. I found that there was a Zen Center in San Francisco where I could learn how to practice, and that they would let me stay there and learn about what they did. I figured I could kill myself later if it didn’t work out. I spent 3 ½ months in a monastic practice that was literally hell. In retrospect I think I was detoxing while also sitting in a painful meditation posture about 3 hours a day. We woke up at 5 am and were busy all day until 9:30pm. Every 5th day you got about 10 hours of free time. It was hell, but on some level I knew sticking with it would save my life.
It’s been 30 years since that summer of 1980. My plan worked and I have been doing Zen meditation ever since. Over time my desire to drink and abuse myself just naturally lessened. The process of meditation makes us much more sensitive and aware, and when you realize you are hitting yourself in the head with a hammer, you stop, not immediately mind you, but slowly and surely it dawns on you that you are causing yourself a lot of pain and the habit of doing that dies away.
But what I really want to talk about today is that we are ALL addicts. Everyone you see walking through the mall or at the church or at the Buddhist center is an addict. For some of you it may be heroin or crack, or alcohol, for me, it’s salt and food and chocolate, I often say that if I just ate what I wanted I would weigh 300 pounds. So I do just what you guys do, I try to control myself, sometimes I’m good at it, sometimes I’m not, am I different from you? I don’t think so; my addictions would kill me just as surely as yours. My craving is sometimes beyond belief and I know if I want to live a fairly decent, fairly long life I have to resist it.
All these inclinations and desires are common to all people, and if we think a little bit more about this situation we are ALL in, it becomes clear that we are all deeply and fundamentally addicted to pleasurable experiences. We love to feel good. Sex feels good, having money feels good, getting high feels good, eating a big bar of chocolate feels good, being happy feels good, lying in the sun feels good, being loved feels good. None of us wants to experience fear, loneliness, pain, sorrow, loss, despair, anger, drug withdrawal, discomfort, cold, or heat. None of us wants to sit cross- legged with hurting knees or hold still in a chair while our butt aches like mad but this, I have found, is the way out.
The problem we have is that life is not never ending pleasure, that’s what we’d like, isn’t it? Even the best pleasures are temporary, we have that orgasm that drink that rush, but it passes, it all passes and we get sick and we get old and we die. I wish life were different, I wish my wife would just do what I want her to do. I wish the government would behave! I wish I had a million bucks in the bank. Unfortunately or maybe FORTUNATELY, life does not go the way we want it to. Either we can try our best to escape it, which never works, or we can try to deal with it. For me personally, meditation has been the key. When we learn how to accept the discomfort and disappointment of this every day life something mysterious happens. The pain lessens, our lives loosen up and the frustration and anger and sadness slowly, slowly starts to dissipate. I can’t really tell you why or how. But I once heard an equation that describes some of it. Pain times resistance equals suffering. That’s what the Buddha figured out 2600 years ago.
The Buddha was dealing with the same load of crap that we are!
He saw people dying in the streets of India and HE COULDN’T STAND IT! He saw children with leprosy and HE COULDN’T STAND IT. The world was a horrible mean place and he wanted to figure out what the hell was going on here, and what he discovered when he sat under that tree and refused to move was that the more he struggled against reality the worse it was, and the more he let it all be, the better he felt and the more he understood. And, what he came to understand was, “it’s all good.” The pain, the suffering the sickness, old age and death were all good when your perspective gets larger and larger. All this crap is like compost, which feeds the earth in its ongoing evolution. We are not meant to live forever; if we did we would surely kill all life. We are just here to do the best we can, to take care of each other and to add our little stories to the never-ending BIG story. We humans want to be the kings of the earth but “The Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the Earth” as chief Seattle said.
Here’s what he said, “This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it.”
Dear friends, staying with a meditation practice teaches us a lot, but it’s not the kind of learning that happens from a book or class. It a cellular level learning which slowly dawns on us and what we learn is that when we let the discomfort be, and slowly, slowly stop struggling against it, it lessens. It lessens, our life changes, everything gets better. The process is slow. Patience and persistence and hard work are required, but the Buddha and the Dalai Lama and Dogen and Joko Beck and Larry Christensen and me, we all guarantee it.
So if any of this makes sense to you, try meditation out. You can try out the ZCP but we’re not the only show in town – there’s Dharma Rain and Zen Community of Oregon, and there’s wonderful Tibetan groups like the KCC house and The Shambhala Center and they all have their own flavor – hopefully one of them will taste good to you. If you believe in God and feel that Jesus is your personal savior that’s not a problem, you don’t have to check your beliefs at the door. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to meditate; all the religious traditions have a meditational element.
If you’re already meditating I encourage you to stick with it, find a Buddhist teacher if you don’t have one and do what they tell you to do for a while. Buddhist teachers don’t charge for their services, beyond donations, so you can explore this stuff easily whether you have extra money or not.
Please go check out these various Buddhist groups if you feel inclined, and don’t worry that you are different from the people there, that you are more sick, more addicted, more damaged than them. You’re not. You’re just like the highest Lamas and the most famous Zen teachers. You’re just a human being and we’re all addicted.
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