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The Intersection of Dharma and Addiction by Dave Garton

The Intersection of Dharma and Addiction

by Dave Garton

There is a strong tie between the Dharma and recovery from addiction. In the traditional Buddhist Path we must first start with ourselves. The Hinayana Path requires a deep dive into the fabric of creating the separation between “ME” and the world “out there.” Addiction recovery in an AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) involves the full recognition that one’s life is completely unmanageable and part of the first four steps is writing out a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. When one is fortunate enough to experience the unflinching look at ourselves through the practice of meditation, combined with the sense of urgency that accompanies a willingness to do whatever is necessary to quit drinking or stop a potentially life ending behavior, then this combination can be extremely powerful.

Martha Hildreth (1932-2022) recognized the potency of this combination. She would repeatedly say to the thousands (yes, thousands!) of people she helped in recovery,

“We are the Lucky Ones.”

For those in early recovery this seems an incomprehensible statement. Experiencing a complete disaster of a human life and watching it dissolve in the most horrendous ways by being hooked on a drug or behavior hardly seems to fit in the description of lucky. Yet this dissolution of all ground and being forced to surrender one’s story of oneself is exactly what happens when we finally give up and become teachable. To simultaneously come across the teachings of the  Dharma, which proposes the “blasphemy” of our essence being inherently perfect Buddha Nature or Basically Good (Shambhala), is indeed lucky. Basic Goodness runs counter to the story an addict has created about themself. However, going to meetings of fellow addicts and listening to their stories of successes and failures on the recovery path, combined with a silent twenty minute meditation beforehand, turned out to be a potent combination.

The Shambhala Meditation Center of New York

Many have said that their first silent meditation of twenty minutes, in a recovery group no one thinks they want to be in, is the longest twenty minutes of their lives. Yet this meditation, introduced in a safe, kind, and welcoming way, slowly and convincingly allows us to become familiar and reveal a lifetime of habitual thinking that led us to our drinking or drug use in the first place.

A recovery path introduces us to a freedom and openness we did not know was even available. And the word auspicious is often used with a human existence fortunate enough to be introduced to the dharma. These two together open a gateway for the benefit of ourselves and others. The humility that accompanies the recovery path leads to tremendous compassion and understanding for ourselves and others who have fallen into the trap of addiction. The insights that come with an increasing familiarity with one’s thoughts from the regular practice of Shamatha meditation leads to a burgeoning trust and confidence that there is a workable situation for our human condition.

The intersection I write of is more like a giant traffic circle that continuously moves around until an off ramp presents itself and we take off on it. This is not unlike meditation, where we are always circling the present moment as life unfolds right up until we find ourselves zipping off on one of our familiar off-ramps.  The next blog will explore a couple of off-ramps that may have been encountered for those on a recovery and spiritual path. There are perils and opportunities that can come when one takes off onto a situation like a relapse or spiritual by-pass. It can seem like an unending closed loop, yet patience and the willingness to just keep coming back will lead to the spacious openness that lets us rest in the untouched NOW. The NOW that is always there and eventually realized as our birthright as a human being.

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