Meditation - Hungry Ghosts -
Can Insight Meditation Help with Addictions?
by Gordon L. Smith - Copyright 1994, from, reprinted by permission
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According to traditional Buddhist views of the psychological and spiritual cosmos, there are six temporary destinations in which it is possible to be born. Three levels below the realm of human beings is that of the hungry ghosts, petti-visaya in Pali. The wretched peta is often pictured as having a distended belly and tiny mouth, a graphic representation of insatiable hunger. All of us who have found ourselves caught up in an addiction know that it is quite possible to dwell in the nightmarish realm of hungry ghosts without being physically reborn there. I would like to briefly examine here some aspects of Theravada Buddhist meditation practice that may be of help in recovering from addictions.

After the first stages of withdrawal from alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, or other addictive substance have been completed - often with medical help - there may be a brief period of feeling intense relief and gratitude. The addict usually wants to believe that her/his new-found freedom from dependence on drugs will be lasting. "I have learned my lesson. I never want to go through that again." For a small minority of people who become addicted, once really does turn out to be enough. For most, however, there is a repetitive cycle of remorse, followed by obsessive thoughts about the addiction, then a renewed burst of acting out which is usually accompanied by a brief period of euphoria, even ecstasy. Efforts to sustain the 'high' inevitably fail and are followed once more by remorse. The recovering addict may try to distract his mind from thoughts of smoking that one last cigarette or impulsively gorging on food, but the terrible longing to resume the addiction attacks repeatedly. The return of intense craving is usually met either with anxiety about a relapse, or denial that the craving amounts to a real addiction. Denial eventually leads to a relapse, yet living with the fear of relapse can be intensely painful and limiting.

People caught up in addictions know only two basic approaches to craving and they exhaust themselves trying endless variations of each: (1) push the craving away, attempt to annihilate it; or, conversely, (2) find some way to gratify the craving while still managing to get along in the world. Insight meditation offers a third approach, but it is one that may at first seem about as remote and lacking in understanding as the advice to "just use willpower." A meditation teacher asks the student to just sit, calm the mind, and observe closely what is going on. It is a lot to expect an addict in the beginning stages of recovery to believe that "just sitting" will lead to anything but an intensification of craving, to endless thoughts about gratification. This form of meditation is not a sedative; it is going to bring craving and many other emotions into heightened awareness. It will require courage and patience to keep sitting. There may be relapses. Therefore participation in a twelve-step program is often advisable, at least during the early years of learning to live without relapses. Programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous are both more warmly supportive and more tough-minded about addiction than a Buddhist community is likely to be. Before someone suffering from an addiction is likely to benefit from meditation he or she must have some understanding that neither denial of the power of craving nor compromise with gratification are going to work. Twelve-step programs are good places to learn this.

A number of years ago I finally gave up smoking and drinking with the help of a short course of intensive group therapy followed by regular attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous and chewing Nicorette gum during much of the day. I had experienced relapses in the past and yearned for a way to live with a sense of freedom and spontaneity in a world full of vivid reminders of my addictions. I had read about Buddhism and Taoism for many years. The ideas appealed to me and I had some realization that I would have to learn how to meditate in order to benefit from the teachings. In 1991 I took two classes in meditation and began a daily meditation practice. Gradually, I learned to experience the process of the development of craving in a much more concrete and detailed way than I had ever done before. I found that some skill in observing the process can be developed using whatever craving happens to come up during a meditation sitting.

Take the inevitable itch that all meditators experience, for example. As soon as there is any awareness of the itch, concentration is focused there. The itch is explored in the most penetrating detail: fluctuations in intensity; whether the area of the itch changes or remains just the same. Then the responses to the itch: the desire to scratch; annoyance at forcing oneself to simply sit and observe. Other reactions may arise quite unexpectedly if the mind is really calm and clear. It is very important to develop an awareness of any expectations one may hold as to what will happen, for these can influence the process of what develops and obscure awareness of other things that may be occurring.

During meditation it is very important to learn to see thoughts and feelings and physical sensations as clearly as possible in and of themselves, just as they are immediately experienced. Early Pali texts on meditation emphasize this again and again: "considering the body as body, mind as mind, feeling as feeling." [1] Prior to learning something about how to meditate, I would get so caught up in strategies and feelings about how to get rid of the desire for a cigarette or a drink that I was distracted from experiencing the desire for just what it was as a physical sensation. Once I could be clear about the body sensation in and of itself, I found it was not nearly as intolerable as I had thought. KISS is an acronym often heard in 12-step circles: Keep It Simple Stupid.

While I was learning to explore addictive cravings in an allowing way, an image from my adolescence often came up. I was very fond of ocean swimming in those days. When swimming in the surf you must learn to put your arms over your head, hands together, and plunge right in to a wave just as it reaches you; no anticipation or delay, keeping right with the motion of the wave and offering as little resistance from the surface of the body as possible. If you duck or turn sideways, the wave will toss you around. I learned to dive through huge waves and to enjoy it immensely.

Something similar has now happened to the way I experience the cravings that once led to drinking and smoking. Many different things can get the process started. While writing this article I saw a television special on the life and work of Jackson Pollock. A close friend of Pollock's described his relapse into heavy drinking. There, suddenly, was a memory of myself standing by the kitchen sink, glass in hand, the taste of Dewars scotch vividly back in my mouth once more, and the anticipation of an exalted, omnipotent state associated with the early stages of getting drunk. It all came together much faster than it takes to describe. I was not meditating while watching the program so the process was far along before I was fully aware of it. Then I did go into a state of meditative concentration. I have learned how to do this rapidly when I sense that I need to. I went over the whole sequence as clearly as I could without pulling at any of the parts or pushing any of them away; simply watching them just as they were. The savoring of the Dewars and associated feelings went on for perhaps a minute and a half, no more. Then they were gone - abruptly and totally.

What took place during this brief, but intense experience? The memory was allowed full expression simply as memory, in and of itself. The Hungry Ghost from a long past of episodic drinking was nourished with penetrating attention. Absolutely nothing else was done; no attempt to distract the mind with 'positive thinking' or theorizing, no suppression, and no acting on the craving. I was practicing containment, just as with the itch. The impermanence of the craving was experienced directly, not as a mere concept, and this in turn provided positive reinforcement for using awareness meditation to deal with similar cravings in the future.

I have often wondered whether meditation could have helped me give up drinking and smoking at an earlier stage in the process. Probably so, but only when the craving was raw, not blunted with cigarettes or booze. There are many accounts of hard-drinking roshi, but I doubt that alcohol helped them toward enlightenment. The fifth Precept - maintaining sobriety - is there for a reason. Nine years after I started meditating I had to take prednisone for an extended period. The resulting anxiety and other emotional distortions made meditation a futile exercise until my medical condition improved to the point where I could taper off the medication. When taking psychotropic medications or others that have emotional side effects, one simply has to test out what the effect on meditation may be. This is a time to learn compassion for ones own suffering.

Buddhism teaches that all emotional stress comes about because of craving [tanhâ, literally "thirst"] and that direct observation of how subjective experience is constructed leads to insight that provides a release from craving.

Addiction, according to the Buddhist view, is not fundamentally different from other cravings. The fact that it is so seductive, painful and dangerous may give the addict an especially strong motivation to learn how to deal with it. Meditation can teach a way of coping with the return of craving that is successful enough to make craving no longer threatening. This, in turn, can allow the recovering addict to gradually give up fear of situations that once led to relapse. I never know when I may be visited by a wave of craving, but I now have a tested skill in dealing with it.
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