In my experience, simple, binary choices—this is right, this is wrong—are usually lacking when it comes to understanding human nature and what it is to be human in this world, with all of its mixed messages, contradictory information, uncertainty, and sudden shocks that arrive through no fault of our own. It’s something of a cliché to say that “a lot of life consists of gray areas,” and certainly there are some things that are clear and obvious: torturing innocent children or animals is wrong. Offering compassion and support to someone in pain is right. But a lot of issues are trickier than these. Is it “good” to shut down coal mines because coal use pollutes the environment, causes illness, and can virtually make human populations in coal-bearing areas slaves to a life of dangerous, backbreaking labor? The obvious answer is “yes.” Yet many of the people living in such areas angrily defend their way of life and claim that eliminating coal will leave them without jobs, food, and housing due to the economic changes that will follow. A thing can be good and bad at the same time.
Through my years of working on issues of spirituality, meditation, psychotherapy, and various forms of addiction, I’ve wrestled with some of the competing ideas about the relationship between these. At the risk of oversimplifying, it seems to me that these three “camps”—spirituality, psychology, and recovery—tend to favor a binary approach, with one or more of them stressing “our power to choose and need to take responsibility” versus “illness and the need for self-forgiveness and help” in regard to treating addictions.
Let me hasten to say that I have seldom if ever encountered representatives from any of these three fields that are so simplistic as to favor either of the above approaches exclusively. Virtually all the people and agencies involved in recovery work include some elements of both paradigms. But most also lean into one of the two more heavily than the other.
So who’s “right?”
Recently I came across a book on the subject of how we can free ourselves from addictions that makes interesting and provocative claims related to just that question. Enough! A Buddhist Approach to Finding Release from Addictive Patterns is by a Buddhist nun named Chonyi Taylor—formerly Dr. Diana Taylor. She is uniquely qualified to cover the subject, since she has a background in all three areas, with a Ph.D. in Psychology from Monash University, experience as a mother, an ordination in Tibetan Buddhism by the Dalai Lama, and has been an active workshop leader well-versed in Buddhist meditation and how it can be helpful in addressing the problems of addiction.
What makes Dr. Taylor’s book somewhat different from other, similar material is the depth and subtlety of her understanding of the nature of addictive patterns. She not only claims that Buddhist techniques of right thinking and meditation can make the recovery process easier and less painful, but that applied properly, they can go to the origins of addiction in the mind and alter the basic thought patterns that are the starting point of addiction.
This is a bold claim, and she doesn’t make it lightly or carelessly. But she does hold—in distinction, I think, from the more familiar view from most psychology and medicine today that addiction is an illness or disease—that healing is in our own hands and more specifically in our own minds, with help, if we choose to embrace it.
She writes, “This is a book for strengthening the power of our own minds as the key tool for changing addictive patterns…. If we wish to escape addiction and avoid relapse, the most important factor is not what we are addicted to, but the state of our minds.” Taylor then emphasizes that this is not about converting to a religion: “This is a book based on Buddhist teachings, but the ideas are relevant to anyone, regardless of their religion, who wishes to reclaim their humanity and spiritual awareness.”
As I’ve observed here before, many people on a path of recovery who feel the need for some form of spirituality to make that process complete find the scientific, fact-oriented approach of the Buddhist methods, as opposed to any metaphysical propositions, attractive and helpful, because it doesn’t require them to believe anything up front. It simply invites us to discover our own nature, and our own minds.
There is also an optimism in Chonyi Taylor’s work that I think will be welcome to some who find the Twelve Step approach of “endless recovery” and meetings, and a continuing identification of oneself as “an alcoholic” or whatever one’s addiction is, something they wrestle with. Obviously, this step was taken originally as a counterweight to the tendency of the addictive mind to go into denial about the reality and severity of the problem. But Taylor suggests that ceasing to limit our self-definition to our addiction might also have value, at least for some people at some point in their recovery. She says,
One of the main points about Buddhist teachings is that we can change our minds for the better. “Better” … means being in balance…. It means we accept the world for what it is and ourselves for what we are…. It means we give up the blame game…. It means accepting the things we cannot change and doing something about the things we can change, whether…inside our heads or outside in our homes and environment.
Read the rest of this story in part 2, coming out next Thursday!
- Be What You Love: Create Your Own Meditations Part 2 - September 2, 2021
- Be What You Love: Create Your Own Meditations Part 1 - August 26, 2021
- ENOUGH! Can We Choose to Break Our Addictions? Part 2 - August 19, 2021