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Posts tagged ‘addiction’

Turning to face our pain – embracing what is there in order to be whole

Over the last few months I’ve been discussing with a friend a one day workshop we are putting together that will explore mindfulness and therapy. The central theme will be looking at how we can learn to hold with kindness the wounding that we may carry from our childhood relationships: learning to bring kindness and compassion to the parts of ourself that still struggle and are in pain. One of the metaphors my friend has referred to a number of times is the Buddha’s teaching of the two arrows, and I was reading a book today that makes reference to this teaching as well.

The book, Living Well with Pain and Ilness, by Vidyamala Burch, explores how to apply mindfulness to living with pain. She is focusing on physical pain, but the way she describes the two arrows could also apply to any emotional or mental pain. She starts by quoting the original Buddhist text:

“When an ordinary person experiences a painful bodily feeling they worry, agonise and feel distraught. Then they feel two types of pain – one physical and one mental. It’s as if this person was pierced by an arrow, and then immediately afterwards by a second arrow, and they experience the pain of two arrows.”

What the Buddha is saying is that the first arrow cannot be avoided – there is pain, whether it be physical or mental, and it has occurred.  But how we respond to that pain determines whether we then shoot the second arrow – the aversion to the pain, the desire to escape it or anger at it having happened, these are all thing we add to the experience of the initial pain and actually deepen and intensify it, as the Buddha goes on to explain:

“Having been touched by that painful feeling, they resist and resent it. They harbour aversion to it, and this underlying tendency of resistance and resentment toward that painful feeling comes to obsess the mind.”

We know the thoughts: why me, this isn’t fair, when will it end, how can I make it stop, this is too much……..And once this starts it takes on a momentum of its own, leading to thoughts and actions that may themselves be harmful to our wellbeing but which we justify in an attempt to get away from the pain of the second arrow, almost forgetting that this secondary pain is a result of our reaction to the first arrow.

“Touched by that painful feeling, the ordinary person delights in compulsive distraction, often through seeking pleasure. Why is that? Because compulsive distraction is the only way they know to escape from painful feeling. This underlying tendency or craving for distraction comes to obsess the mind”

It may not be that the source of our distraction necessarily gives us pleasure. Vidyamala Burch commented that she tended to be very argumentative, but she came to realise that arguing with people helped her to distract herself from her chronic physical pain, so she tended to argue a lot, not because it was needed but as a way of coping with severe pain. We may look for distraction in the any number of things: drink, sex, drugs, being busy, television, lost on the internet for hours, porn, eating for comfort, smoking, compulsively talking, doing good deeds for others, shopping…….and whatever else one might addd to the list! It’s not that these things are necessarily good or bad in themselves, but if we are engaging with them in order to avoid the feeling of pain then they can be compulsive and driven rather than something we have a choice over. And as the original pain has not been addressed we have to keep drowning out the ‘noise’ of our pain with these activities, never daring to stop as in the silence of not doing we are faced again with our pain. But as Jung says, “what we resist we persists, what we fight we get more of”. Drowning out the noise of our mental or physical pain with distractions will in the end mean it has to make more noise to make us hear it. We may then intensify the distraction. Going deeper into addiction, whatever our chosen addictive behaviour might be. The result is a decent into ever deeper levels of dissociation and emotional and psychological pain.  The Buddha described this process by saying:

“Being overwhelmed and dominated by pain (through resistance and compulsive distraction), the ordinary person is joined with suffering and stress.”

How did we reach this point of suffering and stress?  By not turning towards the first arrow when it struck, by wanting to avoid feeling that pain through firing the second arrow of aversion to the pain, wanting it to be otherwise, wanting to block out the feeling or not face it.

Burch summarises this process very succinctly in the following way:
First comes the experience of pain – the basic unpleasant sensations. This is what the Buddha called the first arrow and what I have termed primary suffering
Then you respond to the pain with aversion, resistance, and resentment.
Next, you seek to escape from pain by getting caught up in compulsive distractions and avoidance strategies.
Ironically, in your attempts to escape the pain you become stuck in a troubled state until, finally, you’re joined or fettered to suffering and stress, and this dominates your life and obsesses your mind. It is what the Buddha called the second arrow and what I describe as secondary suffering
(p23, Living Well with Pain and Illness)

She goes on to describe resistance as manifesting as either blocking (not wanting to feel the pain) or drowning (being overwhelmed by the intensity of one’s experience of the pain), resulting in either addictions or depression. Looking at this I recognise a tendency in myself toward blocking. As a child and teenager I learnt that it was easier to not feel, to stay busy and create a shell against feeling that which was too hard to feel.  The result was an unexpressed anger, being consumed with anxiety and a tendency to live in my head rather than be in my body. These are all things that as an adult I have been learning to hold and bring a kind attention to. Have look at the summary below of the two approaches to dealing with pain, and see if you recognise a pattern in your own life:

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two arrows

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How do we avoid this second arrow and this whole process of spiralling into addiction depression? We avoid the second arrow by learning to turn to the first with loving, compassionate and gentle attention. We learn to embrace our physical pain, our mental and emotional pain rather than fight it and wish it were not there. The Buddha taught the mindfulness practice and Loving Kindness meditation as a means to help us turn towards the present moment rather than run from it. As we do this we learn to approach our pain, to accept it, to breathe into it and hold it. Pain is part of life.  We are not failing if we feel pain, if we feel confused, lost, angry or upset.  But if we react to these feelings with dislike, wanting to push them away by loosing ourselves in distractions then the attempt to escape them may result in worse pain than the original first arrow.

How many gay men have lost themselves in chem sex rather than face the difficult feelings they have around intimacy, about the shame they internalised whilst growing up that made us think there was something evil or wrong at our core. Where does this chem sex addiction lead so many of us? Does it result in freedom and happiness, or lead ever deeper into a place of isolation and pain? If we turn to casual sex out of a desire for intimacy whilst fearing opening to another then we never connect with any of our partners as they are actually a shield to prevent us being open to anyone, to never be seen. Might it not be more healing to turn and face our loneliness, our fear of rejection and our struggle to emerge from the shadow of shame? This may mean going into the pain, the place we have tried to run from, but by embracing the source of our pain we can bring healing to it – and might even realise that it is not a terrible thing to be escaped from, but a raw and vulnerable part of ourselves that is asking simply to be held and loved. For all of us – gay or straight, it is this brave act of turning to face that which we want to run from that enables us to start to heal.

It is by meeting together as a community, with friends who will love us as we are, without judgement that we can heal. And that is what we can look to create for each other by learning to hold ourselves without judgement in the Loving Kindness practice, for only when we can truly love ourselves can we love others without judgment or expectation. The Dalia Lama quote above reminds me of the theme from a few weeks ago that has been the thread for the last few emails: “we are wounded in community and we heal in community” – let us meet together with whatever communities provide us with support to heal.

The Second Noble Truth: The Cause of Suffering

This week we come to the Second Noble Truth – the cause of suffering,

The Buddha left his life as a Prince to live as a seeker after truth after seeing that all those whom he loved, and he himself, would one day sicken, grow old and die. It was out of compassion for those he loved and hoping to find what he described as “the path to the deathless” that he left home. His wife had only recently given birth to his son, a future King if the Prince stayed and obeyed his father’s wishes to take on the kingdom after his death. But the Prince who was to become the Buddha saw that he could find a greater inheritance for his son, one that would not disappear in the sands of time but that was eternal, due to existing outside of time.

In the time of the Buddha there was already the notion of reincarnation. Death was not seen as the end, but just part of a never ending cycle of birth and death and rebirth. This was part of the suffering the Prince saw and that he wished to wake up from – the tendency to grasp at existence and the idea of I, me and mine that leads to ongoing rebirth into a state of suffering.

We may not believe in life after life now. But we see that we go through a number of incarnations in this life. We wake each day to inherit the consequences of our decisions from the previous day and as we age we become aware of inheriting the consequences of experiences and actions from the past that impact on us now even though the original self that experienced them is no longer here. Even moment by moment we see that we are coming into existence as our moods shift and change – you’re feeling happy at a party then someone spills their red wine on your new shirt and you feel upset and angry, in a moment one experience of selfhood has died to be replaced by another.

Hence, although we may not seek to end the rounds of rebirth from one life to another – we can identify with the Prince who was to become the Buddha and his wish to be free from constantly being held hostage by the past and our identification with what is arising in the present moment as being ‘me’ and instead be free in the moment through experiencing it with an open and non judgemental awareness of it as it is, rather than adding anything to it or wishing it were different which leads to suffering.

Why is there suffering? This is the central question so many of us ask and so many religions seek to answer.

What the Buddha saw and taught was that suffering is caused by three types of grasping:

1. Grasping at sensual desire (which leads to rebirth – the ongoing process of being someone wanting something)

2. Grasping at the desire to become (identity, being someone doing something)

3. Grasping at the desire not to be (rejecting identity, wanting to annihilate oneself)

In contrast letting go of desire and being at peace with things as they are leads to freedom.

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How can this teaching be relevant to us and the question of how to be happy?

The Buddha does not say we are wrong to have sensual desire. We are in a body and as such we will experience pleasure. The suffering comes when we look to this sensual pleasure as being the source of ultimate happiness. If I look to sex, drink, drugs, food etc as being all there is to provide happiness then there may arise the feeling that I need more and more to touch the levels of pleasure they once opened me to. This way so easily leads to addiction. To searching for yet more intense ways to experience these pleasures until the pleasure no longer sets one free but has become a prison.

One’s life is consumed by the question “how can I get more?” More money, more sex, more exquisite music – whatever our sensual desire might be. And so we reach the point of eating that final wafer thin mint at the end of a gigantic meal of epicurean dimensions – and burst!

I’m sure we have all seen that following sensual desire as an end in itself has not led to happiness but to a deeper sense of lack and loss, of feeling that the hole we wish to fill is deeper and darker the more we run to the mirage of sensual desire.

This can open us up to a wish to change. But at this point the other two types of desire can hijack our real wish to be free.

We may pursue the desire to become: to become evangelical about what we see as our way of being saved – AA, religion, yoga, being a monk, being celibate etc. We seek to become the ideal student, to follow the teachings in a way that we become the best in our recovery group or a pure follower of the Buddha’s teaching. I did this by seeking to abandon sexual desire and embrace a life of celibacy aged 22. But in all of this there is still attachment – attachment to the idea of being pure, of being someone struggling to be better. There is still a strong sense of I, me and mine.

This struggle may then lead to the third type of desire: the desire for cessation, to no longer exist. We may come to a point where we see that our desires do not lead to happiness, that trying to be pure or become free does not work and so we just want to annihilate ourselves. This might be through suicide. It might be through following a spiritual teaching with the wish that we could disappear into the void and our suffering ceases. Still in trying to destroy ourself we are acting out of the idea of I, me and mine.

When I came across Buddhism I wanted to meditate to the point that I ceased to be, hoping that if ‘I’ disappeared then the suffering it experienced would cease. On one retreat I sought to challenge sensual desire by reducing my eating to a minimum. The result was that I went down to about 7 stone. (44KG). I then had even more suffering as I spent a year recovering my health! It was only after recovering and regaining some weight that I saw I had been lost in the desire to push away, to cease to be, in my attempts to challenge the desire to hold and posses, that this did not lead to freedom any more than grasping at the idea of becoming the ideal student and follower of the Buddha’s teaching.

Rather than this extreme of pushing away or grasping the Buddha taught the middle way. This middle way is the path leading to the end of suffering and is a gentle encouragement to be fully present to one’s experience, to enjoy what is there in the present moment and open to a sense of gratitude for what is in one’s life. With this attitude a meal or a caress from a lover can feel full and perfect rather than leave one wishing for more or better. Being mindful – fully alive to the present moment – can make that moment full and perfect as it is. This shall be the theme for the following two emails which will cover the final two Noble Truths:

The third Noble truth – suffering has an end

The fourth Noble Truth – there is a path leading to the end of suffering.

How to be happy: the four noble truths

This week we come to the question of happiness! The Buddha’s teachings assert that happiness is our true nature, that when all of the struggle, fear and worry are seen through there is simply luminous, clear consciousness – unborn, uncreated, outside of time and full of bliss, compassion and wisdom. For those of us not yet dwelling in that state we have what the Buddha described as the Four Noble truths – both a description of our dilemma, of the unenlightened state, and a guide to freedom from that state of struggle.

This week I’ll give an overview of the Four Noble truths and the reflections after the tea break will use these as a focus over the next four weeks.

The Four Noble Truths are:
1. There is suffering
2. Suffering has a cause
3. Suffering can be brought to an end
4. There is a path that leads to the end of suffering.

Buddhism is often described as pessimistic. But essentially it is optimistic, even idealistic, as it believes that everyone has this capacity to awaken and be free from suffering. This capacity for freedom is innate in all of life and is not only for Buddhists! The Buddha offered a path that he considered most conducive to realising this freedom, but he encouraged his followers to be open to any other teachings that one experienced as leading to freedom and if they worked to use them.

Likewise he said to question everything he said, and not to take it on faith. Rather than saying “this is true because the Buddha said so”, he encouraged his followers to learn from their own experience so that they could say this is true because I have found it to be so. Buddhists are human so unfortunately Buddhism is not without its dogmas, as humans seem to like to belong to a group they can identify with, thereby excluding others as wrong and seeking security by following ‘the one true way’. But there’s the encouragement in the Buddha’s teaching to question this tendency and to be open to other faiths and teachings, seeing from one’s own experience if they lead to freedom or prolong suffering through keeping one rooted in greed, hatred and confused thinking.

1. There is suffering

This four fold examination of the human condition is based on the medical tradition at the time the Buddha:
1. there is a certain sickness;
2. that sickness has a cause;
3. that sickness has an end;
4. there is a course of treatment that can lead to the end of this sickness.

Thus, although the list starts with suffering, which gives Buddhism the reputation of seeing life as a place of unremitting pain, within this context we see that it does this with the intention of the essentially hopeful message: that for whatever ails you there is a cure. Having been cured you are returned to good health and it is this state of natural good health that Buddhism sees as our true nature; not the state of sickness that is an aberration from our natural good health.

Anyone hearing this teaching at the time of the Buddha would have recognised its cultural reference and seen the teaching as a reference to a doctor instructing his patient. Just as the patient then has to follow the course of treatment prescribed by the doctor and no amount of the doctor’s desire for the patient to recover will make them well if they do not follow the course of treatment, likewise the Buddha was not a magical saviour who could do the work for you, but a man who shared his experience of what had worked of him. It was then up to each individual practitioner to follow the prescribed remedy until returned to good health.

As we look at our lives we see that it is inevitable that we experience suffering: our bodies become ill and there is physical pain; the things we own and love can be lost or broken; relationships come to an end, and even those we love at some point will die and we experience the suffering of loss. The way humans can treat each other, with hatred, greed and lack of empathy likewise leads to pain, emotional wounding and suffering. Then there is the existential level of suffering. The still small voice in our heart that tells us that however good life is there’s something we are not seeing, a bigger truth that on seeing will make sense of life in a way our pursuit of success and gain can never satisfy. This is simply how it is. But this is not all there is.

If the Buddha only identified the malady but gave no cure then it would be a depressing teaching! Instead this is an acknowledgement and a reminder to notice and accept that we suffer. When we don’t accept this we can so easily try to run away from our own suffering through whatever we use to mask the pain: drugs, sex (or both together!), excessive work, or even an obsessive regime at the gym! We can feel that we are failures. That everyone else is sorted and happy but we alone have screwed up and are defective for not being totally fulfilled. Then we try to fill the emptiness, numb the pain, though activities which take us further into suffering.

Instead the first nobel truth is a gentle and compassionate acknowledgement that what we all share as living beings is the feeling of struggle, of loss, of fear, of sorrow on losing that which gives us security. The Buddha taught that everything that has a beginning has an end. As such there is nothing in this world we can look to that will not end, and if we base our happiness on these things it means we are always insecure as in our heart we know that everything is transient, impermanent, shifting – it’s like trying to build a house on shifting sand, the cracks will always be appearing: we then either spend our whole time trying to repair the cracks or simply realise that we need to leave the house. The rest of the noble truths outline how we see through the illusion that the dilapidated house is who we are and instead leave it to live the rich free life that exists beyond its confines.

The first step to happiness then, according to this teaching, is to accept the potential for life to bring us experiences that will give rise to unhappiness and to see it as simply part of how things are, rather than a perceived reflection on our failings or inadequacies. It is not that if we were more successful at living our life we would then never suffer or experience sorrow. Rather we accept that the nature of life is such that at times suffering will be inevitable. The Buddha described suffering as being like sitting in a cart with an ill fitting wheel. No matter how comfortable you try to make yourself in the cart it will give regular jolts as it goes on its journey.

To see a two minute animation of Stephen Fry outlining the Four Noble Truths as part of the BBC’s history of ideas series click here

Finally, so that we don’t end on only talking about suffering, the attached article explores how we can find more happiness in our lives through taking actions that encourage the body to produce its own feel good hormones.

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How to be happy

How to be happy 1

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