The mind of addiction goes like this: “So I need to stop playing computer games. I’ll do that, but I can’t face my mind when I am not absorbed in my computer. I will take up marathon running instead.”
Everyone is very happy with you. You are outside getting fit and healthy. You feel great. Then surreptitiously a new thought comes in: “When I am training, I am totally absorbed. I have no awareness of any pain. Everyone is happy with me. This is great. I have to do it more . . . and more . . . and more . . .”
The Need for Addiction & The Need for Pain
Keeping away from the addiction stops us getting into that particular addiction, but it does not stop the need for addiction and the need to look at the underlying pain or unhappiness behind our addiction. We either block pain or tolerate it. The pain may be real and intense and physical, but the choice to block it or bear it comes from our mind. It is our own decision.
Say we have been badly injured on an isolated beach and we have no painkillers handy. What would we do then? We would have to find a way to bear that pain. We would grit our teeth, or bite on our towel, and do our best to tolerate it until the paramedics come with morphine. This means that even in severe pain we have a choice. If we cannot find a substance which will relieve the pain, we can use our mental strength to tolerate the pain.
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Freedom from Pain & the Fear of Pain
Of course we want to get rid of pain and dissatisfaction. The question is, how are we going to do this?
Cindy has just had another argument with her husband. She feels bad about it but she does not like feeling bad, so how is she going to get rid of this feeling? Cindy reaches for some alcohol, though someone else might reach for food or cigarettes or go to play the slot machines or look for sex.
Sometimes the addictive pattern involves using one pain to mask another pain. This is true for people who harm themselves, such as by pulling out hair, or cutting at flesh, or putting themselves into dangerous situations. We call them masochists. In these situations, one intense pain is able to mask another hurtful pain, such as feeling lonely, or being abused, or trapped, or feeling one is a failure, or lack of help for mental illness.
Masking Pain Can Be Helpful Temporarily
Masking pain is not always bad. For example, it is quite common for people to not experience pain just after a nasty accident. The pain comes later. Another way to mask pain is to use self-hypnosis. Painkillers such as codeine and morphine also mask pain and for that reason they can become an addiction in their own right.
In the end, we need to find the cause of the pain which we are masking. If we can do that, then we can deal with our pain more effectively than through an addiction.
The Emotional Pain of Withdrawal from Addiction
Apart from the physical withdrawal symptoms which arise when we stop a drug addiction, there are other sets of withdrawal symptoms. We are no longer masking the underlying emotional pain and so it resurfaces. This can make us feel as though everything is hopeless unless we can either remove the pain or learn to tolerate it without becoming addicted.
There is also the pain that comes when people do not recognize our attempts to change, or even actively undermine them. In addiction we might begin to experience the pain of knowing the damage we have caused to ourselves and people around us.
For example, take a teenage boy who is into adrenalin hits and testosterone charges. We’ll call him Flynn. How has Flynn become such a pain to everyone? It is not just the excess testosterone, but also his inability to tolerate short-term discomfort. In other words, Flynn is impulsive and probably threw temper tantrums as a kid. We say his mind is unclear, which simply means that he has not yet developed wisdom.
What Wisdom is Needed? What is Pain's Message?
What is the wisdom he needs? He needs to understand that life is often unfair and that this unfairness is not solved by temper tantrums or running away to get an adrenalin hit on his skateboard. If he does understand this small piece of wisdom, then he will naturally find better ways of dealing with what he dislikes in his life. The adrenalin hits are his way of avoiding the emotional pain of not getting what he wants when he wants it.
Cindy also tries to mask her pain. She was abused as a child and is now being abused by her husband. Everyone else knows she should leave her husband, but she won’t. Her mind is unclear: distressed, unhappy. Maybe she still thinks she can change him, or she is terrified of living without the money he supplies, or maybe she likes the role of the martyr, or maybe she can’t cope with the criticism she’ll get when she leaves.
All these attitudes are negative, unhappy, or harmful states of the mind. Her reality is that her husband is a bully, but the only things she can change are her emotional reactions and emotional pain. If she can find a way to clear her mind from fear, then she has a possibility of choosing an appropriate solution.
There are useful and harmful ways of handling the pain. If we want to do things differently, then we have to make a deliberate choice, a conscious decision. What we are going to do is to train ourselves to be different. The more we practice, the better we will become.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Snow Lion Press.
©2010 by Chönyi Taylor. www.snowlionpub.com.
Enough! A Buddhist Approach to Finding Release from Addictive Patterns
by Chönyi Taylor.
All of us are caught up in addictions—big or small. Enough! presents a practical path that releases us from the grip of negative habits and addictions that block a full and meaningful life. We can learn how to undo our habits and addictions, but to do this we have to first find their triggers. With the right techniques, we can disarm them and learn more effective ways for dealing with the pain that so often underlies our problem-causing behaviors.
About the Author
Chönyi Taylor (Dr. Diana Taylor) was ordained as a Buddhist nun by the Dalai Lama in 1995. Active in the worlds of both Buddhism and Western psychology, she teaches Buddhism from simple to advanced levels and participates in interfaith conferences and workshops for psychologists and health professionals. She is currently a lecturer and supervisor in the Graduate Diploma Program in Buddhism and Psychotherapy for the Australian Association of Buddhist Counselors and Psychotherapists and is an honorary lecturer in Psychological Medicine at Sydney University.