Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Becoming Vajrasattva... or there is a god and I'm not it

Recognising that it's not my job to run the world has been a vital part of my recovery. So much so that, despite studying within the Vajrayana tradition for a decade now, until recently I wouldn't even consider taking any kind of initiation, I was totally content with ngöndro practices.

So content that I didn't even go in for the so-called blessing initiations whereby - in Lama Thubten Zopa's words - "without a great initiation, you receive some blessing rather than the actual je-nang". Quite how the full je-nang and other aspects of initiation work is a complex question as Tibetan Lama's meet the West and broaden traditional practices of bestowing je-nang as blessings.

Just thinking about the complexities of initiation... or should I call it empowerment?... makes my brain hurt... not good for this addict who needs to "keep it simple". So... some of my avoidance of initiations of any kind was just the absence of "auspicious circumstances". But if I'm rigorously honest, mostly it was because - at heart - I'm shit scared of any practice that might have me identifying myself with a fully enlightened being. What if I go and forget that I'm not God/Buddha/Higher Power or [insert ultimate reality designator of choice here]? Surely I'll relapse?

Why the jump from initiation to relapse? For those unfamiliar with it, Vajrayana encompasses both the study of sutras and mind-training techniques and also Tantric visualisation practices. You might think of the visualisation as "acting as if" for wannabe buddhas. I was cool with the first two... it was the latter that's got the potential to have me lying awake at night, staring into the dark with my brain obsessing about "people, places and things". Though I'm glad to say I didn't have to fuss over why Vajrasattva's humping some chick or why those swastikas cos when in factual doubt, there's always wiki ;-)

I'm not exagerating about the insomnia... my sleep pattern lately has been almost as infrequent and disrupted as in early recovery. As someone who's great in bed (sleeping has always been a talent of mine) this is unprecedented when not in physical withdrawal. Actually, that's been one of the strange things about this whole meditation retreat... my body seems to think I'm detoxing off something. Right enough, Vajrasattva is a buddha of purification but going on Lama Yeshe's comments that VS's thing was more mental purification than physical I really wasn't expecting to find myself at detox central just now.

Despite Lama Yeshe's kind retreat advice in "Becoming Vajrasattva" to eat well and get plenty of sleep I find myself functioning on a couple of hours or so sleep a night. And - another similarity to early recovery - my energy consumption is unpredictable and I can suddenly find myself ravenously hungry at two am. Fortunately the foundations to my abstinence from compulsive eating are firmly in place and so with no trigger foods in my system I do know that I am genuinely hungry. I couldn't be doing any of this work without a few years of solid recovery under my belt (and the preceeding few years of rocky recovery it took me to get to the "happy, joyous and free" sort of recovery). Spot the nervous recovering addict anyone?

So... all this shenpa is telling me that something about this meditation practice has me feeling that I'm somehow breaking a taboo in my head. It goes something like "Thou shallt not assume the mantle of a Higher Power for any purpose... and if thou sinnest thus thou shallt suffer in the pits of active addiction forevermore, amen." My insomnia seems to be based on an expectation of fiery retribution... and judging by the language it's going to come from a punishing Judaeo-Christian figure I don't even believe in. Hmmm... worse, my husband - an alcoholic in recovery and active in the Anglican church - is totally comfortable with the thought of me visualising myself as Buddha Vajrasattva. So it's starting to look like all these fears around putting my recovery at risk are red herrings and maybe it's me that's got the problem... no doubt more will be revealed.

Monday, 16 June 2008

The Way Of Tyler: Zen Buddhism & Fight Club

At last! Someone's done an analysis of the film Fight Club identifying its "ironic Zen take on the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous". If your first thought on watching the film was of those drunk fight videos that seem to be all over the web then you'll definitely want to check out The Way Of Tyler: Zen Buddhism & Fight Club. It says everything I wanted to say after seeing the film... only much better of course ;-)

Saturday, 14 June 2008

The Neural Buddhists

Although he mentions neither addiction nor recovery, in his New York Times article "The Neural Buddhists", David Brook reminded me of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous's take on spirituality. In the chapter "We Agnostics", on page 55, it says "We found the Great Reality deep down within us." As such, the basis of the 12 Steps program is the belief that - in David Brook's words - all "people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love."

It seems that the ongoing cognitive revolution in neuroscience - led by scientists such as Andrew Newberg - is supportive of the experiences of practioners of mysticism of all types... including 12 Steppers, Buddhists and those of us who're both.

12 Weeks - The 12 Steps Explored in a Buddhist Context

The front page of the 12 Weeks blog says "this is going to be fun" and it certainly sounds it. Over at San Francisco Buddhist Center people are gathering to meditate and look at a different Step each week - with a different speaker each week. If I wasn't mostly housebound in Yorkshire (that's the UK for all you non-geographers) I'd be there myself. Not that there'd be much room for me... around 150 attended the first week and 100 the second... who knew the dharma of recovery was so popular? Check out the weekly update for a report from each week's session.

PS Unlike the rest of the images used in this blog, this one comes from the 12 Weeks blog (all rights theirs AFAIK)... I loved the image of the mohawk city buddha... hope the guys at 12 Weeks don't mind me sharing it with you - but I'll be removing it if they do ;-)

Friday, 13 June 2008

Gaining merit... or it's a program of action

Today I told a sponsee "That's bull... you're creating a crisis to avoid taking action". It might have been news to her but it's such a common scenario in recovery that it can hardly be news to most of us. I've done it, my husband - also in recovery - has done it and so has every sponsee either one of us has ever had. But whether any of us were capable of actually seeing the action-avoidance at the time it was happening seemed to depend on karma discernable only by a fully enlightened being. Or to put it another way, it depended on how much positive merit we had accumulated.

I'm continually amazed at just how difficult it can be to take positive action for my recovery. I want to do it. I mean to do it. I really intend to do it. But how often do I get to the end of the day and discover that, in fact, my Step work remains unwritten... or whatever the obvious recovery task of the day was. I sometimes suspect that the phrase "don't use and go to meetings" was created just so I wouldn't have to beat myself up too badly for the sorry state of my Step work.

Unfortunately my meditation practice looks much the same. I mean to do it. I want to do it. I absolutely intend to do it... and yet for many years I would get to the end of the day without even five minutes of time spent meditating under my belt. It was Geri Larkin in "Stumbling Toward Enlightenment" who provided me with the excuse I needed to not beat myself up too badly about the sorry state of my meditation practice. She recounts:

"The trick is to just keep going. Buddha said the same thing. So did my teacher. Over and over Sunim reminded me to just keep meditating, just keep meditating. When I told him I couldn't concentrate for half an hour he told me to sit for fifteen minutes. When I said that was too much, he suggested five. When people come to me at this stage in their practice, if they can only do a minute of sincere practice, I say a minute will do. That's all. The important thing is to just keep going."

And so I did. I do. Neither my recovery or my meditation look like I think they should. But they work. They are good enough. It's progress not perfection, for sure. But the only reason there's and progress at all is because I hang on in there and work for it. Whatever I can manage to kick my butt into doing, I do. This is "a program of action" so if I don't just keep going then I'll just stay stuck in the samsaric world of addiction.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Love in the Time of Addiction: Feel the Burn

I was trawling the net looking for blogs on buddhism and addiction when I came across Love in the Time of Addiction: Feel the Burn This is a fascinating discussion of karma and the recovery concept of needing to hit bottom by a sex addict's wife. Although new to buddhism she explains the basics of karma very clearly and meditates on the fact that the lessons of karma seem harder to recognise for people with addictions. A wonderful post and proof of how clearly "beginner's mind" sees ;-)

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Shenpa… or living life on life’s terms

For anyone like myself who is multiply addicted, it pretty soon stops being about our substance of choice and becomes a question of what is the nature of this addictive quality? What is this thing behind each and every one of my addictions? What is this thing that is ruining my life?

Well it turns out that the Tibetans have a word for it. And the word is shenpa.

Pema Chödrön introduces the term in an article on the site:

"The usual translation of the word shenpa is attachment... But the word "attachment" absolutely doesn't get at what it is. Dzigar Kongtrul said not to use that translation because it's incomplete, and it doesn't touch the magnitude of shenpa and the effect that it has on us.

If I were translating shenpa it would be very hard to find a word, but I'm going to give you a few. One word might be hooked. How we get hooked.

Another synonym for shenpa might be that sticky feeling. In terms of last night's analogy about having scabies, that itch that goes along with that and scratching it, shenpa is the itch and it's the urge to scratch. So, urge is another word. The urge to smoke that cigarette, the urge to overeat, the urge to have one more drink, or whatever it is where your addiction is. "

Any kind of addict knows that urge to scratch the itch all too well. Mostly we don't recognise our itchiness until we already are chemically dependent in some way (if only to the adrenaline buzz we get from a repetive behaviour like shopping or gambling) but actually the itch comes before the scratching that is our addiction.

Currently I'm on meditation retreat... deprived of some of the ways I normally distract my addictive mind. Unable to play computer games, watch the Dog Whisperer on TV or hide in fantasy fiction, I'm face to face with my shenpa in all its glory. Not surprisingly, old addictive thoughts that have been quiet for years are also resurfacing. Drugs, alcohol and food all appear to have a charm that has been noticeably lacking in recent years... until my opportunities to scratch that old itch of shenpa were limited by retreat conditions.

Pema Chödrön goes on to say:

"That's why I think this shenpa is really such a helpful teaching. It's the tightening, it's the urge... it's this drive, too. This drive. It really shows you that you have lots of addictions, that we all have addictions. There's this background static of slight unease, or maybe fidgetiness, or restlessness, or boredom. And so, we begin to use things to try to get some kind of relief from that unease.

Something like food, or alcohol, or drugs, or sex, or working, or shopping, or whatever we do, which, perhaps in moderation would be very delightful... But these things become imbued with an addictive quality because we empower them with the idea that they will bring us comfort. They will remove this unease.

We never get at the root... The root in this case is that we have to really experience unease. We have to experience the itch. We have to experience the shenpa and then not act it out. "

Or, as we say in 12 Step fellowships, we have to be willing to live life on life's terms. We need the willingness to just sit with all that unbearable itchiness and not act on it. We need to stop fantasising that there's an "easier softer option" and face up to our shenpa. If and when we're willing, we will be finally living life on life's own terms. Living in the moment... just for today.

Paradoxically, accepting our itch is the only thing that can make it go away.