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Pema Chodron: What a Buddhist Nun can Teach us About Addiction

By Daniel Jordan, General Manager

The other day I was at the library and came across a DVD called Bill Moyers on Faith & Reason which is a 7-part series that helps shed light on the gray area between faith (having an open heart) and reason (having an open mind). Bill Moyers is the acclaimed journalist who has been a mainstay on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) for many years and in Faith & Reason he is joined by some of the world’s most provocative thinkers and writers. One of the series that I found very relevant to a better understanding of addiction was Bill Moyer’s interview with Pema Chodron, perhaps North America’s most prominent practitioner of Buddhism. For the past 30 years, Pema has been a Buddhist nun and has written extensively on Buddhism including When Things Fall Apart, The Places That Scare You, and No Time to Lose.

Pema’s work in exploring Buddhism and making it more accessible to a larger audience has also made it possible to show how Buddhism’s teachings can benefit people struggling with addiction.

Lesson One: Distingishing Between Pain and Suffering

According to Pema, “it isn’t the things that happen to us in our lives that cause us to suffer, it’s how we relate to the things that happen to us that cause us to suffer.” Typically, it’s not the physical but the emotional pain that we struggle with most such as that which we experience with rejection, abandonment, or loss. For Pema, it was the day her husband of 30 years came home to announce that he was leaving her for another woman. After many years of struggling with her husband’s betrayal, Pema came to realize that while she could not undo what had already happened or pretend like it never happened, she could ‘let go’ of the need to suffer.

Lesson Two: Shenpa and Being ‘Hooked’

You may have heard the term ‘hooked’ but it is often associated with ice hockey, drugs, even phonics. Pema’s definition of hooked, however, comes from the Tibetan word ‘shenpa,’ meaning an unwillingness of human beings to let go of certain thoughts, particularly those that cause us suffering. For those familiar with Buddhism, shenpa is more than just attachment since, according to one of Pema’s teachers, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche,  “attachment doesn’t touch the magnitude of shenpa and the effect that it has on us.”

As a metaphor, Pema compares shenpa to scabies where shenpa is the the itch that goes along with it and the urge to scratch. Shenpa is a universal condition that all human beings share. For example, when someone says something to hurt your feelings your first reaction will be physical – a tightening in the face or in your stomach – then an outward (anger, blame) or inward (self-pity, self-blame) spiral of negative feelings and emotions. Even though this can happen many times a day, when we are hooked, we often aren’t even aware of it.

For people with addictions, shenpa is how drugs or alcohol are used when we are ‘hooked’ by a feeling or an urge. Like any shenpa, people who abuse drugs or alcohol don’t want to suffer but they often love the thing that causes the suffering. The thing that causes the suffering for addicts is more obvious (drugs and alcohol) than in the rest of society but it’s basically the same thing. Anger can have, as Pema puts it, the same ‘delicious’ quality (such as feelings of superiority or being victimized) that keeps people hooked on anger even when they know it won’t make things better.

De-Escalating From Shenpa

Over time, we can reduce the negative effects of shenpa through a process of ‘de-escalation’ since, we can never entirely rid ourselves of shenpa. First, Pema recommends that we merely become aware of shenpa: observe it in both ourselves and in others. Next, we can slow the escalation of shenpa by noticing our breathing. Third, by leaning into the feeling rather than fighting it we can observe physical sensations in your body and the thoughts in our mind. The fourth and final step involves letting go and getting on with the day. This four-step process can be challenging, particularly during the awkward early stages of practicing de-escalation, however, it is the start of loosening the grip that shenpa has over us. 

Pema recommends that people who want to reduce the amount of shenpa in their life start with the little things first that cause suffering. There’s a million little shenpas – line ups in the grocery store, the way people drive, mosquito bites – and if you work with these you can slowly strengthen your ability to deal with the more challenging shenpas such as criticism, embarrassment, or loneliness.

Lesson Three: Groundlessness and Distractions

Part of what attracted Pema to Buddhism was its focus on the present moment. Pema saw that most human beings are afraid of negative feelings and are constantly scrambling to find ways to avoid feelings of embarrassment, boredom, anxiety, etc. Pema calls these moments of insecurity ‘groundlessness’ or being ‘off-balance.’ Human beings avoid the experience of groundlessness in a very effective way – we get distracted.

For example, when you are flying in a commercial jet, notice how uncomfortable the other passengers are with doing nothing. Imagine what would happen if there was no in-flight entertainment, no snacks or meals, nothing to read, and hand-held devices such as Ipods were not allowed. But it’s not just keeping our five senses busy that keep us preoccupied, it is also our internal thoughts. Pema claims we are addicted to these distractions and are quite willing to spend hours, days, and years avoiding the discomfort of being alone with our inner most thoughts.

For people with addictions, boredom can often jeopardize sobriety. While most ‘normal’ people will resort to ‘harmless’ distractions such as mindless channel surfing or checking email on their Blackberry, someone with a chemical dependency will drink a case of beer while someone with a food addiction will eat a pail of ice cream.

As far as Pema is concerned, as long as human beings are constantly scrambling to avoid feelings of groundlessness, there will always be wars, hatred, prejudice, and addiction.

‘Hanging Out’ with Groundlessness

It may seem paradoxical, but individuals can learn to ‘hang out’ with feelings of groundlessness. Buddhists practice meditation as a way to bring ‘room to the mind’ and take time out from the ‘busyness’ of life. While we may at first feel very threatened by a sense that nothing is happening (interestingly, Pema describes her initial experience with meditation akin to “an intense detox” or “climbing the walls”), over time your senses will seem more alive and the constant chattering voices will subside. Meditation allows us to hang out with our thoughts, free from judging and resisting them.

Using Groundlessness as a Force for Positive Change

Pema’s story of marital infidelity points to an event that shook her to her very core. She couldn’t just shake off feelings of anger, loss, hurt, betrayal, and worthlessness off through distractions. Eventually, as Pema tells in her interview, she felt that her husband leaving her was the best thing that ever happened since previous to his disclosure, Pema lived, in her words, a ‘superficial life.’ Only two years after her husband left her, Pema had become a Buddhist nun and had ‘found her niche’ doing something that continues to provide her with a sense of endless abundance, meaning and purpose.

For individuals struggling with drugs and alcohol, addiction can also be a blessing if one has the willingness to experience moments of groundlessness and make positive change.

Lesson Four: Don’t Look Out There, Go Within

Pema uses a metaphor to emphasize this point. Suppose you are barefoot in a field of thornbushes. To take away the pain of walking through the field covered in thornbushes, you could criticize the farmer for not cutting down the thornbushes or you could wish that the field was covered in giant strips of leather. Or you could simply wrap the leather around your foot.

In the same way, we all have the choice of finding happiness by trying to change the world or by working on ourselves.

Lesson Five: Don’t Forget Your Past, Celebrate It!

Pema suggests that we don’t lose touch with our past suffering because that’s what keeps us relating to others. Along the same lines, remembering our past suffering can help us empathize with others and practice humility.

Lesson Six: Faith Without Works is Dead

In the New Testament, James 2:14-26 reminds Christians that “for as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” It appears that Buddhists such as Pema Chodron think the same way. In her interview with Bill Moyers, Pema states that she has devoted her life to escalating love, kindness, and compassion and de-escalating violence and aggression. When Bill Moyers wonders if Buddhism is nothing more than long periods of silence holed up in exotic temples, Pema responds by saying that “if the result of my life is that I lived a life of seclusion, it wouldn’t add up to a hill of beans. I always go in and out of seclusion so that I can be more present for others.” *

Similarly, for people with addictions, going to meetings or reading the Big Book may not be enough: one must also also practice what one preaches and be of service to others.

(*) Note: Pema Chodron has taken a vow to awaken herself and to the degree that she raises her own awareness, help others to reach the same level of awareness.

Conclusion

Bill Moyer’s interview with Pema Chodron points out that the spiritual practices of Buddhism can reduce the suffering of people from all walks of life regardless of race, religion or creed. By introducing concepts such as groundlessness and shenpa, the teachings of Buddhism and its proponents suggest that addiction is a universal condition: problems with drugs and alcohol are simply different symptoms of the same condition or an extreme example of what lengths people will take to avoid suffering.

Recommended Articles

The Shenpa Syndrome (September 2002) is an introduction to the concept of shenpa by Pema Chodron. In this article, there is a lot of discussion on addiction, particularly chemical dependency.

Recommended Books

12 Steps on the Buddha’s Path: Bill, Buddha and We (2006) Laura S., Sylvia Boorsteing

Mindful Recovery (2002) Thomas Bien

One Breath at a Time (2004) Kevin Griffin

Still Waters: Sobriety, Atonement, and Unfolding Enlightenment (2006) William Alexander

The Zen of Recovery (1993) Mel Ash

Recommended Websites

Buddhist Recovery supports the use of Buddhist teachings, traditions and practices to help people recovery from the suffering caused by addictive behaviours.

Gampo Abbey is a Western Buddhist Monastery in the Shambhala Tradition located in Pleasant Bay, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Pema Chodron is the principal teacher at Gampo Abbey. 

Great Path Tapes and Books – has a complete library of Pema Chodron teachings (retail only). Great Path also has the Great Path YouTube site that has free videos of Pema.

Judith Ragir is a Zen priest and teacher who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. Judith has a number of lectures provided as audio recordings that try to bring together 12-Step recovery work, Buddhism and meditation.

Kevin Griffin has a website that integrates recovery and Buddhism.

Shambhala Community – is a global community of 170 centres around the workld that offers courses in meditation, other contemplative arts and disciplines, hosts community gatherings, celebrations and family events.

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