Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Last night, I got woken up by the dude down the hall and the 16 year old who goes to see him for drugs. They were up all night practically screaming at each other. Who knows, it might be his granddaughter. (I called security to tell them to quiet down so I could sleep.) I’v seen her on the elevator, dressed in pyjamas, snot all over her face, so high she could barely stand up. And I thought to myself, ‘she’s just doing whatever she can to feel good’. And then yesterday morning I saw a blind man with a cane outside the needle exchange, smoking a crack pipe. He obviously got the pipe from the needle exchange. It wasn’t even noon-time. And I thought, ‘he’s just trying to feel good’.
And then I thought about myself as a young teen, traveling by bus, sometimes walking for miles to the next town, just to see a friend. So I could feel good. I wasn’t even allowed to have friends. Parents would get suspicious: why are you friends with my daughter? Then I wouldn’t be allowed to see them anymore. I didn’t know that I was queer, that other people saw me as queer. They never told me the real reason I couldn’t go to their house. So I would spend hours walking in the woods by myself. Just to feel good. If drugs and alcohol were around, I got high. But it wasn’t just the drugs and alcohol I was after. It was anything I could do to feel good: read lots of books, fantasize, take long walks, binge eat, sleep a lot, watch TV, go visit a friend, get my parents to buy stuff for me, get good grades in school. Whatever I thought would make me feel good for the moment. I started to have some compassion for my teenage self, the young person who was fighting depression, and loneliness, and trauma, and fear, and self-hate, and shame, and just wanted to feel good for a change.
And then I thought about myself in mid-life sobriety, in my forties. I got into buying lots of stuff. I became a shopaholic. I wanted to feel rich, like I could have anything I wanted. I lived for the next buy. I got a jones on for a certain something that I had to have, and then I had to get it. Could be food, could be musical equipment, books, bikes or scooters, could be going to a certain place. Whatever it was, I got into “the chase,” the addiction of having to have that thing. And then it was graduate degrees. I started collecting them at age 30, the MSW, the law degree, the MA and now the Ph.D. I’m 55, 25 years of pursuing higher education. I was either trying to escape how I felt by going on the mental trip, or just trying to feel good about myself by achieving the next thing. And then I started to have some compassion for myself as an adult who was struggling to feel good, just do anything to feel good, so long as it’s not drugs or alcohol or shopping.
Ten years ago, when I lived in western Mass, I was plagued with shame. But I didn’t even know that’s what I felt. I had no name for it. I didn’t know what it was. All I knew was that ‘I felt bad about myself, everybody hated me, and I felt like a failure’. I didn’t know that was shame. I wasn’t able to name that until two years ago in therapy. Once I could finally identify it, I spent a whole year just feeling shame all the time. Then I was able to do something about it, which is mostly just to name it and identify where it’s coming from.
In sobriety, I have had three emotional states: anxiety, shame and addiction to whatever makes me feel good today. My addictions change, what I do to feel good changes over time; the jones gets less extreme. They become more mundane, habitual behaviours that give me a sense of calm. Since I moved to Halifax, it’s been going to cafés. Coffee, fancy lattes, sugary drinks and sweets. For the last six months, since I’ve been on this crazy diet, it’s been going to cafés to get just the right vegetable soup that tastes good and makes me feel ok. It’s just doing whatever I need to do to feel good at the moment. It’s listening to music, it’s doodling online, my blogs, Facebook. It’s even Buddhism. Buddhism is my latest attempt to go after what feels good. It’s the best “feel good” behaviour I’ve ever had; probably the most helpful one. But “feeling good” is still the main driver of why I do this. So maybe I’m starting to have some compassion for the person who’s just doing whatever he needs to do to feel good today.
Then last night, I listened to Josh Korda’s talk on “Survival Mode and Homeostasis”
The Buddha taught that to relieve suffering we have to learn new ways to be happy. Josh Korda had the brilliant insight that “suffering” is this lack of ‘happy hormones’ in our brains. “Happy” is what we do to make ourselves feel good, to get the happy hormones. He called it the brain’s ‘survival mode’. Survival mode is a rollercoaster of pursuing something that is rewarding in the pursuit, that produces a dopamine rush, the ‘hunting’ hormone. The ‘high’ comes not from getting what you want, but from the pursuit of getting what you want. So when you get what you’re hunting for, you have a few moments of satiation, calm, but then the dopamine drops, and you ‘crash’. So typical ‘happiness’, survival happiness, is this cycle of pursuing the happiness high and avoiding the crash. Josh said being truly happy, in the Buddhist sense, is engaging in experiences that produce a homeostatic brain state, a calm, a flow. In other words, it’s a sense of calm and contentment that’s not dependent on addictive behaviours, that doesn’t go through the high and crash.
My sense is that the non-addictive ‘happy’ is that deep sense of compassion for myself. Not just in my head, but as a warm feeling of love that I have for myself, at a very deep level. It’s love, in other words. It’s self-love, but it’s not a self-love based on how good I look or how much money I have or what I’ve accomplished in life. It’s a deep, abiding self-love that comes from unconditional compassion for myself. This is what Pema Chodron was teaching in all her writings.
I have always said that practicing sobriety requires 100% acceptance of my life. And I still say that’s true. But I’ve gone a step further. Now I say it’s 100% compassion. Compassion involves a knowing acceptance of my life. It’s wise compassion, knowing what’s making me unhappy, why I feel what I feel, why I do what I do. But it’s going beyond full knowledge and acceptance. It’s having 100% compassion for myself as a human being who is limited in those ways. It’s 100% compassion for trying my best to live with the human condition. And if I can practice complete compassion for myself, I can have complete compassion for others.
Whad’ya know; I just did another fourth step. Accidentally.