Substance Abuse Disorder, Buddhism, and Meditation

Christopher M


I’m 49 years old and I’ve struggled with addictions for most of my life. Additionally, I suffer from mental health issues such as depression, PTSD, and anxiety as a result of childhood trauma; abuse and hardships I’ve experienced as a result of my addiction. What I would like to share is about how Buddhism and meditation has enriched my recovery this time around, helped me deal with cravings and to working my way out of a full blown relapse right here in a prison environment.

Five and a half years ago I was introduced to some basic Buddhist teachings by a friend at another prison and a psychologist who had an interesting array of self-help books in her office. I read “What the Buddha Taught” and books by Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche - some Tibetan Mahayana and some Theravada material. They were easy to digest and they introduced me to the Four Noble Truths. The second Noble Truth spoke about how thirst, desire, and craving and attachment give rise to all sorts of suffering and Lama Yeshe was speaking about the suffering of the up and down nature of the uncontrolled mind. I realized this was the very thing that had been making life “hurt” whether I was in recovery or not. My mental defilements, delusions, attachment and self-grasping were in the way and making it more difficult to stay clean because my mind was fragmented and in a perpetual state of craving for one thing or another. So I got into a routine of reading some literature, doing a little yoga and meditating every day. During my meditation sessions I developed just enough discipline to not grasp at every thought or image that popped into my mind. The literature encouraged me to try to maintain a state of “meditative equipoise” throughout the rest of the day which went a long way toward not grasping and obsessing over things all the time. This gave me a cooler, less complicated mind that was easier to deal with and to put it simply, it hurt less.

There was a lot of talk about compassion and generating Bodhicitta in the literature and I thought, “I don’t know if I’m ready for all that,” but I did the Mahayana Equilibrium Meditation, exchanging self and others and Tong Len and it was doing something. I could feel it and that gave me a little confidence that I could do this. I didn’t love myself, but I had the idea that I might be able to and there was no doubt that I was feeling better.

Meanwhile my views towards others began to soften a little bit. How could I hate others for having the same problems and mental defilements that I have? The idea that we’re all alike in that we all want happiness and don’t want suffering helped me with the “us and them” mentality I had developed as a convict and an addict.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not expert on anything. I’d like to say it’s been happily-ever-after and all that, but after a time I fell off on my practice. I was sent to a prison that was pretty crazy, cramped and loud. I was discouraged and felt insecure about practicing after a few jokes were made and eventually I found myself getting high again. I must also add that I was not seeing a therapist there and was not involved in any self-help support groups. All of these things were a factor, but the point is it was my own mind which, left unchecked, took me right down that road again. Fortunately, a seed had been planted.

This past year has had its ups and downs, and it took me awhile to stop using completely, but a combination of a few things is what’s working for me today. I still read and meditate, but I'm also fortunate to have a therapist for my mental health issues. I go to some self-help groups, get a little exercise and some proper rest. As I progress, I fill out my practice a little more but make no mistake about it, there have been times when a meditation, an article in Dharma Friends or a conversation with my cellmate about Buddhism has inspired me and gotten me by. These days I see so much more beauty in everything and everyone and others can see it in me. Sure, I still suffer and “go through it” sometimes, but I have faith in the remedy. It’s just a question of how long I’m going to wait to take it.