Mind Training for Recovery
There are a number of slogans in recovery, that most people in recovery will have at least heard, if not examined the deeper meaning. Such classics as: One day at a time. Keep it simple. Good Orderly Direction These and others, have worked to help many people who were attempting to stay sober or clean, do so. A short phrase, when needed, will be remembered more easily than a complex concept. And yet, a short phrase can lead to a much more complex and larger idea. It can trigger a thought process that will keep the person on the path they intend to tread, rather than their going astray. These simple recovery slogans have captured the essence of ideas for generations of people in recovery. There are also some slogans for recovery that are more complex and need to be studied and thought about before they can give their help.
Examples of this thought-provoking type are: You can’t think your way into sober living, you have to live your way into sober thinking. or
Only you can do it, but you can’t do it alone. For those who have begun to use a Buddhist path as their recovery program, as in Refuge Recovery, there are an incredible number of Buddhist sutras, commentaries and writings, both historical and current. It is difficult to know where to start to add understanding of the Buddhist path beyond the books of Noah Levine and a few others.
One of the historical gems of Buddhism, that several contemporary books have explained, are the Lojong “slogans.” Like the slogans of recovery, the Lojong slogans have worked as reminders and thought-provokers for Buddhists for the last thousand years since Alisha brought the ideas with him to Tibet. Lojong is Tibetan for heart/mind training. These “slogans,” aphorisms or maxims, cover the range of the Buddhist path, from ethics to realization, from practical relationship advice to the deepest understanding of wisdom and compassion and their union “bodhichitta". We should note that although the slogans are usually labeled as "mind" training, they actually have as much or more to do with the heart as the mind. My intent is to share some of the Lojong maxims with you, and to point out some of the ways each particular one could help you in common situations of recovery and life. I’ll also attempt to point at a deeper meaning relative to Buddhist practice. I hope that if you are a serious student or practitioner of Buddhism and Buddhist meditation you will be encouraged to seek out some of the source material I have used and included in a bibliography at the end of this blog. I know that you can use these maxims to deepen your meditation practice.
Please take my writings and thoughts as those of a helpful and well-intentioned friend and not those of one portraying himself as an empowered meditation teacher, or expert in Buddhist scripture or history. The ideas that are reflected in these writings are the result of my own practice and contemplation of the source material, and discussion with other Buddhists and participants in Refuge Recovery. I offer this and future blogs on this subject with the intent that they may be of some help to alleviate the suffering of those whose addictive desires have been so great. And as Pema Chodron writes in The Compassion Box:
"When I first read the Lojong (“mind training”) teachings… I was struck by their unusual message that we can use our difficulties and problems to awaken our hearts. Rather than seeing the unwanted aspects of life as obstacles, Jamgön Kongtrül presented them [the obstacles] as the raw material necessary for awakening genuine uncontrived compassion. Whereas in Kongtrül’s commentary the emphasis is primarily on taking on the suffering of others, it is apparent that in this present age it is necessary to also emphasize that the first step is to develop compassion for our own wounds." [emphasis not in the original] For those familiar with Noah Levine's book Refuge Recovery, and/or for those who participate in Refuge Recovery meetings, the book's meditation on pg. 212 is an excellent example of the meditation practice of Tonglen (giving and receiving) that is a core part of the Lojong teachings. It and other meditations in the book effectively help a recovering person develop both self-compassion and healing from compulsive desires, and the more traditional Buddhist compassion for other beings.
In this blog I’ll concentrate on others of the 59 traditional Lojong slogans, one or two at a time, rather than the three that directly teach the Tonglen meditation practice. For those who have interest in learning more about Lojong and Tonglen, beyond what is taught in Refuge Recovery, please see the small bibliography at the end of this blog. ALWAYS BE GRATEFUL TO OTHERS "Always be grateful to others" is the first slogan I have chosen to share and discuss. It has such an overlap with recovery ideas. All but those unfamiliar with, or very new to recovery, will readily know the importance of gratitude. Sponsors tell us "a grateful heart won't use." They encourage us to keep gratitude lists, or to review the things that we have gratitude for at the end of the day.
Conversely, gratitude's destroyer or opposite is resentment. Resentment or “anger carried through time" towards a person, idea or thing precludes having a grateful heart when the resentment is touched or triggered. Resentment is an emotion and attitude that a sponsor would tell us is the cause of relapse and much pain and suffering. A Buddhist teacher from Tibet might describe the “far enemy.” This would be the opposite emotional attitude that takes away from or destroys a beneficial attitude. There can be "far enemies,” as resentment is to gratitude, or there are "near enemies” as an attitude that degrades the positive attitude, as perhaps indifference would be to gratitude. Perhaps then there could also be “near friends”in the emotional world. These would be emotions that are close enough to start the other emotion. For instance, gratitude and appreciative joy. While it is relatively easy to be grateful to loved ones and friends, at least when they haven’t done something we dislike, it is much harder to be grateful to people we don’t know. It is seemingly (almost) impossible to be grateful to those we are angry with, dislike or resent. The people who have hurt us in some manner are the hardest to have gratitude towards. Let’s take each of the three groups in order of difficulty. The most necessary thing for having and increasing gratitude towards friends and loved ones is to remember to purposefully feel the emotion. This entails bringing the people to mind and remembering the reasons we feel grateful. By meditating each day one creates the opportunity to do this type of meditation. This type of reflection or meditation is almost always enough to produce gratitude.
However, if you are in early recovery it could be difficult to feel your emotions, i.e. you may have become “numb” to your own emotional reactions. If this happens, remembering a very important, emotionally charged memory of feeling gratitude is sometimes enough. Conversely, some people may have been using substances or process addictions to reduce their characteristic strong emotional reactions to life. If this is your pattern, you would get benefit from practice feeling less intense emotions like appreciation, joy, gratitude and especially practice in achieving a state of equanimity. (see Equanimity Meditation in Refuge Recovery, pg. 222) Consequently, many meditations start by having you imagine people who are relatively easy to have gratitude towards. The meditation on Appreciative Joy (and gratitude) in Refuge Recovery, on pg. 218, instructs the meditator to “… bring someone to mind who has been beneficial for you to know or to know of, who has inspired you or brought joy to your life.” This type of meditation allows time to feel the gratitude towards the “beneficial” person and allows the meditator to practice and increase the experience of feeling this very positive emotional reaction. Once the internal experience of gratitude has been created and amplified in the meditation the feeling of gratitude can be transferred to other people. Other people that we like and already appreciate to some degree are fairly easy to transfer to, and imbue with the feeling of gratitude. However, those people we don’t know and especially those people in the categories of those we are angry with, dislike or resent, and the people who have hurt us in some manner are much harder. With these we need a reason or rationale to even begin to feel gratitude towards them. The classical Buddhist rationale is built on the idea of reincarnation. It says that in innumerable reincarnations each other person has, at some time, been our mother. Therefore, we should think of them with the feelings we have for our mother. If you believe in reincarnation and have positive feelings toward your mother, this should work to help you feel gratitude toward people you don’t (presently) know, and even those who have hurt you in this lifetime. However, this belief in reincarnation is not nearly as common in 21st century Western society as it was in India and Asia among historical Buddhists. You may have some doubts about this reasoning. So, I’ll offer a couple of alternative rationale for feeling gratitude towards these people. First, I would offer that most of us would agree that humans have intrinsic value. That is, that just by the nature of their being human, people have worth and value. Human-ness itself is worth respect and appreciation. From these starting ideas it is an easy jump to having gratitude toward people we don’t know, “just because of their being human.” The second rationale is for the people who we actively don’t like. It goes like this: Any person I “can’t” have gratitude towards is showing me the limits of my ability to have gratitude and a compassionate attitude. That is, in the act of attempting to have gratitude towards them, and failing, I am realizing a part of myself or a place in my psyche where I want and need to grow and be better. I can now have gratitude towards the person in question for showing myself to me in this way. In this way, harkening back to the previous Pema Chodron quote, the obstacle to feeling gratitude becomes “the raw material necessary for awakening genuine uncontrived compassion.”
Pushing your limits of feeling gratitude, builds a greater capacity for you to be compassionate. And at the very least, seeing the causes of the limits of your ability to feel gratitude, points to possible resentments and ways you could improve your recovery.
I’ll conclude by reviewing. Mind training maxims from Buddhism, called the Lojong teachings, can be applied to your recovery from addiction. Applying them will help you work your program. The first maxim we have looked at applying is “Always Be Grateful to Others.” We can see that it supports classic ideas from recovery, like “a grateful heart won’t use,” and that it has implications regarding ways to manage or “let go of” resentments. Finally, there are specific meditations that can build your ability to have gratitude (or it’s close friend appreciative joy) and consequently support your recovery and/or deepen your Buddhist practice. I hope you will be able to reduce your’s and other’s addictive suffering by applying this Lojong teaching.
Limited Bibliography on Lojong and Tonglen Always Maintain a Joyful Mind, Pema Chodron, Shambala, 2007. Awakening Compassion, (Audio) Pema Chodron, Sounds True, 2000.
(includes Tonglen) Be Grateful to Everyone, (Audio) Pema Chodron, Shambala 2010. Enlightened Courage, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Snow Lion, 1993, 2006.
(includes Tonglen) Essential Mind Training, Thupten Jinpa, Wisdom Publications, 2011. The Great Path of Awakening, Jamgon Kongtrul, Shambala, 2005. The Intelligent Heart, Dzigar Kongtrul, Shambala, 2016. Jewels of Enlightenment, Erik Pema Kunsang, Shambala, 2015. Noble Heart, (Audio) Pema Chodron, Audible Audio, 1999. Refuge Recovery, Noah Levine, HarperCollins, 2014.
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