Caregiving, compassion, and the spirituality of addiction

The Buddhist path in its entirety is a discipline of sobriety, a discipline which demands the courage and honesty to take a long, hard, utterly sober look at the sobering truths about existence.–Bhikkhu Bodhi

[I wrote this in various spurts, and days ago…the writing was interrupted by yet another crisis involving my parent’s dog, whom I was caring for, and who almost died; as well as my own trip to the ER with a mega-migraine. So if it seems disjointed, there’s a pretty good reason for it. Please accept whatever is useful or resonant for you. As always, thanks for reading.]

Last week I spoke with an old friend, who’ll probably always be a teacher to me. I told him of my intention to pursue chaplaincy training, with the thought that this will be a professional path for me sometime in the not too distant future. Figuring this out (in quotes) has been a slow work-in-process over the past two years, really ever since I started this blog. Two things in particular stood out to me during the course of our conversation. One was that he said the burn-out rate, of course, for caregivers in prison and hospital settings is quite high; but that those with a deep contemplative practice stand the best chance of being able to manage the stress. He also said that if I were to pursue my hospice work and my practice at the same time as pursuing an unrelated career, I would be entering the battle zone. It was really nice to have someone, an academic and a priest and a practitioner, ostensibly far wiser and more experienced, support me in my decision not to work for pay right now (an option I am oh-so-grateful for having), so that I can really focus on what right livelihood is for me, as well as strengthen the inner aspects of my work before applying them fully in the external world.

So, it is interesting that so soon after that conversation, I have resumed the feeling of being a vibrating field of energy, tension in movement, stress or dukkha incarnate, because of a heavy case load. Last weekend, I discovered that two of my closest friends–entirely unrelated to one another–were in the depths of despair. I realize it’s one thing to serve others as they are dying, or who are experiencing some other kind of grief and loss, who have before been strangers; and it is truly another thing to face that when the person is a friend of 20 or 30 years. I am so lucky to have quite a few people in my life who have been dear friends that long. The investment is pretty big after that much time has elapsed, however. And therefore, the anguish that I feel, the powerlessness at not being able to—well, the extraordinary wish I have for them to actually be happy, to know happiness. It’s immense. I know that it is my job to be there for them in as much as I can. And for that, I know I have to be there for myself. I have to show up for myself. I remember filling out the application for the chaplaincy training program I will be doing next year, and one of the questions was what I do for self-care. In the past few days I have really wondered if I’m equipped with the adequate tools for that.

Recently, a new patient of mine told me that he was so thankful to Truman for saving his life and “for having the guts to drop the bomb”–these words, just as the post earthquake/tsunami nuclear disaster was unfolding in Japan. After an initial pause, sinking stomach, thought of “how could you value your life over millions of other lives, really?”, then a settling into true compassion. And it is because of practice that I can say it was possible to feel that compassion for him, not in spite of, but precisely for that level of ignorance and hatred. Even that I can relate to on some level. And to know that he is ending his life with that. It’s so much suffering.

Meeting another person’s suffering requires that we meet our own, fully. I don’t know that I would ever really feel up to the job though. There’s always more opening, more presence, more softening, more more more…

Perhaps my attachment to this view of limitation and “not enough”, the attachment to my personal conditioning, is not so dissimilar from the attachment one has to other things that may be detrimental to our emotional and spiritual health. Since one of my friends is struggling with alcohol dependency, I can see the relationship that substance abuse has to many other–what may seem like more subtle–forms of addiction. Whether to views and opinions, or just a solid sense of self, or food, or relationships, or whatever it might be. It’s not that hard to relate to my friend’s suffering, to feel compassion, when I remember that truly we’re all addicts.  It’s still hard to understand why, but even that…presumably we all self-medicate in different ways. The fact that my body is so tense and energized is because I have not been attending to it and I’ve been distracting myself from feeling what’s going on. Part of that is pure coping — I have so many responsibilities to other people all of the sudden. Then, there is also just the endless distractions from heart and mind, patterns of behavior reemerging increasingly so as I get further from retreat.

In the past few days I have downloaded a bunch of audio resources on addiction and recovery, and I am so grateful to all of the recovering addicts out there who share their story and are teaching others about the path of recovery. I listened to On Being’s episode on the Spirituality of Addiction and Recovery yesterday on the way to the hospital to see my friend, and I was strangely comforted just by hearing the words “spiritual malady”. It’s in such contrast to the medical, neuro-biological talk that I find once I enter the hospital…That may be the immediate concern, but there’s so much more at the root of this disease, it’s a symptom of something far greater and I don’t know how anyone could get well from it without doing inner work, without opening to the spiritual and emotional dimension. Quite honestly I fear for my friend’s life right now. I don’t know how he is going to become willing to look at that pain. I know how very much Buddhist practice has enabled me to look at my own suffering, to hopefully be able to meet others, but that’s not everyone’s path.

In that radio program, the fact that alcoholism was pretty much 100% fatal before Bill Wilson and others founded the Twelve-Step program was discussed, and I think of my great grandfather who died of cirrhosis of the liver at 26, unfortunately before Alcoholics Anonymous provided an alternative to death. Kevin Griffin talks about the analogies with Buddhism, in particular the idea of thirst/craving (tanha), and desire (lobha) being at the heart of this disease and at the heart of human suffering in general.

I don’t have power over what desires I have, but I do have power over what actions I take.–Noah Levine

I have been sober for two years, which seems like nothing in comparison to the years I used drugs and alcohol. But these two years have been full of growth and a self-awareness that would not have been possible had I continued to numb in the way that I was so used to, as everyone is. Kevin Griffin discusses morality (sila)  and how fundamental a part of the Noble Eightfold Path it is, as unpopular as that may be. I have personally found abstaining from intoxicants to be an essential piece of understanding the nature of suffering and its root–craving. I hope my dear friend can find the strength to want to understand, whether he does that through meditation, the 12-steps, and/or some other path…just as long as he can open to his pain.

Your metta and prayers are very much appreciated.

Resources on Buddhism and Addiction


Listen to the radio program “The Spirituality of Addiction and Recovery” from On Being, May 15, 2008

Kevin Griffin website and talks at Dharma Seed

Noah Levine, Dharma Punx talks (scroll down for “Buddhism & Recovery” and “Addiction” series)

If you’re a caregiver, you may also want to listen to the talk Avoiding Intoxicants, Working with Others by visiting teacher Josh Korda of Dharma Punx NYC, given to the Foundations in Buddhist Contemplative Caregiving class at New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, January 14, 2011

The Secular Buddhist interviews, see Episode 56 with Kevin Griffin and Episode 46 with Paul Saintilan (Buddhist Recovery Network).


Addiction, Inquiring Mind, Spring 2010 (Vol. 26 #2), which includes the article “Selfaholics Anonymous” by Santikaro; “Surfing the Urge” by G. Alan Marlatt, and “The Suffering of Separation” by Janet Surrey

One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps (an excerpt), Kevin Griffin

EDIT 4/8: “We Are All Addicted”, Taiun Michael Ellison, Sweeping Zen

“Recovery & The Fifth Precept”, Don Lattin, Tricycle

“A Discipline of Sobriety”, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Access to Insight, originally published in 1997 by the Buddhist Publication Society


Buddhist Recovery Network

The Fifth Precept Buddhist Based Practices for Abstinence & Recovery from Substance & Alcohol Addictions

The 12-Step Buddhist

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