Addiction recovery can be a very difficult topic for many people. We might think, “I don’t have a problem,” or “recovery programs are too ‘woo-woo’ or rely on belief in a higher power and I don’t have that faith.” Enter Buddhist paths to addition recovery. These ideas are not for everyone either, but they might offer you a framework and path out of addiction.
For Buddhists, the key word is craving – a single word that encapsulates the all-encompassing experience of addiction. But it’s not just people actively caught up in addiction who are troubled with craving. It’s universal. So addiction is seen more as a further spot on the human spectrum. Seeing this, you might think, “okay, so in a Buddhist framework, I have a problem, but so does everyone else. Mine is just a touch more destructive to my life right now.”
Behind the myriad of explanations people offer for their unhealthy obsessions, the root cause remains the same—an overwhelming need or excessive desire for something we believe will bring us happiness or fill an empty void. For those battling substance abuse, it’s often drugs, alcohol, or similar substances that become the object of their addiction. Addiction, in all its forms, is profoundly destructive. What we find is that it does not fulfill our life, it ruins it.
Buddhism’s Path to Recovery
Many addiction treatment programs take a secular approach, while others ground themselves in faith, seeking the power of spirituality in the recovery journey. These faith-based rehabilitation programs can cater to a specific religious group or be non-denominational, like the 12-Step Programs. While they have nuanced differences, they share a common concept—the belief that individuals can overcome addiction with the support of a higher power.
Now, let’s turn our attention to Buddhism. Whether considered a religion, a philosophy, a way of life, or something entirely unique, Buddhism’s teachings offer profound insights into the psychological origins of addiction and paths to recovery. In many ways, Buddhism emphasizes moderation—true happiness resides in living between the extremes of excessive indulgence and extreme asceticism. You don’t need to be a Buddhist to benefit from its teachings. Just understanding and following some core principles, particularly the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, can aid you in your journey toward a life free from addiction.
The Four Noble Truths and Overcoming Suffering
At the heart of Buddhism lies the Four Noble Truths:
- Suffering exists.
- The cause of suffering is selfish and ignorant craving.
- There is a way to end suffering.
- The Noble Eightfold Path leads to the end of suffering.
According to the Buddha, those who do not overcome their worldly desires are destined to repeat their suffering through the cycle of death and rebirth, known as samsara. Awakening is simply understanding the cause of suffering and releasing material attachments. This leads to nirvana, the state of true happiness. This is simple to understand, but very difficult to practice in our world of distractions and temptations.
For those grappling with addiction, the wisdom offered by Buddhism is clear: unless we conquer our desire for fulfillment through alcohol or drugs, we will continue in a cycle of suffering and destruction. But the two pieces of good news from Buddhism are: 1) everyone is struggling for fulfilment in some way (we’re not as alone as we might sometimes feel), and 2) there is a way out of this harmful craving.
The Noble Eightfold Path: Steps on the Road to Recovery
The Buddha shared his path to enlightenment with his followers through the Noble Eightfold Path. These eight steps are a guide to achieving nirvana and ending the cycle of suffering, death, and rebirth. They can serve as a valuable tool for addiction treatment:
- Right understanding
- Right thought
- Right speech
- Right conduct or
- Right livelihood
- Right effort
- Right mindfulness
- Right concentration
Together, these steps develop morality, mental discipline, and wisdom. For someone dealing with addiction, these steps offer a roadmap to understanding, adjusting lifestyle and behavior, and maintaining the determination to stay on the right path.
Relevance of the Eight Steps to Addiction Treatment
Here’s how the Noble Eightfold Path can help us with treatment and rehabilitation:
- First, steps 1 and 2 help us comprehend the root cause of their addiction and commit to healing.
We see that our understanding (that drugs or alcohol, etc, could make us happy) is misguided. We might also see that we’re not in control and need help in dealing with our addiction. We can also confront unhelpful thoughts, such as “I can’t live without drugs or alcohol” or, as already mentioned, “I’m too far gone for anyone to help me.”
- Steps 3, 4, and 5 facilitate necessary lifestyle adjustments. Talking with a therapist or counselor, or a sponsor in one of the programs, can help us adjust our speech and behaviors as needed. Sometimes we’re oblivious to our harmful inner dialogue and sometimes even the detrimental things we say to others.
- Livelihood changes can be difficult, and we can see that working at a bar or in a business setting where people are expected to drink heavily will make recovery difficult, if not impossible. And right effort refers to learning that we can’t just try once and expect to get on the right path. There will be efforts in the morning to chart out a healthy day, efforts throughout the day to stay on track, and (likely) great efforts in the evening to avoid any temptations to fall back into addiction.
- Steps 6, 7, and 8 promote the awareness of relapse dangers and reinforce the commitment to the right path. These steps can be developed more in formal meditation, but they also refer to our daily reflections: are we noticing the clarity and energy and happiness that come from a healthy, substance-free life? Are we noticing the cravings and our ability, with effort, to overcome them? And any kind of growth or change takes concentration.
The Complementarity of Buddhism and 12-Step Programs
As many Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) devotees know, spirituality can play a significant role in the group’s philosophy on recovery. However, some people will have difficulty with the fact that the program has Christian origins and revolves around the concept of a god or higher power. For those who identify with non-theistic religions, the bridge between a faith-based program like AA and their faith can seem challenging.
Buddhism offers a solution. While it doesn’t rely on a god, Buddhism centers around a spiritual teacher and is often regarded as a way of life rather than a religion. It imparts philosophical wisdom that can be invaluable to those in recovery from drugs, alcohol, or behavioral addictions.
Justin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to Patheos.com, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. Justin is the official blog writer for Sunflower Counseling MT in Missoula, Butte, Kalispell, Billings, and surrounding areas. He lives in Missoula with his family.