Tag Archives: Buddhism and Addiction Recovery

Sensitivity, Samvega, Buddhism and Alcoholism

Roger Ebert, american film critic.

Roger Ebert, american film critic. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Clinical research shows Buddhist mindfulness t...

Clinical research shows Buddhist mindfulness techniques can help alleviate anxiety , stress , and depression (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m taking a course at University of the West called “Buddhism and Addiction Recovery.”  The class is taught by Tom Moritz.  Great class (my teachers and fellow students at UWest are absolutely wonderful) and I’m learning a great deal about Western Buddhist approaches to alcohol and addiction recovery.  Present practice mostly consists of using the mindfulness practices made famous by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn to break addictive and counterproductive patterns of behavior.   This mindfulness practice has its basis in a modern Theravada Buddhist practice called vipassanā.[1]

Tom has frequently brought up how often alcoholism is found in creative people.  In popular culture this link has long been made, but now science seems to agree.[2]  Recently we lost the wonderful Roger Ebert to cancer.  Ebert was a well-known and extremely influential film critic.  What is less well known is Ebert struggled with alcoholism, finally, in desperation, turning to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in his thirties.[3]

Why this link between alcoholism and creativity?  I’m not sure science really knows.  Two theories have long been put forward to explain the link; first, drinking alcohol helps the creative process.  Second, alcohol is a form of self-medication for some underlying pain that tends to associate itself with creativity.   For example, depression has long been linked to both alcoholism and creativity.  Recently creativity and high environmental sensitivity[4]  have also been found together.  For some alcoholics, high environmental sensitivity may also be a form of pain:

[A]lcoholics are more sensitive. This sensitivity relates especially to nuances of interpersonal relationships. Alcoholics have a “low rejection threshold.” They feel more apart or left out. Incidentally, a drink or two “works wonderfully” to deal with this feeling. Yet, it is known that sensitive people are often especially creative. Alcoholism seems to selectively strike gifted people. Most American Nobel Prize winners in literature suffered from alcoholism.  – Betty Ford Center website[5]

The sensitivity of the alcoholic and how this sensitivity can be used in Buddhist practice as part of the recovery process will be the focus of this blog entry.

Alcohol numbs.  And for people overwhelmed by their sensitivity to the world, alcohol can initially appear as a great release.  The reality, of course, is that alcohol and other numbing drugs are a terrible trap.  Many of the steps in the twelve-steps of AA can be thought of as a de-numbing process, bringing the alcoholic back into contact with the world and giving the alcoholic the emotional support and skills necessary to touch the world “raw.”  For AA, spirituality is a key part of the de-numbing process.

Buddhism can also be thought of as a de-numbing process.  In basic Western Buddhist practice de-numbing is achieved through present moment mindfulness.  Present moment mindfulness breaks the practitioner out of the shell of numbness they have built around themselves.  One of the key purposes of this shell is to protect the practitioner from the emotion of samvega which I will discuss later in the article.

In my style of Buddhism[6] de-numbing can be taken to extraordinary levels.  Buddhism[7] is about taking the practitioner’s innate sensitivity and making this sensitivity so trained, so powerful –via the practice of jhāna– that even the most refined, pleasurable conditioned states of human experience (the highest states of jhāna) are seen to be stressful.  This realization allows the practitioner to let go of the conditioned world as seen through and experienced by the human brain (as represented by the five khandhas), thus allowing an experience of Nibbāna, and finally a mind that feeds upon Nibbāna; unborn, unconditioned, undying.

The sensitivity of the person bewildered by the pain in the world, who sometimes is a person susceptible to alcohol, causes emotions to arise.  The Pali term for this complex association of emotion is samvega[8].  Samvega is said to be the emotion the Buddha felt when he first saw the effects of aging, death and illness.  Samvega, as Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu translates it, is a complex mixture of shock, fear, and urgency. Fear that there is no way out of the suffering.  Shock that life, as normally lived, is so hard and meaningless.  Finally an anxious urgency arises causing an effort to discover a way out of this terrible suffering.  Samvega is considered the emotion leading the sensitive person onto the path.  On the path, the sensitive person converts samvega to the joy of pasada, the emotion arising in the heart when a path leading out of suffering and stress is seen.

Why is samvega so important to the sensitive alcoholic, even one not interested in Buddhism?  The experience of samvega is normal for a sensitive human being and is not something that needs to be avoided[9].  Sadly, most people drown the emotion of samvega when it arises in their heart.  Some drown it with distraction.  Some drown it with forms of German Romanticism.  Some drown it with alcohol and end up drowning themselves.  One of the greatest and most destructive delusions is that ageing, death and illness can be dealt with by numbness.  Understanding the normalcy of samvega gives it a constructive place in our lives.  We no longer need to numb this wise emotion.  In addition, for those interested in Buddhism, Buddhism is a powerful path to transform samvega into joy.

Just as important to the sensitive alcoholic is the high esteem Buddhism gives to those of great natural sensitivity.  Without sensitivity samvega does not arise.  Without sensitivity the path is not taken.  Without sensitivity wisdom does not arise, ignorance is not left behind.  Sensitivity is a blessing, not a weakness[10].

Breaking bad behavior patterns is critical when an alcoholic is struggling to live skillfully.   The secularity of mindfulness allows it to reach those not interested in Buddhism.   But for the alcoholic interested in the path Buddhist practice has much more to offer.  At the beginning of recovery, when the human brain has not yet healed from the damage of heavy drinking, fear and confusion are overwhelming.  Buddhist devotional practices can help the alcoholic deal with these powerful emotions.  As the alcoholic’s brain begins to recover, mindfulness practices can help.  Metta meditation can help the alcoholic begin to forgive themselves and construct a complete moral inventory.  The five precepts give gentle, constructive, guidance on how the recovering alcoholic should behave.  The Buddha’s teaching of non-harming give the alcoholic direction on how to act in each moment.

Further in the recovery process, when the brain has more completely healed and more skillful patterns of behavior have been established (through AA or other organizations), the alcoholic can use their sensitivity to deeply understand the world using Buddhist teachings and use jhāna and other more advanced forms of Buddhist meditation.  Through the act of helping other alcoholics, and through overcoming ignorance via the practices of Buddhism, the recovering alcoholic can transform their experience in hell into deep compassion and joy.

I would enjoy hearing your thoughts?  Is sensitivity and alcoholism linked, or is the concept of a sensitive alcoholic just a cop out?  Have I missed some aspect of Buddhism that would be useful to an alcoholic?  Do you have specific practices that would be of use to an alcoholic?  If your understanding and practice of Buddhism is different than mine, does this difference have advantages for an alcoholic?  I’d love to hear your thoughts, so feel free to use the comment feature of this blog to respond.  May all beings be free from suffering!   May you be happy and safe!


1. Though vipassanā is often claimed to be ancient practice, vipassanā, at least as we know it, is a modern invention that arose in Burma as a response to Western Colonialism.  Vipassanā was created as a “scientific” meditation practice in order to keep Buddhism relevant in the scientific world forced upon the Burmese by Christian missionaries and the colonial government.  In the Pali Canon, the term vipassanā is rarely found and when it is found it is often linked to samatha, perhaps a form of concentration practice.  This compares to the prevalence of the type of meditation called jhāna (which is likely not what the Pali Canon calls samatha and is absolutely NOT the same as the so called vipassanājhāna”).  References to jhāna are found throughout the Pali Canon.  As Polak says, “It seems very possible that if one started reading the suttas without any previous knowledge on Buddhism, he would see the jhānas as the most important element of the Buddhist doctrine.” If you wish to read more on this subject, I suggest reading “Race and Religion in American Buddhism:  White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaption,” by Joseph Cheah. He has two chapters on the origins of vipassanā and how it has moved to the U.S. , “Strong Roots” (http://www.bcbsdharma.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/StrongRoots.pdf) and “Reexamining Jhāna, Towards a Critical Reconstruction of Early Buddhist Soteriology”, by Grzegorz Polak.

2. For example, “Verbal creativity, depression and alcoholism: An investigation of one hundred American and British writers,” in the British Journal of Psychiatry (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8733792).

4. For example, see “Higher sensory processing sensitivity, introversion and ectomorphism”, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3409988/

6. And other forms of Buddhism, also.

7. Again, I am speaking about the form of Buddhism I practice.  Buddhism is too rich for this to be the only path of practice.

8. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu has this to say about samvega:  “Samvega was what the young Prince Siddhartha felt on his first exposure to aging, illness, and death. It’s a hard word to translate because it covers such a complex range — at least three clusters of feelings at once: the oppressive sense of shock, dismay, and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complacency and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle. This is a cluster of feelings we’ve all experienced at one time or another in the process of growing up, but I don’t know of a single English term that adequately covers all three. It would be useful to have such a term, and maybe that’s reason enough for simply adopting the word samvega into our language.”  http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/affirming.html

9. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu:  “As the early Buddhist teachings freely admit, the predicament is that the cycle of birth, aging, and death is meaningless. They don’t try to deny this fact and so don’t ask us to be dishonest with ourselves or to close our eyes to reality. As one teacher has put it, the Buddhist recognition of the reality of suffering — so important that suffering is honored as the first noble truth — is a gift, in that it confirms our most sensitive and direct experience of things, an experience that many other traditions try to deny.”  http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/affirming.html
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