Addicts Can Enjoy Pleasure, Too

An American Buddhist teacher — and former addict — on the path of recovery.

All forms of addiction have their roots in the natural human tendency to crave for life to be more pleasurable and less painful than it actually is. The addict is not at fault for the root causes and conditions that lead to addiction — only for the habitual reactive patterns that perpetuate it.

We are all born into bodies that are ruled by a survival instinct that is out of harmony with reality. The normal state of human beings is a sleeplike state of nonwisdom. The evolutionary process of human beings is dictated by a natural desire to live and to pursue happiness. But our survival instinct, which influences the body and mind, is really just the unrealistic expectation that life is always pleasurable and never painful.

Our bodies naturally crave pleasure, which we think equals happiness, safety, and survival. We hate pain, which we think equals unhappiness and death.

When we spend our lives avoiding unpleasant experiences by taking another drink, devouring another chocolate cake, or masturbating for the seventh time today, we are actually causing the unpleasant experiences to last longer than they need to.

The addict is an extreme manifestation of the normal human condition. It is not a lack of morality or any deep character flaw that creates addiction; it is almost always just a lot of pain and a lack of tolerance or compassion for this pain that get us stuck in the repetitive and habitual patterns of drinking, drugging, overeating, or whatever actions our addictions take. In some cases the underlying causes are not as clear, but the suffering that addiction creates is always obvious and undeniable.

Refuge_Recovery_pbCraving a pleasurable existence is normal. Through our natural lust for pleasure and hatred of pain we will survive for as long as the circumstances and the body’s impermanence allow. We need these base cravings to survive. They are not the enemy; they are a necessary function of life.

But as we know all too well, a life lived chasing pleasure and running from pain leads only to more and more suffering and, in the addict’s case, addiction to the substances or behaviors that have given us temporary relief.

Our survival instinct does not grant us happiness, only temporary survival. A life based on craving and aversion is a miserable existence, even for nonaddicts, but for the addict it means a life that eventually becomes unbearable.

We are born into a mind/body process that is constantly changing in a constantly changing world. Everything is impermanent — every pleasure, every pain, every body. But the survival instincts crave permanence and control. The body wants pleasure to stay forever and pain to go away forever. This is the very cause of attachment and aversion.

Our instincts tell us to hate pain and to get rid of it as quickly as possible, but recovery depends on a radical shift in how we respond to those cravings and aversions.

Addictions are almost always created out of the vain hope to control the amount of pleasure and pain we experience. We become addicted to pleasant feelings that drugs, alcohol, sex, food, and money temporarily create in us. But when we get strung out on impermanent experiences, we are always left with the stress and grief of loss since our intoxication can never last.

When we spend our lives avoiding unpleasant experiences by taking another drink, devouring another chocolate cake, or masturbating for the seventh time today, we are actually causing the unpleasant experiences to last longer than they need to. The unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and sensations are impermanent but also persistent; trying to push them away is futile and always results in stress, anger, and suffering. It is like we create a dam in the flow of experience.

Rather than letting impermanence do its job, we block the passing of the pain. We often do this through suppression, avoidance, ignoring, and self-medicating, or by hardening the heart and shutting out life. But when we sober up, the pain is still there waiting to be felt. Some have been successful in suppressing and denying the pain in their lives for long periods of time, but the dam will always burst eventually. And there is nothing more painful than a lifetime of suppressed pain flooding through all at once.

Aversion is the survival instinct. To survive, we have to hate pain. But aversion doesn’t leave us with much freedom or happiness. Aversion leads to addiction. Our instincts tell us to hate pain and to get rid of it as quickly as possible, but recovery depends on a radical shift in how we respond to those cravings and aversions.

It is possible to live a balanced life, a life that enjoys pleasure without clinging to it, and it’s possible to meet the unavoidable pains with tenderness and care.

Now, we are not suggesting that you just accept every painful experience that life presents you or that you should never try to avoid pain or seek pleasure. Not at all. What we are saying is that there is lot of unpleasantness about life that is unavoidable. While our instinct is to avoid it all — especially as people addicted to avoidance-producing substances or behaviors –it is impossible to get rid of or avoid all the pain in life. The trick is to avoid what you can.

Meditation is one of the tools that will lead to discernment about what pains to avoid and what pains are unavoidable and need to be accepted.

As recovering addicts it is important to enjoy pleasure — as long as it is balanced and appropriate. We will need to find healthy ways to enjoy life. In the beginning of recovery, this can often prove challenging. After the intense sensations of drugs, alcohol, and gambling, the subtle pleasures of a healthy meal or good workout often pale in comparison. Even great sex can seem lacking when compared to a crack binge or heroin run. It may take a while to learn to appreciate and enjoy the simple joys of sobriety and recovery.

As we practice meditation and start to live an ethical life, it will become more and more clear when it is time to accept the pains or enjoy the pleasures and when it is wise to refrain or avoid them. It is possible to live a balanced life, a life that enjoys pleasure without clinging to it, and it’s possible to meet the unavoidable pains with tenderness and care. We are not trying to escape the human condition or the pleasures and pains of the human mind/body. Our job is to recover from the self-destructive tendencies of addiction and to live an embodied and fully human life.

Adapted from REFUGE RECOVERY: A Buddhist Path to Recovering from Addiction by Noah Levine. Copyright © 2014 by Noah Levine. Reprinted with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.

Noah Levine
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