Addiction Recovery & Meditation: A Primer

All Buddhists meditate, but not all those who meditate are Buddhists.

In fact, the majority of those who practice mindfulness meditation regularly in the US do so for non-spiritual reasons like chronic pain management, stress relief, depression, self-esteem issues, and –addiction recovery.

Far from being a weird retro holdover from the “flower power” days of the 1960’s and 1970’s, meditation itself is older than either Christianity or Islam. About 2,600 years ago, an Indian (Hindu) prince named Siddhartha Gautama left his royal inheritance to wander and study – in search of a quiet, disciplined, enlightened mind. After years of wandering and studying with the wisest men of those ancient times, Siddhartha finally achieves the peace and self-knowledge that he sought; through meditation, he gained the bliss of nirvana and became a Buddha, “an enlightened one.” Until his death, the Buddha taught anyone who sought enlightenment that they too have Buddha nature; anything that he’d achieved, others can also achieve through meditation. Much to the horror of the Hindu aristocrats of the time, the Buddha taught that even those of the lowest class (or caste), including criminals, were born with all the tools they needed to abandon the “attachments” of greed, lust, envy, over-indulgence, and other graspings that cause human suffering. After the Buddha’s death, his primary disciple, Bodhidharma, took his act on the road and spread the teachings of Buddhism through Asia; it still remains the spirituality of choice in today’s Asian countries. Oddly enough, this “religion without a god” has proven to be of enormous benefits to those who seek recovery from addiction.

Be Here Now

What’s up with this? The explanation is surprisingly simple: Buddhism, especially the Zen Buddhism of Japan, Vietnam, and Thailand, focuses entirely upon now. Not the regrets of yesterday or the fears of tomorrow, but this very moment as it endlessly unfolds in our lifetimes. We suffer, the Buddha taught, because we’re attached to things that harm us like anger, bigotry, an endless quest for power, sex, or riches, and also to negative emotions. Primary to Buddhist practice is the Buddha’s warning that “there is nothing more dangerous than an unguarded, unquiet mind.” (From the Dharmapada scripture). If we don’t know and understand ourselves as we are in the present moment, we’re in for a world of hurt – beset with the emotional pain that we don’t comprehend and that we use all sorts of harmful behaviors to try to ease. Zen Buddhist meditation as philosophy and psychotherapy was championed (very successfully) in the modern Western world by Dr. Jack Kornfield – a Buddhist monk – Dr. Jon Kabbot-Zin – a non-Buddhist – two psychologists who extensively researched the relationship between “mindfulness” meditation, with its focus on calming the mind and self-awareness, and diverse mental health issues including addiction. Even further, Buddhist monk Bodhipaksa (born Graeme Stephen of Glasgow, Scotland) took meditation principles into the Montana State Prison and other facilities while studying for his Master’s degree. Years after his departure for New Hampshire, where he founded his sangha (community), MSP still maintains the meditation program for a variety of offenders. Corrections facilities around the world have implemented similar programs since the majority of inmates were intoxicated when they committed their crimes.

Buddhists are remarkable funny men and women; one of Buddhism’s best jokes asks why Buddhists don’t vacuum in the corners. Answer: Because they don’t have any attachments. Still the mind, said the Buddha, and all attachments can be eliminated. Addiction is such an attachment; the clinging to a substance to bring about a mood change, escape the problems of real, sober life, and cope with unpleasant physical conditions. The mind that is quieted through mindfulness meditation and is focused on the here and now has no need for overindulgence in any substance. Through mindfulness meditation, we become aware of our compassion for others since all life is interconnected; we lose our attachment of self-centeredness, disregarding the rights, needs, and beliefs of others. The addict in recovery who was high as a kite when she caused the car wreck that permanently disabled a child strives to eliminate the attachment of self-indulgence. The addict who stole from others to maintain his habit. The mother who neglected her children because of her dependence on prescription drugs. The teenager who traded sex for drugs.

The list of human sufferings caused by alcohol and other drug addiction is unbroken from the time of the Buddha (and even before) until today. Most enlightened (pun intended!) addiction professionals agree that there is no one way, no “royal road” to recovery; there is only what works for each addict to keep him or her sober. The mindfulness meditation of Zen Buddhism is rapidly gaining credence and credibility as a major tool in addiction recovery. For more information on meditation and addiction and on how mindfulness is used as a tool in psychotherapy, a good place to start is with Bodhipaksa’s Internet site, From there, the way becomes open.

Recovering from substance use disorders is a challenging journey that feels more doable in an environment that tends to each individual’s complex needs and strengths. Our goal is to foster a treatment experience that is built on compassion, hope, and caring, and fueled by excellence in the provision of evidence-based and trauma-informed care.

– - Anonymous