In this blog and on my channel I talk a lot about my history with drug abuse as well as my interest in the teachings of the Buddha. In this article I explore how Buddhist philosophy has helped me on my journey of recovery; not only recovery from the extreme of abuse, but also the extreme of renunciation.
When I was younger I used a lot of drugs. It started with smoking too much weed and then it developed into a pretty serious heroin addiction. When I eventually came clean, I came to the conclusion that in order to stay clean, I had to completely renounce all substances. I met my now ex-wife at that time and we got married and started a family. Although I didn’t exactly forbid her to drink alcohol, I wasn’t happy if she did. I now realize that I had actually become judgmental towards people who drank or used drugs.
So, what happened was that I was in one extreme – abusing drugs every day – and then, when I got clean, I drew a line in the sand and said that I wouldn’t overstep that line in order to protect myself from relapsing. But during this process I began moving into another extreme, in the opposite direction.
The Prince who Became a Buddha
I think this is part of the reason why the story of the Buddha resonates with me. Because as the story goes, Siddhārtha Gautama was a prince who lived a life of luxury. A seer had predicted that Siddhārtha might become a wandering ascetic. But this was not the life his father wanted for him. His father kept him in the palace and made sure that he was not exposed to life’s uglier realities. But one day Siddhārtha traveled outside the palace walls and saw an old man, a diseased man, a corpse and an ascetic. After this experience Siddhārtha became more and more disillusioned with his life of luxury. He realized that his life of luxury would not help him escape the same fate as everyone else – suffering and death.
So, Siddhārtha left his life of luxury and became an ascetic and renounced worldly pleasures in an attempt to attain enlightenment. But then, after 6 years of living like this, he realized that this also wasn’t the way. Siddhārtha then discovered what is known as the middle way – the path between self-indulgence and self-mortification. He then became known as the Buddha – one who is awake.
This story resonates with me because my journey has also been about finding a balance between extremes. At first it could be said that I gave myself over completely to desire and then I tried to deny my desires. But then I just projected it onto others in a very judgmental way.
Finding Balance Between the Extremes
You see, to the extreme side of religion is the notion that desires are bad and should be denied. And of course, there is an extreme side to desire. Sex, food, money, ambition etc. are all things that can easily turn into destructive habits. In a sincere attempt to protect themselves and others from the destructive side of self-indulgence, people – especially religious people – have often demonized these things. But more often than not, renunciation only serves to reinforce the desire; much like the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.
I have often fallen into the trap of imagining that in order to be free, I had to somehow detach from desire. This includes the desire for success, wealth, love, pleasure etc. But then I began to imagine what it would be like to be completely detached from desire. Desire is a powerful driving force. Sexual desire, for instance is essential for procreation; it is the desire for understanding that often cause men and women to make new discoveries. The desire for adventure is what caused the explorers of old to discover new countries. To a large extent, the desire to eat and enjoy a life that is comfortable is what gets us out of bed in the morning. So, is desire really a bad thing? I have come to the conclusion that it is not.
As I noted earlier, desire is a powerful driving force and to a large degree, it’s what keeps us going. But any desire can easily become unhealthy and even destructive. Buddhist philosophy teaches us that desire is the cause of suffering and that our suffering will cease when our desire does. But perhaps the question is not, “how do I get all that I desire?”, which is one extreme; nor is it, “how do I let go of desire?”, which is the other extreme. Perhaps the question is, “how do I develop a healthy relationship with desire?”
A Healthy Relationship with Desire
Perhaps taking the middle way means that we cannot fully get rid of desire, because even the desire to get rid of desire can become an unhealthy obsession. These days I don’t beat myself up for having desires; some days, I still feel like getting drunk, high or laid and I’m mostly okay with that. Of course, this doesn’t mean that my desires are a trustworthy guide as to how I should behave and I don’t necessarily act on my desires; but I don’t see my desires as “wrong” either.
I find that using this approach – as opposed to denying or suppressing desire – actually breaks the power of desire. Then I begin to move more and more into a place where my desire serves me rather than controls me.