Mindfulness and Addiction: An Interview with Paul Garrigan

Paul Garrigan is an author and manager of the mindfulness programme at Hope Rehab Thailand.

This interview is divided into two parts. This is the first part and focuses on mindfulness and recovery from addiction. The second part will look at mindfulness more generally.

Joel: Could you briefly describe what mindfulness is?

Paul: Mindfulness is where we view the mind as something we are experiencing rather than something we are doing. By seeing the mind as an object in this way, we are no longer so caught up in the drama it creates, and we can gain insights that allow us to develop well-being.

J: How have mindfulness and meditation helped with your journey of recovery?

P: The thing that made me prone to addiction was that I felt uncomfortable in myself. I was looking for an answer. It was that seeking for something to fix me that was the problem. Mindfulness played a big part in escaping that seeking.

Mindfulness allowed me to see what that seeking was; that underlying rejection of who I was and what life was. That was what the problem was all along- and that arises because the mind creates this story to make sense of the world, and then the story creates this sense of disjointedness.

So you have this sense of how you think life should be and how life actually is. And it was only this sense of disjointedness that was the problem.

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J: Could you give me an example of what you mean?

P: When I was growing up you had these TV shows like Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons, which created this idea of what family should be like, and I don’t know anyone who had a family like that. So you get this sense that there’s something not quite right. The idea that I should be a certain way, that life should be a certain way- that was creating this disconnect about what life actually was, and it was only by eventually seeing that that I could break free from it and that’s what mindfulness helped me do.

J: To see that story you were telling yourself about what life should be, and accept it as it is instead.

P: Yes. Imagine your GPS is saying there’s a road here and you can clearly see there isn’t a road there but you insist the GPS is right- that’s what happens with the thinking, and that’s why we get into trouble.

J: Letting go of the stories you tell yourself about life.

P: The problem is identifying with the story; we create an identity out of the story. Say you’re in school and you start doing art and the art teacher says you’re not very good at art, and then maybe later on you’re trying to draw something and right away that thought comes back- “Oh you’re not very good at art.”

By “identifying” I mean you actually start to treat that thing- which could have been very time specific to that particular day, it could have been because that teacher was in a bad mood, it could have been that they just didn’t get your fantastic art- but for some reason you treat that now as if it’s true and it’s part of your identity and you become this person who can’t do art.

J: So letting go of those thoughts we take on years and years ago…

P: Yes, not forming an identity out of them.

J: That sets you free in a way doesn’t it?

P: Yeah. Its a huge part of what sets us free.

J: What is “enlightenment”?

P: Stuff like “awakening” and “enlightenment” are only really relevant to people who are searching for something. Words like that become a placeholder for something else. Long before we were seeking enlightenment we were seeking something else, and I call that thing well-being.

I had this great hunger for well-being, and the reason I liked alcohol was that alcohol seemed to be offering me that.

But then you hear along the way about these other things like “enlightenment” and you go, “Oh, that means well-being.” But no, its very hard to know what enlightenment is. Even though you have these descriptions in the Buddhist literature, it’s still subjective, whether you have it or not, and to me its immaterial- the only thing I was ever after was well-being, and that’s what I have.

J: That’s interesting that “enlightenment” is a placeholder for other things.

P: It was in my case. The only reason to seek something, is that you’re missing something, and for me it was getting to a place where I didn’t feel like I was missing anything any more.

It’s the same with alcohol. It’s the same with all these get rich quick schemes- when we want something we’re very vulnerable, but once you get out of that, once you develop a deep sense of well-being, that’s gone.

People say I may be controversial, but I have no doubt I’ll never drink again. I know I’ll never drink again. And people will say, “How could you possibly say that?” It’s got nothing to offer me. That was only ever a problem because I was seeking well-being. And once you have well-being there’s nothing there to drive you back.

J: But how do you know you can maintain that well-being?

P: Because it’s actually the not having it that requires to be maintained. It was the resistance that required maintenance. Imagine if you have a dancing disease, a dancing mental illness, where you just can’t stop dancing, and so you say to yourself, “You need to relax”. That relaxing initially would seem like you were doing something, and it would probably seem really odd and uncomfortable, but eventually you realise, “Oh it’s that that requires doing something. This is just the way it is.”

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Image courtesy of Paul Garrigan.

J: What are the main challenges people at here at Hope Rehab face in mindfulness and meditation?

P: The biggest thing is that most people don’t want to let go of their story; they’re just trying to improve their story. It’s like you’re offering them too much. What a lot of people are looking for is very modest- that’s why it’s so difficult for us to change- some people want to continue their life pretty much as it has been, but without using drugs.

But that often is unachievable, because it’s the life they’re leading that’s caused them to use drugs. That’s why it’s a whole way of looking at life- if you still look at life with this sense that getting drunk every weekend is a good thing, that it’s a macho thing to do, if you’re still seeing life through that lens, it’s very hard to escape addiction.

Most people may be prepared to give up the drug but they’re not willing to give up that way of looking at life, because that’s their story, that’s what they know, that’s what gives their life meaning.

When we’re young it can be even harder, because that identity is such a strong thing, that whole social thing. People have to be really jaded with that to see the folly in it.

J: Can you tell me about some of the specific ways mindfulness and meditation can be helpful in recovery from addiction?

P: The most obvious way is with craving. Craving isn’t just for the drug itself- there’s all kinds of craving, and people often just go from one addiction to another because they haven’t learnt to deal with craving.

One of the great things anyone even doing just a little bit of this can do is change their relationship with craving.

We don’t necessarily have to deal with craving by avoidance. In my first rehab I was told to use distraction, and distraction is a good thing, but it reinforces this idea that you can’t deal with craving.

At least with this approach we can actually start to deal with craving- you can start to see that all you have to do to be successful with craving is to see it as an object, just something you’re experiencing. You can experience a craving as “I really want this”, or you can experience a craving as just something that’s been triggered.

When you see it as just something that’s been triggered, it’s got no power– you have to identify with it- you have to make it your craving for it to have any power. You can learn to enjoy seeing the cravings coming and going without giving into them. So rather than being afraid of cravings, you start to feel accomplished around them.

Then you start to realise this doesn’t just apply to this one drug, you can actually apply this to other things.

You can use the same thing for giving up smoking cigarettes, or you can use this for exercise as well- when that urge to give up comes I can just see that as a craving. Getting that opens up the door for everything.

J: What else particularly helps addicts?

P: Through metta [loving kindness] meditation, you can get a moment of feeling OK with yourself. That can be an incredible experience for someone who has spent the last years always at war with themselves, hating themselves. Even just having a moment where you’re free from that can be such an incredible relief.

J: Addicts often crave really intense experiences… what are the most intense experiences you’ve achieved through meditation?

P: You have stuff like the Jhana states. I’ve never achieved something like this with a drug- they’re incredibly intense states of bliss that we can develop through meditation by developing concentration.

People see- “I can get some of that stuff I’ve been looking for even without a drug.” In fact it’s even better without a drug.

And there’s so many other states- there’s incredible visual experiences you can have.

And also to realise that nothing special has to happen for your life to be fantastic.

I live beside a beautiful beach, but I used to have these dreams about beautiful beaches. And I was always confused as to why I preferred the dream beach. What was it? There wasn’t anything quality-wise better about the dream beach.

The only difference was that in the dream when I was on the beach I was on the beach- I wasn’t thinking about what came next or what came before. But when I was on the actual beach I was always halfway to somewhere else, and so that all I really had to do was fully appreciate what’s there.

You can find Paul’s website here. There’s all sorts of interesting mindfulness and meditation-related resources.

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