I’ve mentioned in the past that Buddhism and recovery are intimately linked for me. I can’t remember how I stumbled upon podcasts from Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society. I didn’t even know at first that its founders had come to Buddhism through addiction and recovery, and when I first started listening to the podcasts, recovery wasn’t even on my mind. Who knows. Maybe that was what planted the seeds for me that quitting drinking was desirable and possible.
Noah Levine, started Refuge Recovery as a Buddhist alternative for recovery. Another founding member, Mary Stancavage, is a recovering/recovered alcoholic, and is, I think still my favourite speaker. One of the first things she said that really stuck with me was “Right now it’s like this.”
Well what’s that supposed to mean? Without a context it sounds stupid, right up there with the banal tautology, “it is what it is.” But it actually contains an important Buddhist insight for recovery, which is that you have to learn to sit with your unpleasant feelings, without judging them, and without going off all half-cocked trying to fix them.
Part of Buddhist philosophy is recognizing that shitty things are going to happen, and that the pain that comes from shitty things happening is just part of the human experience. Which sounds like a total bummer, I know. Who wants to hang out in a faith where the first noble truth is “All life is suffering?”
But the big paradox is that we suffer way, way more when we fight what hurts in life by denying it, numbing it, trying to beat it up, trying to fix it, or otherwise get rid of the pain. So, the challenge is to instead observe what makes you feel hurt, uncomfortable or angry, and just let yourself feel your feelings.
I need to stress that this doesn’t mean inaction. You don’t just go “Oh well, life sucks,” and give up. It’s just that you don’t take action until you are calm, and you’ve made some peace with the fact that something in your life is hurting.
Anyway, if you are someone like me who goes all reptile brain when confronted with shitty feelings, every fibre of your being screams “Do something!” For me in the past “doing something” has included, among other bright ideas, running away from home, burning furniture, attempting suicide, and in less drama-fuelled instances, impulse buying and drinking.
Freaking out in response to my own pain has always been in part out of panic: “I’m going to feel like this forever!” That panic has been amplified by the extreme and instant reactions of my body to emotional stress. I just want the bad feelings to stop. So, you do stuff. Stupid stuff. Which, in the words of David Bowie, amounts to putting out the fire with gasoline.
Right Now, It’s Like This. But Not Forever.
The hardest thing in the world when you are in the throes of “do something!” is to sit and, as Stancavage describes, repeat “Right now its like this.” The “right now” part is a gentle reminder that you are not, in fact going to feel this way forever, no matter what your amygdala is screaming. The “it’s like this” part is recognizing that you’re not doing so great, and bringing some compassion to that. You acknowledge your own pain, and notice the tendency in your head to make it bloody worse by feeding it.
You know this thing? Say something simple where someone cuts you off in traffic or has thirty items in the 16-item express line. And you go off on this monologue in your head about what an asshole the person is. And by then you have a bunch of cortisol in your system and you feel like shit. And you wouldn’t have felt like shit now, fifteen minutes later, if you hadn’t fed the beast of your own annoyance imagining the person probably also beats her kids or cheats on his taxes, and it just isn’t fair and what is wrong with some people and…uggggggh.
Now think about how we do that stuff with our relationships and with “big problems.” The monologues are even worse. Buddhism helps adherents to recognize that we actually grow our own suffering when we dig into our pain, create stories around it, justify it, punish ourselves for it, punish others for it, or play the blame game. You feel worse. And you further elaborate on why you feel worse. Hence drinking, or your pathology of choice.
“Right now it’s like this” is a way to turn off the mental gymnastics. You acknowledge that you’re hurt or angry or anxious or scared, but you also try to stay with the recognition that in our lives, all of our feelings, good and bad, are in constant motion. You can stop panicking, and stop trying to fix and explain things when you are least equipped to deal with them. Honestly, you start to figure out that most of the feelings do in fact pass, and most weren’t half as big a deal as they felt in the moment.
For the tough stuff that doesn’t pass right away, you can call a truce with the fact that you are going to feel pain in your life. You just are. And that’s not fun but if you just breathe a bit and give yourself some space, you can deal with it like a grown up. Over time, you forge faith that you’ll figure out what to do about the pain once you’ve got yourself calmed down and your heart and mind are back at full capacity.
I’ve been learning that most of my awful feelings do pass. Really. My cravings for alcohol pass. My sadness passes. My anger passes. My anxiety passes. Every time I let myself just sit and feel those feelings without succumbing to “do something!” I feel a little less panic-struck the next time:
“Remember that thing and how you didn’t react, and if you’d reacted in that way you wanted to it would have been ten times worse?”
That. It’s a learning process. And I can safely say that every time I handle my pain – great or small – with calm dignity, I feel just a tiny bit better about myself.
 It’s worth noting that the compartmentalization of brain functions has been critiqued as overly simplistic, and hence misleading. There’s a brief summary of this critique and an account of the origins of the “three brain” model via Wikipedia.