Buddhism asserts that the mind can be changed. I doubt whether anyone would dispute that point although we often feel as if we are stuck with an obstinate mind that refuses to do what we want it to. In addictions this feeling of being stuck can be very powerful. But Buddha said that all this can change, no matter how bad it is.
Buddha was a top psychologist. He taught methods for dealing with immediate and urgent situations as well as methods that look into long-term change. For the long term, meditation is an important method. When he was teaching about how to meditate, he suggested a number of tools from which we can benefit: mindfulness, introspection, and equanimity.
Mindfulness, Introspection, Equanimity
Mindfulness keeps our mind on whatever we have decided to do. Introspection checks whether we are being mindful or not. Equanimity stops the dramatizing and catastrophizing that we get into when we do not get what we want (the craving and grasping that arise from attachment) or we get what we do not want (aversion which gives rise to hatred, jealousy, and depression).
These three qualities are not confined to Buddhist practice and are being used successfully in mindfulness integrated cognitive therapy and similar psychological work using mindfulness as a base.
Meditation is not exclusive to Buddhism. You do not have to be religious or spiritual to meditate. It is only a way to train the mind.
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Practical Tools for Changing Unwanted Habits
In this chapter we move towards the practical tools we need for changing our unwanted habits. First we look at the importance of inspiration. With the hope that arises from inspiration, we find the energy to get on with the slow and sometimes tedious work of changing habits.
Then we need to understand how habits are formed. This gives us more inspiration when we know that change is possible and there are practical tools we can use to make those changes happen. Undoing the habits, though, requires more than just knowing something about how they got there. To undo these habits we need to find out what we want to put in the place of the destructive habits.
What Buddhism teaches about the mind and the way in which we make ourselves unhappy is relevant to everyone, not just Buddhists. My hope is that we can find out how to develop our own wisdom and love toward others and ourselves. Wisdom and effective methods guided by compassion form the basis of all psychology and also of sound religious practices and teachings.
Finding Inspiration to Change
Inspiration and hope generate the energy and courage we need to get through the frightening parts of changing our minds. Hope comes from inspiration and also from understanding how the mind works. This leads to faith in the possibility of change. St. Paul in the Bible talked about faith, hope, and love. If we have faith and hope, then maybe we can also love ourselves enough to see the power of changing to a positive way of life.
There are many ways of finding inspiration. We can read stories about people who have been through the same difficulties. If we know that someone else has been successful in kicking an addiction, then we think we can do this too. Betty Ford, for example, became addicted to drugs and alcohol as a way of coping with the pressures of being the wife of a United States president. She said that she liked alcohol. It made her feel warm. And she loved pills. They took away her tension and her pain. Eventually she was forced into rehabilitation.
Later she established the Betty Ford Center for alcohol and drug rehabilitation. Not only did she have the courage to admit that she had problems and do something about them, but also the compassion to help other people with the same problems. In the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, alcoholics are advised to rely upon something greater than themselves for inspiration. This greater thing is usually labeled God, though it might be Buddha, Allah, Jehovah, or simply a Higher Power. Whatever the label, the intention is to develop profound wisdom and pure compassion.
Exercising the Mind through Meditation
If addiction is primarily in the mind, then we need some knowledge of psychology and how it can help us change. Changing the mind does not happen overnight. Just as an athlete needs to train the body over a long period of time and gradually build up strength, in the same way we need to exercise the mind. Meditation is mental exercise.
If we understand the need for mental exercises, then we can be patient toward ourselves. Patience leads us away from guilt. We might have done some stupid and shameful things, but we can change that if we give ourselves time.
The Mind is Always Changing
The mind is always changing. It is easy to understand that sometimes our mind is cloudy with hopelessness or anger or jealousy. On other days we feel good. We don’t flare up so easily. On those days we are more likely to be helpful to ourselves and helpful to the people in our lives.
Imagine what it would be like if we could completely remove all unhappy qualities from the mind. We would be constantly happy. We would be loving. We would be at peace with ourselves and be able to think clearly about any changes that might need to be made to ourselves and to our environment.
The underlying nature of the mind is clean of any negative feelings and any ignorance. In other words, it has the nature of complete compassionate wisdom. By thinking in this way, we can see that the painful parts that cause us so many problems are not essential to our minds. We begin to see the possibility that our minds can be clear and aware. This also gives us hope.
Finding Inspiration through a Meaningful Life
A meaningful life comes from having an effective philosophy about life — from having attitude, preferably good attitude. For example, if my philosophy is “get what I can for myself,” then I am going to be unhappy when, through the influence of that attitude, I make life miserable for someone else and then find that I have fewer and fewer friends.
If my philosophy is “nothing matters,” then I will become hardened to pain experienced by others. United States soldiers were once given pills to stop them from being fearful on the battlefield. Effectively, the pills were to make them feel that nothing matters other than their job. The pills worked, but the soldiers became immune to the feelings of others, including the people they loved. They become hardened to the pain they inflicted on others, even their families, as well as to the pain they might have experienced.
Spiritual Inspiration: Wisdom and Love
You might decide to follow your own philosophy or to follow a particular religion. What is important is that this philosophy or religion be based firmly in reality. This reality is not just the material world, but includes the reality of all that is beautiful and courageous and meaningful in our lives, the spiritual reality. A valid spiritual reality always has the two qualities of wisdom and love.
This article was excerpted with permission from the book:
Enough! A Buddhist Approach to Finding Release from Addictive Patterns
by Chönyi Taylor.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Snow Lion Press. ©2010. www.snowlionpub.com.
About the Author
Chönyi Taylor (Dr. Diana Taylor) was ordained as a Buddhist nun by the Dalai Lama in 1995. Active in the worlds of both Buddhism and Western psychology, she teaches Buddhism from simple to advanced levels and participates in interfaith conferences and workshops for psychologists and health professionals. She is currently a lecturer and supervisor in the Graduate Diploma Program in Buddhism and Psychotherapy for the Australian Association of Buddhist Counselors and Psychotherapists and is an honorary lecturer in Psychological Medicine at Sydney University. You may visit her website at www.chonyitaylor.com/