A meeting in Boston

Hi you guys! I finally got back here to Holland last week. It’s good to be back. Isabel and I really missed each other and made up for lost time before she picked up the kids and I crashed out. She left for France two days later — for meetings with colleagues. (yeah, right!) The unavoidable reunion scrapping was mild and short-lived. Isabel: how badly was I going to screw up the military precision with which the kids were obeying her every command? Marc: why don’t you just trust me? It’s not like this is the first time. And it was great to see the kids — they are so beautiful to me. Julian’s teeth have almost filled up his mouth again, the better to argue with, my dear. Ruben is still a wild man when he kicks a ball and a lamb when you ask for help.  And they liked the presents I finally remembered to get, last minute, at an airport store that sells useless things to guilt-ridden parents.

So about the last three weeks: where do I start? Maybe with the culture shock of being back in the USA. Of course North America is where I come from, but the Marriott in Boston boasted new heights of excess. There were fully 50 TV screens in the one and only restaurant. Two banks of them, entirely circling the seating area. The drinks had so much ice in them, my mouth felt loaded with novocaine. And every server seemed compelled to smile brilliantly, ecstatically, whenever making eye contact. They would say things like “And how are we doing today?” And I wanted to say “I have no idea how you’re doing. But where can I get some of whatever you’re on?” Or was this just Pavlovian conditioning of some network of facial muscles in response to the smell of a tip? What a weird country. But I must admit that some of the most interesting people in the world happen to live there.

After spending a week at that Mind and Life conference/retreat, and driving around New England with my dear daughter, I finally found myself in Boston for the main act — the “pre-meeting” for the meeting with the Dalai Lama (who they call His Holiness: I’ll just call him HH in this post.) I’m sitting there at a long table, it’s 9 AM Monday, and I hadn’t slept very well. A true case of “opening night nerves.” Today we were supposed to run through all the talks and I was slated to go first. They wanted to start off with a real-life portrayal of addiction. Just in case HH and/or the couple of hundred monks and scholars who would be there in the room, sitting behind the inner circle of us, or the 5,000 or so camped down the road in front of a jumbotron, or the tens of thousands who’d watch us live on the net — just in case some of them didn’t know an addict or weren’t one themselves — seems rather unlikely.

My nerves start to mellow while I’m giving my talk. People seem engaged. Here’s one of the slides I like best. I wish I knew how to include the animation, but you can imagine these different stages of the cycle popping up consecutively.



But then I get to this slide…


This image was created by John Harper. Used with thanks.

…and I’m pointing out how the cycle of brain states involved in addiction fits so nicely on the cycle of states in the Buddhist wheel of suffering, or whatever it’s called, when this guy thunders out from the far end of the table: “That’s not Buddhism! I don’t know where you got that but it’s not Buddhism.” And I sagely reply: “Well I looked through about 200 Google images and this was the only one in English.”

But what raised my pulse the most was the presence of some very renowned brain scientists. There was Richard Davidson, across the table. He’s the guy who first put Buddhist monks — long-term meditators — in the scanner, to see what brain regions light up when you’re not thinking about pizza. And Nora Volkow was present on Skype from Washington. She’ll be coming to Dharamsala in the flesh, so that should be interesting. She seemed relatively tame, at least on the screen, but when the “disease vs. learning” issue came up, she got right into it. Spunky for sure, but also willing to listen to other opinions.

And who should be sitting beside me but Kent Berridge. If you’ve been following this blog or read my book, you know I worship the ground he walks on. His theory of addiction is unique and it’s pretty much universally acknowledged to be in first place. He divides “wanting” from “liking” and describes them as independent neural systems that work together in normal learning. In addiction, however, the “wanting” network, which is fueled by dopamine, gets highly sensitized to drug (or alcohol, food, or whatever) cues — so addiction is a runaway of process of “wanting” and has little to do with “liking”.

So this brilliant guy is sitting next to me. And he seems so…human. Humble, shy, self-effacing. But most obviously a kind and compassionate man. How do I know? When he, Davidson and I were walking to lunch, Kent continued to drop back a pace from walking shoulder-to-shoulder with Davidson so as to keep me in the loop, so that I was with them rather than following them. That’s a kind of social sensitivity you don’t often get from strangers, or from anyone, and I immediately liked him for that if nothing else.

On my other side is a guy name Jinpa — a very poised and polished Tibetan who apparently serves as the interpreter for HH in these dialogues. HH speaks English fairly well, I’m told, but misses some of the technical bits. So there’s Jinpa, a Harvard grad, or was it Oxford? Definitely in his element with this crew. And then comes Joan Halifax, a famous Western Buddhist scholar who apparently spends her days helping people in the process of dying. No kidding. That’s what she does. And then Vibeke Frank from Denmark, who looks at addiction as a social construction. In other words, you’re not really an addict unless you’re defined that way by your culture. Next, at the end of the table, sits this grandiose philosopher dude who told me my slide was wrong. And then, on  the other side of the table, Sarah Bowen, who heads up the Mindfulness-based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) camp — a very cool approach to addiction treatment that uses mindfulness/meditation to get through to the other side of craving episodes. And someone named Wendy Farley who talks about  some ancient body known as Christian contemplatives. I thought her stuff was terrific — certainly a face of Christianity that emphasizes forgiveness rather than sin, and that sees “desire” as a good thing, until it gets overly focused on filling yourself up. Then some Mind & Life staffers. Mostly people in their thirties, but including one very seasoned Buddhist scholar, who later sat me down and explained what was wrong with my slide. She showed me how incredibly complex the Buddhist cycle actually was. What I thought (and I guess I wasn’t alone) was a cycle of consecutive states actually looked more like a 12-sided sphere, with all twelve sides linking to one another, so that it ends up looking something like this!!


I told her I’d dropped out of Hebrew school when things got too complicated, so maybe she should just give me the dumbed down version. I think she finally did.

Now you’ve got the setting and the characters. Next comes the content. I’ve taken care of a few pressing matters, so I can put up another post in a day or two. There’s lots more to tell.

21 thoughts on “A meeting in Boston

  1. Angela July 12, 2013 at 7:38 am #

    Great information. I admire Sarah Valkow very much. I haven’t read your book, but it’s still on my list! Looking forward to the future installments about the content of the conference.

    • Marc July 13, 2013 at 7:27 am #

      I will supply them shortly! Do you mean Nora Volkow? I admire her too…

    • William Abbott July 14, 2013 at 4:19 pm #

      A little off topic but at least Im in Boston.. For general interest


      Some evidence to help those with problems with alcohol

      • Marc July 15, 2013 at 8:35 am #

        I never got back to you since meeting your colleagues, Bill. But I had a very fulfilling evening. I mean even besides the Chinese food. I spent a few hours with Joe Gerstein, one of the founders of the present-day SMART movement, and he was a delight. Filled me in on a lot of history. Then I went to a SMART group in Cambridge — I wanted to see it for myself. My main impressions: human, caring, sensible. Those seem like excellent ingredients for recovery. We can talk about it more later, but I do feel that the SMART groups provide an excellent alternative to the behemoth.

  2. Denise July 12, 2013 at 9:52 am #

    Marc, Very entertaining! Sounds like the opening of a great Russian novel, complete with many characters who interact with various individual agendas. I look forward to the “content”… I know you will separate the wheat from the chaffe, as they say 🙂 As always, thanks!

    • Marc July 13, 2013 at 7:30 am #

      Hi Denise. I would like to supply more chaff …as well as wheat. For example, one person I met, I won’t say where, had some jaw-dropping things to say about the DL. Maybe I’ll find a way to sneak them in.

      • Denise July 13, 2013 at 9:12 am #

        Wait, let me guess… umm, reasons he’s always so “happy” – he’s a philanderer, compulsive masturbator, addicted to some substance(s), prefers a good block of chocolate to meditating… lol, sorry if this offends anyone, but I’ve always been cynical about people who make light of being “happy.” And, I totally look forward to the chaff 🙂

        • Marc July 15, 2013 at 8:30 am #

          Well what did you think was going on under all those robes?

          It’s ok to be cynical or at least skeptical. But I think the man is probably beyond being sensitive to slights. Not sure about his followers though.

          I’ll give you a tantalizing hint: this person mentioned the movie “Being There”.

          • Denise July 15, 2013 at 9:55 am #

            Haven’t seen Being There since 1979 and really disliked it then but will watch it again…

  3. Cheryl July 12, 2013 at 1:29 pm #

    How delightful to be in a room with so many engaging thinkers.

    • Marc July 13, 2013 at 7:31 am #

      It really was delightful. Except that the more philosophical types went on a bit too long for me.

  4. Valeria July 12, 2013 at 1:37 pm #

    Many thanks mark for sharing with us a new experience 🙂
    It seemed to me to be there…
    I’m looking forward to the next post…
    Thanks again.

    • Marc July 13, 2013 at 7:31 am #

      Good to hear! That’s what I try for in my writing.

  5. Roger G. Albert July 12, 2013 at 2:23 pm #

    Looking forward to more!

  6. Jordan O. July 12, 2013 at 5:16 pm #

    Hi Marc,

    I eagerly await the next instalment… it’s such a privilege to have a window into these discussions, so thanks for that. Did you tell these fine scholars about your blog? 😉

    • Marc July 13, 2013 at 7:48 am #

      Hi Jordan. I told them there’s this community of ex/recovering/partly recovered or not addicts that I communicate with through blogging. And I mentioned you — my blog community — as my sounding board for various things. Such as your very enthusiastic response to the notion of self-trust, its pivotal role in recovery, and also the very real interference we get from an internal dialogue in which the “larger self” can be judgmental or punitive. That actually got me into some debate, because, well, Freud was no Buddhist, and the Buddhists seem to idealize their parents in a way that we usually don’t. Anyway, more on that to come.

  7. Jaliya July 12, 2013 at 7:24 pm #

    Oh boy, oh boy … so many fabulous minds in one room! Talk about a high! 😉 ~ Marc, I hope your story of being dropped off at boarding school is part of your presentation. That one detail — and your understanding of it — says so much about the universal human experience of abandonment, and its primary role (as I see it) in the genesis of addiction. (ANYTHING to fill the existential, relational void!)

    Fifty TVs in the restaurant?! How could a diner’s nervous system be quiet enough to digest any food?

    Yes, America certainly is an interesting country. Today I learned that people entering the Texas Senate chamber were allowed to bring guns in, but not tampons or other ‘feminine hygeine products.’ Apparently the powers that be were afraid to be pelted by lady-things (but not afraid of someone firing a gun). Honestly, my brain does *not* know what to do with that.

    On a related note, I cannot wait to read Barack Obama’s memoirs of his time in the Oval Office.

    • Marc July 13, 2013 at 7:35 am #

      I’m sure Obama’s memoirs will be amazing. I like him very much.

      Re boarding school — I took out all autobiographical material except for one passage about going out and stealing drugs despite my best intentions beforehand. The craving-grasping connection really does fit well with a Buddhist mentality. Have to get to the point when there are so many others with things to say.

  8. Janet July 13, 2013 at 8:28 am #

    Ouch… my brain. SO much I don’t understand so I am just happy to be here and absorb what I can. Thank you for the visual of the twelve sided sphere. That I get! Love reading everyone’s input and insights, too. Janet

    • Marc July 15, 2013 at 8:27 am #

      That 12-sided thingee is no joke. This Buddhist scholar who gave it to me was trying to show me how truly complex is the Buddhist notion of interlocking causes and effects. Ok, I’m convinced! Now give me something for my powerpoint slides please…

  9. Richard July 15, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

    Hi Marc,

    A couple of things. I’m a new follower of your posts. I really appreciate the glimpse you’re giving us into your personal and professional life. I’m slowly doing a few more speaking engagements each year on topics such as addictions, motivational interviewing, and things related to counselling psychology. Your experiences at traveling for these conferences gives me great insight into what a speaker’s life is like. Thank you for that!!

    Secondly, when I get people in the audience disagreeing with things I say, it sometimes feels incredibly deflating and demoralizing. Hearing about your experience on this panel, though, and how people (some brilliant ones!) will openly challenge and disagree with you, reminds me that these occurrences are universal. Thanks for the reminder!

    Keep up the great work,

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