Post-addiction Buddhist blues (and how to soothe them) in the era of COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic reminds us not only of the proximity of death (and other fun stuff) but of the contradictions we face throughout our lives. Some of which seem truly unsolvable. Here’s one that’s had me chasing my tail for awhile:

How should we address ourselves with compassion and love when in fact, according to the Buddhists (and according to neuroscience), selves don’t actually exist. The self is an illusion, says the Buddha, and I have a hunch he’s right. What has any of this to do with addiction and recovery? You’ll see.

(I’ll get to the neuroscience view of the self another time. Just wanted to throw it in as a teaser for now.)

Trapped in the living room

For the last four days my family and I have been camping out at home. On Tuesday, my wife Isabel told her grad students and colleagues that she’d meet them via Skype of Zoom. She said group meetings at the university weren’t safe. They thought she was nuts. Over-reacting. How many times having have you heard that term this week? On Wednesday, she decided to keep our boys (almost-14-year-old twins) home from school, and left me to explain to the school authorities that, no, Ruben and Julian don’t appear to be sick at all. We’re just being cautious. Um, you can’t really do that, they said. The law is that children must be in school. But growth curves show no mercy. On Thursday, the university announced that large classes were cancelled, were shifting to online lectures. On Friday, the university announced that it was closing completely. And the boys’ school sent out an urgent email: keep your kids at home. No more school this week. Not much joy in saying I told you so. We figure that here in the Netherlands we’re about a week behind Italy (a close neighbour) and quickly approaching the UK scenario.

Our boys have been studying, reviewing, forging ahead with new chapters in schoolbooks whose names I no longer feel I need to know how to pronounce. They earn an hour of screen time for every two hours of studying. So…not a total loss in their view. Sometimes it’s eerily quiet in the living room, while four medium-to-large-sized mammals sit and whisper to themselves, until the sounds of clashing swords tear through the silence. No, not the long-awaited Gen-Z rebellion. Just somebody’s headphones coming off during a video game. And I watch Alexios, Julian’s ruggedly good-looking ancient Greek mercenary, try yet again to defeat Medusa and her guards. That’s father-son bonding, right? — justifiably my homework. I love it.

We Dutch (we’re actually Canadians, still searching for an identity) are known for our confidence, everything under control, we know how to deal with floods and such. And we’re super industrious and smart, highly skilled at cooperation. In fact this has evolved into an almost animal instinct to follow rules — all rules, any rules (e.g., the rule that kids must be in school unless they’re really sick, even during a pandemic).

How to torture the Dutch

Want to know how to torture a Dutch person? (I say this with real affection, and  just a bit of mockery. I’m allowed…after living here for nine years). When there is absolutely no traffic, anywhere, in any lane, as far as the eye can see, you cross the street, EVEN THOUGH THE LIGHT IS RED. (This can be done either on a bike or on your feet. It works best when it’s raining, which is pretty much always.) Halfway or more across, gaze back at the people still huddled on the sidewalk. Look at their faces, twisted in the agony of, not only indecision but true existential paralysis, a sense of doubt (that extends back to the Big Bang and covers everything up to this morning). They see you crossing, they want to cross, they wish they could cross, but the light’s red. Their expressions reveal horror, confusion, contempt, envy, and most of all shock. Because there it is: the fundamental impossible-ness of life — the paradox that can’t be mended, the incompatibility of two totally logical, obvious, unarguable truths. The epitome of unsolvability. (see above) And you know, some of them will cross and others won’t, and regardless, in both sets of people, you can detect the early signs of mental breakdown. I’m no Buddhist scholar but some of the stuff I’ve read, like Robert Wright’s “Why Buddhism is True” and Sam Harris’s “Waking Up,” suggests that the Buddha might have been deliberately trying to get you to have a mental breakdown anyway.

The point

Here’s another paradox, a logical polarization, that could drive you as crazy as the Dutch people on the sidewalk facing freedom directly, right now, but longing for a green light regardless.

What’s the worst that can happen, coronavirus-wise? It’s obvious: you can die. Or perhaps worse, one or more of the people you love can die. So, there’s death. And we’re all going to die anyway. So, is death really such a big deal? According to Buddhism, and as expressed so starkly by the authors I mentioned, the problem with death is that we are attached to the illusion of having a self. When you get right down to it, the self just isn’t real. The stuff going on inside you and the stuff going on outside you is all just stuff going on. (I realize this is a truly inadequate summary of the main tenets of Buddhism. I’m no Buddhist scholar, as mentioned, so why pretend.) True, consciousness seems to illuminate the stuff going on inside you and around you in a particular way, but the idea that you own this stuff, the idea that it’s special, that you’re special, is just a convenience that we stumble upon some time in the first year or two of life (and that gets reinforced by some ill-conceived strains of parenting, perhaps designed to foster life-long anxiety. I mean, being the centre of the universe has got to be hard to keep up).

So let’s say the Buddhists are right and there really is no self. I believe this to be true. And yet: I have advised many clients (and other people) and myself (frequently in fact) to talk to oneself (Notice that words containing “self” reappear annoyingly often.) In particular, if you’re depressed or feeling empty, or a dark, anxious state is settling over you, as is often the case AFTER (or during, or even before) a period of addiction, then one of the most helpful things you can do is talk to yourself, either out loud or in your head, in a friendly way. This corresponds to “self-compassion,” which is all over the Net these days, which I sometimes discuss on this blog, and which is one of the driving principles of “lovingkindness” meditation: you start by loving yourself, and that makes it easier to love others. Addicts are notorious for self-hatred. We’ve discussed the reasons why over many previous posts. I see it as a key goal of addiction psychotherapy to get rid of this self-hatred before it gets rid of you.

I often advise people specifically to say things like “Good morning Jo (one’s own name). Hey, how’s it going? Not so great? Don’t worry. You’re not a bad person. Even if you slipped up last night, even if the label “addict” still hangs in the air, you’re not some despicable reptile. You’re just trying to hurt less. Self-blame and self-hatred simply aren’t appropriate. You didn’t ask to have the life you’ve had, to be exposed to that kind of pain and then discover an escape route, and you’ve been doing your best to get it under control — and succeeding! When you switch to first-person and say these friendly, nurturing things to yourself, it sounds like, “I’m okay…I really am trying…I’m not bad” and then you start to feel different. Whether you pitch this conversation in terms of a you or in terms of an I, there’s an explicit assumption that there’s a self, a self that you are trying to accept, comfort, nurture, and love.

But what if the self is an illusion? Maybe something like that tortuous stoplight? How would we make sense of this paradox?

Here are three approaches:

  1. Tonight I had dinner with a good friend and his 15-year-old daughter, Bo. When I revealed my conceptual conundrum at dinner (Pieter is a philosopher, so this would be acceptable table talk) Bo said: If there’s no self, just a bunch of thoughts, then don’t try to be nice to your self. Just be nice to your thoughts. (Brilliant, don’t you think?)
  2. Saying to yourself that you really are a good self, and you shouldn’t carry around this load of self-blame and so forth, is absolutely the right thing to do. Because, first, it works: it makes you feel happier, lighter, more open, less depressed. And second, talking to your “self” this way doesn’t mean there has to be a real self in operation. The reason it works, the only reason it works, may be that it dilutes or refutes the conviction that you are a BAD self. Not even that you have a bad self; that you are a bad self. Getting rid of that just brings you back to neutral, back to zero, which seems approximately where the Buddha wanted you to end up. Not so you could just be dull and blank and detached, but because “neutral” in this sense is an open gate, or maybe, better yet, a roundabout…from where you can move in any direction.
  3. Here’s an extension of #2. You probably do blame your “self” for all the shit you’ve done, all the trouble you’ve gotten into, all the hurt you’ve caused others AND yourself. Not only from being an addict, but probably from well before that started, when the lesson filling the blackboard in the kitchen was that there is indeed a you, who happens to be selfish, and greedy, and envious, and probably many other not-nice characteristics, like mean and manipulative. (What kid isn’t manipulative?) That’s a lot of badness to have to face every day of your life. Certainly no advantage when you’re trying to stop drinking or snorting stuff. And wouldn’t it be something if this flawed and fantasized vessel, the self, just happened to be the most effective means for packing guilt and shame — hence anxiety and depression — into your sense of being alive. So, being nice to yourself, being friendly to yourself, might already be accomplishing something fabulous, even if the self was always just an illusion: using one side of the illusion to dispel the other.

So, talking to your “self” in a friendly and comforting way simply diminishes the enormous weight you carry around, consisting of the sense of having a very big, very central self, who’s defining characteristics are really quite unpleasant, even ugly and revolting. In other words, maybe, if the metaphor works, when there are no cars coming, when you’re really not in any danger, then don’t worry whether the light is red, or green, or even real. That’s no longer the issue.

And here’s a little secret that I think fits just about perfectly with the thrust of ACT, which was the topic of last week’s post. If the light remains red for a very long stretch of time, and there really are no cars coming or going, then the light is probably broken. That could be an ideal time to see if you can approach things in a completely different way.


20 thoughts on “Post-addiction Buddhist blues (and how to soothe them) in the era of COVID-19

  1. earlybird66 March 15, 2020 at 4:28 am #

    👏👏👏 Mic drop. Really good. I have no comment other than that. Oh but yes I do…I was up at 1 am. A friend texted me to tell me he’d been tested/not tested for coronavirus. This is a man that has had cancer 3 times, survived an auto racing wreck, has managed to treat his severe epilepsy and cancer into some level of remission, he is a step-parent to a special needs young lady and he is not getting tested??? He called a physician b/c he had a mild fever and some upper respiratory symptoms, was told he could not be tested b/c they did not have a test yet but he should remain in-home quarantine and oh here’s some prescriptions at the pharmacy that you can break your quarantine to get. All for a non-reimbursable $70 for a virtual visit. This is terrifying on many levels. I’m too tired to say anything more about it but I loved the timing of your article. I will keep shifting perspective and moving in and out of angst but appreciate the food for thought!

    • Marc March 30, 2020 at 5:56 am #

      Thanks for these words, Earlybird. These plague days are indeed terribly challenging on all sorts of levels. I think the worst part is the loneliness many people feel being cooped up at home. But the travesty of the government’s response, in the US and other countries, is also a source of deep insecurity and perhaps terminal cynicism. If the virus doesn’t get us, the cynicism might!

  2. Alejandro Navarro March 15, 2020 at 4:59 am #

    Thank you Mark 🙏

    • Janet March 15, 2020 at 5:42 am #

      Thank you, Marc. Self-care is my refuge! Rest, hydrate, and try not to engage with the constantly shifting puzzle pieces too much. I can’t make the picture I think I want and need out of all the moving pieces. Instead I must be here, right now. And I can be comfortable with it…
      Then again, I don’t have teenagers anymore!!! A smile for you here. Nor do I have elderly parents…
      But, as some of you know, I have a son who is sick and compromised with addiction and corresponding health issues. I co-exist with the enormous trauma of this. As we all do with our pain.
      “Corona Virus??” I think, and my mind starts to bleed a million difficult thoughts.
      “Be nice to your thoughts.”
      Thank you, to your young friend, Bo. She is right.
      And I choose this kindness and self-care.
      Be well, everyone. So much uncertainty… that we must accept.

      • Annette March 15, 2020 at 6:13 am #

        Sending hugs to you, Janet. Ten years ago, my entire family had addiction issues (booze), whilst to the world, we looked normal and sane. But we weren’t. My parents and both brothers died young from addiction issues.

        BUT, I woke up to my deep depression and anxiety and quit drinking. That has quietly affected my husband’s and son’s drinking – very, very slowly. Son drank because he was lonely, and now he’s back at work, his self-respect is good and he’s making real friends (not just drinking buddies) again.

        These days, I’m utterly present, which was the gift/Holy Grail/nothingness I’d sought for years. Thoughts come and go, but the body remains rooted.

        For me, addiction goes in phases, and the external (over which we have little control – like C-virus) plays a big part. The inner us (soul/ego) call it what you will, then has to make a decision to at least diminish suffering. Sending peace to you and I hope your son learns from your caring love….. <3

        • Janet March 15, 2020 at 6:24 am #

          Annette, Thank you ever so much for your beautiful words.You speak the truth. Actually, you live the truth. No one can take that away from you. I’m deeply sorry that you and your family suffered so much. Yes, that doesn’t have to be our nothingness. You have given me a gift today. Thank you.

          • Annette March 15, 2020 at 7:16 am #

            You deserve those words. I help people recover (from drinking) – been doing so for 5 years now, including organising social events. Now on hold for the time being.

            I don’t think there should be any shame in addiction. It keeps us small and hopeless. My younger brother (smoking marijuana from 12, heroin at 18) had periods of happiness and stability.

            So, I advise and write from deep experience, rather than an expert. I think addiction and mental health professions should be staffed by 75% lived experience and 25% professionals, tbh. This would move us away from dependence on pharmaceuticals and rehab, to communities, serving others and renewing purpose. Which is both a Buddhist and mammalian way to live. Namaste.

            • Janet March 15, 2020 at 8:16 am #

              Annette, You are a healer. Namaste.

  3. Nicolas Ruf March 15, 2020 at 8:18 am #

    So addiction, depression, anxiety, et al are cages of dissociation, but decompensation is a steep price to pay for “freedom”, just another word for nothing left to lose; when you got nothing you got nothing to lose: you’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal. How does it feel?
    Buddha is a 5-HT2A agonist.

    • Marc March 30, 2020 at 6:02 am #

      Hi Nick. You are as pugnacious and delightful as I remember. Keep it up! I’d agree that Dylan’s insights feel more relevant than the Buddha’s…at least when everyone’s looking at you like you’re an open sore. But i disagree with you as usual: The Buddha isn’t an antidepressant. If they had “depression” in his day, I suppose he’d say, Just deal. This too shall pass. Which is why people aren’t diving madly for their “Be Here Now” or whatever people read these days.

      I like Sam Harris because his feet are so firmly on the ground, and yet he points to a version of contentment that’s available in about 5 seconds. Anyway, he makes me feel less depressed.

  4. Mark March 15, 2020 at 8:54 am #

    It’s hard to find a solid self when you realize that THIS is going on inside you 24/7, day in and day out, non-stop from conception through your last out-breath …

    • Marc March 30, 2020 at 6:07 am #

      Well exactly. The biology goes on somewhere in this thing we claim we own — our body — only to find that even that doesn’t belong to us. It’s open to visitors with or without permission. So why does self-love feel like it’s real and sensible, with the added advantage of making us feel a whole lot better. I just don’t get it.

  5. Jeffrey W Skinner March 15, 2020 at 11:02 am #

    Good one Marc. Perhaps one saving grace of Covid. 19 is that it is completely global. Same thing happening here as is happening there. This is very upsetting to Americans of an isolationist stripe. “Build a wall to keep the foreign virus out!”

    And there hasn’t been much talk about the 2020 Election in the last couple of weeks which is nice because it’s been an obsession in the media for months.

    I remember going to a Yoga studio a couple of times in the 70s that was run like a boot camp. Everyone has to do a headstand! Don’t wimp out! They were all trying so hard to purge themselves of ego and didn’t see the contradiction in that. I strongly prefer your idea of having a kindly chat with yourself.

    • Marc March 30, 2020 at 6:17 am #

      Yeah, I really like the kindly chat approach. After being cross with myself (putting it mildly…I’ll avoid the expression “self-loathing”. Oops) I woke up today and yesterday and said to myself, you will absolutely not say, think or feel anything negative about yourself. Don’t you dare! Making a game of it. A sweet and frivolous kind of game. And….it really helped. My depression just lifted.

      Ah, the American obsession with isolation. It’s been going on for a century or two, hasn’t it? That’s why we gave the US a pass when thinking about moving back to N. America. Instead, Toronto here we come. The weather’s better south of the border, but the culture is unfathomable.

      Stay well, man. NYC seems to be the epicentre right now. So…I guess you’re giving it a wide berth.

  6. Guy Lamunyon March 15, 2020 at 5:18 pm #

    We really don’t know what the buddha said. Buddhism lived 400 years in verbal tradition (what could go wrong). Many early buddhist texts are in conflicting styles, obviously written by different persons. We really don’t know what Jesus said either. Some Hindu sects say the world is an illusion (maya).

    As a Zen student, I live in the moment, no past, no future..


    Guy C. Lamunyon
    Swami Dhyan Sagari

    • Marc March 30, 2020 at 6:20 am #

      Zennish anyone? I just had to get that out. Maya is a pretty cool uberperspective. It’s just that this thing we refer to as material reality really packs a wallop, like when people around you are getting sick and dying. It’s just hard to ignore that sort of illusion…

  7. April March 16, 2020 at 11:37 am #

    Excellent post! I’ve always talked to myself in the second person, “You do this, you are this,” and been surprised when other people didn’t. Shortly after I overcame the worst of my addiction to alcohol, my constant self-talk was, “You’re a failure. You’ve lost everything. You’ve disappointed everyone.” It stopped just short of “You don’t deserve to live.” At times it devolved into “You don’t deserve to live,” and often, “You deserve to be punished.” This expressed itself in pretty horrible ways, the details of which need not detain us.

    Lately, with financial insecurity, family illnesses, extreme stress, and lack of social support (anybody want to neuroscience geek out with me? I like to talk about neuroscience and psychopharmacology. No one else around me does), my self-talk has been a loop of “I’m so scared. I’m so scared. I’m so scared.”

    Then a friend of mine suggested that I replace “I’m so scared” with a mantra from Game of Thrones (My religion – Marc, watch it while you’re locked in!!!). “A dragon is not a slave. A dragon can not be burnt.” That keeps me from believing that I have to depend too much on other people, and that I always come out alive but stronger and better off from a crisis. Lately, I’ve taken on one of Petyr Baylish’s most famous quotes (he’s my favorite, though most would call him evil. He’s also the best looking, though some prefer Iain Glenn’s Sur Jorah.) “Chaos is a ladder.”

    In these times, I repeat, “Chaos is a ladder.” We are in times of chaos. Whether your ladder is one to power, to changing the world (I hope for the better!) to personal peace or enlightenment (whatever that means), or to health and happiness for you and your loved ones, don’t look at chaos as a pit. Chaos is a ladder. I believe that we can all find opportunity out of chaos, even if it’s the opportunity to connect more with children or watch Game of Thrones.

    Here’s another Petyr Baylish quote that applies to the coronavirus:
    “One of two things will happen. Either the Dead will defeat the living, in which case, all our troubles come to an end. Or life will win out. And what then?”

    As Marc points out, death will happen to all of us. But for every day that life wins out, what then?

    From the Zen chant “The Identity of Relative and Absolute”

    I respectfully say to those who wish to be enlightened

    Do not waste your time by night or day!

    • Marc March 30, 2020 at 6:24 am #

      Lots of wisdom here, April. But I don’t really get the “what then?”….unless it’s about just accepting that consciousness is this really cool thing that can keep on going as long as we’re breathing.

      I’ve meant to watch Game of Thrones for years. You’re right: this is my chance!

      • April March 30, 2020 at 12:25 pm #

        Hi Marc!

        “What then?” makes a lot more sense if you watch the series. He’s pointing out that if we survive, we have to make the civilization we want. We will survive this pandemic, and I think it creates a great deal of opportunity. People are learning to live in ways that could decrease the impact we have on the environment (such as working from home instead of using cars to commute to work), decrease spread of disease in general, even the common cold, and since the poor are being hit so much worse than the rich. I laugh when people ask me if I’m “working from home” because as a substitute teacher, there is no working from home – I’m just unemployed, hoping for the best from unemployment and dependent on the divided US government to save me from being unable to pay my bills. My fellow Yale graduates who have insulated themselves from the life of the poor don’t believe me when I say there will be riots in the streets if people are unable to pay their bills and are evicted (and thank heaven for Governor Cuomo who has made evictions illegal for ninety days), but I am serious. The rich haven’t seen a movement by the people in a long time. Many workers shed blood to build the American labor movement, and that was at a time when our population was much less diverse. The illusion of race is gradually fading away among the poor. From my experience teaching Latino students who are 99% below the poverty level, they get the concept of the social construction of race. They are willing to ally with others who share their living conditions in poverty, regardless of skin color. The ruling class of the US underestimates the power of the lower and underclasses. While I try to teach that non-violence, voting, educating yourself and running for office are the way to make changes, those who have been oppressed all their lives and convinced they don’t have a voice are more inclined to violence. I pray it never comes to that, but when your father has been locked up all your life and your family has been evicted, when you come to school desperate for the free lunch and breakfast, when you walk to school afraid you could be shot and all you see if violence, you are ready to fight. The rich have become complacent. The stimulus bill will be a tremendous help, but this country could turn into a terrible mess if this crisis is not handled better. “What then?” Either we make a more equal, just society by choice, or we will have revolution.

  8. Jaime March 30, 2020 at 5:41 pm #

    To your question at the top of your post, Marc: how about addressing our “perceived” selves with compassion, love, and, yes, self-talk? After all, we live (exist?) with self-awareness. (Hmmm) Something like what precocious Bo said.

    Looking forward to the future post on the “neuroscience view of the self” and how that relates to addiction and whatever one’s view of “recovery” is. Be well,

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