August 22, 2012

Tricycle Talk: Buddhist Strategies for Overcoming Addiction with Thanissaro Bhikkhu

This post contains an audio interview. Listen now.

Thanissaro BhikkhuAddiction: the topic that won't go away. We all do things that we don't like. Then we do it again. And again. This behavior may vary in scope and degree, but we all share this characteristic: We want to stop doing it. The problem is, we're not sure how.

Thai forest monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu—known as Ajaan Geoff to his students and Than Geoff to friends—spoke to us on the first day of August about Buddhist strategies for overcoming addiction. We can think of addiction as a very strong, persistent negative attachment. We may be aware that we are addicted to a harmful substance or activity and yet be unable to prevent ourselves from going back to it. Worse yet, we feel guilt and self-loathing at our perceived helplessness, which clears the way for addiction to steamroll our good intentions again and again. What to do? In this interview, Than Geoff presents several distinct strategies for us to employ whenever we feel the pull of addiction.

In one case, he asks us to think of the various factors of the mind as a committee sitting around a table. We can think of the addiction as a bully at this meeting, a loud voice that shouts the other committee members down, or when it needs to, employs trickery and deception to get its way. We need to strengthen and empower the other voices at the table so that we can see there are alternatives to letting the bully win and indulging in our addiction. The bully is cagey and skilled at debating, so we need to work very hard to be able to outwit him and defeat his arguments.

Listen to the interview below with Thanissaro Bhikkhu to learn several useful strategies for overcoming addictive impulses. You may be surprised at some of his suggestions. You can also read his latest article in Tricycle, "Lost in Quotation," about what we miss when we don't read the whole sutta here.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


You may need: Adobe Flash Player.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu speaks about addiction with Tricycle's Philip Ryan

Will.Rowe's picture

Thank you for this teaching.
How you are going to feel the next morning is a good temporary bottom, but it requires much honesty and insight; whereas, addicts have used manipulation and rationalization, often for years. Additionally, we are used to instant gratification. We need an escape now. We will worry about the consequences later. The end, our drug of choice, is always more important than the results or consequences. Yet if we are sober by choice, we have found something more important than alcohol or our drug. This is a very effective tool in fighting addiction.
Daily meditation, counseling, and a lot of AA meetings helped me to break thru years of delusion and begin to pick unused tools like honesty and insight. Often I had to resort to what happens tomorrow if I drink?
Remembering the good drunks was easy, since I had accepted and rationalized away the consequences. For a drunk will blame everyone and everything before he will fault drinking as the cause for his woes. The job I had held onto could still be just as gone if I go get drunk and screw up. All the work I had done to get sober would end that quick. Now I would not even have a job for my bottom. When I really looked at the “good drunks,” they were not so good after all. I thought about sitting at the pool after everyone had left because of me, and I did not even know why. I remembered stopping the car to vomit, and then driving and gorging even more beers down my throat. I thought of how many days I lay in bed all Sunday, wasted days where I could barely move. To a non-addict this is all so simple, but for those of us who spent years rationalizing and escaping reality, this is an arduous process. Honestly remembering what happens tomorrow should I chose to use is a good short term bottom.

navheneghan's picture

Thank you so much for your talk. One aspect I found particularly helpful was where you said (or rather, it's what I heard) that the addictive urge can be replaced by helpful habit. If I'm interpreting correctly, then it would be where I get the urge to start overeating (when the children are in bed and I finally have a few minutes to myself), and I replace it quickly with internal chanting. I've been doing this for a few years, and during that time, as I also try to maintain my meditation practice, I find that the practice of staying with the urge and just noticing what's going on has become more naturally a part of a set of skills that I use. It was lovely to hear that there can be different ways of dealing with the urges; maybe one skill will work with some urges and another skill would work with other urges. Thank you again.

Violet1956's picture

I love the way my 12 step program fits so well with Buddhist thought. I've heard so many times in the rooms about quieting 'the committee in my head' and talking to my sponsor (sober mentor) when I want to use. Just for this moment, I won't pick up. Just for this hour, this day, I will not use. Think the drink through. And meditation does help so much with all of this. It's been a wonderful journey so far.

trijen's picture

Thank you, Thanissaro Bhikkhu and Tricycle for this audio talk and the many helpful techniques for skillfully handling addictive urges. I like the underlying theme of our capacity to make a choice in the moment. I find it so helpful to remember that I always have a choice about what to do next. Meditation and related practices help build my awareness of that crucial creative "pause" between impulse and action, and of my alternatives... Do I really want to scratch the "itch" (relieve some urge in the moment but in the process likely do something ultimately unskillful), or can I sit with the impulse, give myself some time and space around it, learn from it, ask what that "bully" voice might want or need at a deeper level underneath the bullying, consider some alternatives and my choices, or perhaps as suggested channel that agitated energy into something constructive? Sometimes I remember Buddha under the tree, and the temptations and distractions of Mara that he refrained from indulging (what a great role model!). If I'm aware enough, I get the opportunity to choose. If I choose wisely, I gradually build my "wise choice" chops and confidence that these alternatives can work for me, and it gets easier the next day at a time (or sometimes, one breath at a time)...thank you again!

Barbra's picture

I wish to express gratitude to Thanissaro Bhikku. Everyday I listen to one of the recorded Dhamma Talks Archive on the web, thank you for this gift. I am inspired by your translations: "Pure and Simple" is life-changing, thank you for giving this to us. I bow to you dear teacher.

juliengryp's picture

Thanks to Thanissaro Bhikku for this enlightening talk!
I was an addict myself for quite a long time, causing a great deal of suffering for myself and the people who were dear to me. I tried most rehab centers in my home country, but they just made things worse. It was my father who eventually brought me to Thailand to detox at a monastery. It was really Buddhism that offered me a way to release myself from my destructive habits.
Thanissaro Bhikku's committee analogy is really good and clear. Indeed it is very hard work to outwin the bully, but Buddhism hands us some very effective tools! I find that any practice that helps me slow down and observe instead of automatically react helps me let go of my cravings and urges. Look forward to reading some of Thanissaro's books! I support other addicts now in a recovery community in Chiang Rai, Thailand, where we offer a Buddhist program to recovering addicts, the New Life Foundation. These works will be of great help!
Thanks again!

wtompepper's picture

I like the committee metaphor. I would suggest that in this metaphor, the difference between a bad habit and an addiction is that a bad habit is a loud and dominating committee member, but an addiction is having some key members of your committee tied up and locked in a closet.

Maura High's picture

Thank you, Thanissaro Bhikku and Philip Ryan. I love the "committee" analogy, and the way you both bring out the relationship of Buddhist approaches to addiction with other parts of Buddhist practice. This is something I can try at home.

csiard's picture