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Buddhist Perspective on Early Sobriety, Suffering, and Seeing

Thanks to Katie Burke for this submission

I identify as female and as a sober person, and I fucking love creativity. They help me cultivate the fuck out of joy, but I know, I know, I would be cool and definitely okay if they ever fell apart.

In fact, all the stuff could fall the fuck apart, and I would be okay. Between the Buddhist practices I’ve been exposed to and the incredible community of Recovery Dharma, I have had such an education in navigating through the joys, pains, and impermanence of life. Through this recovery education, a greater sense of deep peace and unconditional wellness have been cultivated in me, and, for that, I am forever grateful.

That said, the mission of this column is to talk about the beauty and hardship of sobriety . So in this first article, I’m going to cover some good ol’ suffering, sensations, and how I can get confused with what the fuck to do with these phenomena, while trying to make way for a newly sober life.

The Suffering that Leads to the End of Suffering

There is an expression I’ve heard a lot in the meditation talks and shares of Recovery Dharma: “the suffering that leads to the end of suffering.” I like this expression because it reminds me that suffering is necessary.

There is a kind of suffering that carries us to the other side of something. It is a profound and beautiful vessel to rest upon, albeit messy AF. It is the kind of suffering that has space; the kind that doesn’t need to burrow a hole between the eyes, doesn’t own judgement, doesn’t answer to a deadline, a shitty job, or a shitty person; a suffering that acknowledges itself, the body, and, most of all, the heart–that huge and amazing space in all beings that can harbor compassion, patience, and serenity for the self, not-self, and all things. This is the suffering that leads to the end of suffering.

The shit where I’m ruminating about the look my mentor gave me, or failed to, after I shared about something gross going on with me, that’s not the suffering that leads to the end of suffering. That’s just dumb suffering, or “second arrow” suffering (second arrow suffering = the suffering I create through my reaction to events).

In my experience, the difference between the two can be felt in the body. I feel an enormous letting go and surrender when I’m experiencing the suffering that leads to the end of suffering. I experience it like clenched fists finally opening.

Usually, I find that the expansive suffering always comes at the end of the “second arrow” session, and it happens no matter what. At some point, I’ll simply exhaust myself into complete defeat through rumination and proliferation of a harmful thought, until the time that the mind and body finally hit a wall and die. From this place, the “suffering that leads to the end of suffering” can finally be experienced more fully through me, since I’m too tired to fight for my second arrow any longer.

The Starting that Leads to Terror that Leads to Teacher

When I begin things I know or have known, when I start things I don’t know, when I engage new life material whether it be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral–be it in sobriety, creativity, or relational–these experiences can trigger the dust of the fear/survival reactions. To be clear, sensations and memories and stories are all always available to be kicked up in the brain and body. Oftentimes, when I have broken my sobriety practice it has been due to my identification with these sensations. And it’s fucking scary what the mind kicks up.

Being an addict can be like trying to catch and subdue a lightning strike every time it hits. I run my entire life by decisions based upon when the lightning is going to hit again and just live in fear of the strike taking me down or not coming at all, so at the first sign of thunder, I obey. Now, that’s an exhausting and unpredictable way to live. And I’m not trying to demonize sensations as these crazy things, like bad lightning or jerk wind. I’m trying to normalize the wacky, normal, occurrence of sensation in the body/brain/mind that is especially wacky in early sobriety. Here’s how it can go:

Something gets stimulated somehow, and a story (the thing I’m telling myself) sparks in me the idea that I’m “not OK” or “not enough” without this “thing” or “experience,” so I go ahead and make a reason to find a way to use my desired substance or process to quench the fear. Now this logically makes sense. Problem? Make a solution. Ouch? Kill ouch. What’s missing throughout this process is autonomy and volition. I’ve never really made a choice. I have been part of a deduction, at best.

Now, I could go all day and night analyzing why I do this (which I love analyzing down by the way), or there is another option in the moment of craving, which I discovered through mentorship and RD: I can hold what sensations are actually here in the moment and honor the sensations as newcomers and transients into my house for weary travelers and just let ‘em sleep off their bad day. I am allowed to allow everybody into my Katie’s Safe Sensation House for Transients, but they are confused and super tired, so I don’t have to do what they say.

The point is, it doesn’t matter right now what’s triggering me (though I personally find it useful to trace the roots back to causes/triggers etc. over the long run of sobriety); what matters is in the moment when I’m losing my mind on day three in animal mode, and I’m about to pop a pill, drink, or track down a partner and do harm to myself, I may not be available to fucking trace back the roots of my life-conditioning systems just in that moment. That’s where this spacious acknowledgement of the bodily view of everything is key.

What is Happening and What is My Relationship to It?

Some wisdom I’ve felt during my curiosity and terror around craving has brought me this: just because something hurts doesn’t mean it is bad, and just because something feels good doesn’t make it right. Really, that’s why the five precepts of Buddhism are there. Our bodies/brains lie. They say all kinds of stuff. Especially in my American society the body/brain minds are so totally confused and fucked and beautiful, but I don’t have to listen. Through all this confusion, gifts like the five precepts are a way to commit, to just keep going, and let shit work itself out.

The more I get to know the craving through pushing up against my edges, i.e. starting new things, renunciation, meditation and other practices, the more I see the truth of things. Shit happens, and I just keep walking forward asking, “what’s happening?” and “how can I be with this?”