From The Under 35 Project: Hope to Faith

Here’s the latest from The Under 35 Project by Chris W., about how a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh helped him confront his drug addiction.

Chris W.
28 September 2012
Photo by Ryan Pouncy

It was actually a Vietnamese heroin dealer who introduced me to Thich Nhat Hanh. Thay had done a retreat for refugee families, including his, when he was a child, and he had fond memories of going his first few summers in America. He and I spent a lot of time chatting about Buddhism, philosophy, and culture while we were waiting for more drugs, talking about all the things we were going to do someday, but usually those days all we ever did was just more drugs. If there is one thing that all of the addicts I’ve met have in common, both active and sober, is an awareness of the dissatisfaction inherent in our world and an interest in spirituality. I often think that this same drive to explore and experience the edges of life takes them to addiction at its darkest, and toward enlightenment at its best.

And as far back as I can remember I always felt, and occasionally still feel, that religion was bullshit, even if I’ve somewhat paradoxically considered myself a deeply spiritual person. Perhaps this contradiction is best resolved in the saying “religion is for those people who believe in hell, spirituality is for those of us who have been there.” Not that I practiced or pursued either with much seriousness thirteen years ago when this story begins.

I was twenty-one years old, I’d been kicked out of the umpteenth halfway house and after a few days of sleeping in parks I pleaded with my parents to help me find another place to go. The only option didn’t have a bed for another week. Under strict restrictions from my parents, I was to come home for two days, attend a Thich Nhat Hanh retreat with them in Vermont because I was not trusted to be in the house alone, and from there proceed directly to the next treatment center.

So that’s how I found myself in Southern Vermont, three days sober, surrounded by hundreds of people silently walking, eating, sitting, and listening to an elderly exiled Vietnamese monk speak about living mindfully. And I was open minded—I didn’t have much choice, what else could I believe in? I certainly had no faith, but somewhere there was still a little bit of hope that there was the buried seed of good in me that could grow from the guy who had spent the last few years lying, cheating, and stealing to feed his raging addiction, while losing money, friends, and his physical, mental and spiritual health in the process.

Maybe this Vietnamese guy that everyone was so excited about, maybe he could save me. He did and he didn’t.

The next few days were spent silently and mindfully eating, walking and sitting, with a few hour break in the noble silence to talk with others and reflect. The first day or two this meant arguing with my parents. One day though, I walked past a sign advertising a twelve-step meeting, and found some fellow addicts reflecting on their recovery from addiction and their insights into its intersection with the Dharma. It made sense, kind of. I certainly wanted to believe it—I wanted to believe that Buddhism could save me, I mean, Buddhism seemed pretty cool and a lot more interesting and fun than the twelve-step world that wasn’t saving me. The other addicts were an interesting lot±an older woman who identified as a gambling addict, a couple of Vietnam vets, a guy a few years younger than me who’d already been sober for a year and so I immediately resented, and a few young women, one of whom I immediately set my sights on as someone I should try to make out with – at least that would motivate me to go to these meetings during the retreat. I said my name was Chris, and that I was an addict, and then immediately lied and said that I had been sober for thirty days, rather than three, thinking that made me sound like less of a loser.

But I still didn’t really want to give up my habits, and was secretly hoping that meditation would somehow give me insight into how I could hang on to my drugs and my spirituality, fit them in with friends, and make them work around a job so that I wouldn’t have to steal, all in a way that wouldn’t hurt others, and maybe, just maybe wouldn’t even hurt myself too badly. My friends and family would see that I was the enlightened, “spiritual” junkie that I imagined myself to be, imparting the world with crazy wisdom, and they would stop being so damn judgmental.

Sitting on the cushion mostly put me to sleep that week, and trying to sleep at night mostly led me into some dark places of self-hatred, regret and resentment. Walking meditation was a little better with something to focus on besides my own torturous thoughts, and the Dharma talks were very helpful with the emphasis on non-attachment, generosity, awareness and other concepts that seemed wonderful in theory, if impossible in the real world. And yet, slowing down and away from drugs, I started to see generosity around me in the smiles and bows of these strangers, non-attachment in their offering up a little extra space for my cushion as I stumbled into the sittings late, and awareness and awakening starting to seep in. I saw generosity as dozens of people walked past the last brownie on the dessert table, and courage in the sharing at the twelve-step meeting. The pretty girl said something that struck me one afternoon. “I’m learning in recovery and in the dharma not to live for the moment of pleasure that never lasts but live in the moment that is always here for us.” So going to the meetings on the retreat might not have gotten me laid, and was probably doubly bad karma if that was my motivation, and yet that comment really spoke to me.

But it was during a mindful meal that an odd insight struck and stuck with me. I had done the “mindfully-eat-a-raisin” exercise with a family friend and it actually had kind of blown my mind, thinking about raisin and about all the interconnections between all the people who had planted the grape, picked it, dried it, drove it, and so on. So I was looking at the sweet raisins in my otherwise bland oatmeal, and thinking about mindful consumption. Actually, I was self-righteously congratulating myself for being a vegetarian (and pretty organic and local at that), buying clothing that was either used or union made, my fuel efficient car, shopping with “good” companies, and generally doing a good job of sticking it to the planet-destroying, minority-exploiting corporate man that was creating all the suffering in the world. And then I considered about some of the other things I consumed regularly and their effect on the world.

I thought about the heroin I had shot the week before, and what that action meant, and what my current actions meant for this “karma” I kept hearing about. I thought about fourteen-year-old immigrant who sold it to me, and his father who had gone to jail for dealing so he took over to support the family. I thought about the broken justice system in America. I thought about the drug violence that gunned down the innocent and guilty alike in the ghettoes I thought myself so brave for exploring. I thought about the woman who had told me that I was ruining her neighborhood by buying drugs there. I thought about the cartels in Colombia, and the horrific, brutal violence that plagued that country and so many others, the decades long civil wars and suffering that my drug habit funded abroad.

And I thought about my parents and my sister, the sleepless nights. I thought of my friends, not just when they noticed their CDs missing or their wallets a little lighter after my visit—in fact, I couldn’t even allow myself to go there. But I imagined the tearful conversations in dorm rooms and in apartments that “they loved me… but just couldn’t be friends with me right now…” I thought of the confusion in the world, and the delusion in my own mind.

I didn’t think of my own suffering for a while—months or years, really. And I want to make it clear that retreat didn’t suddenly strike me sober—the clouds didn’t part over my gummy oatmeal to let sobriety and mindfulness in from that day forward. But my mind opened. My heart opened. I didn’t have to live like that anymore. Hope blossomed a little bit. I went back to treatment a little more open minded, and also tried, with some success, to sit daily or at least do one thing a day mindfully. I allowed other people into my life. I stopped expecting my parents, my friends, or even Buddhism or Thich Nhat Hanh or 12 step programs to save me while I sat by passively, then getting angry or giving up when they didn’t. I began actively practicing mindfulness and meditation, and I started actively working in the 12 step groups, and results starting to appear. I began having higher expectations of myself, and found that people had higher expectations of me and in turn my self-esteem blossomed, by, as a friend once put it, performing esteemable acts. And things got better, I got better, and the world seemed a lot better, more friendly and generous in return when I wasn’t fighting it so hard. Things didn’t get easier exactly, but I found I had the new tools and knew how to use them. The seed of hope was growing as more evidence appeared that what I was doing was working and I was feeling better. I saw the dharma in recovery programs, in the religion and spirituality of my youth as well as in Buddhism. And as things continued to improve, the hope blossomed into faith that if I worked hard at this, things would continue to get better.  For me, faith isn’t something magic—it’s clear as day that when I act in a certain way, in accordance with the Dharma of what is, that certain results will follow. We don’t talk much about “faith” in Buddhism, but I’ve found it a helpful construct for me. And it’s simple to have faith when everywhere I see evidence over the last twelve years that as I think and act, so my world becomes.

Chris W.

Chris W. is a writer, reader, traveller, cook, and any combination of these he can manage. When not pursuing those, he works as a psychologist and author, teaching dharma to young minds.