Robert Birnberg offers teacher training programs inspired by the teachings…
Treatment at the drug rehabilitation center where I teach costs nearly $1000 a day. The minimum stay is sixty days and health insurance is not accepted. You won’t find any street kids or drug-pushing junkies there. Rather, among those fidgeting through group therapy, unraveling tangled lives, detoxifying and practicing yoga are the mothers, fathers, sons and daughters of our nation’s finest families.
One word that often comes up during group sessions is enviable as in, “I don’t know how I became an addict; I had such an enviable life.” This particular choice of words belongs to the next level of yoga’s Five Mayas model (explained in part two of the recovery sutras) the vijnana or personality and maya, the dimension of personal values.
Not My Beautiful House
Those well-heeled (not to be confused with well-healed) addicts were indeed living enviable lives. Surely they were good lives full of things that should make someone happy. Unfortunately, these people were leading lives according to someone else’s values; they were leading lives they felt they ought to love rather than lives they actually did love. In the field of addiction this is known as characterological conflict, the gap between an individual’s core beliefs and their actual behavior. Twelve-step meetings are rife with people who used to drink or use drugs because they were uncomfortable in their own skin. They used because they felt like outsiders walking through someone else’s life, disconnected from their friends, family and their careers. The need to create a life that is aligned with our core values is addressed in the Yoga Sutras’ description of meditation, the essence of yoga itself.
More Than a Side Stretch
Sutra 1:2 defines yoga as the ability to direct one’s attention on a chosen object and sustain it without wavering. This single-minded focus quiets the mind and allows for the experience of samadhi or absorption, an emotionally rich connection between our innermost self and the chosen object of attention.
Now this suggests far more than just staring at a candle. Whatever object we choose to focus on, grow closer to and absorb will ultimately define our values, shape our character and determine the quality of our lives. Someone who claims to value helping the poor should actually be giving sustained attention, on a daily basis, to see that those in need do in fact get help. This action will in turn influence the personality of the person giving the attention.
Claiming to value something but not giving it full attention is the exact opposite of yoga. According to the sutras, this divided attention often reflects a superficial, unstable mind and cloudy or conflicting values. Sadly, this condition is increasingly common in a world offering more and more shiny objects, easy promises and diminishing accountability.
What Makes Me
We are exposed to conflict and other opposing conditions from the moment we are born. According to yoga, our core consciousness or cit always knows what’s best for us. This unbiased observer manifests itself in our ability to make wise choices when presented with a full spectrum of possibilities. By using our emotions as a gauge, this innate intelligence will guide us towards joy and other positive outcomes and will steer us away from choices that might result in suffering or other negative emotions. When exposed to opposing conditions, we will naturally choose kindness over cruelty and honesty over dishonesty. If presented with the choice of a challenging job that pays little or doing something we love which pays well, we will likely choose the latter. Eventually these interconnecting preferences coalesce and form the vijnana maya, home to our personality and our values system.
Choosing to Smile
Once this values system has been established, whenever we align our choices and behaviors with our core values, we will experience more joy. Conversely, when our behavior is in conflict with our values or when our values conflict with each other, (“I want money but I don’t think I should want money.” Or, “I love sex but I think it’s wrong.”) we will experience suffering. Twelve-step programs describe this discomfort as being restless, irritable and discontent. Yoga uses the Sanskrit word duhkha meaning, “feelings of constraint or limitation.” By any name, the state of conflicted values is a precondition for the development of full-blown addiction.
The greatest potential for addictive behavior exists whenever we are living a lie, conforming to another’s expectations or struggling with the notion that it’s not okay to want what we want—a notion usually instilled by conflicted parents, hypocritical religious figures, politicians and other liars.
Why We Use
Deeply uncomfortable feelings demand release. This release can be easily obtained, at least initially, by indulging in an “addiction of choice.” It is when the seeking of such relief becomes obsessive that we find ourselves at odds with our core values. This cyclical, progressively deepening behavior leads to the disease of addiction.
Both the Yoga Sutras and The Big Book agree that samyama or long-term sobriety, is contingent on clarifying values either through meditation or by practicing the twelve steps, and by living a life of integrity and rigorous honesty. For it is only when we are consistently able to choose, focus and sustain our attention on the elements that produce lasting joy, that we can fully flourish and be free of unhealthy patterns, habits and addiction. That would be enviable!