The Intuition Network, A Thinking Allowed Television Underwriter, presents the following transcript from the series Thinking Allowed, Conversations On the Leading Edge of Knowledge and Discovery, with Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove.


JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. I'm Jeffrey Mishlove. Today we're going to be discussing letting go of compulsive and addictive behavior through meditation. With me is Shinzen Young, the director of the Community Meditation Center of Los Angeles. Shinzen is also an ordained Buddhist monk, and a teacher of Vipassana meditation, as well as a scholar of Buddhism. Welcome.


MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to have you here. You know, when we talk about addictive and compulsive behavior, the little I understand of Buddhist philosophy suggests that from a Buddhist perspective most human behavior is viewed in that light.

YOUNG: That's correct, and when I work with people that have addictive or compulsive problems, like overeating or substance abuse or compulsive gambling or something like that, that's one of the things that I really emphasize with them, is that their behavior is fundamentally not different from the average person, only that the compulsiveness or drivenness, which is my word for it, is all concentrated in one object, and that object is very self-destructive. The average person is driven constantly, and that quality of drivenness, which is largely unacknowledged in the so-called happy or adjusted person, is what blocks that person from experiencing the really deep spiritual self, or the transcendent spiritual experience. So the person that has a compulsive disorder, like overeating, undereating, something like that, on one hand we can say that person has an immense personal tragedy, but on the other hand there's a sort of bright side to the picture, looked at from the perspective of the spiritual path, in that that person is forced to come to grips with this whole issue of drivenness per se; whereas the person whose compulsiveness or drivenness is distributed among many different objects may be able to postpone that confrontation.

MISHLOVE: Not really deal with the issue.

YOUNG: That's right. So the person that has a problem with food, or what have you, in order to survive they may be forced to attain a spiritual state. So the motivation will be there, and my job as a meditation teacher is to teach them the spiritual dimension of the path to sobriety or abstinence.

MISHLOVE: Well, Buddha, one of his basic teachings, as I recall, is that all of life is suffering.

YOUNG: Well, let's put it this way. As long as there is drivenness, then we cannot experience our true nature. Our true nature is effortless. It is the nature of nature itself -- an effortless, spontaneous flow. Whether we realize it or not, from infancy on we start to acquire drivenness, compulsiveness, grabbiness -- everybody does. And that covers over our true nature. So as long as that is covered over, then yes, life is going to be suffering. On the other hand, we could just as well say that Buddhism teaches that life is heaven on earth, if we see what is really there. The basic model that I usually use for dealing with compulsiveness is that, say, when a person overeats, eats the wrong thing, and they can't stop, they are using the food -- or it could be a drug; we look at all compulsiveness as basically following the same model, you might say. When a person is abusing a substance, what they are doing is using that substance as an anesthetic or a coping mechanism for unconscious subliminal pain or discomfort. And what has been discovered in the meditative path is that there's an alternative coping mechanism. Instead of dealing with one's discomfort by trying to stuff it down, as they say, there's a special state of consciousness that is sometimes called the witness state, wherein you are able to simply observe and experience that discomfort without being caught in it. And when you're not caught in it, it doesn't get exaggerated into a suffering that must be relieved by doing a self-destructive activity. So we teach people how to enter this witness state of consciousness, and then simply observe the discomfort in a way whereby it doesn't drive them. And we have step-by-step, very specific techniques that allow a person to develop the witness state, just the way they could develop their game of golf as a skill.

MISHLOVE: It strikes me that what you're saying, that all of the various addictive disorders are one fundamental problem, is now the attitude of the American Medical Association.

YOUNG: Oh, is that true?

MISHLOVE: Yes, they have in fact very recently come up with a new term, addictive disorder, to include all of the different addictions, because it seems as if the body -- well, it could choose one or another object, but it's still something that's called an addictive personality.

YOUNG: Or a compulsiveness. So I personally like to use the word drivenness, and that's the way that we look at it -- that any drivenness works on the same mechanism, and that when a person overcomes their eating problem using a meditative technique, that that will not just be that they overcame that problem, but it will cause an immense revolution in that person's total life, because if they use the meditative path they will deal with the real issue; they will get down to drivenness per se. Now, what happens when you enter the witness state is that the discomfort that you ordinarily would cover over by, let us say, overeating, you just observe. And you are able to see that it is changing, insubstantial; it loses its gripping power, and you don't need to therefore engage in a self-destructive behavior. Now, however, the other amazing thing is that it is not just a temporary substitution. If you can consistently observe in this witness state, as the months and years pass, that pain that is driving the behavior actually starts to dissolve of its own. We can't make it go away, because if we were try to push on it, that would be manipulating and would cause more pain. But by just observing, it breaks up of its own. And so the actual compulsion itself goes, and not just the compulsion around the food, but the overall sense of drivenness that that person may have with respect to anything, including having a conversation or making love, what have you.

MISHLOVE: So you're getting at it from a deeper level.

YOUNG: A very deep level.

MISHLOVE: The conventional thinking around alcoholism, for example, is that through programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous an alcoholic will learn not to drink, but they'll always remain an alcoholic.

YOUNG: I should say that there's a very good reason why in the 12-Step programs they say that, and what I'm saying is in no way contradicting that. Because unless you practice a very deep meditative technique for a long period of time, you probably, probably, are not going to contact and uproot that pain. Therefore, although you may deal with some of it, the seeds of the compulsion will always be there, and it is typical of the addictive personality to have what they call the phenomenon of denial. So if you start thinking, "I'm cured, and so I can take a little drink," you're going to blow it. So there's a very good reason why the 12-Step programs teach that.

MISHLOVE: And they seem to be effective.

YOUNG: Yes, they seem to work quite well. I would merely say that if you apply meditative technique -- and not everybody that conquers an addiction does it with a meditative technique -- if you do it with a meditative technique, the advantage is you will uproot it, you will be cured.

MISHLOVE: You used this term, "the seeds of the addiction."

YOUNG: Right. The seeds of the addiction are the underlying pain.

MISHLOVE: Where does that fit in? What does it arise from?

YOUNG: Basically it arises from past experience. Whenever we have any experience, even sitting here talking on television, we have sensations that arise -- that is to say, pleasant or unpleasant feelings. If this interview goes well, I get pleasant feelings, OK? If we run into a hitch, I get tension and unpleasant feelings. Feelings are with us at all times. If a person has feelings in a skillful way, in that moment -- and I'll define skillful in just a minute -- those feelings will simply be full and complete and they'll pass through. Whether they're painful or pleasant makes no difference. They won't leave any ghosts.

MISHLOVE: It's an interesting phrase -- to have feelings in a skillful way.

YOUNG: Oh yes, right. We study all sorts of skills -- skill at tennis, skill at computer languages. But very few people realize the most fundamental skill for any human being is how to experience pleasure and pain, physical or psychological pleasure and pain, in a wholesome way. Now, what I mean by skill is, skill implies two things -- that there's a complete awareness of the feeling, and that there is a non-interference with the flow of that feeling. To the extent that a person can have pleasure and pain in that way, to that extent the pain will not cause suffering and will not leave ghosts of fear. The pleasure will not cause frustration. It will be completely fulfilling, and it will not leave ghosts of dissatisfaction. So what happens is most people from infancy on begin to feel. In fact that's all we did when we were infants; we did not think very much, but we sure felt.

MISHLOVE: Freud called it being polymorphously perverse, as I recall.

YOUNG: Oh, I see. That's an interesting phrase.

MISHLOVE: Feeling in every part of the body.

YOUNG: We are totally feeling beings. We start to develop the habit of doing two things around feeling -- diverting and tensing. As soon as you're doing that, you're not having the feeling skillfully. And as soon as you have any feeling that's unskillful, it's going to leave ghosts -- unresolved remnants of itself, residues.

MISHLOVE: Most of us are taught as children not to cry, not to have painful feelings, to be good.

YOUNG: Ah. Well, now, I would have to say that there's a difference between expressing externally and expressing internally. Skillful feeling means that you express fully internally; you totally experience it. Whether you express it externally or not is an independent dimension from that. But be that as it may --

MISHLOVE: That's not a distinction that we normally teach our children.

YOUNG: Well, there are some very, very fundamental mistakes that are made. But in any event, whenever you fully internally manifest a feeling, it will leave no ghost. Most people do not do that. Therefore, they start to accumulate ghosts, or residues, of pain, and that builds up and builds up and builds up. Everybody carries with them enormous subliminal pain, hidden pain, whether they know it or not. Now, some of that pain can start to come to the surface, and when it does, in order to cope with it we begin to have to engage in negative behavior sometimes, to anesthetize ourselves to it. So you asked, where does the pain come from? It is essentially the remnants of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of past experiences -- not just one or two that may come up in psychotherapy, but hundreds of thousands of moments of unskillful feeling, each one leaving teeny little ghosts. Now, what happens in the meditative state is that we begin to watch those feelings in an uninvolved way -- we have specific techniques that teach people to do this -- and in a way where we realize that those feelings are impermanent, they just come and go; they're sort of like waves of energy. When you actually experience the underlying pain -- let us say that we take a devastating disorder like bulimia, for example. When you actually get down to what the real pain is that underlies that, it is not all that horrible. But if you cannot experience it with full awareness, it impacts at a very primitive level of consciousness which is very sensitive, and it seems like the end of the world -- like I've just got to overeat, or I've just got to vomit, or I just can't handle anything. But when that pain is actually brought to the surface and observed specifically, it's not all that intense, really. And the way we bring it to the surface, in the particular form of meditation that I teach, is very interesting. If I were to ask you to get in contact with the stored unresolved pain of your lifetime, where would you look? If somebody says, "Where's Jeffrey?" I can point with my finger and say, "Follow the finger, and there's Jeffrey."

MISHLOVE: At least here's his nose.

YOUNG: Where is the stored pain of your lifetime? What's the arrow or the finger that points us in the direction to look, so that we can start to resolve this stuff? One of the great discoveries that was made in the Buddhist tradition is that the sensations that we have in our body -- the ordinary sensations that we have in our body, the way our body feels -- if we start to pay attention to it, will direct us down into the core of pure feeling within us, wherein are stored these ghosts of the past. So what we have people do is we teach them step-by-step techniques to sensitize the body so that they can feel this pain coming to the surface, in the body, and just observe it as a three-dimensional, impermanent wave passing through. Once they can do that, they find that, number one, they don't have to act on that pain; and number two, that they work through. It's sort of like a layer of discomfort percolates up to the surface, and then it dissolves in the light of dispassionate observation.

MISHLOVE: In other words, you're asking these people to do the very thing that when they're involved in their compulsive behavior they fear the most, which is to feel their pain.

YOUNG: That's correct. And that's why the meditative path is very tricky to give to somebody with a compulsive disorder. It has to be done in a very skillful way, because you are giving them a new coping mechanism which happens to be one hundred and eighty degrees the opposite direction of their old coping mechanism, and therefore you have to be very careful about the transfer of the coping mechanisms, because -- that's why you mentioned the 12-Step programs. When we teach this technique, we usually encourage people to enter a 12-Step program while they're learning Buddhist meditation for their compulsion. The reason is unless there's a strong networking from their peers to keep their behavior in line, there's every possibility that their behavior will get worse before it gets better, because we're digging down into the source, and we want to keep that under control with a behaviorally oriented program, like a 12-Step, Overeaters, or Alcoholics Anonymous.

MISHLOVE: I guess what you do find in meditation is that the pain is never so great it can't be tolerated.

YOUNG: Absolutely. That's why ultimately I sometimes find myself saying, "I don't know whether to laugh or cry." Because when you actually see what's there, you see somebody that has been destroying their life over something that is not all that painful, if you could just get in contact with it. But getting in contact with it is very difficult. I should say that one passes through, I would say, three basic stages. The first stage is where you do not experience it as specific bodily discomfort. You just have urge. It's the "I just gotta" -- I just gotta have a drink, I just gotta do this or that. That's the stage where the sensations are completely covered over by ignorance. Then there's a second stage where the sensation rises to the surface, and you actually feel what you're trying to relieve by indulging in the compulsion. That's the stage I call detection. You realize, "Oh, it's like this ick and this ick," and at that stage it will usually be all over the whole body, and we teach people how to scan the body, how to just get in contact with every bit of that. They've contacted it; that's stage number two. At the third stage they see that it is really insubstantial, it's impermanent, it's not nearly as painful as what they might have thought of. At that stage the urge vanishes. You have abstinence without effort. And at the same time, the spiritual self, which has been covered over all those years by that subliminal pain, that transcendent self starts to manifest, and that opens up a world of fulfillment that is simply unimaginable to the average person.

MISHLOVE: Does this process also work with some of the hard-core physiological addictions -- alcohol, heroin, these things where withdrawal can become a major problem for some people?

YOUNG: Absolutely. It would work. Now, what my experience has been is that basically if the person has a very high motivation, and if they can get very competent, clear instruction in meditation, then they can conquer the disorder, and not only that, but go far beyond that. In other words, the person that we so much pity in the state of having the disorder, if they use the meditative technique to conquer it, now becomes the person to envy. That person becomes an enlightened, liberated person.

MISHLOVE: Stronger than they would have been if they had never had the problem.

YOUNG: Incomparably stronger. So that's why I sometimes call that the bright side of addiction. My life companion, Shelly, runs a special program for eating disorders, and she came to this because she almost died from her own problem; she had an eating disorder. It was not that many years ago that she was living on the streets, penniless and on the verge of suicide. She used this technique; she now has her own center, she is an established teacher, and just a source of enormous strength and encouragement to all the people around her.

MISHLOVE: There are so many examples of this.

YOUNG: It's just a miracle, yes.

MISHLOVE: When a person really comes to grips with their own situation and cures themselves, these people become the great healers.

YOUNG: Yes. So it really does work. That's the basic model that we use, and how we teach people.

MISHLOVE: You know, when you talk about the seeds of the compulsion, the addiction, I'm reminded of a term I heard once at a Buddhist center. I believe the phrase was "ancient, twisted karma."


MISHLOVE: It's as if in some way our ancient, twisted karma may drive us into a state of illness or sickness or degradation, so that we have the opportunity to really heal ourselves.

YOUNG: Yes, it's true. Of course, karma, if people aren't familiar with the word, karma just means in Sanskrit action, so the influence of your past actions is your karma. It's nothing mystical. In other words, what karma means in modern parlance would be, "What goes around, comes around."

MISHLOVE: In the meditative traditions, of course, there's a lot to be said about the higher realms of meditative practice. Are people who have been through addictive disorders as capable of reaching into those higher realms as anyone else?

YOUNG: In a sense more capable. That is sort of the point I was trying to make. They have an enormous motivation, and so yes, they will be drawn to that, because actually a really rock-solid addictive-compulsive disorder is not going to be cured by anything short of enlightenment, because you have to go to the core of the ego to deal with it. But it can be cured. Enlightenment will cure it.

MISHLOVE: There seem to be, though, so many obstacles in the path of enlightenment -- demons guarding the temple.

YOUNG: Right.

MISHLOVE: Aren't there -- well, I'm wondering if there are risks as one pursues that. Is that a path for everybody?

YOUNG: I can only say that in my experience it is a path for anybody that really wants it. But people should realize that this word enlightenment is thrown around rather loosely. As I use the word it has a very, very specific definition in Buddhism, and it's not just something that you're going to get in two weekend seminars. It represents a fundamental understanding of the nature of the oneness of all things -- not as a belief, not as wishful thinking, but as rock-bottom reality. And that kind of experience is -- well, you would not expect to go to the moon without having an enormous endeavor. Look what it took to get us to the moon. You don't just wish your way there; you make step-by-step endeavors. If you really work at it, look, you can do it, and go to the moon. Enlightenment is like that, OK? It's not just something that you're going to wish your way to.

MISHLOVE: Well, there were great hazards in going to the moon.

YOUNG: Yes, and there are great hazards in the path of enlightenment, certainly.

MISHLOVE: Can you touch on that a bit?

YOUNG: Well, yes. The first hazard is to think you're going in the path of enlightenment when in fact you're just going in the path of ordinary mental health. Not that there's anything wrong with ordinary mental health. In fact, in my way of thinking -- others might not agree, but in my way of thinking ordinary mental health is a necessary precondition to enlightenment.

MISHLOVE: Sort of a platform.

YOUNG: Yes. But what a lot of people are calling enlightenment is just sort of dealing with the personality. So one of the main things is that a lot of people think they're onto a path to enlightenment; they're onto something useful, but it's not what we would call enlightenment. The next main hazard, I would say, is that along the path to enlightenment one encounters some very interesting, special states of consciousness -- altered states of consciousness, special powers, influencing powers, even psychic powers are there as a phenomenon, whatever they may be. One encounters beings; you know, there's the whole lot of things about channeling and all this.

MISHLOVE: The astral realm.

YOUNG: I call them the realm of powers. It's very easy to get caught in that. In our tradition we just basically ignore it, OK? If you imagine that you have ordinary surface awareness here, and there is this transcendent source that's here, in between ordinary surface awareness and the transcendent source are some very interesting, trippy, special realms. The great majority of what goes under the name of spirituality is the pandering to people's interest in those intermediate realms, to put it bluntly. One of the major obstacles is that a person can begin the path of going from surface awareness to the source, get halfway down, find some real interesting trippy thing, and get shunted out horizontally and spend the rest of their life exploring that aspect, and not go any further in the vertical direction down. That is what I would say is the major obstacle -- being seduced into these interesting things.

MISHLOVE: And surely our popular culture has many things like that, where if a person were serious about dealing with a compulsive or addictive problem, that might not be a good direction for them.

YOUNG: Well, I would not say that, because obviously it's something that you encounter on the way, so we don't want to say that it's bad. And we would never say that to explore it is bad. What gets bad is if you turn it into another form of materialism. Here on the surface of the mind, we get into comparison things like, "I make more money than you do," or, "I'm better looking," or, "I've got a better education." That's surface materialism. Down there it's like, "My channel can channel a higher entity than your channel." That's middle-level materialism. But to explore those realms from a purely spiritual point of view is legitimate, just so you don't get shunted away.

MISHLOVE: I see. So it's valid, I suppose, necessary and expected, that one will encounter these areas.

YOUNG: Not necessarily, but it often happens.

MISHLOVE: The key then is to not get caught up in it.

YOUNG: To not get caught, and not get shunted out, and to continue to go to the source. Now, when you continue in that way, when you finally encounter the source, what has happened is that ordinary, day-to-day awareness, like I'm here talking to you --

MISHLOVE: I'm going to have to cut you short now. We're running out of time. Shinzen Young, thank you very much for being with me. I'm sorry to cut you off like that.

YOUNG: Oh, it's OK. I think we've said enough.

MISHLOVE: I think we made the point very clearly, and I'm very moved by the power of meditation to deal with such a fundamental human problem as compulsive behavior. Thank you for being with me.


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