Have you ever noticed that when you embark on a spiritual path or become engaged in a particular line of teaching, everything you read or hear starts to feel like just another version of the same message?
This is happening like crazy for me right now. This post is about just a single example out of dozens. The other night I was in the laundry room looking for a book to read. The book exchange area, though overflowing with well-worn old paperbacks, almost never has anything of interest to me. Suddenly, there among the romance novels, was In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction by Dr. Gabor Maté. I didn’t feel any special pull toward the subject of addiction, but on the cover of the book it said #1 National Bestseller. That felt promising. I took it upstairs with me.
For over three hundred pages I have been learning about addiction from every possible angle–from cutting edge neuroscience to behavioural studies with rats and primates to stories from his own practice working with clients in Downtown Eastside Vancouver. The author is passionately devoted to promoting evidence-based public policy. He is a devotee of solid research and fact-based decision making. He is also courageous enough to say that the War on Drugs is an utter failure; he brilliantly and thoroughly makes his case with an exhaustive arsenal of data from the US, Canada, Britain, Holland and elsewhere around the globe.
By page 340 I was convinced that the vast majority of addicts will remain addicted their entire lives, and there just isn’t a lot they or we can do about that. They began life with brains that were vulnerable to addiction. Addiction then further changes their neural pathways and leaves them even less able to inhibit self-destructive impulses. How can we ask someone to save themselves from “brain lock” when the only tool at their disposal is a brain that has been severely compromised in the one area most needed for this maneuver?
I was surprised when the author then veered in this direction, though I shouldn’t have been, given the book’s sub-title and Buddhist-leaning introductory pages:
The mind activity that can physically rewire malfunctioning brain circuits and alter our dysfunctional emotional and cerebral responses is conscious mental effort–what Dr. Schwartz calls mental force. If changing external circumstances can improve brain physiology, so can mental effort. “Intention and attention exert real, physical effects on the brain,” Dr. Schwartz explains. Not surprisingly, the brain area activated in studies looking at the effect of self-directed mental effort is the prefrontal cortex, …. It’s also an area where, we have learned, the brains of addicts are impaired. The mental activity most critical to the development of emotional self-regulation has been called “dispassionate self-observation” by the authors of an important article on the interface of brain and mind, [published here] in 2005. “The way in which a person directs their attention (e.e. mindfully or unmindfully) will,” they write, “affect both the experiential state of the person and the state of his/her brain.”
Mindful awareness involves directing our attention not only to the mental content of our thoughts, but also to the emotions and mind-states that inform those thoughts. It is being aware of the processes of our mind even as we work through its materials. Mindful awareness is the key to unlocking the automatic patterns that fetter the addicted brain and mind.
How to break the cycle? “Everything has mind in the lead, has mind in the forefront, is made by the mind,” the Buddha said. With our minds we create the world we live in. The teaching of Buddhism is that the way to deal with the mind is not to attempt to change it, but to become an impartial, compassionate observer of it.
We can distinguish between two kinds of mind function: awareness (the dispassionate observer) and the jumble of automatic processes (conscious, semiconscious and subconscious) that dictate our emotional states, thoughts and much of our behaviour. One of the first scientists to recognize this distinction was the great Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield. “Although the content of consciousness depends in large measure on neuronal activity, awareness itself does not,” Penfield wrote. “To me it seems more and more reasonable to suggest that the mind may be a distinct and different essence from the brain.”
The automatic mind, the reactive product of brain circuits, constantly interprets the present in the light of past conditioning. In its psychological responses it has great difficulty telling past from present, especially whenever it is emotionally aroused. A trigger in the present will set off emotions that were programmed perhaps decades ago at a much more vulnerable time in the person’s life. What seems like a reaction to some present circumstances is, in fact, a reliving of past emotional experience.
Maté goes on to explain implicit memory and to introduce the concept of the impartial observer.
On a side note, I found it fascinating to hear that whenever Canada starts putting money and effort into evidence-based solutions to this society’s drug problems, the U.S. administration often exerts pressure on us to stop funding such programs. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?!
On a second side note, Violet forwarded an invitation to hear Dr. Maté speak. It just so happens that he is speaking in Toronto on the 28th of this month at 5:00. I will be in Toronto from the 27th till the 30th for our annual professional development conference… and my last workshop of the day ends at 4:30. I intend to try to get there for his talk.