Exploring Buddhism and Addiction

Gabriel LoewingerGabriel Loewinger grew up in Washington DC and studied neuroscience as an undergraduate at Pitzer College, part of the Claremont colleges in California, USA. He has been travelling for 11-and-a-half months on a Watson Scholarship to study alternative treatments for drug addiction recovery in Peru, Brazil, Vietnam and here in Thailand. He came to New Life Foundation to discover how it can help those looking to recover from suffering. This is Part One of our interview with him.

Can you tell us about your travels so far?

I visited Peru and went to a centre in the Amazon region where they use traditional Amazonian plants, such as ayahuasca (pronounced “aywaska”) to remove toxins from your body in first the drug detox phase. They then work through emotional issues with the residents that may have contributed to drug addiction. This is combined with more Western therapy, such as group therapy.

I then travelled to two sites in Brazil that used just ayahuasca without really any other form of treatment and a place in south Brazil where they use ibogiane – a chemical from the African plant iboga that’s used to drastically reduce physical withdrawal and craving for those coming off opiates. They primarily use it there for crack cocaine and cocaine users. In Vietnam I studied a treatment that is the extract of a combination of plants.

Finally before here I went to Thamkrabok monastery (which is 140km north of Bangkok, Thailand) and witnessed all the medicinal treatments that are used as well as learned a little bit about how the Buddhist approach there is assisting in the rehabilitation process. From there I learned about New Life Foundation and, given my longstanding interest in Buddhism and its application in drug addiction treatment, I decided this place would be a great stop for me.

Most of the places you have been use natural chemicals to deal with the drug addiction. This is a recovery centre after detox so what did you hope to learn here?

At Thamkrabok I was interested in learning how Buddhism was playing a role in the rehabilitation process. However, I think their main emphasis is quite explicitly just to get people off drugs, detoxify their bodies and with some emphasis on the spiritual element, maybe a little bit of purifying the mind either literally or through the experience itself. There is not really any psychological therapy or psychological work in the way we are familiar with it in the West so New Life was a way of following up and delving more deeply into the application of Buddhism, mindfulness, meditation and philosophies along that line in treating drug addiction.

What triggered your interest in the field of drug addiction?

I had a lot of friends growing up who had trouble with drug addiction and when I was in high school I started learning about neuropharmacology. When I got to college I started to formally study neuroscience and loved it – particularly the study of drug addiction and neuropharmacology and how drugs interact with the nervous system.

I also became interested in drug policy and activism and started doing research on how my college’s drug policies were influencing the drug use and alcohol consumption behaviour of the students. I tried to understand it from multiple perspectives because it’s a very complicated issue. I saw how each perspective had something to offer my effort to understand drug addiction and my interest in Buddhism and mindfulness all kind of played into it.

In what way did Buddhism fit into all of this?

Buddhism really kind of helped to join the dots that drug addiction is on a continuum with any other type of human experience and the human condition. All of us have the tendencies to want pleasure in our lives and some degree of reactivity in our lives – for example someone who tends to itch something the second it hurts.

I saw how somebody who might not be that reactive on the surface has a lot in common with somebody who has a very reactive mind, which is particularly the case for those who have chemical dependency and can be very quick to run away from physical or emotional pain and run towards pleasure stimulation.

Drug addiction is not, in my opinion, some kind of disease entirely distinct from the normal mind of someone else. It might be very far to the extreme and therefore useful to call it a disease but to me it kind of all exists on the continuum.

How much have you looked into mindfulness and Buddhism as a way to treat not just drug addiction but, as you say, the underlying issues of just being human and existing in the world?

I would say I’ve looked into a lot certainly in terms of my own process, no-one is without difficulties in life, and it’s helped me a lot. I’ve read about it in regards to neuroscience studies, I’ve read papers here and there about its application. In terms of actually seeing it in a formal treatment setting such as here, this is my first experience.

I think New Life is very unique in that it has such an explicitly targeted application and focus of using this type of philosophy (mindfulness/Buddhism) for the treatment of emotional issues and specifically chemical dependence. Although there might be some centres – like John Kabat Zinn Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare and Society at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the US – that are starting to formally apply these philosophies, I think this is one of the first places where somebody from the outside world can really go see firsthand how it is being done.

You’ve been here four days now, [which is] not long, but you’ve been actively involving yourself in the community and programme and talking to residents about their experiences, so what have you found so far?

I’ve really been impressed. I immediately felt welcomed and I didn’t feel shy going up to people. Every time I have a meal, I can sit down with a bunch of people I’ve never met and I’m confident we’ll have a pretty frank and open conversation about addictions. I’ve really been impressed by that component of the community because it’s so critical for any type of growth, whether you are dealing with day-to-day troubles or long-term emotional issues. In terms of the programme I’ve been impressed with the day-to-day activities on offer. I have the option of doing yoga or Tai Chi and meditation and the instruction has been good. I haven’t done any life coaching but from what I hear from everyone I’ve spoken with there are different approaches you can take. The different therapeutic backgrounds (of the coaches) sounds really amazing. I sat with one guy yesterday, a life coach who even helps people who are struggling with the mindfulness and the meditation to get into it. Later today there is the Buddhism theory class with a professor of Buddhism. It’s awesome that people have access to that especially as I imagine some people here have no, or very little, background in it. So it seems to me like it’s a place that’s quite accessible and you can get a lot out of it really from any level of understanding of these types of spiritual or life practices.

In terms of its effectiveness in its stated goal of helping people with emotional issues or drug addiction, of course there is no way of knowing without doing a long-term study but to me it seems like the centre is really trying to get at the root of the issues and that is, at least in my experience, such an important component of dealing with drug addiction.

Click here to read the second part of our interview with Gabriel

NB: Interviews and testimonials on our blog have only been edited for length and grammatical accuracy.

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