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How Taking Yourself Less Seriously Could Help You Escape Addiction

How Insight into the Five Aggregates Might Help You Escape Addiction

The topic at a glance

It is Just the Way I Am

The final years of my addiction involved regular visits to the pits of despair and self-pity. At these times, it was clear to me that I was a loser, I had always been a loser, and I would always be a loser. I had no problem recognizing how alcohol was destroying my life, but after many failed attempts at quitting, I almost lost all hope in my ability to change.

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Identifying as an ‘alcoholic’ has helped lots of people escape addiction but for me it just became an excuse to continue. I remember after a stint in rehab at age 20, I arranged to meet up with some friends in a pub. These guys were hardened drinkers, but even they were confused as I lectured them about alcoholism while holding a pint of Budweiser in my hand.  When challenged about this apparent contradiction, my explanation was “of course I’m drinking, I’m an alcoholic!”.

So long as I held onto the belief, ‘it is just the way I am’, it was a struggle to maintain any type of lasting change. It felt like swimming against the tide and eventually my ‘true nature’ would regain the upper-hand. It was only after I challenged my belief in a ‘solid self’ that the hope of a lasting transformation became a real possibility. It was the Buddhist teachings on the ‘5 aggregates’ that made this insight possible.

The Five Aggregates

The five aggregates (khandas) are a way of dividing up our experience of being a ‘solid self’ into constituent parts. I will explain a bit more about each of these parts below, but briefly they include:

Form

I like to think of form as the objects of the five senses (i.e. sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and physical sensation). This includes all the material stuff that make up our life (e.g. buildings, roads, tables, and our body) that we become aware of through interaction with our senses.

Consciousness

When one of our five senses come into contact with an object (e.g. we look at a flower), it is consciousness that makes us aware of this contact.

Feeling

The word ‘feeling’ is commonly used to refer to emotions but this is not what we mean here. When consciousness comes into contact with an object there is ‘feeling response’ which is either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

Perception

Perception is the labelling of any object that we become conscious of (e.g. this is a tree). Sometimes our perception is mistaken (e.g. waving to a friend who we see in the distance only to realize as we get closer that we have been waving to a stranger).

Mental Formations

Mental formations are the mental baggage we drag around with us throughout life. It includes our thoughts, our stories, our beliefs, our opinions, and our prejudices. The mental formations also include our habitual responses that get triggered by the interaction of the other aggregates.

Here is an example of how the five aggregates work in practice:

Insights into the Five Aggregates that Might Make It Easier for You to Quit Addiction

During the final years of my alcohol addiction, I managed to get periods where I could stay sober long enough to go to meditation retreats. I began to see for myself that nothing in my experience existed beyond the five aggregates, and most significantly of all, I failed to find a solid unchanging self within these aggregates. I began to see how my struggle was driven by habitual behaviors and thought patterns (unwholesome mental formations) rather than some type of fundamental rottenness inside of me.

Here are some suggestions for how insight into the five aggregates might make it easier for you to stay free of addiction:

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