How Taking Yourself Less Seriously Could Help You Escape Addiction

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How Insight into the Five Aggregates Might Help You Escape Addiction

The topic at a glance

  • The belief ‘it is just the way I am’ can leave us feeling powerless and overwhelmed by addiction.

  • The Buddhist theory of the ‘5 Aggregates’ allows us to see how our behavior and identity is not ‘set in stone’ and we can completely transform our life.

  • Our transformation begins by developing wholesome qualities and learning to accept reality rather than trying to control it.

It is Just the Way I Am

Buddha at Hope Rehab 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.

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 (Rupa)

  • Feeling (Vedana)

  • Perception (Sanna)

  • Mental formations (Sankhara)

  • Consciousness (Vinnana)

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:

  • An object (form) is placed in my mouth

  • I become aware of the taste of the object (consciousness)

  • The taste is pleasant (feeling)

  • I realize it is chocolate (perception)

  • I start to feel guilty about eating chocolate because I need to lose weight (mental formations)

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:

  • The habitual thought patterns that keep us trapped in addiction rely on our identification with them. Mindfulness practices can help us view these thoughts as temporary intruders rather than something we are.

  • It is the feeling aggregate that triggers craving, but if we can stay mindful as craving arises, we won’t be swept away by it. Addictive behavior relies on us grasping the craving, but we can just let it pass like a cloud in the sky.

  • What we practice we become. We can change our habitual responses to life (mental formations) by deliberately cultivating wholesome qualities such as kindness, acceptance, and good-will towards ourselves and others.

  • True freedom arises when we start to view the aggregates as natural processes rather than any type of solid-self. As the Thai monk Buddhadassa recommended: “Nothing whatsoever should be grasped at or clung to as ‘me’ or ‘mine’.”

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