Round Table Discussion on Addiction

With Swami Niranjanananda, Sannyasi Swaroopmurti (Dr. Karel Nespor, Czech Republic), Swami Ishananda (Italy), Sannyasi Kriyamurti (Australia), Sannyasi Mahimananda (Australia), Swami Savitananda (Netherlands), Mike Hartog (Netherlands), Sannyasi Indradev (UK)

In trying to overcome addiction, how does one start when the mind is dissipated and addicted to so many bad habits, not only to drugs? What are the first steps?

Dr. Karel Nespor: The first step is not to make things worse than they already are, because sometimes the effort to cure one bad habit with another even worse habit can be very destructive. For example, I remember one middle-aged gentleman who came to us dependent on heroin, thinking that alcohol would be a good alternative for him, and next time he came with delirium tremens.

Generally there are two strategies. The first one is for people who are very busy and think they can't afford radical life change, for example, staying in an ashram or having in-patient treatment. For these people, it is important to bring about some life change by introducing a new good habit and sticking to it until it succeeds. In this way, slowly the lifestyle can be reformed. Of course, the second approach may be more costly and time consuming, but it is safer to come to an ashram environment or for residential treatment, which is in effect easier and much simpler.

However, one rule which can't be bypassed, especially in severe drug dependency, is that the efficiency of treatment is directly related to the length of treatment and its intensity. This also applies to yoga therapy. If somebody wants to overcome his habit through yoga, he will probably have to practise very regularly, which means not once a month but every day. So, I wish every success to the person who asked the question.

Swamiji: There is something else understand. The patient's or sufferer's recognition that he is under the influence of an addiction is one thing. The line of therapy that he follows, whether it is medication or yoga, is another. But this recognition that one is suffering from an addiction and the process adopted to overcome the addiction is not a complete approach. Rather, a different understanding of mind has to be created and instilled in the sufferer with the help of the therapist.

The common form of treatment is to go to a therapist or yoga teacher and say, "Look, I have this problem. Can you help me?" They will give some medication or a set of practices to do, and that is the end of it. In both situations it is like saying, "If you have a headache, take an aspirin and see me tomorrow morning." There has to be an understanding of the functions of one's mind. We have to provide a direction for that mind to express itself while it is undergoing therapy. That focus should be on the positive aspects of life, where you can express yourself artistically.

So, along with therapy, if we can suggest the development of a hobby, whether painting, music or sculpture, it will provide more focus for personal expression. When you are fully involved and engrossed in the hobby, you will not feel the need to take any stimulants that can be addictive. Having a positive hobby also helps to manage various desires of a self-destructive nature.

When someone takes psychotropic substances, why does he no longer have the need for food or sleep?

Swami Ishananda: This question needs to be asked of somebody who has taken psychotropic substances. However, all the physiological functions are modified through the use of psychotropic substances. All the sympathetic nervous system functions are overexcited. This acceleration automatically inhibits these physiological functions and the individual then has no need for food or sleep or any other physiological requirement. Other imbalances in the physiological system are also generated. Finally, a circuit of imbalances is created, like a dog biting its own tail. So, the first thing is to bring some balance to the different imbalances.

Mike Hartog: I remember periods when I didn't eat for seven or eight days. However, when there is still some self-control, your senses seek the quiet places and quiet moments. For instance, you try to live at night and walk down the streets at night, and stay as much as possible in your own home while being high. When you are really in a vicious circle, then you lose all control and take a lot of chances. But that is a different story. The first step in getting rid of the addiction is an act of will - you want to change.

Dr. Karel Nespor: There are some types of stimulant drugs which, after use, may make people feel so hungry that they want to eat the entire contents of the refrigerator. After that, they may sleep for two or three days because of sleep deprivation during the time of using drugs. Therefore, lack of appetite certainly is an important symptom, but it is not the only one nor the decisive one.

Swamiji: What seems to stand out is that whenever we take any kind of drug there is a chemical change in the body and brain. As Sannyasi Swaroopmurti was saying, it can go either way, sometimes it is hyperstimulation and sometimes it is a slump. Research which takes a topographical image of the brain waves has shown that when someone is in a drug or alcohol induced stupor, the brain's activities are highly disturbed. As the effect of the drug begins to wear off, suddenly the person wakes up, comes out of the stupor and realizes that he has not relaxed or slept, and once again he is hyper. The chemical imbalances create a disturbance in the normal biorhythms of the body. This is the basic knowledge. This situation can be helped by learning to relax. Some people have used the practice of yoga nidra to rectify such chemical, physiological and cerebral imbalances. There is something we can try for our own particular condition and situation.

Please talk to us about the need for drugs in the treatment of mental illness.

Dr. Karel Nespor: Mental illness is a very broad group of disorders. As yoga teachers you should be aware that if you treat a patient with schizophrenia or very severe depression, especially if the patient is suicidal, you should never, never suggest they come off medication, because these people are often on long-term medication which is not addictive. I am talking about anti-depressant drugs and so-called neuroleptic or anti-psychotic drugs. This is one end of the spectrum.

At the other end of the spectrum are mild mental problems, neurotic problems, some anxiety, sleep disturbances and so on, for which people often take medication where it is neither appropriate nor necessary. For such people, yoga would really be the best choice. It is paradoxical, but mild medication for mild mental problems is more addictive than heavy medication for severe mental problems.

When someone is addicted but doesn't make any effort to free themselves from their dependency, how can we help them? Just by practising yoga can something change?

Sannyasi Mahimananda: There are a number of aspects to this question. The first one is that nothing can really change until the persons become willing to change themselves. However, that doesn't mean that you should do nothing. If you are watching someone else in this situation, you can become a role model without preaching. If you practise yoga yourself or are attending to your own addictions, then just do that and then the other person may notice and take some hope from your success.

If you find that your life is being taken over by worry about the other person's addiction, so that you are almost addicted to their addiction, then you should seek some help, perhaps from Alanon - just don't take drugs to deal with it. There are programs for relatives, friends and children of people who are suffering from addictions that help you to be whole yourself and not see your life as being taken over by their problem.

Even if the person is in denial of his or her addiction, if they are practising yoga, then I firmly believe that yoga does help. They are doing something that is harmonizing the processes in their body, their spiritual nature and their personality. Sometimes the light of hope is just so small. Something like a yoga practice, or putting the person's name on a list for Mahamrityunjaya mantra, or showing some example may be enough to light a tiny spark in that person and to expose the denial of their addiction to themselves.

If you are able to support them in the positive things they are doing, which may be yoga or creative expression, then that encouragement is of great benefit, but only as long as you do not force them. If you say, "You are going to your yoga class, aren't you?" this may engender rebellion and they might stop going in order to feel independent of you. But true support and encouragement is of great benefit in this situation.

Swami Savitananda: The first step is recognizing that one is addicted to something, followed by the will to change. However, in the course of time this will is weakened by addiction. It is very important to find a sankalpa, some way of strengthening the will, a positive thought, and to repeat it every day in front of the mirror, before going to bed, before walking the streets all night.

Dr. Karel Nespor: I would like to make a comment from the therapist's point of view, because we often encounter people coming in a very disturbed condition, who improve, are cured yet won't leave us immediately. It is possible to use the technique developed by an American psychotherapist, which is called Motivation Training. This technique is very gentle, calm and not confrontational. You may ask very gently what kind of problems the person suffers from because of drugs. How many of his friends are dead or in prison? What kind of illnesses did he suffer from? At the end, I may ask him to project himself into my position and say what he as a medical doctor would recommend to me as a patient in such a situation.

Of course, as Swamiji and other colleagues have told us, it is possible to work with positive motivations, to discuss the person's positive aim, such as education or yoga or art. This may increase the motivation. I know from the psychological view it is perfectly correct, but it is difficult to grasp. To tell someone who is drug dependent that they have a weak will is not the best thing to do. Instead, I say, "Your will was very strong. You must have worked very hard to get your daily doses, it is a full time and very difficult job. If you apply this strong will to your recovery, then you will be successful."

Swami Ishananda: In my experience many people sent to rehabilitation communities do not really want to stop their addiction. To wait for them to find the will to stop is very difficult. I remember a story about a lady who went to Paramahamsaji saying that she no longer wanted to live in the same house as her mother-in-law, because she always wanted to kill her. So, Paramahamsaji instructed this lady to continue thinking that she wanted to kill her mother-in-law, but to come to the ashram every day for a period of time. Coming to the ashram regularly transformed the original thought of killing the mother in law.

My approach in community treatment is to ask these people to join at least four initial yoga classes, mainly based on relaxation techniques. Due to these relaxation techniques, tey are able to find the will inside to join the regular classes. This is the only way we channel or apply any kind of direction or pressure to these people.

Swamiji: There is another approach also which is not scientifically substantiated, but which seems to help. Yoga has said that everybody has the power to project positive thoughts to help others, just as we have the power to project negative thoughts to destroy others. This is seen in the chanting of mantras and in the practice of prana vidya. If we look at an image or photograph of a person and chant the mantra with a total desire inside to help that person overcome certain problems, then the positive support we are extending and expressing does create some sort of psychological influence, and they begin to come out.

The practice of prana vidya, in which we awaken, channel and direct our vital force, mentions that if we project the right form of energy to a person over a distance of many, many miles, even hundreds and thousands of miles, that energy can also help that person. This is not scientifically substantiated, but in the ashram in Munger we chant the Mahamrityunjaya mantra every weekend for those people who write and tell us they are suffering and need help. Before chanting the mantra we read out their names and problems. We have had reports from particular persons that they started feeling better on the day and at the time the mantra was being chanted. They did not know beforehand when the mantra would be chanted, but they tell us the exact date on which they felt better and it corresponds to the chanting of the mantra.

We should try to understand that not everything can be fitted into the compartment of logic, but there are some non-logical things that help transform and change us as well.

Many people try to stop an addiction on their own, marihuana for example, or a different bad habit, and they manage for a while, say a month, then their resolve weakens and they start again. What can they do to overcome that point of weakness?

Sannyasi Indradev: I know an ex-addict in London who comes to the yoga classes in the centre. He has come off drugs and he is healing himself, more or less. He has some support and has found yoga and homeopathy very useful. But the individual needs a lot of support. Ideally you need medical support from a doctor. You need emotional support from friends, family, communities and groups. When you are weak and your will is low, you struggle on and either lose the battle or have to find help.

So individuals can either be guided or hopefully find a group to meet with, like Alcoholics Anonymous. They may find themselves joining a therapeutic community, or a rehab centre. The support is the net that stops people's lives falling apart. Ideally, it should be at all levels: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.

Sannyasi Kriyamurti: It is important to share with others who have had the same experience, especially at those times when they feel like giving up. At that time someone who knows how it feels can offer some suggestions or encouragement from a place of understanding and identification.

Swami Ishananda: In the United States researchers have found that there is a spontaneous dropping of the addiction. They are trying to find out what the mechanism is. So far they only know that at the end of nine years some people automatically stop their drug addiction. The hypothesis is that this is due to the seven or nine year cycle of renewal of the cells of the body. But this is just a hypothesis.

Sannyasi Mahimananda: I would like to add two points. One is that marihuana smoking is a symptom of addiction itself. Therefore, cessation of the smoking behaviour itself is not enough without working on the mental patterns connected with the addiction. You cannot change the behaviour without changing the taproot that holds the behaviour and grounds it. There are many yoga practices that would be appropriate to help the individual loosen and release those patterns of mind. The symptom of marihuana smoking then also disappears and there will be a sustainable recovery.

My second point is that having a sankalpa about overcoming the trigger that leads to a relapse back into the pattern of smoking would be incredibly useful in this context. Finally, there is a difference between one lapse and a relapse. If you smoke marihuana again, that is one lapse, like revisiting the addictive behaviour. It can be an extremely good learning experience to look at what made one do it again and, therefore, be able to seek some help to change those things. It may be professional help. Some old pain or hurt may have been triggered and you may use a therapist to help you work through it.

Dr. Karel Nespor: To overcome the typical smoking habit needs four or five attempts. The message is - try again and again. Increase the external support and intensity of therapy.

If one fears losing a loved one and gets panicky about it, what should one do? How can one deal with it?

Swami Savitananda: We all have losses in our lives - friends, family members, loved ones, maybe children. We should never be panicky about it. In order to bear the possibility of death we need support from others. Death confronts us with our own fear of mortality. Just as we need support, so we have to support the person who is dying. Instead of fearing we must be strong and open our hearts. We should open ourselves to trust that there is some divine being who is always there when we most need help.

Dr. Karel Nespor: There is a technique called applied relaxation, which means that you learn to relax and are able to induce the state of relaxation immediately. From yoga, you may use observation of the movement of the abdomen during inhalation and exhalation, or a mantra may induce deep relaxation. Western psychotherapists teach some relaxation techniques, which they associate with gestures. Making a gesture induces relaxation immediately, because these two things are associated. The advantage of applied relaxation is that you can apply and use it at the time the panic starts, in everyday life situations.

Sannyasi Mahimananda: We are talking about losing someone to drugs. Sometimes the feeling of panic comes from the belief that we should be able to do something to save this person. It is very difficult to accept that we do not have the power to stop them from what they are choosing to do. As well as these practical ways of helping, relaxing and using yogic techniques, there are also support groups for people who relate to someone using drugs. There is a world-wide network of Twelve Step recovery programs, which work very well with yoga to help people to look after themselves. It is also important to remain loving and compassionate towards the person we fear losing. We can then offer support when and if the person asks for it.

Swamiji: If it is not a problem-related fear, then see it from a different angle. When it is a natural or spontaneous attachment to oneself, and the fear is because of the loss of attachment, our approach and attitude have to be different. There is a continuous disparity or imbalance between the reality which surrounds us and the attachments and aspirations which we develop within us.

There are some realities in life which are universal. Birth is universal. Sickness is universal. Decay is universal. Death is a universal phenomenon. We know all this. Yet the greatest surprise in life is that despite knowing the reality, people do not wish to accept it. Knowing that death is imminent, people do not want to die, and try everything possible to remain alive and become immortal. Despite knowing that things come and go, we cling or latch onto them and do not allow them to go.

Many different answers can be given. There has to be an understanding of our aspirations and responses to how we wish to direct our life. In problem-related situations, this attachment takes the form of compassion. In self-oriented situations, it is an attachment. The sense of insecurity and loss disturbs the human mind. Losing somebody we love affects our mind. Our inner clarity becomes even more clouded. How to avoid being panicky? Through meditation. Meditation has to become a process of acknowledging the reality. Meditation should also become a process of adaptation to one's attachments so that the loss, insecurity and fear do not create an obsessive, psychotic state of mind, but are understood in the right perspective.

Our families often ask us if there is a way of overcoming addiction to yoga. How should we answer them?

Swamiji: There are two types of addiction, the positive uplifting and the destructive negative. Art is a positive addiction for artists, but if it becomes the cause of financial loss and disturbance in the family environment, then art can also become a destructive addiction. Science is an addiction, music is an addiction. The desire for happiness is an addiction. The desire to avoid suffering is an addiction.

What is an addiction? It is a condition of mind which propels your behaviour and actions. In the negative aspect it is bad, in the positive aspect it is creative. Even yoga can be a positive addiction for some and a negative addiction for others. If you are planning to rob somebody's house, you do not declare your intention beforehand. But if you are planning to find some jewels within by practising meditation, you declare your intention beforehand by saying, "Look, I am practising yoga and becoming a saint." When we think that some thoughts or actions will increase our prestige on the outside, we start talking about it right from stage one. Paramahamsaji used to say that you don't have to declare that you practise yoga. Make yoga a natural part of your life.