Pema Chodron: What a Buddhist Nun can Teach us About Addiction

North America’s most prominent practitioner of Buddhism, Pema Chodron,  points out in an interview with Bill Moyer that the spiritual practices of Buddhism can reduce the suffering of people from all walks of life regardless of race, religion or creed.

As Pema’s work in exploring Buddhism is becoming more accessible to a larger audience, many individuals struggling with addiction are seeking her teachings in search of enlightenment and freedom from drugs and alcohol. Practicing meditation as a way to bring ‘room to the mind’ and take time out from the ‘busyness’ of life has helped many individuals in recovery. Pema says that at first, we may feel threatened by a sense that nothing is happening, over time our senses will seem more alive and the constant chattering voices will subside. Meditation allows us to hang out with our thoughts, freeing us from judging and resisting them.

The Buddhism concepts such as groundlessness1 and shenpa2, suggest that addiction is a universal condition: problems with drugs and alcohol are simply different symptoms of the same condition or an extreme example of how far people will go to avoid suffering.

According to Pema, “it isn’t the things that happen to us in our lives that cause us to suffer; it is how we relate to the things that happen to us that cause us to suffer.” Typically, it’s not the physical but the emotional pain that we struggle with most such as that which we experience with rejection, abandonment, or loss.

Part of what attracted Pema to Buddhism was its focus on the present moment. Pema saw that most human beings are afraid of negative feelings and are constantly scrambling to find ways to avoid feelings of embarrassment, boredom, anxiety, etc. Pema calls these moments of insecurity ‘groundlessness’ or being ‘off-balance.’ Human beings avoid the experience of groundlessness in a very effective way – we get distracted. For people with addictions, boredom can often jeopardize sobriety. While most ‘normal’ people will resort to harmless distractions such as watching TV, practicing sports or engaging in other recreational activity, someone with a chemical dependency will turn to their drug of choice.

Pema suggests using “groundlessness” as a force for positive change and she uses a metaphor to emphasize this point. She says: “Suppose you are barefoot in a field of thorn bushes. To take away the pain of walking through the field covered in thorn bushes, you could criticize the farmer for not cutting down the thorn bushes or you could wish that the field was covered in giant strips of leather, or you could simply wrap the leather around your foot.”

In the same way, we all have the choice of finding happiness by trying to change the world or by working on ourselves. As far as Pema is concerned, as long as human beings are constantly scrambling to avoid feelings of “groundlessness”, there will be wars, hatred, prejudice, and addiction.

We at Florida Center For Recovery wish all of you struggling with substance use and addiction to find your balance in life, your path to happiness and lasting recovery.

For more on Buddhism and Pema Chodron, you may refer to the sites used as reference below:

Florida Center for Recovery
Clinical Excellence & Compassionate Care in a Healing Environment



1.‘Groundlessness’ in Buddhism refers to the fact that nothing is fixed, in life – in our experiences – but also in ourselves, we are constantly changing, shifting. Nothing is fixed. So it is too for our thoughts, our desires, our fixations. Groundlessness is the idea that long term security, a permanent solution to a problem, or even predictability just don’t exist.

2. Shenpa is attachment, but Pema Chodron explains that “attachment” alone is not adequate as a translation:

“This is a teaching on a Tibetan word: shenpa. The usual translation of the word shenpa is attachment. If you were to look it up in a Tibetan dictionary, you would find that the definition was attachment. But the word “attachment” absolutely doesn’t get at what it is. Dzigar Kongtrul said not to use that translation because it’s incomplete, and it doesn’t touch the magnitude of shenpa and the effect that it has on us.

If I were translating shenpa it would be very hard to find a word, but I’m going to give you a few. One word might be hooked. How we get hooked.

Another synonym for shenpa might be that sticky feeling. In terms of last night’s analogy about having scabies, that itch that goes along with that and scratching it, shenpa is the itch and it’s the urge to scratch. So, urge is another word. The urge to smoke that cigarette, the urge to overeat, the urge to have one more drink, or whatever it is where your addiction is.

Here is an everyday example of shenpa. Somebody says a mean word to you and then something in you tightens— that’s the shenpa. Then it starts to spiral into low self-esteem, or blaming them, or anger at them, denigrating yourself. And maybe if you have strong addictions, you just go right for your addiction to cover over the bad feeling that arose when that person said that mean word to you. This is a mean word that gets you, hooks you. Another mean word may not affect you but we’re talking about where it touches that sore place— that’s a shenpa. Someone criticizes you—they criticize your work, they criticize your appearance, they criticize your child— and, shenpa: almost co-arising.”

Recommended Books

12 Steps on the Buddha’s Path: Bill, Buddha and We (2006) Laura S., Sylvia Boorsteing
Mindful Recovery (2002) Thomas Bien
One Breath at a Time (2004) Kevin Griffin
Still Waters: Sobriety, Atonement, and Unfolding Enlightenment (2006) William Alexander
The Zen of Recovery (1993) Mel Ash