This is the chapter “Binge Thinking” from Beyond Belief: Life on the Buddhist Path.
“Binge thinking” is a cute way to introduce a topic, but it’s also a literal description of a problem that has a great deal in common with binge drinking.
I have a lot of experience with binge drinking, and with binge thinking. On the drinking side, I had a parent, Dharma teacher, and many patients with the problem. On the thinking side, I and most of the world suffer from it.
“Binge thinking” is a cute way to introduce a topic, but it’s also a literal description of a problem that has a great deal in common with binge drinking. In both cases, life is moving along as smoothly as it can, when suddenly an old habit materializes, grabs us, and takes us for a ride. The ride often harms us and others—and the longer the ride, the harder it is to stop. We become irritable, isolated, ignore others, and resent their attempts to break the momentum of the binge. Then, when the binge stops, we vow never to do it again.
We all experience binge thinking to some degree. (Enlightened people are the only exception: they continue to think, but they notice each thought as it arises, preventing thoughts from stealing their awareness. My teacher never drifted away from the present in all the time I spent with him.) The compelling, “juicy” occurrences of mind—the urge to plan an upcoming event, or a surge of anger or wanting—constantly steal awareness and cause short binges. More dramatic and persuasive events, like frightening medical problems and serious financial reversals, cause more intense, prolonged ones.
For myself, my binge thinking is usually driven by anxiety—which, if I’m not careful, can burgeon into major depression. My less dangerous tendency is to over think issues for extended periods. Although these binges don’t lead to serious depression, overall they probably generate more pain for me. As I write, I’m reminded of one that has occupied me, off and on, for fifteen years: wanting to share my experiences in the Dharma with others, and how unfair it is that I can’t. Luckily, writing helps alleviate this line of thought. (Or is the writing just another expression of it?)
We can sometimes see binges coming, and that can be scary, particularly if we fear out-of-control behavior. I once had a patient, a nice man, with a drinking problem that he was attempting to bring under control. He also had a money problem—something I never learned to treat in medical school. My business manager wife, though, found out that my patient was an electrician, and in a trice had him agree to wire our small horse property in exchange for his medical care. Since he worked at our house, I saw him everyday, and we became friends. The work progressed smoothly until it was almost complete, at which point I noticed him becoming anxious. It dawned on me that he was afraid of completing the job: without his doctor to support him every day, and with a sudden influx of free time, he was worried he would “fall off the wagon” and resume drinking. He saw a binge on the horizon, and it frightened him.
I knew exactly how he felt, having faced this fear with binge thinking. My triggers weren’t free time and a lack of support, but certain recurring circumstances in my life: patients who weren’t doing well, business and financial pressures, and medical politics. Although our addictions differed, I quickly recognized my patient’s concern about an oncoming binge.
To treat any problem, we first need to define it: if we are going to find an answer to binge thinking, we must know what it is. In Buddhism, we make the diagnosis with meditation. We sit and observe mind and how thoughts arise in it; we see how they appear and leave, and what their nature is; and we note how our preoccupation with certain thoughts causes them to form chains of thoughts that steal our awareness. Over time we learn what binge thinking is.
To define a problem is not enough, though. We have to find a way to solve it. Incidentally, I love the Dharma because it alone provides both a diagnosis of our problems and their cure. In the years before I became a Buddhist, I read a lot of Western self-help, philosophical, psychological, and psychiatric writing. I discovered that many writers, across many disciplines, had elegantly stated the nature of psychological problems—but none had found a way to completely resolve them. Only when I read about and traveled the Buddhist path did I find lasting cures for mental problems, like binge thinking. Using methods like awareness of the breath, counting, and mentally acknowledging departures into discursive thought, meditation keeps us in the present, where binges can’t develop. Our awareness of thoughts as they arise prevents them from taking off into flights of fancy.
The Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism goes even further in its treatment of destructive thought, by presenting concrete steps toward transcending the problem altogether. The Dzogchen tradition not only shows us how to work with binge thinking, but where we are in the process. At the first level, the practitioner prevents thoughts from developing into binges by learning to see them as “old friends”—that is, developing a familiarity with them, thereby diminishing their fascination and their power to carry awareness away. This friendly attitude also prevents us from conceptualizing thoughts as enemies and attempting to eradicate them, a strenuous and impossible effort that only makes them more persistent. The second level of meditation is “a snake untying its knot.” At this level, the power of awareness itself stops thoughts from developing into binges. The perceptive quality of mind undoes strung-together thoughts automatically, and returns them to simplicity, like a snake undoing a knot in itself. In the final stage, “thief in an empty house,” thoughts come and go without any tendency to linger, because there is no longer anything in mind to keep them there—they are like a thief who has broken into an empty house. “Old friends,” “a snake untying its knot,” “thief in an empty house”: these comprise the Dzogchen three-step program for binge thinking.
In my personal life and as a physician I have seen the pain caused by binge drinkers. I have known family members who loved them and watched as their hearts broke with each binge. I have heard claims that the bingers didn’t care about their loved ones and that they drank to make them suffer. I have watched their friends become calloused, blaming them for selfishness and a lack of willpower. I know this process well and I understand how people reject those caught in drinking habits—but I also know that we all suffer from a similar problem. We can’t control it, either, just as they can’t. If we doubt the truth of this statement, we should sit down in a quiet place and see how long our awareness lasts before we are caught in a bout of binge thinking.