Last week I was in western Maryland to provide two days of training to mental health professionals interested in learning how to help men and women mired in gambling, an addiction now referred to as “Gambling Disorder” in the DSM-5, the American Psychiatric Association’s classification system of psychopathology. Gambling Disorder is becoming increasingly common in the United States, and in many other countries, as governmental jurisdictions legalize gambling venues and activities. Paraphrasing a famous statement in the movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” When new gambling ventures become available, rates of Gambling Disorder in the area increase accordingly.
In the course of my conversations with the professionals in these training sessions, the word “stewardship” came up. It’s an appropriate word, I think, to consider when looking at this sort of addiction. A steward is one who is appointed to take care of something of value, perhaps to manage the wealth of another, or the well being of a loved one. Throughout history stewards have held positions of great respect, often entrusted to act independently for the benefit and welfare of one not present or without power or the capacity to control. To be a steward means to be a person of high character, strong moral bearing, and trustworthiness. It is an honorable title.
The person mired in Gambling Disorder has an addiction in which he is no longer a steward of his material well being. He has fallen into the trap of squandering his goods for the sake of a temporary feeling that may include anticipation, excitement, or joy. At other times the person with Gambling Disorder seeks to dissociate from feelings that are unpleasant, or even very painful. At its worst, the gambling behavior has become a flight to a sense of ego self that is false, based on narcissistic fantasy rather than gentle acceptance. Whatever the ends sought by the gambler, he allows his wealth, his mind, and his spirit to dissipate and, in time, collapse into ruin.
It always occurs to me when working with persons with Gambling Disorder that they have lost sight of being stewards of their minds, and this, I believe, is their greatest loss. Our minds are unique; very rare is it that a sentient being has self awareness, or mindedness. We are able to not only know, but we are able to know that we know. Our capacity as a species for self awareness allows for insight into the nature of our suffering, our joy, our being. This self awareness, directed at the activity of mind and body with compassion and understanding, is the basis of our mindfulness practice.
When we become mired in our own versions of suffering, our minds and our bodies are damaged. The pain of life emerges, inevitably, and we easily fall into the trap of demanding that life be on our own terms, always pleasant, at least by our definitions, always congruent with our own intentionality. Yet life is rarely this way, and we suffer for the differences. Our clinging to these delusions is the source of the suffering, and meanwhile the pain of life lingers unmet and unresolved, leading to another round of aversion and judgment, and more suffering. As this suffering perpetuates our bodies respond with tremendous stress reactions, causing damage to our organic self, and our minds sink further and further into distress.
The way you practice mindfulness, both formally (in your practice of meditation, whether sitting, walking, mindful yoga…) and informally (staying awake in each present moment without judgment) is an act of stewardship for your mind and body. As you practice radical noticing, radical awareness of breath, and radical acceptance, your body stands down and relaxes, and your mind is free to see with clarity, with wisdom, and with compassion. This simple activity, even if only practiced formally for five or ten minutes, is the care taking of the person who is steward of his/her mind and body. Please, when you find yourself thinking “I just don’t have time to sit” consider the alternative, the damage that mindlessness causes, and wonder if “I can afford to NOT sit today!” If you are not a steward of your mind, who will be? Can anyone other than yourself be this steward?
Don’t delay! Take to heart the admonition of the Zen night chant:
“Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.
Let us awaken
Do not squander your life.”