S2 E8: Dave Smith on Mindfulness and Emotional Intelligence

When Dave Smith was dealing with his own addiction, the Buddhist principles of meditation and mindfulness helped him build a new life. So, now as a teacher and author, how does he use what he’s learned to help others overcome their trauma and discover emotional intelligence?

Podcast Transcript

Dave Smith: My name is Dave Smith. I’m happy to be here. I’m a mindfulness teacher and also, in some context, I teach Buddhist philosophy, Buddhist psychology, which all fits together in a nice little package.

David: All right, Dave, so good to have you with us here at the Meadows Outpatient Center in Dallas, Texas. Thank you for being here.

Dave: Yes, thank you.

David: Let’s start with introducing yourself, your story, the background, the road you took to becoming a part of the world of recovery.

Dave: Well, I’m in recovery, which helps and I’ve been working in professional addiction treatment for like 10 years. I’ve had a lot of success in 12-Step programs, I’ve also worked in clinical environments with youth, with teenagers, which is where I started. I ran programs in jails and prisons. I’ve always been very interested in this topic for personal reasons, but I’ve also been very interested, which is really what brings me here today, in what is the lowest common denominator, what is the struggle in the room for people who have addiction issues and get caught in these destructive behaviors, what is the culprit.

David: That lowest common denominator, it doesn’t matter what substance, what behavior, you’re getting just to the root of it, the core.

Dave: Yes, that’s right. I think one of the problems of the byproducts of the 12-step worlds, for example, is there’s like 27 different kinds of 12-Step programs for drugs, for alcohol, for gambling, for sex, for eating. What happens is, we get caught in this idea of symptomology. There’s addiction and then there’s addicted to. When we look at it more fundamentally, it’s not so much the substance or the behavior that I’m addicted to that’s the problem, it’s that there’s something happening with me internally, there’s some internal struggle, there’s something going on internally that’s driving me out to the object or the behavior.

If we move that distraction, then we can get really down to the lowest common denominator of what is it about my experience or my life that has put me in a position where I can’t manage internal struggle, whether it’s psychological, emotional, behavioral or relational. What is it that drives that engine?

David: Yes. In your journey, your recovery story, eventually, this led you to some of these Buddhist teachings, the mindfulness you talked about that you’re involved with professionally. Looking back at your early recovery, your story, what was it that drew you to that specific path?

Dave: Yes, that’s a good question, and I think my answer has changed a lot over the last 15 years. Really, what I’ve come to realize now, and I think this is true in many contexts, is that trauma was a big indicator for me. In my early life, I had a couple of big events, traumatic events, mostly in terms of death and loss. I had a sister who was killed in a car accident and a girlfriend who was also killed in a car accident.

I didn’t know this until maybe five or seven years ago, that really what drove my addiction– and this is true for many people- is some sort of trauma that happened early on. Then, I got turned on to mindfulness or Vipassana insight meditation, Buddhist meditation we could say, at the age of 18, 10 years before I got sober, actually. Sometimes they would call it spirituality. There’s a lot of different ways we could talk about it, but there was something about my internal experience that I had influence over that could actually help.

Really, mindfulness is really just a mental training exercise to help us be in the present moment in a way where we have more skills and more capacity to be present, but also to be at ease, to be, as we would in sixth-grade biology, homeostatic. How do we create the biological state of homeostasis? It turns out mindfulness is one of the most efficient ways to do that.

David: That’s interesting, you said that was even part of your story 10 years before recovery became part of your story.

Dave: Absolutely.

David: You already knew how to speak that language a little bit, and I assume that’s part of what drew you to it.

Dave: Yes. I also never associated drugs and alcohol with being negative. My father– I grew up around a lot of alcohol, I grew up around a lot of that party lifestyle, and it was never really problem, it more felt like a reward. Even though I got that initial hit of being able to regulate some of my traumatic stress symptoms, I still think there was part of it that I wasn’t able to manage.

For 10 years, I was in bands and I played in bands and I toured in bands and I drank a lot of alcohol and I did a lot of drugs and I also would go to 10-day Vipassana meditation retreats in the summer. I a little bit had a bit of a double life for some time.

David: Looking at this idea of the Buddhist recovery, the mindfulness meditation, that’s something that’s really caught on over the last few years here in the States. What do you think, in a general sense, that offers somebody, especially somebody who is dealing with addiction, with trauma, what’s the appeal?

Dave: Well, that’s a big question, and I think a couple of things. One is I think we can credit the mindfulness revolution that’s part of that because mindfulness really does come from the Buddhist tradition, and mindfulness has really been very much popularized in the arena of mental health and psychological wellbeing and there’s mindfulness magazine at the rack at Whole Foods now, so it’s kind of a household name. It’s one side of that.

Also, because of the Buddhist tradition, there also is a lot of emphasis on what we might call spirituality. The 12 steps also really put spirituality at the forefront of recovery as spirituality is important. Also, it turns out that one could argue that Buddhism or Dharma practice is a 3000-year-old addiction treatment program because the whole premise, the whole idea in Buddhism is that people suffer because they cling and that we hold so tightly to things and we can’t let go.

Because of that, because of this craving and this clinging and this basically, grasping for what we want and trying very, very hard to get what we want and trying very, very hard to get rid of what we don’t want, that pleasure-pain dichotomy, which we all have built into our neurobiology, addiction is a manifestation of that in an extreme form. People who are addicted, they oftentimes know they’re addicted, they oftentimes know that it’s not working, but the mechanism is so strongly habituated that, by all appearance, it seems impossible to get beyond that, and Buddhism offers a philosophy for how that works, a psychology for how that works and practices for how we can actually train ourselves to move beyond that whole pleasure-pain dichotomy.

David: Yes. You’ve also founded the Secular Dharma Foundation where you’re based in Western Colorado, which brings together some of these kind of traditions, the Buddhism with modern psychology, right?

Dave: That’s right, yes.

David: Why is that combination looking at these ancient teachings, looking at the new science, why is a combination like that so powerful and it has the potential to be more powerful than some of its parts?

Dave: No, that’s right. Yes, it’s interesting. I really credit people like Stephen Batchelor and some of these Buddhist teachers who are looking at Buddhism through a secular lens. When I mean secular, really what I mean is of this time, of this era, of the world in which we all live, which is modern American culture, and so, how can these ancient practices be relevant in that. One of my good friends Eve Ekman uses this terminology I like, of there’s Eastern contemplative traditions that come from the Buddhist tradition and there’s also Western contemplative traditions, things like neuroscience, science of emotions.

All of the therapeutic modalities that we develop, all these advanced trauma therapies, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, the modern world therapeutically and clinically has all these really, really great models that work really, really well. It turns out, and a lot of the scientific evidence would suggest that, that when we bring our mindfulness kind of practice to these therapeutic modalities, that really we get the best of both worlds. We also get to you use a lexicon and a language that is more available, science of emotions and being able to talk about things like cognitive resilience and being able to really see the things as skills. Really, trying to think- [crosstalk]

David: They can be built?

Dave: That can be built. You can teach an old dog new tricks. I think this is very encouraging also too. In the Secular Dharma Foundation, we really work on the model of mindfulness, emotional intelligence, addiction and trauma and trying to give people skills that they can use that are going to actually have a qualitative value on their life.

 David: Another thing you were focused on that you’ve mentioned a little bit is the emotional awareness, the emotional intelligence. I know you’re even building a curriculum around that and the intersection of that in recovery. Looking at our culture, because I know you were saying before we started recording that most people aren’t even aware of the first step, like being aware of the emotions that they had on a given day. Why is that so vital and why are we missing it?

 Dave: It’s an interesting phenomenon. In 1995, Daniel Goleman wrote the book Emotional Intelligence,considered New York Timesbestseller. It’s still on the top 10 list I believe, sold five million copies worldwide. The idea was that being intelligent about our emotions is a really, really good thing. Everybody said, “Yes, that sounds about right.” Nobody picked up the ball and ran with it. We hear something like emotional intelligence and we might think, “Oh, that sounds good,” but the next question is, well, how does one acquire that? Where do you get the emotional intelligence?

My argument in my sense in watching people in this world, in this addiction dilemma for so many years is that really the culprit I think is emotion, and that we don’t educate people about emotion. Science has got a great understanding of emotion from an evolutionary biological perspective that we all have these universal emotions. They all have a role in the system, they all have a function. That really the goal, there’s really three goals of being happy person is that we have to become aware when we’re emotional. We have to learn how to regulate that emotional experience.

The key to our happiness really turns out is around choice. Just having some education and some language and really some skills around that is just something that we don’t have access to as a culture. It’s been part of a huge motivation for the work that I do is a, to give people proper education on the science of emotions and giving people skills on how to navigate that.

 David: What are some steps? I know we only have so much time in this context, but what are some steps that people can take to build their emotional awareness and like you were talking about choice, like how do we understand that in the moment?

 Dave: A couple of things that are just good to know is that we’re not always emotional as human beings. We’re not always emotional and we’re mostly not emotional. Much of the day, we’re not in– emotions happen in episodes. They’re the triggering event. We get triggered into emotion. We have the experience of the emotion and then we have a response. The response to an emotional experience would either be constructive or destructive. We either do something that furthers our wellbeing and that of others or not so much, which would be a destructive emotional episode.

Some things to just be able to do is being able to know when you’ve become emotional, like in the heat of moment, being able to-

 David: To stand back and have that perspective?

 Dave: Okay, I’m emotional right now and when I’m emotional, I often do and say things that I regret later. Having that emotional awareness and then being able to regulate that emotion rather than thinking about, because really one of the big strategies that we engage in is thinking, we think too much, we’re a hyper cognitive culture-

 David: That’s not effective?

 Dave: Thinking about emotions when you’re emotional is not a very good strategy. It’s not very successful really. This is where the primary mindfulness skill is good, mindfulness of breathing, which we hear about so much. Mindfulness of the body, being able to bring our physiology back to a homeostatic state cooling our jets. One thing that we do know is when we become emotional, our amygdala switches on and we go into fight flight. We lose our prefrontal cortex, which is logic and choice and reason and empathy. If we can stay online, if we can keep our wi-fi signal going in the emotional episode, the likelihood that we’re going to make a better choice than we did last time, it’s going to greatly increase.

Here, bringing mindfulness, bringing awareness to the moment of the onset of emotion can have tremendous positive consequences. It’s actually not that hard, it’s not. The thing about emotions that’s so interesting is it doesn’t take long for us to begin to have a intervention on these things. They’re not as elusive in the stereotype as we once thought they were. Being able to have awareness, being able to have some regulation strategies and then being able to choose what we do is really the whole key to the whole game.

 David: That’s interesting. It doesn’t have to be like this huge mountain that’s like way up and this is like Dalai Lama can get there but for regular people it’s like you’ll always be short, but you can- [crosstalk]

 Dave: That’s actually not true, it’s really something that a 10-year-old kid can learn. Without the culture, we’ve declared a war against emotion, against difficult mind states against human suffering. If we’re having any difficult time in life, we pathologize that as if we’re not doing life right or we’re not good enough or we’re not doing things in a way that’s right and we categorize and one thing that I would say that I really, if you hear anything in this interview, hear this, we have got to stop using this language around emotions being negative and positive because most people would think, “Well, anger and shame are negative emotions,” and that’s just not true.

 David: If you have them, that’s bad. That’s the problem.

 Dave: That’s right. I shouldn’t have shame and I shouldn’t get angry and I shouldn’t be scared. That’s just totally unrealistic and I set this up for all kinds of problems. The question becomes when I become angry, do I have a constructive response or a destructive response? Anger can be very useful. It can also be very, very harmful. Anger is not the problem, it is my relationship to anger when it arises. We have to be able to have access to these emotions and not think of them as problems to solve or things to get rid of but really things that we need to learn how to work with and learn how to cooperate with.

 David: Yes, because the emotions are going to happen. It’s about our response.

 Dave: They are here to stay.

 David: We’re not going to erase anger. Yes.

 Dave: Yes, you can suppress that or you can drink it away or you can use the– there are things you can do to avoid emotions, but usually, the side effects are really extreme.

 David: You’ve had a lot of experience in this world, in the addiction treatment, behavioral health field. From your perspective, from that experience you have, what would be one thing that you would change about behavioral healthcare, about the way we look at addiction treatment, about that whole equation

 Dave: Besides everything?

 David: Yes, you can start wherever you want.

 Dave: We need to start thinking about addiction as a behavior, which I’m really happy to hear this word, behavioral health now. Addiction is not a thing that I am but it’s something that has happened to me. Thinking about addiction as a verb rather than a noun is I think helpful. Then, having better education on the psychology of addiction, more empathy and compassion for people who have addiction rather than pathologizing addiction. There’s a huge shame really pandemic around addiction. I think also seeing recovery as a skill. I think that what people really benefit from when it comes to addiction is giving them really, really concrete skills training like we would in any other scenario.

If you want to become an electrician, there are skills you have to learn. Do you want to become a doctor? There’s skills you have to learn, but really seeing recovery and really wellbeing and human flourishing as something that’s skill-based. Trying to understand the behaviors and the strategies, that cause of suffering is helpful to some degree, but really developing skills, mindfulness skills, emotional awareness skills, relational skills I think is really talked about but not really in the forefront of the room when we have conversations about addiction.

 David: I like that analogy of like the electrician. You wouldn’t send somebody out on the first day of the job with no training and like if they fail, it’s like, “Oh well great job guy. You failed again.”

 Dave: That’s what we do. People go to 30 days of treatment and then they’re expected to just have all these skills now or being able to not engage in what has always worked. I think that a lot of these skills that I talk about are skills that can be acquired and learned very, very quickly. It’s not the then after on the mountaintop thing. It’s like, no, if you’re teaching somebody how to plant tomato seeds, it doesn’t take very long for them to be able to put the seeds in the ground and I think meditation works pretty much the same way.

 David: For somebody who is looking for that education, who wants to dive in deeper on these topics, where would you point them? A resource, a book that you’d recommend?

 Dave: There’s some pretty big ones out there that are obvious like the work of Daniel Goleman who wrote emotional intelligence. Anything by him is going to be helpful. There’s probably tons of YouTube clips. Paul Ekman, who is probably one of the world’s most respected emotion researchers. He’s got a bunch of stuff online. There’s actually something called the Atlas of emotions, which I believe is the Atlas of emotions.com, it’s a free online thing. All the different emotions you can play around with the fluctuation of those are some great places to start and they’re just literally one Google search away.

 David: To wrap up with this final question, what would be a piece of advice that you’d want to leave listeners with something that has meant a lot to you in your life and your journey? Something that you find yourself passing on that’s meaningful to those around you.

 Dave: Is that all of this work that I’m talking about is, it’s difficult work. For anybody to really learn about their emotions and access their emotions, it’s simple but not easy, but it’s worth it. That’s my message, is always that just having more self-awareness, the learning curve can be steep and counter-intuitive but it’s totally worth it because really at the end of the day what we get to have access to is a more meaningful life and a life where we’re using our emotions for their intended purpose rather than pathologizing or demonizing or thinking emotions are these problems that we need to solve and get rid off or really to change our attitude about emotion.

David: Dave Smith is an author, speaker and teacher of Buddhist meditation and mindfulness, based in Paonia, Colorado. Find more resources from Dave and his non-profit, the Secular Dharma Foundation, at http://davesmithdharma.com. You can also learn about one of the online courses he teaches about mindfulness at https://courses.seculardharmafoundation.com/courses/1/about.