A Buddhist View of Addiction by Peter Morrell
A Buddhist View of Addiction
by Peter Morrell
- ‘...it is said that as long as one is in cyclic existence, one is in the grip of some form of suffering.’ 
In this essay, I refer to drugs - meaning drugs of all kinds, anything we might become habituated to and that we enjoy to the degree of dependency. It seems that drugs are widely misunderstood. They have a very long history. People of all kinds, and in all times, need something to make their lives meaningful and that seems always to have been the purpose of drugs, food and sex, as well as religion. As religion has declined, so drugs of all types seem to have been turned to increasingly, to try and make life more exciting and meaningful. Thus, drugs can be seen as a challenge to our ordinary life, adult perception of the world as being somewhat dull and predictable. To have meaning, life must come to contain some excitement - into each life a little love must fall. It is in these contexts in this essay that I refer to 'drugs'.
Apart from concepts like Karma and Merit, the 5 skandhas and rebirth - which are alien concepts to most westerners, and therefore require deep thought - Buddhism views human psychology as being mostly driven by two innate impulses: desire, or attraction [ craving ] and repulsion or aversion [ hatred ]. They probably represent the pleasure-pain principle in western psychology. In Buddhism, virtually all aspects of psychology and human behaviour, are explained in these terms. Deriving from this, Buddhism asserts that its teachings are based on how man actually is - the condition he is in - and that its ideas are largely observation-driven, rather than being dogmas handed down to us. Buddha encouraged people to test his ideas out for themselves. The impulses of attraction and aversion also reflect a basic form of selfishness and that we are generally driven by a desire to experience and seek out pleasure and to avoid pain.
- ‘By the power of the two, desire and hatred, intimate or alien, they wander in cyclic existence and thereby undergo suffering.’
The teachings of Buddhism are entirely designed to help us to become happier and more contented people, by reducing those things in our lives, which cause us suffering [or cause suffering to others], by helping us to reflect more deeply upon the consequences of our actions, and by increasing those things that bring us happiness. There is not really any ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in Buddhism; there are just actions that bring us greater happiness and those that bring us greater pain. To live skilfully, therefore, is to live in harmony with these principles. In general, it means to reduce our selfishness, to give more to others, to increase our happiness and to stop those things that harm self or others - to adopt a life of non-harming. Non-harming to self and all beings.
- ‘...the afflictive emotions, such as desire, hatred, enmity, jealousy, and belligerence, that bind beings in a round of uncontrolled birth, aging, sickness, and death, are founded on misperception of the nature of persons and other phenomena.’
In the case of addiction, it is clear from a Buddhist viewpoint that it can be seen as an overactive desire sense, that has gone way beyond normal limits, and which is harmful to self. It is also important to acknowledge that we are all in some ways addicted to something, be it only money, shopping, success, promotion, food or sex. People who are addicted to something have become too solidly locked into a love of pleasure and are reaping the consequences of that lifestyle. It also means that their sense of identity is rewarded only when they indulge whatever they crave, and this has thus become dependent upon their addiction. A firm sense of self-identity is based solely upon their habit, and without it, they feel invisible and non-existent. This is often termed an ‘addictive personality’ – they believe that life without ‘their fix’ is unfaceable, not worth living and sad and boring. Such people have identified so strongly or solidly with the source of their pleasure that they believe life without it is not possible or is unthinkable. To at least some degree, they have lost control of their life.
- ‘When the self is alone [without the nine qualities - desire, hatred, effort, pleasure, pain, consciousness, virtue, non-virtue, and activity) - this is said to be the attainment of liberation.’ 
While there may well be deeper reasons for this behaviour and also a deeper basis of unhappiness that lies at the root of it [such as in unresolved childhood unhappinesses, or mixing with the ‘wrong people’], Buddhism, in typically pragmatic style, seeks merely to deal with the problem as-is and to reduce the extent and power of one’s current addiction. All other factors can be addressed through meditation, self-restraint and discussion.
However, addiction also contains a further element, which is a loss of control and surrender of the will to a craving. It is a situation in which the general balance of the will against whatever in the world is enjoyed, has been progressively weakened or collapsed, and the total craving for that one thing has largely overpowered it. Thus, any treatment of addiction must approach both aspects for success to be achieved. The sense of control, of independent existence and balance that we call willpower must be restored, just as much as any reduction in the craving for whatever one ‘enjoys’. This fact inevitably brings in the need to resuscitate a sense of self and a self-image, which have largely been destroyed in extreme cases of addiction. A coherent sense of self must be rebuilt, and it must be a sense of self that lies independent of any external form.
- ‘Illustrations of afflictive ignorance are a consciousness conceiving a self of persons and the three poisons [ desire, hatred, and ignorance ] which arise on accunt of this conception, as well as their seeds.’ 
The idea of self-image also brings with it a sense of self-respect and a sense of responsibility for one’s own actions and whatever state one has ended up in. The addicted person has to gain a new sense of self independent of their habit, and begin to see that the state they are in is predominantly a result of their own actions and therefore they are personally responsible for that state and any recovery from it. No change, therefore, is possible for those who are unwilling or unable to move in the direction of accepting these facts. Addicts often justify their craving by saying they only feel or act ‘normal’ when indulging their particular craving. In such examples, their ‘normal social conduct’ becomes entirely dependent upon their ‘drug’. For others, it is an escape from loneliness [e.g. ‘shopaholics’], sad facts of their existence they would rather not confront, or desire to impress/gain attention. In some cases, it reflects a desire to enter a fantasy realm for ‘artistic purposes’. The first step has to be acceptance of one’s own position, recognition of a problem and a desire to change. Without these as minimum requirements, no change is ever likely to occur.
Though varying shades of addiction occur, addicts of all types, when questioned, tend to blame some previous event they were not responsible for, or some other factor external to them, for their behaviour. This very conveniently absolves them from any blame for the position they are in. It is thus a crutch they lean on to get through their life. They portray it as normal or harmless – or both. They claim to be the victim of something and are in denial about their own motives and their own responsibility for what they do. They hide, and hide from, their true motivations, past experiences and the real basis for their behaviour. They also play down the harmfulness [to self and others] of what they do. They convince themselves that it is harmless and not serious – but something they can control – and when challenged, they try to convince others of the same viewpoint.
Buddhism can help addicts of all kinds in various ways. Firstly, it encourages moderation, abstention and self-control. That can lead to a degree of self-control. Secondly, it encourages a sense of self-identity not based upon desires, but upon self-fulfilment and self-respect. A self-respect that seeks to do no harm to oneself. It also encourages a harmless lifestyle, love, compassion and equanimity, which in turn encourage reflection and self-analysis.
In certain Zen monasteries, one has heard about in the media, addiction is treated solely with enforced abstention [withdrawal or denial] and meditation. It is hard to see how this harsh, extreme and un-compassionate approach can be very successful, as it fails to address the central element of personal responsibility for the state a person is in. It is left for the person to figure everything out for themselves; a position of ‘you got yourself in there, so you can get yourself out’ approach. Such a problem might be approached by teaching a person that, though others can help and encourage, they are entirely responsible for their own actions, that there is nothing special [i.e. different] about the state they are in, that life as-is is good, to restore their sense of self-worth, and to gradually lead them away from that which they crave - that life without that ‘thing’ they crave is both possible and can be sweet. This has to include their realisation that the path they are on is for sure a path of self-destruction, a path of pain. It is a central tenet of Buddhism that excess pleasure is painful, and addiction illustrates this theme very well.
Addiction, through desire and aversion, also relates to power and powerlessness, cause and effect, and to the nature of mind and sensations. These are all related topics. It is easy to apprehend a link to power and powerlessness, because to obtain pleasure often also gives pleasure to another [for example, in sexual addiction]. However, it can also give rise to a ‘victim consciousness’ as one adopts a more subordinate role to the other. One also becomes jealously protective of another, primarily, not out of pure compassion for them, but because they are the chief source of one’s own pleasure. That is a form of selfishness. We seek to extend and exert control over, and ownership of, the partner one possesses. One sees this in many relationships where the power balance has become distorted, heavily favouring the more dominant partner. This is ‘bad’ as it brings suffering and restricts the freedom of the one ‘possessed’. It also means their ‘love’ is subject to continuous payment of the pleasure that is being extracted from them. It is thus un-genuine, fake and based upon their continued dominance. Challenge that dominance of their role, and see how much true ‘love’ there is left! Precious little. Causing suffering to another creates bad karma; such relationships are harmful and not as benign as they might appear.
In all addictions, the person has an ambivalent or blurred grasp of cause and effect, power and powerlessness. They exert power over their habit [as a cause) but also let and ultimately crave for it to have power over them [as an effect]. Thus, they never seem to know where they want to be in a ‘power seesaw’, constantly flipping between cause and effect, exerting and then receiving domination; craving power over others and then letting power be exerted over them. All this inevitably gives a person an unclear sense of who they are, what they really want and where the power really lies. They end up having a confused sense of self-identity. Other kinds of addictive behaviour concerning power over others, such as rape, sado-masochism, office bullying, racism, sexual harassment at work and child abuse, do not seem to contain a pleasure element except for the person in control. Such forms of addiction are mainly about power over others - other elements being secondary. The similarity is still present, however, in relation to the craving or need such people manifest in repeating their addictive behaviour. In that sense, they certainly need their ‘victim’ as much as a drug.
In relation to sensation and the nature of mind [ Buddhist hermeneutics], this vast topic is far too complex to go into in sufficient detail here. But suffice it to say that ‘objects of sensation’ in the mind can be painful, neutral or pleasant. We desire to give and receive pleasant sensations, in such exchanges, we find pleasure, and to which we can become addicted. We then end up ‘loving’ those with whom we exchange these pleasant sensations. Particles of pleasant sensations in the mind can also be recalled to mind [ consciousness ] on request and so ‘in fantasy’ can be re-lived as real images. This acts as a pleasant stimulus to renewed pleasure and forms the basis of masturbation, daydreaming, erotic art, and pornography. Seen solely from the viewpoint of Buddhist hermeneutics, it is clear that addiction is primarily the exclusive enjoyment of particles of sensation, which are pleasant to the consciousness. In this sense, it could be said, that it is only ‘further down the same street’ of what all people engage in every day – gazing at attractive forms, delighting in attractive tastes, scents and touches, etc. However, it does also involve a loss of control and a pervasive belief that enjoyment of these sensations is vital to one’s existence and the only way to live out one’s life.
However, any pleasant sensation, in time and through overuse, wears out its own ‘pathway’ in consciousness, treading deeper ruts, such that more and more ‘drug’ is craved to reach the same ‘high’. By contrast, abstinence and self-control or moderation, re-empower the basic pleasure and increase it, while overuse dulls the enjoyment. This broadly applies to all forms of addiction, including food, chocolate, nicotine, sex, alcohol, shopping, promotion, power, etc. Non-attachment cultivates a looser and more nonchalant indifference to pleasure, which must be exhaustively cultivated in order to nullify addictions. This also enhances one’s sense of control over the pleasant sensations to which one has become addicted. And it gradually leads to a new sense of self based just on being who you are.
Cure of addiction necessarily involves unspinning - putting into reverse - the habit as it was formed. It means regaining control over one’s life, denying oneself the sensations to which one has become helplessly addicted, and generally negating the path one has followed. It means the re-establishment by gentle means, of control over the habit, being able to switch it on or off at will, just like a tap. This means stopping gazing at pleasant forms, stopping the internal fantasy element and stopping all the habits associated [attendant rituals of habit) with what is a pattern of addictive behaviour. Inevitably, a very long slow process can take as many years to un-learn as it took to establish in the first place. It means learning how to live day by day on nothing, on a sensory diet of nothing in particular and this will eventually stop the cravings. That is the basis of the Zen approach mentioned above. It means being able to ‘enjoy’ ordinary life as it is. Additionally, it means being able to discover and enjoy oneself just as we are. In these senses, it might be seen as a very joyful and refreshing path to follow. To the addict, this may sound like a very boring form of sense deprivation – which is exactly what it is!
Although addiction is harmful in certain respects [both to self and to others], in other ways, some positive things can come from it and it can be seen as a form of spiritual path. In this respect, it can lead one to make many useful realisations. There are at least three ways in which it can be useful. Firstly, it can lead to a realisation of the need for non-attachment, a greater indifference to the world and greater moderation in one’s habits. It can therefore lead one to a deeper realisation of the fleeting, transient [ impermanent ] nature of the world and of the mind, and their twin engagement. This is an important Buddhist realisation to make and which addicts of all types can apprehend. Likewise, it leads to an understanding of the way desire leads only to pain.
In another sense, addiction can also lead to a realisation of the fragmentation of corpuscular forms in space and time, which again is a profound realisation of Buddhist emptiness [ Shunyata ]. There seems little doubt that some addicts can apprehend this important Buddhist realisation with ease. It arises from the fragmentary sense of self many addicts become subject to. It also arises to some degree from the sense that their world is collapsing or disintegrating [‘cold turkey’] even when others reassure them that it is not. It especially arises from many drug-induced experiences in which life, self, the world, other people appear to be vacuous, diaphanous, empty forms, unreal or disintegrating. Such a sensation can persist for a lifetime, many years after the drugs have first been used. Such a sensation can be intensely real. Clearly, from a Buddhist perspective, this is like a direct experience of emptiness based upon an apprehension of the corpuscular nature of reality and the disintegrating nature of ‘unreal forms’. Persistent sensations of this type are illustrative of deep Buddhist concepts normally very hard for ‘normal’ people to comprehend or experience for oneself. Thus, in a sense, the addict has broken a fundamental illusion in our conception of reality that might pre-dispose them towards Buddhist ideas.
Thirdly, we can mention the contemplation of suffering and its causes. With a little guidance, the nature of suffering and its causes can be realised by addicts, without too much difficulty. This in itself can lead one to adopt a more sober, measured and moderate approach to life, and to realise the need for an abstention from indulgence and excesses. The safer and more serene beauty of ordinary life can also be apprehended from the standpoint of the addict. Abstinence alone can lead one to appreciate a Zen-like form of tranquillity as compared to the chaotic frenzy of indulgence in pleasure. It can also lead one to a realisation of the value of creating an inner world of vision, vivid memories recalled in perfect clarity impressed deeply upon the consciousness – this can be used in Buddhist practice to create vivid images of a pure realm of Buddhas.
- ‘...when you have attachment to, for instance, material things, it is best to desist from that activity. It is taught that one should have few desires and have satisfaction - detachment - with respect to material things...’
Finally, addiction can lead one towards a deeper interest in the Buddhist view on the nature of mind. Even the idea of karma and rebirth can lead addicts to temper their bad habits and gain some hope for a calmer future. Most of all, addicts should seriously consider the harmfulness of their addiction, both to self and others. In yet another sense, addicts are people who have failed to transform ordinary life into something acceptable or special for them and through which they can then experience life with some joy and fulfilment. The drug or addiction replaces this sense of fulfilment and thus they can only access that sense of life’s joy and meaning, via the drug itself.
To sum up is not easy, as there are many threads. To an extent, Buddhists and addicts seem to share some similar perspectives on the world. They both tend to see the transient and fleeting nature of self and phenomena as being an experience central to their worldview - a view almost utterly obscured to ordinary people. Both are also familiar with non-identity or selflessness, an egoless state in which forms appear diaphanous and unreal, in which self dissolves into nothingness and in which the world is consumed by emptiness. These are profound similarities. By contrast, the addict is not grounded in deep love and compassion for self and the world and is not on a path of self-improvement. Their vision is an essentially pessimistic one, while the Buddhist's view is predominantly peaceful, hopeful and optimistic. The addict’s view is also harmful to self and others, while a Buddhist's view is based upon respect and non-harming, love of everything. Though the addict - like a Buddhist - has apprehended the empty and dissolving nature of reality, they do not use that profound insight to construct an inner world of pure forms founded in love and compassion. The addict is essentially leaning on the crutches of their illusions, while the Buddhist leans on nothing, accepts self and the world just as they are and gets on along a path of continuous self-improvement.
- ‘...the sense of an object as being attractive, unattractive, or neutral...feelings of pleasure, pain, or neutrality arise. Due to such feelings, attachment develops, this being the attachment of not wanting to separate from pleasure and the attachment of wanting to separate from suffering...’ 
Other features stand out. The addict seems to have rejected the values of the ordinary person, which the Buddhist has also rejected, such as the permanent nature of reality and the idea that pleasure should be cosy, quiet and decent. The Buddhist aspires to entirely destroy desire and aversion as the root causes of all suffering, and sees both in turn as products of our deluded apprehension of the world as solid and real. The addict has also experienced the emptiness, but has failed to realise that the cause of suffering is aversion and desire - in which they continue to indulge. Thus, the addict appears to sit mid-way between the ordinary person and the Buddhist, and is moving in some ways ‘along the way towards’ Buddhism - chiefly in apprehending the emptiness and in realising that desire and hatred have some problems and price-tags attached. I would therefore conclude that the addict’s is a form of spiritual path - a development away from the ordinary life position - and that involves experiences, which can be more fully understood from a deeper study of Buddhism. These relate to cause and effect, the nature of mind, desire and aversion and finally impermanence and emptiness.
- The Dalai Lama at Harvard, 1988, Snow Lion USA, p.48
- Geshe Lhundup Sopa & Jeffrey Hopkins, Cutting through Appearances: Practice and Theory of Tibetan Buddhism, 1989, Snow Lion, USA, pp.49-50
- ibid., p.111
- ibid., p.158
- ibid., p.188
- ibid., p.205
- ibid., p.216
- ibid., p.272
- Dalai Lama at Harvard, p.76
- ibid., p.153
- ibid., pp.86-7
- Sopa & Hopkins, op cit, p.188
By Peter Morrell