a few thoughts on addiction: a short term strategy for happiness

addiction is the ingrained habit of feeding off of something again and again, seeking relief from stress and suffering.
  • the addictive part comes because the peace of mind our addictions bring, while intense, don't last very long. yet we seek the short term relief over and over and over, not understanding that long term relief is possible.
  • we develop tolerances to our addictions (alcohol, drugs, money, sex) and need more and more to give us the relief
  • addictions have side effects or drawbacks.
  • addictions often require antisocial actions to regain access to the stuff we're craving. these actions come at the expense of relationships, careers, etc.
so addictions are a strategy for peace of mind, no matter how short the duration.

our addicitons are ways to stop ourselves from experiencing what we're thinking, feeling, experincing physically. Addiction is self-medication or self-diagnostic. A way to address an underlying condition. People don't become addicted when they have underlying peace of mind.

generally this underlying condition has a root in one's spiritual outlook, obsessive thoughts feeling alone and isolated, which triggers stress

what keeps us addicted is that we haven't discovered other ways to gain reliable happiness, nor have we experienced that the underlying stress that causes us to use will pass.
much of what undermines discovering new strategies is a lack of belief or saddha.
its a lack of experience and a lack of wisdom a lack of imagination.

clinically, we want to change our experience in two ways
1) to soothe, calm and
2) to thrill. also, there are external events that trigger craving.
drugs, alocohol, sex, shopping, gambing, careers/work, exercise, relationships, all these activity channels can provide us with ways out of our thinking.

(put aside neuroscience brings to the table the discovery of underlying physical conditions that demonstrate clearly that addiction is at least partially determined by one's neural/physical traits.)

A.A. emphasizes that addiction is a physical, mental and spiritual disease, and the addict cannot begin recovery without a spiritual awakening, wherein new choices become possible.

Buddha's teaching precedes these findings by thousands of years, anticipating many of their breakthroughs:

  • one has to experience the ending of stress through other means. no intellectual understanding alone will solve the problem, as so much of it is predicated on feeling.
  • Like A.A. the buddha understood that addiction was multiform (physical stress, obsessive thoughts, self-centered fears and doubt), that the "run of the mill" sufferer had no hope without the spiritual, non-material aid.
  • the buddha taught that we have triggers , which he described in the chain of dependent co-arising
  • like A.A. the buddha taught that all recovery requires being around and sharing with other spiritual practitioners. we are too influenced by our external circumstances at first to have any chance on our own.
  • our ingrained habits, anusayas and drives, asavas, kick up addiction without seeming reason (broken shoe laces)
comprehend suffering behind addiction.

in the first noble truth, we watch addiction in action. this means taking a close look at how craving works, rather than trying to make it immediately go away. we study the components of the underlying discomfort that makes us want to numb our inner state.

  • the body sensations (stress, tension) that arise when we experience craving. often we're unaware of all the underlying feelings of stress we develop in response to life (our stomach contracts, shoulders creep up to our ears, we constrict the muscles of the throat, clench the jaw, etc, etc)
  • obsessive self-centered thoughts (papanca) flood the mind, filling our mental landscape with fears of the future, obsessions about the past, worrying about what others think about us, how we compare to others, etc etc.
  • these thoughts create the spiritual outlook of being an individual alone in the universe, a "victim" of life, unique in our suffering.
a large part of the solution is to learn how to watch and dismantle the underlying stress that drives our addictions. we learn to keep the mind observing the body, noticing the underlying states of tension and stress. at first we'll only be able to watch for so long, then will give in to our externally focused cravings—sex, drugs, alcohol, food, gambling, etc. at that point we can compare the amount of effort that goes into our addictions, versus the amount of pleasure we get out of them.

eventually, if we watch long enough without caving in to addiction, we will see that all these underlying stressful states pass. and we don't have to simply wait, we can use the breath to relax the body and mind. we can use thoughts to relax the body and mind.

once they've passed there's often another voice in the mind that reminds us that the underlying discomfort will return. this is part of addiction; its not us; its just another mental event we learn to observe and relax.

there is a way out of stress
its important to remember the buddha gave up his addictions to sensual pleasure because
1) he saw that the relief that all external, materialist addictions bring are short term, are blameworthy because they come at the expense of others.
2) he understood that there sustainable peace of mind DID EXIST and was waiting to be cultivated
3) the buddha stated the reason we stay addicted is because we don't know there are alternative ways to end stressful thinking/ feelings

  • this last point is why its important not to overstress the wisdom part of spiritual practice at the expense of the bliss & pleasure it brings
  • people often tend to diminish the bliss that practice brings, but if there was no bliss there'd be no reason to practice
  • there'd be no reason to give up our short term addictions
the solution to stress, and thus addiction, lies primarily in learning to develop an internal sense of physical ease and mental tranquility through repeated practice. this is why mindfulness (relaxing the body throughout the day) and meditation (sustained concentration on thoughts and sensations that bring peace of mind) are so important.

the eightfold path, which describes how we resolve to maintain skillful thoughts (generosity, gratitude, goodwill), refrain from causing harm to others, mindfulness and concentration, is the groundwork for alleviating the suffering that fuels addiction.