Monday, February 2, 2009

The Dharma and Addiction

A friend of mine asked me to come and say a few words at an ear acupuncture course she is teaching.  Ear acupuncture is supposed to be extremely helpful for people wrestling with addiction issues.  So how does the Dharma tie in to addiction?  That is what I am thinking about this morning.

I am not going to take the cheap and easy way out and grab a dictionary.  I will give this clump of squishy grey stuff I carry around on my shoulders a little exercise.  When I think about addiction in the usual sense I think of alcohol, drugs and maybe food and sex.  When I look at this little list I think pleasures of the physical world.  And that somehow in cases of addiction our connection to these pleasures has gotten a bit (or vastly) confused.  

Next I think of comfort, that in instances of addiction we are seeking comfort or solace in the pleasure giving substance or activity.  And why are we seeking that comfort?  If  life is chugging along quite nicely we are not in comfort seeking mode, we are just doing our thing.  But then inevitably, it happens to us all, something troubling comes up.  It may be mildly troubling or deeply problematic.  But rather than deal directly with the problem, maybe because we find it too painful or are caught in inertia, or we have always done it this way, we go to our comfort of choice.  The warm fuzziness of whatever consoles us and makes us feel better. 

 The more we engage in the addictive (or any) behaviour, the stronger the habitual tendencies become, if we think in Buddhist terms.  Brain research tells us that the more we do something, the stronger the neural pathways and the more likely we are to repeat this behaviour.  And the double kicker, I think, with substance abuse, is that a physiological response adds weight to all these other things.  Not only do we have our habitual tendency, our neural pathways and our comfort seeking behaviour we have a strong chemical reaction in the body associated with all this.  Man, we're in a pretty deep hole by then!

All the elements of greed, hate and delusion are at work in addiction, and the deeper the person is in the hole the stronger the grasp is, I suspect.  Our hate puts us in the position that makes us seek the comfort.  We hate what has happened, ourselves, our circumstances, other people, whatever our particular poison.  And the greed for our particular pleasure becomes like a siren, strong and impossible to resist.  And wrapping around that ball is the delusion that this substance, this comfort will make us feel better.  It is a complex interaction, a working backward and forward of all these elements that makes addiction such a tough nut to crack.

So far I have been thinking about classic addiction issues but we all have comfort seeking behaviour.   Do we like a little piece of cheesecake after a stressful incident, a nice glass of wine, a night in front of the telly?  But I think what separates our comfort seeking behaviour from addiction is the intensity.  A glass of wine, a piece of cake doesn't generally cause suffering (perhaps some minor angst if we are trying to abstain).   In and of themselves there is nothing wrong with cheesecake, wine or TV.    It is when our attachment and dependence on them becomes extreme that I suspect it flips over into addiction, when the substance becomes the misplaced solution to a problem.  It somehow replaces energy and activity that needs to be devoted to meeting and working with the source of our discomfort.

And in the end I think we are all victims of some addiction, in Buddhist terms, because we all experience suffering.  Somehow we get mixed up somewhere along the way and get caught up in certain unwholesome  mind habits (greed, hate and delusion) and we get stuck there, until our practice helps us find our way out of the labyrinth.  We get attached to stuff, to our cherished opinions, to our ways of being in the world that cause us suffering.  So maybe we all can benefit from a little poke in the ear every now and then, as we grapple with our particular addictions.  If you work with people with addictions or are just interested in this course, leave a comment here or email me at my profile and I will forward it along to Carolyn Mandrusiak of Spirit Gate Consulting and she will give you more info. on the course. (Sheesh I think I might be addicted to words!)

1 comment:

  1. I'm going to be interviewing an acupuncturist for my podcast soon. Stay tuned at Also, my book of the same name is coming out very soon. Take a look, as I think it will be useful for people.