There are many different perspectives on addiction from both the secular and religious worldviews, and each of them has a different take on the subject.
But what about the Buddhist perspective on addiction? Western readers may not be so familiar with this line of thinking. What does Buddhism have to say about addiction and can it offer us any advice on tackling it?
Buddhism’s focus on mindfulness and awareness is actually tailor made for understanding and handling addiction. Nevertheless, even Buddhist thinkers themselves will have different takes on certain subjects and addiction is no different.
In this article we will look at two different but equally interesting perspectives on addiction by Buddhist experts and compare and contrast the two. We will draw out the interesting contrasts of each view and try to find a unifying principle between the two views.
Here are two Buddhist ways of looking at addiction:
- Addictions develop out of ignorance; we cling to certain things because we don’t fully understand them in the deeper sense.
- Addictions are a form of self hate and self punishment; deriving from a deeply help belief that we don’t deserve to be happy.
Let’s firstly examine the role of Buddhist philosophy in helping understand and deal with addiction, compare and contrast the two perspectives in much more detail below.
How Can Buddhism Help With Addiction?
In general terms, we would first like to lay out how the Buddhist tradition is so well suited to help people understand and deal with addiction. Buddhism places a huge emphasis on mindfulness and awareness of all phenomenon, but especially awareness of the mind.
Of all the major traditions or religions it is perhaps the one which focuses the most on mindfulness and inner reflection and observation as a source of understanding, though most of them do to some extent.
This is in contrast to Western tradition and philosophy which tends to be based on thinking alone and does not place much emphasis on meditation and inner observation.
Mark Williams points out in his excellent talk on mindfulness that the western tradition is in this aspect the odd one out of the major cultures and religions, and it is perhaps this over-emphasis on thinking alone that has contributed towards the rise of addiction and other problems. We perhaps try to think our way out of problems too much.
So of all the major religious views then, the Buddhist teaching and practice is the one most suited to observing and learning how the mind works.
Mindfulness meditation is specificially designed to help us see the patterns of the mind; where it tends to go, how it gets distracted from the here and now, and most importantly for addiction how the mind can flow in certain patterns and one thing can lead to another.
In terms of understanding patterns of the mind and then and more specifically how addictions work in terms of triggers and certain emotional states, it can be argued that Buddhism is actually the tradition of choice for giving you the tools to do this.
Consistent and determined practice of mindfulness will most definitely allow one to see the patterns and flows of their mind better, and therefore understand their addiction and where it comes from.
This is why we believe the Buddhist perspective deserves more attention over some of the more traditional western perspectives on addiction, since is has the specific tools within it which can provide the self awareness needed to tackle addiction.
Nevertheless, even within the Buddhist tradition, experts and experienced meditators will still have a different take on the issue. Let’s now contrast the views of two Buddhist experts on mindfulness and addiction, as each of them both have equally interesting takes on the subject.
Perspective #1 – Once You Understand Addiction, You Can Let it Go
Our first perspective comes from Yuttadhammo Bhikkhu, a Buddhist monk who has done hundreds of videos on all topics as they relate to Mindfulness and Buddhism, including addiction.
His Sirimangalo video page has at the time of writing more than 750 videos where he addresses the Buddhist perspective on many different issues and problems. It is the undisputed resource on Buddhist philosophy applied to daily life and problems we all face.
His has produced a couple of videos on the topic of addiction, two of which we have embedded below. His take on the subject is particularly refreshing if you find yourself constantly fretting and getting upset about your addiction itself as well as other things that happen in life. This judgement and suppression adds another layer of suffering to what is already there and can make things worse.
Yuttadhammo on Sexual Addiction (Advice Applies to all Addictions)
Yuttadhammo on Substance Addiction
He goes through so much in the videos that we can’t draw it all out here; we will just summarize some of the main points on his views on addiction and mindfulness:
- Addiction comes out of ignorance – we are addicted to things because we don’t understand them in an ultimate sense.
- Understanding rather than avoidance allows us to overcome addictions.
- Once we see addictions and substances for what they really are, we will no longer be drawn or attached to them and we can let them go.
- The Buddhist concept of Dependent Origination provides the path out of addiction.
- Repeatedly using mindfulness to just see the senses for what they are (seeing as seeing, tasting as tasting etc.) will help you see there is nothing intrinsically pleasurable about addictive activities.
- Seeing addictive things for what they are reduces their power over us.
In general terms, he does not advocate avoiding or pushing away addictive behaviours or substances in an obvious sense like some perspectives do, particularly Western ones. Of course he also agrees that they are not desirable.
Rather he implores us to do these things if we absolutely must, but just do them mindfully and observe them carefully, and by doing so we will see there is nothing really good about them. When we act out mindfully, we see the addiction for what it is and all the allure of it just dissolves.
This is a refreshing take on addiction, as conventional wisdom often dictates avoidance and elimination of any cues and triggers as a first step to dealing with addiction. Get rid of all alcohol out the house, delete all pornography on your computer, throw all your cigarettes away and so on. This is also actually an interesting point of difference with the second viewpoint we will detail later.
Whilst this “cold turkey” elimination approach can work for some people, the problem with this approach is that it can represent avoidance and suppression; we are desperately trying to keep the source of our addiction at arm’s length. And by keeping it at arm’s length we don’t understand it. And if we don’t understand it, it can be much harder to truly let it go.
People may be able to abstain for a while but then they often relapse, binging out on what they had tried to avoid and probably sometimes deepening the addictive pathways in their brain.
The problem here is that the person is trying to avoid and run away from their addiction without understanding it. Yuttadhammo argues it is much better to understand an addiction; once we do then letting go of it becomes natural and easy as we see there is nothing inherently good about it.
He uses the example of smoking to demonstrate the point. The addictive nature of nicotine means it can be really hard for people to give up smoking. Anyone been around someone trying to give up smoking “cold turkey”? They can be just a little bit irritable! The cravings can last a long time and be very hard to deal with.
Yuttadhammo argues that if we don’t immediately push it away but instead allow ourselves to smoke, but just do so mindfully, then we will in time not want to smoke. We will start to notice all the unpleasant things about smoking, like the bad taste, the smell on our clothes, the burning in the throat, and we will automatically see there is nothing pleasant about smoking. We start to see it for what it really is and become less attached to it.
People that smoke but do so mindfully, paying full attention to the smell, taste, touch involved, will soon find they no longer want to smoke as they see there is nothing pleasant about it
This paying of attention to the five senses – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching – is the essence of what mindfulness is and can provide us with a path out of addiction. It allows us to see things for what they really are, absent of any connections or dependencies we have created in our minds.
Of course it is very true that even if we don’t want to do something, addictions still build up changes in brain and body chemistry that will lead to cravings if we try to stop. This is where the second video we embedded above comes in, where Yuttadhammo talks about using meditation to also reduce our attachment to cravings as well as the addiction itself.
Here it is a case of using mindful awareness to also see wanting and cravings for what they really are – as just sensations that come and go like anything else. They are not part of “us” and do not belong to us from the Buddhist perspective; they are just collections of sensations that arise and cease like any other sensations.
So in this sense mindfulness will not so much get rid of addiction directly, but more indirectly by helping us live with the addiction and the cravings and desire that come when we try to give up, and see that these desires mean nothing.
When we practice mindfulness, we see cravings and wanting, but just see them as they are and feel less need to respond to them and chase after them. It’s just a sensation in the body that comes and goes like anything else.
When we start to see it this way we feel less need to follow cravings and act out, and this gives our body time to detox and restore it’s natural balance to the point where the cravings don’t come up.
As a caveat we should mention that mindfulness only works on addiction in very gradual way, slowly reducing one’s attachment to it, so people should not come into this way of looking at it expecting a quick fix and should be prepared to be in it for the long haul.
Yutthadhammo repeatedly emphasises this in his videos – the Buddhist path is a gradual path and requires constant practice to build up the mindfulness required to let go of addictions and other strong attachments.
To tackle strong addictions it will likely require many months and often over a year of regular meditation to truly overcome the addiction. Let’s now turn to another Buddhist perspective on addiction.
Perspective #2 – Addiction As a Form of Self Hate and Self Punishment
The second perspective on addiction comes from Ajahn Brahn, another Buddhist teacher who doesn’t so much disagree with the first perspective, but just comes at the issue of addiction from a very different angle which is equally as interesting and informative. We will embed his video below.
We will again summarize the main points he makes but in general Ajahn sees addiction as a kind of mental “dead end” or rut that people can get stuck into, addicted to negative thinking and fault finding and then certain behaviours or substances. He also sees addiction as a kind of self inflicted punishment for some sense of guilt or defectiveness from past deeds.
Ajahn Brahn on Addiction
Some of his main observations about addiction are as follows:
- It often comes from a broader addiction to negativity and fault finding with others and the world.
- Awareness of the mind through meditation can help us to see the ruts and dead ends we get ourselves in. We can see the inner workings and processes of the mind better.
- Lack of kindness towards oneself and others is a crucial source of addiction, as is an over-attachment to familiarity and lifeless routine which can deaden the mind.
- Mindfulness allows us to see more options in the way we respond to all things in life, including addictive cravings and triggers.
- Using mindfulness we can firstly be more aware of addictive triggers and responses and also open our mind and find more innovative and original respones to these triggers, rather than falling into familiar and repetitive responses.
- At the core of many addictions is a kind of self hatred and self punishment – a feeling of “I don’t deserve to be happy” as a result of guilt over past things. This keeps the person trapped in the addiction and almost willfully keeping themself there as a form of self punishment.
- “Pushing the bottle away” and giving up an addiction can firstly allow us to see it from more of a distance, and can also give us a feeling of power of taking control of our lives. This is an interesting contrast to the first perspective.
Ajahn Brahm tackles the issue of addiction with more of an emphasis on spontaneity and kindness towards oneself and others, and does so with a humour and lightness of touch that make his videos just as essential a viewing as Yuttadhammo’s videos.
That is not to say that Yutthadhammo would not consider these things important; their points of emphasis are just different and they both have interesting and useful insights on addiction.
Brahm particularly emphasises the role of negative thinking in addictive behaviours. This can take many forms such as moaning at every little thing or constantly criticising and fault finding with others. The glass is always half empty.
As well as sowing the seed for addictive outlets, this thinking can also become addictive in itself, with people getting hooked on being negative and moaning about everything. They actively don’t want to be happy!
Like Yuttadhammo, he also emphasises how mindfulness meditation can provide the self awareness needed to tackle addiction.
But instead of using mindfulness to pick apart the addictive experience in a granular way in terms of the five senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching), he instead encourages using mindfulness to see the inner workings and patterns of the mind, most especially in terms of addictive triggers.
When we do this, we begin to see how our addiction is formed and acted out in terms of patterns in the mind. All emotions flow in a certain sequence and thus we can use awareness to see if addictive tendencies flow from certain events or triggers, or certain moods. We can see what leads up to addictive behaviour in step by step detail if we practice mindfulness enough.
Mindfulness can also help open up our mind and see more options to respond to things in different ways. This applies to both addictions and wider life in general, and is especially useful for people who are quite fixed and rigid in their mindset, getting stuck in repetitive routines and ruts.
Addiction could really be argued to be just another form of this; adopting the same rigid response every time to some kind of trigger or stimulus.
Mindfulness can allow us to open up and respond to things in original ways we would not have thought of before, stuck in a narrow mindset. Instead of unthinkingly acting on an addictive trigger in the same way we have done before hundreds or thousands of times, we instead see the trigger and sequence of events before and after and have the choice to respond in a different way.
Moreover, if we know what the triggers are, we can often avoid them in the first place once we have awareness of them. For addiction that can involve being in a certain place, around certain people, certain sounds, smells and so on.
Mindfulness is getting you to tune in to the five senses and notice the enviroment around you so things which were happening automatically outside your awareness before, you are now fully aware of and can control.
Brahn also emphasises guilt and self hate as a common root of addiction. Addicts are often guilty or ashamed of something they have done in the past and carrying around a belief inside them that they don’t deserve to be happy for what they’ve done.
This keeps them stuck in their addiction and Brahn sees it as a self imposed prison of the mind, where the person could be free but on some level doesn’t want to be because they don’t feel good about themselves.
Again mindfulness will in time address this and one of the widely report benefits of meditation is that people learn to treat themselves and others more kindly. This includes letting go of unpleasant things from the past, where they either were treated badly or treated others badly, and learning more holistic qualities like forgiveness and compassion to replace the negativity that can often accompany addiction.
The Two Different Perspectives Contrasted
Interestingly Brahm differs from Yuttadhammo in that he does actively encourage us to put some distance between oneself and the addiction, to “push the bottle away” so to speak.
He recommends addicts try to give their habit up just for a short time to begin with, just to see what happens and how they cope with it. It needn’t be a permanent committment to never do it again as this will discourage people from even trying.
He argues this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, when we are wrapped up in addiction we can struggle to see it clearly as we are just “too close” to it. Putting some distance between oneself and the addiction can help to see it more clearly and objectively.
He uses the metaphor of having your hand too close to your face so you can’t see anything. If your hand represents the addiction then just back off a little from your hand so you can see more clearly.
Secondly, he mentions from his own experience giving up drink that a tremendous power can come from choosing to give up a certain habit, even for a week or so to see what happens. There can be a surge in energy as you experience the power of taking control of your life. It can also have a knock on effect where this positive energy can give you the power to start leaving other addictions behind as well.
This is an interesting variation from Yuttadhammo, who on one level expresses almost the opposite viewpoint, that we should not push away addictions because by doing so we don’t understand them.
Yuttadhammo is more in favour of allowing the addiction in, but being mindful about it when you act it out, really picking it apart from the level of the five senses so you can see there is nothing intrinsically good or beneficial about it.
Brahn emphasises more using the awareness that mindfulness brings to observe the patterns that the mind falls into in addictions and learning to recognise triggers and sequences Both teachers are right and neither are wrong in their view; they are just coming at the issue from a different angle as mindfulness allows you to observe everything when practiced.
You can approach addiction by observing the five senses or the inner workings of the mind, or both. There is no right or wrong. Each teacher is just allowing you a different way into the Buddhist perspective and each person can just use the approach that works best and makes the most sense to them.
Using Mindfulness to Find Your Own Answers on Addiction
Whichever way you approach it, mindfulness meditation is an important tool for self awareness, and it is fair to say that addiction can’t come about unless there is some lack of self awareness. Therefore anything that helps to improve self knowledge will in time have a beneficial impact on addictions.
You can come at it from the angle of observing outer phenomena (the five senses) or inner phenomena (patterns or the mind and emotions) and ideally when well enough developed mindfulness will allow you to see everything at once.
Ultimately meditation actually teaches you that the distinction we make between inner and outer phenomena is arbitrary anyway – it is all just a “happening”. See Alan Watts’ video on meditation.
The great thing about mindfulness is that it allows each individual person to draw out their own uniqueness and spontaneity and find their own original ways of responding to events and triggers. There is no formula as everyone is different and addictions form differently and so both teachers are right about addiction; they just approach it from different angles.
We tried to sum up the different approaches to mindfulness and addiction with the following unifying principle:
The practice of mindfulness will help you find your own unique response to addiction. It will improve self awareness and allow you to observe the mechanics of addiction as well as thought processes that drive it. You can respond to to it in a mindful way that works for you.
Click here for our Mindfulness Resources page which books, videos and links which can get you started on mindfulness and meditation.