Addiction and the Path of Non-Attachment

Updated: Apr 24, 2018

On a recent trip to India, I visited the holy city of Sarnath, where Buddha preached his first discourse to his first five disciples. A central axiom of Buddhist thought is that of non-attachment. From a Buddhist view, the root of human suffering is attachment, which is fueled by desire. We live within a context of duality: I want/I don’t want. Our drives are motivated toward pleasure and away from pain. Addictive substances are disguised as pleasurable but invariably inflict pain.

When we long for something, whether it is a drug, substance, or an object, we create an attachment to it. This attachment intensifies the already established craving or desire perpetuating the addictive cycle: desire–craving–attachment–suffering. Peter Morrell, an expert on Buddhism, writes, “…it is said that as long as one is in cyclic existence, one is in the grip of some form of suffering.”

Ganopa from The Jewel Ornament of Liberation states, “Wherever there is attachment, association with it brings endless misery.” This phrase sums up the phenomenon of addiction well. Addiction arises from sensory desires. We experience a pleasurable sensation through contact with a sense object, including a drug or substance, which creates a craving for that object, which fuels the desire to obtain more of “it.”

The attachment is a result of the significance we place upon the desire, which has now been synaptically programmed in the reinforcement/reward pathway, further establishing the addictive pattern.

It is the attachment along with all the added significance that the addict seeks to preserve. The object becomes an ideal; it completes us in a way that nothing else can. It’s the sixty seconds of nasal-induced euphoria, followed by the rapid decline. No matter how much misery we accrue, the attachment becomes a death grip on the soul. We are torn by the mental anguish, the physical craving, and the obsessive thinking. We crave so desperately for the cocktail of Eros, becoming intoxicated by the mere fantasy of the first hit. A mentor once described her relationship with alcohol as a “love affair.”

The transient “high” from addictive substances will never lead to long-lasting fulfillment. This type of high comes with an expense. All events, objects, and occurrences are temporary or impermanent, as are the momentary pleasure or pain they may bring. This is the ebb and flow of the addictive cycle. What goes up must come down. There is a gravitational pull that is always at play. Soon the bouts of suffering become more dominant and the interludes of bliss turn into a rarity. It’s the age-old scene of the dog chasing its tail –expending tremendous amounts of energy for little gain.

Addiction can be the merry-go-round of disaster– a nauseating ride with no true enjoyment. As long as we indulge our desires and cravings, empowering our attachments, we will be a prisoner on this ride; bound to an ephemeral amusement park interfacing on the exterior of our existence.

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