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Addiction: A Zen Perspective

The Zen of Addiction

Whether consciously acknowledged or not, we live in an almost constant state of anxiety. We are concerned with what we may lose, or what we may not gain. We also live in grief and regret over what we have left behind or at least feel we may have indeed lost. We thus attach ourselves to the very things that we cannot, ultimately, control; the past and the future. In truth, there is only today, this moment, and this breath with which we are, and can actually be, connected. The past is gone, and the future has not yet happened. We are here, now.

From a Buddhist perspective, addiction might be considered the archetype of attachment. Addiction is, in fact, a collection of attachments. It is attachment to fear, attachment to loss, and attachment to longing, emptiness, and a lack of a sense of purpose. Whether we choose alcohol, drugs, sex, food, pornography, exercise or even shopping, we are simply employing the means serving the compulsion to fill a space and dampen our pain. The means does not matter; that is simply a gesture. The compulsion is the crux of it, and that compulsion is not so much to drink, or do drugs, or to spend; that compulsion, ultimately, is to fill that space.

And just what is that space? We might look upon it as the "God-shaped hole." The wisdom teachings suggest that in identifying with a self, a "me", we divorce ourselves from the true nature of our existence. From a psychological perspective, this division presents itself as inauthenticity, and the internal conflict that condition engenders promotes internal strife. In our attempt to reconcile this sense of inauthenticity, we cling even more desperately to establishing a sense of "me-ness" and can, in some cases, become morbidly self-destructive in our attempts to soothe the pain of failure in that reconciliation.

Addiction generally begins as an interest. As soon as we express an interest in something, we are expressing a preference. In expressing a preference, we are dividing our attention and creating an attachment to something in the world around us. As that interest turns into a fascination, our attachment deepens. Our attention becomes more and more exclusive, and we become increasingly imbalanced; emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.

Fascination may then flower into obsession, and we become a slave to our attachment. We are no longer ourselves, and, rather than ‘losing our mind', which would be the skillful means by which to escape our attachment, we are trapped inside the mind.

With obsession, our attachment becomes even more intensified, and our exclusion even more narrow. As we become slaves to our attachment, our mind, and our behavior, we lose the ability to exercise free will and, in that light, move from obsession to compulsion; from place of being driven, to a place of need.

At this point we fail the First Noble Truth; our attachment has become so involved that we have invited suffering. We are no longer willful, but, rather, subject to and at the sufferance of the will of our attachments. When we find ourselves in a place that we cannot live without exercising this attachment, whatever it may be, we have fallen into a state of addiction.

Within the context of addiction, people often feel that they do not have a choice. Nothing could be further from the truth. We always have a choice. When confronting someone who themselves is confronting an addiction, saying to them, "Stopping your behavior is your choice." is, however, often met with profound resistance for their failure to see that choice.

The key to getting a grasp on this is recognizing that choice is a constant state; it is not a single moment in time. If the choice not to be addicted were a single choice point, then all we would ultimately do is move our attachment from something socially defined as negative (say, drinking or being promiscuous) to something that is socially defined as positive (not drinking or being chaste). In point of fact, we would become addicted, or at the very least attached, to not being addicted.

Buddha spoke of the Middle Way. Within the context of choice that suggests that if we are present in the moment, our choices are constant. We do not, then, go right or left, say yes or no, think good or bad, or see black or white; rather, we are aware that both opportunities are presenting themselves, we recognize this and acknowledge it, then choose neither.

When we lose the Middle Way and fall off our balancing point, we create our pain. We create our sense of emptiness, and our anxiety around loss. We deceive ourselves into believing that we are less than whom and what we are by virtue of attaching ourselves to things, objects, situations, emotions, and anxieties that take us away from ourselves. This is the engine of addiction.

Coming back to the present moment brings us back to our constancy of choice. We find ourselves in the Middle Way, on the balancing point and we are able to see both choices. Seeing both sides in balance and in perspective then gives us the opportunity to exercise compassion. Most importantly, it gives us the opportunity to exercise compassion toward ourselves. We are able to see the left and the right, and we are also able to see the left in the right and the right in the left.

Our frustration with the world and sense of victimhood thus becomes transformed into the recognition that we must set an intention in our lives. Our depression finds an antidote for itself in the gratitude that we can express simply for being alive. We begin to see outside ourselves with a clear vision and recognize that the things outside ourselves are, in fact, quite outside ourselves. In letting go of our attachments we also let go of the things that influence us and draw us into a state of mind where we feel less than we are, where we feel that something is missing, where we need to fill the space, or dampen the pain, or simply make it go away.

Coming back to the breath as a marker for the present moment, and exercising the constancy of choice in that moment and every moment also gives us an opportunity to break free of the bonds of this supreme state of attachment and begin to climb out of the pit of suffering into which we have gotten ourselves.

© 2008 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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