We live in a culture predicated on our addictions to things like coffee, sugar, our cell phones, checking e-mail, and plain old busyness.
“From a Buddhist perspective, all beings are addicted, and that manifests in different ways,” says author Noah Levine, a founding teacher of Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society.
Noah knows a thing or two about addiction. He began meditating at age 17 while incarcerated in a juvenile jail, which he entered addicted to drugs. Now, drug-free for many years, he credits his Buddhist practice for saving his life and for his transformation from student to teacher.
“The Buddha taught that our natural tendency is to grasp pleasure and push away pain or unpleasantness. All addictions stem from these roots,” says Noah. “Very often, our cravings manifest as an addiction to pleasure (caffeine in the morning, alcohol at night) and we get addicted to the repetitive satisfaction of the pleasant.”
Sometimes it’s as simple as not being able to tolerate boredom. “A lot of people get into Buddhism to be serene, but find that, once they attain it, just being at ease isn’t enough,” Noah says.
Others crave a sense of permanence and find their daily addictions create a false sense of security. They think, “If I have my daily routine—coffee, sex, work, entertainment— I feel I am in control and everything is going to be okay,” Noah says.
Another kind of addiction comes from avoidance, what Buddhists call a craving for non-existence, Noah explains: “You’re trying to obliterate or lose yourself in work or TV to the point where you don’t exist.” The idea is use distractions to avoid the sometimes uncomfortable experience of simply being with yourself.
What breaks the cycle is the realization that ultimately the mind is what’s causing the craving, Noah says. The power of meditation is that it can change our relationship with our craving mind, rather than our relationship with the craving itself.
For example, a former smoker might occasionally crave a cigarette, but she can resist that urge by observing that desire and allowing it to pass.
Mindfulness practice is a way of breaking the addiction to the mind by observing our thoughts, cravings, aversions, and sensations, allowing them to come and go without judgment. Ultimately, you learn that you don’t always have to obey your mind or—as Buddhists say, “Don’t believe everything you think.”