Does Buddhism promote abstinence?

Mindfulness and addiction

“There is a space between stimulus and reaction. In this space lies our freedom and the possibility of choosing our answer. In our answer lies our growth and our freedom "
(Viktor Frankl)

The medical model understands addiction as a disease, the causes of which are localized in neurobiological factors in the brain and which are beyond the control of the individual. The philosophy of the Twelve-step program requires the admission of the powerlessness of the individual and the acceptance of the idea that only abstinence and trust in an external higher power can solve the lifelong problem. The behavioral model relies on changing behavior and thoughts around what the dependency is on.

The Buddhist psychology recognizes that the effects of addiction can make the body sick, but sees its primary roots in the functioning of the human mind. It is about how thoughts, expectations, and feelings can make addictive behavior or make it less likely. The understanding of addiction is embedded in the Buddhist view of the origins of human suffering.

Buddhist psychology describes the causes of suffering and the path to liberation in the four noble truths. The first noble truth states that life is inextricably linked with illness, aging, pain and death and thus with suffering. Addicts are characterized by the fact that they “take refuge” in substances and behaviors that ostensibly alleviate the suffering in the short term, but increase it in the long term (Groves & Farmer 1994, download).

Medicine speaks of Co-morbidities, of diseases that occur together, e.g. if it determines that 80% of people with alcohol addiction also have depressive symptoms, regardless of what is the cause and what is the consequence. For other people it is fear that is combated by addictive behavior, for still others it is the consequences of traumatizing experiences. Mindfulness practice can help to regulate emotions better or not to let them control you.

Even if biological factors and certain life experiences make the occurrence of addictive behavior more likely, the search for happiness, the longing for pleasant states and the avoidance of unpleasant feelings and pain is a general human characteristic.

"Addiction is an accident that happens to people in search of happiness" says Stefan Klein, in his book "The Science of Happiness" (2006).

Over 2500 years ago, Buddha saw precisely this search for happiness and the avoidance of unhappiness as the part of human suffering he caused himself. As second noble truth he formulated: “But what, monks, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering? It is that ... accompanied by lust and greed ... craving ... "

Addicts know this "craving", this need for a drug or with other addictions, e.g. for food, for games or for sex. Often your entire thinking and behavior is exclusively determined and controlled by getting back into a certain state, even if only for a very short time. Sometimes they would give everything for it, not infrequently even their lives.

The third noble truth is that the path to liberation from suffering is through the extinction of that desire. The fourth noble truth describes the concrete way there eightfold noble pathaiming at right insight, right behavior and right mindfulness.

Mindfulness thus becomes the way and the goal to deal with the painful aspects of life and to find ways not to be dominated by desire, to develop long-term equanimity and to be happy regardless of external circumstances and the fulfillment of desire.

The psychologist Alan Marlatt developed the most popular mindfulness-based approach to treating addictive behavior: Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP). He describes how, as a young scientist, under the pressure of having to publish, he developed high blood pressure. The doctor recommended that he change his eating habits, exercise regularly, and relax. After Marlatt had no previous experience with relaxation techniques, he recommended Transcendental Meditation. Somewhat strange, Marlatt left the introductory course without having tried the meditation technique. One of his students then asked him why, as a scientist, he didn't take an empirical approach and wanted to try it out at least once before rejecting the technology. Marlatt went back to the center and found that after 10 minutes of repeating a mantra he was so relaxed, physically and mentally, as he had never seen it before. He decided to practice regularly, the blood pressure dropped and the doctor was able to stop the medication. This was the beginning of the examination of Buddhist psychology, the encounter with Buddhist teachers and intensive meditative practice.

One of the techniques developed by Marlatt in dealing with the desire for the substance or the condition is the so-called. "Urge surfing". In doing so, the clients are instructed to imagine the desire as a wave in the ocean that starts out very small, but gets bigger and bigger over time. As this wave of desire grows in strength, it becomes the client's goal to surf this wave by allowing it to move beneath them without being overwhelmed, overwhelmed, or even obliterated.

Marlatt explains to his clients that these waves of desire are often learned responses triggered by certain stimuli or situations. Like a wave, learned reactions increase in intensity until they reach a climax. Giving in to cravings at this peak only increases the addictive behavior. However, every time one does not give in to this desire, the learned automatism weakens. On the other hand, self-acceptance and the feeling of self-efficacy are enhanced. Like every skill, it takes practice and time to learn it, until one can balance with ever greater stability on the surfboard of mindfulness over time (cf. Marlatt 2002, p 47). [Exercise instructions in English].

If one observes how this desire increases in intensity, but then also decreases again, one arrives at a realization that is given high priority in Buddhist psychology: Everything in life is subject to constant change. It is not in our power to stop him. How they deal with this fact of human life determines the happiness and unhappiness of the individual (cf. Marlatt 2002, p 48).

It is not uncommon for addictive behavior to be an attempt, albeit a non-functional one, to cope with this changeability. The drug promises a long-lasting pleasant state, it distorts or diminishes the perception of unpleasant and painful experiences.

Mindfulness helps to perceive and recognize this change as a reality and to refrain from negative evaluations or to distance oneself from them or not to be able to be controlled by them.

In Buddhist psychology, the so-called. middle way described. After Siddharta Gautama had grown up in indescribable luxury and all the abundance possible at the time, when he left his palace for the first time he was confronted with poverty, illness, old age and death. In response, he abandoned his luxury life and wandered India as an ascetic monk for years. After he was enlightened under a tree, he gave up the life of asceticism and found a middle way between the two extreme poles (cf. Marlatt 2002, p 47).

People with addictive behavior are often tossed between the extremes. In current treatment approaches, they are faced with the alternative of living in total abstinence or giving in to addiction and ending up miserable. From this perspective there is no room for a middle way. The polarization between abstinence as success and relapse as failure often contributes to the vicious circle in which people feel trapped between abstinence with a feeling of control or addictive behavior with a feeling of loss of control. The inability to maintain total abstinence often leads people to the other extreme, an uncontrolled relapse, especially when they feel guilty and ashamed for their failure (cf. Marlatt 2002, p. 48).

The vicious circle of feelings of failure, guilt, shame and feelings of worthlessness is interrupted by a quality that is also cultivated through the practice of mindfulness. compassion and Self-compassion. Instead of judging yourself after a relapse, for example, you can gain understanding and a friendly, accepting attitude towards yourself. Instead of believing negative inferences about the future, one can recognize them as thought patterns, distance oneself from them and deprive them of the power to become self-fulfilling prophecies. Mindfulness practice helps to recognize thoughts as thoughts without having to believe them and follow them immediately.

Last but not least, mindfulness practice opens doors into a dimension that can help to say goodbye to addictive behavior. In this context, it is not uncommon for a letter from C.G. Jung quotes in which he writes “spiritus contra spiritum”. Seeks as a search for an unfulfilled Longing for spirituality - whatever that means for the individual. Those who have been practicing mindfulness for many years describe states of connectedness, abundance and unity or of astonishingly constant "cheerful serenity".

To close the circle to the medical model mentioned at the beginning, it should be pointed out that studies have shown that Structure and function of the brain can be changed through mindfulness practice.

A smoking cessation program that combines cognitive therapy, hypnosis, and mindfulness: Green JP, Lynn SJ (2019) Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Mindfulness, and Hypnosis for Smoking Cessation: A Scientifically Informed Intervention

Studies on the use of mindfulness in addiction

Twelve-step program