A Mountain of Cocaine (August 19, 2007)

May 21st, 2009

A Buddhist blogger I read used this term a few weeks ago as a symbol of attachment and craving, two concepts that are very important to Buddhist thought.  “A mountain of cocaine” means that if you are addicted to cocaine, no limited amount of it is ever going to be enough.  You’ll always want more.  If there’s a limited amount, you’ll start to feel unsatisfied even before you run out, because you know that you eventually will run out.

This image works for me because it applies to all sorts of cravings.  A limited amount is never enough.  Even if the thing we’re addicted to is not a drug, the concept still applies.  For instance, the makers of the TV show Battlestar Galactica announced their decision that next season will be the final season.  They’re ready to tell the end of the story.  And on the Sci-Fi fan forums there has been much weeping and wailing over the demise of the show.  And I just want to remind them, there’s still one season left–twenty-two episodes, over sixteen hours of the show that we haven’t even gotten to see yet.  And when it’s over, when the final episode has aired, then we’ll find something else to watch, or we’ll re-watch the whole show on DVD, or we’ll just not watch TV at all.  But that prospect isn’t satisfying.  We want a whole mountain of Battlestar Galactica.

A lot of people resist the Buddhist teaching on attachment and craving because they think about the kinds of attachments that are generally considered positive, like love.  And I won’t argue with that–it is a good thing for you to feel boundless love for your partner, or for your children.  Yet that can become a mountain too.  Not the love itself but the attachments that come with it.  “I love my partner” also encompasses “I love the feeling I get when my partner says he/she loves me.”  “I love my children” might encompass “I love the feeling of pride I get when my children get good grades in school.”  These things can become a mountain as well.  A limited amount of this reinforcement is not enough.

This symbol of the mountain of cocaine led me to realize: I am addicted to the Internet.  Whenever I’ve read articles about “Internet addiction” I’ve always been skeptical; it seems like some people assume a new way of communicating is scary and unnatural.  I don’t think there’s any reason we need to limit the amount we learn from and communicate through this new medium.  And yet, I realize that I have a constant craving for more information and communication.  I am always wondering if someone’s emailed me in the last few minutes.  I have access to an amazingly efficient, fast, widespread source of knowledge, but it’s not enough.  I’m addicted to it.

Kevin Griffin’s book One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps uses the Buddhist teachings on craving and attachment and connects them to the steps used in addiction recovery programs.  I wouldn’t say that Buddhism and twelve-step programs are exactly the same thing, and if you want to be part of both there will be some need to reconcile the difference in teaching–but Griffin’s book really points out that, at their core, both sets of teaching are about alleviating the mental problems we create for ourselves based on our cravings.  The first two of the Four Noble Truths are: All life contains suffering (dukkha).   Suffering is caused by desire (tanha).  The first step of a twelve-step program is, “We admitted that we were powerless over our addictions; that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Griffin writes:  Some people rebel against the First Noble Truth.  “Everything’s not suffering!  That’s a negative view of the world.”  And, of course, it’s true that the world is filled with delights.  But the Buddha saw that even in our moments of triumph and job there remains a grasping toward more.  My favorite example of this is the traditional commercial at the end of the Super Bowl, where the newly chosen MVP is asked, “What are you going to do now?”  And this man, who has just reached the pinnacle of his profession turns to the camera and says, “I’m going to Disneyland.”  For me, this sums up dukkha: you’ve got it all but you want more, and since you’ve got everything possible in the real world, the only place left to go is to a fantasy world, a place where dreams are made.

So we can sometimes deal with these addictions by going cold turkey.  As I wrote about in my book, there are different approaches to this in the two traditions of Buddhism, Theravada and Mahayana.  Theravada monks and nuns go cold turkey from almost all of the things that might be addictive.  They never touch money.  They only wear robes, never choosing other clothes.  They never date or marry.  If you follow a Theravada monk or nun as a teacher, you can be confident that your teacher won’t be addicted to these things.  And a Theravada teacher can show followers that it’s possible to live well without indulging in addictions.  When we’re addicted sometimes we say, “I couldn’t survive without it.”  But it certainly is possible–many people survive without coffee, without a car, without air conditioning.

In the Mahayana tradition, on the other hand, teachers sometimes go into these realms to help other beings.  This is the tradition that includes Zen, which is my tradition.  In some way, the choices I make in my life all help me to be a better Dharma teacher.  It certainly may be more helpful to you if you hear from a Buddhist teacher who goes to movies, who lives with a partner, who has a MySpace page.  One who drives a car to the temple, and stops at Dunkin Donuts on the way there.  (I brought some.)  I can use these elements in my life to make myself a better messenger of the Dharma.  A Theravada teacher generally wouldn’t do any of these things.

And yet, you know I’m not doing all of this for saintly reasons.  I stopped at Dunkin Donuts because I like sweets.  I watch movies because I like them.  You could certainly say that I’m addicted to these transient pleasures.

My brother just completed his degree in counseling, and he told me that the current theory about addiction is that there’s no such thing as “an addictive personality,” as many people believe they have.  People might believe that addiction is an abnormality, a faulty personality that most people don’t have.  The fact is, just about everyone does have addictions in some ways, and everyone has resistance to some addictions.  Addiction is what normally happens to people when they have easy access to high amounts of pleasure.  When the human race was made up of primitive hunter-gatherers, we learned to find and celebrate food that is sweet, because it was rare to find.  Now, it’s not that unusual, so many of us are addicted to it.  Still, there are some people who can smoke one cigarette and not feel the urge for another.  There are also people who can watch one episode of Battlestar Galactica and not feel the urge to watch another.  There are also people who can play a slot machine for five minutes, then walk away.  There are also people who can solve one sudoku puzzle then walk away.

Of course, there are addictions that are unwise to quit cold turkey.  Addiction to food is a problem–but stopping eating entirely is not the solution.  And sometimes you want to manage an addiction rather than eradicating it.  I acknowledge that I’m addicted to the Internet, but I also want to keep it in my life.  What can I do?

There’s one solution that I find really unsatisfying, and that’s enforced conditional moderation.  I find that some Buddhists bring up the rhetoric of “The Middle Path” in relation to this.  For instance, someone on the online Buddhists community asks, “Is it okay for a Buddhist to smoke pot?” and someone will reply, “Take the Middle Path, and don’t smoke too much pot, but don’t give it up entirely.”  The rhetoric bothers me because it doesn’t ask the important question, the middle of what?  What’s the middle path between robbing no banks at all and robbing lots of banks?  What’s the middle path between wearing underwear every day and never wearing underwear at all?

We think that we’ll solve the problem of craving and attachment by settling on a reasonable limit and sticking to it.  But conditional moderation just doesn’t work.  It can work conditionally, but it doesn’t address the deeper problem.  Perhaps you’ll eat a little better if you limit yourself to two donuts a week, but if you’re still craving a mountain of donuts, you’ve still got the addiction.

These things are often designed to make you crave more.  The best episodes of Battlestar Galactica are the ones that make me say, “I can’t WAIT to see what happens next week!”  Likewise, casinos are set up so that you want to play more–when you win, you think you might be on a streak, so you keep playing.  When you lose, you want to win back your losses, so you keep playing.  Is there a way to take the simple enjoyment of these things without falling for the unmanageable addiction?

I think there is.  Most world cultures have a ritual of gratitude for food and drink.  People take a moment with each meal to remember that they are lucky to have what they have, and remember not to crave more.  In our current culture, we might forget this, when we’re eating out of a paper bag while driving and listening to the radio.  In that mindset, it’s easy to crave without being satisfied.

So we can practice gratitude for anything.  I’m not sure how many people shut down their computers and think, “You know, I had a great day on the Internet today.  I saw some funny videos, chatted with my friends, got an interesting email from Nigeria and found out the ending to the last Harry Potter book.  I’m glad I got on the computer today.”  When it’s wise to quit cold turkey, of course, we should quit, but when it’s wise to continue in moderation, we can lessen the craving by being grateful for what we get.

At this point in the talk at the temple, I handed out slips of paper with the words, “NOW IS A GOOD TIME TO STOP AND BE GRATEFUL.”  You could keep this note anywhere that you tend to fall into craving.  Put it on your refrigerator.  Stick it in your wallet with your credit card.  Tape it to your TV’s remote.  Hand it to your favorite Starbucks barista and say, “Show me this when you give me my caramel macchiato.”  And then, when you get a little bit of pleasure, say thanks.

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