To give up drug Addiction

This is from venerable Ñāṇavīra Thera letter to Dr. M. R. de Silva, which is included in his book Clearing the Path.

What, now, has the Buddha to offer the drug-addict? In the first place the Buddha requires intelligence of a man, else nothing can be done. In the second place the Buddha tells us that the taking of intoxicants (which of course will include morphia and so on) leads to the decline of intelligence. Putting two and two together, we find that to give up drugs a man must understand that unless he gives them up he will not be able to give them up, or in other words, to give up drugs one must understand the way to give up drugs, which is to give them up. At first glance this does not seem to be very helpful—'A glimpse of the obvious' perhaps you will say, 'of course the addict understands that the way to give up drugs is to give them up: the whole trouble is that he can't give them up.' But is this just a glimpse of the obvious?

Let me recall my own experience when I gave up cigarettes. I had been smoking forty or more a day for several years when I decided to give them up. Not being able to do things in half-measures I stopped smoking all at once. I remember walking in the park not long after I had finished my last cigarette, and feeling pleased with myself that I had actually taken the decision. (I also felt rather light-headed, which was no doubt a deprivation symptom—this continued for some days.) But the principal thought that assailed me was this: though I had no doubt that I could stick to my resolution, there was one thing that I really needed to confirm it and to fortify me in my determination not to have another cigarette, and that one thing was... a cigarette. Far from its being obvious to me that in order to give up cigarettes I should give up cigarettes, I had the greatest of trouble to resist the pressing suggestion that in order to give up cigarettes I should take a cigarette.

Let me also tell you of the researches of Dr. Klar when he was in Persia shortly after the war. Dr. Klar, besides being a physician, is also interested in psychology; and he had with him in Persia an ingenious device for reading a person's character and state of mind. (This consists of a number of cards each with about eight pairs of coloured squares pasted on them. The subject is simply required to indicate which colour in each pair he prefers. He 'read' us all at the Hermitage, with devastatingly accurate results that did not really please all of us. But this is a digression.) He told us that eighty percent of all Persians over the age of thirty-five (I think he said) take opium (and also that all Persians tell lies on principle—but this is another digression), and with such a wealth of material to hand he was able to do some research. He would give each addict two readings, one before taking opium and one after. The readings all said the same thing: before the opium the mental state of the addict was abnormal and disorganized; after the opium the mental state was normal and organized. The effect of the opium on the addict was not, as one might think, to disintegrate the personality; on the contrary, the effect was to integrate a disintegrated personality. The opium was necessary to restore the addict to normal. (I have heard similar observations from another doctor who was for many years a medical missionary in China: if you want to do business with an opium addict, drive your bargain when the effect of his last dose is wearing off.)

What can we conclude from all this? We conclude that, unlike a 'normal' person who may take a drug once in a way for the novelty or pleasure of the effect, and who at that time becomes 'abnormal', the confirmed addict is 'normal' only when he has taken the drug, and becomes 'abnormal' when he is deprived of it. The addict reverses the usual situation and is dependent upon the drug to keep him in his normal integrated state. (This does not mean, of course, that the addict derives pleasure from occasional deprivation as the abstainer does from occasional intoxication; quite the contrary: in both cases the drugged state is more pleasant, but for the one it is normal and for the other it is abnormal.) The addict can only do his work efficiently and perform his normal functions if he takes the drug, and it is in this condition that he will make plans for the future. (If he cannot take the drug the only plan he makes is to obtain another dose as quickly as possible.) If he decides that he must give up his addiction to the drug (it is too expensive; it is ruining his reputation or his career; it is undermining his health; and so on) he will make the decision only when he is in a fit state to consider the matter, that is to say when he is drugged; and it is from this (for him, normal) point of view that he will envisage the future. (Thus, it was as a smoker that I decided to give up smoking.) But as soon as the addict puts his decisions into effect and stops taking the drug he ceases to be normal, and decisions taken when he was normal now appear in quite a different light—and this will include his decision to stop taking the drug. Either, then, he abandons the decision as invalid ('How could I possibly have decided to do such a thing? I must have been off my head') and returns to his drug-taking, or (though he approves the decision) he feels it urgently necessary to return to the state in which he originally took the decision (which was when he was drugged) in order to make the decision seem valid again. (And so it was that I felt the urgent need of a cigarette to confirm my decision to give them up.) In both cases the result is the same—a return to the drug. And so long as the addict takes his 'normal' drugged state for granted at its face value—i.e. as normal—, the same thing will happen whenever he tries to give up his addiction.

Not only is the drug addict in a vicious circle—the more he takes the more he wants, the more he wants the more he takes --, but until he learns to take an outside view of his situation, and is able to see the nature of drug-addiction, he will find that all his attempts to force a way out of the vicious circle simply lead him back in again. (A vicious circle is thus a closed system in stable equilibrium.) It is only when the addict understands addiction, and holds fast to the right view that—in spite of all appearances, in spite of all temptations to think otherwise—his 'normal' drugged state is not normal, that he will be able to put up with the temporary discomfort of deprivation and eventually get free from his addiction. In brief, then, an addict decides to give up drugs, and he supposes that in order to do so all that is necessary is to give them up (which would certainly be a glimpse of the obvious were it not that he is profoundly deceiving himself, as he very soon finds out). No sooner does he start giving them up than he discovers (if he is very unintelligent) that he is mistaken and has made the wrong decision, or (if he is less unintelligent) that though the decision is right he is wrong about the method, and that in order to give up drugs it is necessary to take them. It is only the intelligent man who understands (against all appearances) that both the decision and the method are right; and it is only he that succeeds. For the intelligent man, then, the instruction 'to give up drugs it is necessary to give them up', far from being a glimpse of the obvious, is a profound truth revealing the nature of addiction and leading to escape from it.

I would ask you to pause before dismissing this account as fanciful; this same theme—the vicious circle and the escape from it by way of understanding and in spite of appearances—is the very essence of the Buddha's Teaching. The example discussed above—drug-addiction—is on a coarse level, but you will find the theme repeated again and again right down to the finest level, that of the four noble truths. It will, I think, be worthwhile to illustrate this from the Sutta MN 75.

... Not everybody is addicted to morphia, but most people are addicted to sensual gratification, and all except the ariyasāvakas are addicted to their own personality - sakkāyaditthi, and even the ariyasāvakas, with the exception of the arahat, still have a subtle addiction, the conceit 'I am' (asmimāna). The arahat has put an end to all addiction whatsoever. There is thus no form of addiction that the Buddha's Teaching will not cure, provided the addict is intelligent and willing to make the necessary effort.

As I read this, a simile occurs to me.


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