Day 4 - Mind and Life XXVII - Craving, Desire and Addiction

Dr Matthieu Ricard
Dr Wendy Farley
You can view the videos here.
The point of this summary is not to replace the complete video and nor is it fully comprehensive, but rather the intention is to give a brief overview of proceedings so as to assist the reader in determining which sessions they would like to watch in full. 

Day Four of Mind and Life XXVII - Matthieu Ricard discusses From Craving to Freedom and Flourishing: Buddhist Perspectives on Desire and Dr Wendy Farley talks about Contemplative Christianity, Desire and Addiction.

DAY 4 AM - Matthieu Ricard 
From Craving to Freedom and Flourishing: Buddhist Perspectives on Desire 

Dr Ricard explained that craving begins much earlier. First we perceive outer objects, and if we did not create a gap between perception and the way things are then we would be awakened - but this is not the case. Basic ignorance from the Buddhist perspective is a basic distortion of reality. As we perceive things, we superimpose meaning upon them. Although we are forever living, there is an inner self that is constant, that we rely on. This means we reify the self and phenomena - and this means we become a construct of the mind. All things become a mixture of projections and mixtures of perceptions and realities. We function within this misconceptions, and we develop mechanisms for the protection of "self".

We create an uneasy state of attraction and repulsion as a result of this superimposition of self. This can lead to hatred, craving, lack of discernment, arrogance and jealousy. This will lead to suffering. We create a dysfunctional version of reality. The antidote is wisdom. 

There are degrees of desire or craving. We can start at aspiration  - and this depends on motivation or world view. Desire and wanting are driving forces, Buddhism is not about the suppression of these things. These can be wholesome. Craving and grasping are, however, afflictive mental states - this is not a  moral judgement, but rather a reflection that these will lead to suffering. There can be triggers, but these are also not a problem - it is the proliferation of thoughts that creates kindling for the fire from the spark of the trigger. You now move out of sync with reality - objects become 100% desirable.

Dr Ricard recalled how HH and Aaron Beck discussed that when we are angry, most of the thoughts and actions are not based on reality, but a superimposition due to the anger. Addiction comes further because we become so engrossed we lose control and our freedom.

Can there be a positive addiction? It is a tireless action, and with the right mental states free from affliction, with the right motivation and endowed with wisdom, there could conceivably be a positive addiction. 

Dr Ricard asks how can we cure the negative addictive state? We could indulge in it. Obviously this does not work because by indulging we do not sate the desire, rather we lower the threshold and we reinforce the tendency. We could repress it, but that also does not work. Rather we could try to manage with skillful means. 

How can we deal with these thoughts or cravings? Before, during or after they arise. We can start with the after, by examining the causes and consequences by honest appraisal. Regret (not guilt or shame) can create momentum to seek support, apply an antidote and make a pledge. This prepares us a little bit better for before the next craving arrives. 

We need an awareness that these cravings may arise, and as we seen them arise we can put out the spark. Once the spark arises we can apply the antidote. In the Buddhist practice there are many ways of doing this, too many to describe - 84 000! The three main ones are: Direct antidote, for example hatred can be treated with loving kindness. In the case of craving we can focus on the undesirable aspects. We can, in the case of addiction, focus on our loss of control - we can locate a place of inner freedom.

Dr Ricard suggests that the second option after applying a direct antidote is to look at the nature of craving. We could not associate mentally with the craving - we can see ourselves not as the craving, but removed from it. We can be aware of the craving without response. By recognising it and labeling it, the craving can melt away. We can also recognise its lack of intrinsic existence. The feeling or experience of craving has no substance to it - it is like a cloud, and is simply a mental construct. We can eventually let it immediately dissolve as it arises.

The third method, which is a higher level, is to use the craving as a catalyst. If you could stay with the initial feeling without moving off that, it would be fine.

These techniques have one goal: to claim our freedom.

Addiction has a triple challenge:
  • Sustained efforts are required to bring about neuroplasticity
  • Neuroplasticity is slowed down
  • Motivation is weakened
We need to solve these problems, but there are means of this. Using Buddhist principles we can learn to deal with addictions. We can deal with cues through awareness of the mental image, and re-focus on something else. We can deal with repetitive behaviour also by mindful awareness. Beneath the screen of thoughts there is always awareness. Visualisation can be helpful. We need to practice. Freedom does not come easy, freely or cheap. It requires effort.

Dr Ricard ended by thanking those who have helped him.


HH pointed out that not only is there a strongly held image of self, but also a self-grasping of this self. We need to find a way of releasing this self grip - and we can do this by focusing more on others. Everything is self reverential, so we need to learn to bring others into consideration, which will assist in this. This is why secular ethics is so important to HH. 

Sarah Bowen raised the issue of those that self-sacrifice. How does the this relate to the notion of self-centeredness? Dr Ricard explained how self-compassion can perhaps help in these cases. HH pointed out that these are not diametrically opposed ideas - there needs to be a fulfillment of self-interest as well as a compassion for others. There can be pathological altruism as Joan Halifax pointed out. 

Dr Volkow pointed out that 12-step groups rely heavily on helping others and this may be the most important aspect of these groups. She also pointed out that we are social creatures, and our brains are wired to interact with others.

Dr Berridge spoke about how some sparks are harder to control - some may already start very hot. Animal studies may show that in the right situation there can be massive sparks, and he was wondering if we could stop this. Dr Ricard suggested that this required training and practice, and this over time can lower the intensity. 

There were a number of other discussions about how Buddhism and science can interact. 

Dr Davidson pointed out how against the scientific knowledge goes against the principles of weekly therapy, but that daily practice of small behaviours should be explored.  He pointed out that we can train attention through many means, but usually without the ethical underpinnings. Sarah Bowen pointed out how awareness to the damage that the addiction is doing to self and others (in a non-judgemental way) can perhaps be the starting point for treatment.

Marc Lewis pointed out how through the process of addictions most addicts have found a richer sense of self.

Dr Volkow asked if it was a disease of the mind or the brain. HH says there are perhaps two dimensions - initially there may be more of a mental pain, or a social context, but it may eventually result in a physical brain change.

At this point the proceedings ended.

DAY 4 PM - Wendy Farley
Contemplative Christianity, Desire and Addiction.

Dr Farley introduced two lesser known forms of contemplative Christianity - the desert ascetics who were intoxicated with the idea of love, and withdrew into the desert to contemplate love. The other group is the women contemplatives - the 12th century Beguines who wanted to be able to live in the world but be contemplative. This did produce some profound and beautiful Christian texts.

She gave the following quote from Isaac of Ninevah as an example of what these Christians hope for:
"What is a merciful heart? A heart burning for all creation, for human beings, for birds, for animals, and even for demons. It cannot endure hearing or seeing any injury or slight sorrow to anything in creation. Because of this, great compassion offers tearful prayers that every being be guarded and forgiven"
Dr Farley gave an outline of her talk, which has three main headings:
  • Christian interpretation of different dimensions of desire - healthy and distorted
  • Parallel between dynamics of craving and addiction
  • Supporting practices to restore healthy desire and heal from craving and addiction
Healthy desire (eros in the greek) is a joyful, self emptying sort of desire. It is self-forgetful. From the Christian point of view, the only object of healthy desire is God. The love of God is self-transcending. But the concept of God can be unhealthy, so perhaps the object of desire is love itself. In religious eros, the way we desire is completely different - it is non-dual, it is open-ended and non-possessive. Distorted desire reorientates desire to the ego. In pain, we find it difficult to think outside self. 

We desire our own happiness and relief from suffering - we believe that things of the world will help us achieve this. We grant the world a kind of reality that it cannot fulfill. In distorted desire there is a dualistic approach. I become disconnected from the world. We ascribe inordinate powers to objects of the world. 

Dr Farley explained how these become habits that continue, rather than passing emotion. The mind is absorbed into the underlying structures before the desires even arise - there is a deeper interlocking set of patterns. Things become real in terms of the ego's needs and fears. She explained how things disguise themselves and we end up still acting out of ego-self.

Fear is also related to the craving and can manifest in false humility. Our cultural alienation contributes to the state of suffering. We have an increased vulnerability to the state of addiction. Dr Farley, when referring to craving and addiction, said:
  • Mind is hidden from itself
  • There are false objects of relief and happiness
  • This undermines relationships
  • There is bondage to this
  • The habits are embedded in bodies and minds
She described addiction as being trapped in a golden cage. A vital part of the Christian message is that there is no-one so broken that they cannot receive healing through a great mercy that holds us. The ultimate reality is compassion, and this "opposite" spark can become inflamed. Because craving is so deeply rooted, many interlocking practices must be engaged to transform it:
  • Watching the mind
  • Meditation
  • Contemplation
  • Compassionate Action
She expanded briefly on each of these, one being contemplation - dwelling in the non-discursive dimension of "mind" where the distinction between self and other breaks down.
  • Non-duality
  • union
  • imageless
  • dissolution into love
Love is the manifest form of the divine. 

There was a discussion around the avoidance of nihilism and how to safe guard against this. Dr Farley described how Jesus saw the divine in all beings.

She concluded by saying thank you to the lineage of contemplatives and the conversations between Buddhism and Christianity.