Soon after his awakening, the Buddha gave what would prove to be his most popular and enduring teaching, known as The Four Noble Truths. After first establishing suffering or stress as intrinsic to life, the Buddha then posited the root cause of this dis-ease as tanha, meaning “thirst.” More common translations of this ancient Pali word are attachment, craving, clinging, and grasping.
Although each of these interpretations comes close, none of them quite hits the mark. First of all, thirst is generally a healthy desire, especially in our chronically dehydrated culture. (Have you had your eight glasses of water today?) “Attachment” works better, except that there are healthy forms of attachment, such as love between mother and child. Cravings are usually unhealthy, though they may also indicate a nutrient deficiency. And while grasping and clinging definitely cause distress, these tendencies are so common and subtle as to be mostly undetectable.
As I see it, the best diagnosis is “addiction.” If not the most accurate translation, it’s certainly the most applicable to our modern industrial culture in general, and to America in particular, where highly addictive drugs like nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine are perfectly legal and widely available. Meanwhile, many non-addictive substances, some known to actually cure addictions, carry long prison sentences. Topping the list of socially sanctioned, addictive drugs are prescription painkillers, which have surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S. Our country’s obesity epidemic bespeaks an addiction to unhealthy convenience foods, many of which are engineered to keep us hooked. Our collective addiction to shopping is evident in the fact that the U.S. comprises only 5 percent of the planet’s population yet consumes about 1/3 of its resources. Our addiction to TV keeps us glued to the set for almost six hours a day on average, and the time spent staring dumbly at our smartphones and computers is steadily increasing.
Yet these are just our most obvious addictions, merely symptoms of a problem that goes much deeper. Instead of blaming the victim, we must realize that addiction lies at the very core of American culture. We are, after all, a country predicated on “the pursuit of happiness,” which too often means grasping after fleeting pleasures. This is certainly the message of advertisers, who endeavour to sell us the next trendy gadget designed to fall immediately into obsolescence. Indeed, if consumer culture were to provide us with lasting happiness, it would render itself obsolete.
Is the media to blame? Only partly, for they exist mainly to serve corporations, which in turn exist only to make money, a fact well understood by the CEO who must either remain in the black or be given a pink slip. But the buck doesn’t stop there, because the necessity of profits is dictated by a monetary system based on usury. Due to banks’ ability to charge interest on money created from thin air, there is never enough money in existence to repay debts. This generates the need for GDP to rise exponentially.
Thus at the heart of the system lies a constant demand for more, at any cost. This is the impulse of the addict, who will lie, steal and even kill in order to obtain the next fix. On the collective scale, the politicians and pundits do the lying, the corporations and banks do the stealing, and the government does the killing—all in the name of maintaining business-as-usual, even in the face of global warming, mass extinction, ocean collapse, continents of plastic, rising cancer rates, decaying social structures and other crises we are encouraged to ignore.
Addiction is, by definition, unhealthy and destructive. Taken to its extreme, it is suicidal, aligned with what Freud called the death instinct. Apparently, this is part of human nature, but it is not the better part. As members of the Earth community, we are also driven by a strong instinct for life, which includes a desire for growth, healing, and spiritual realization. This is the essence of the Buddha’s third Noble Truth: recovery is possible.
In the realm of addiction, the desire for life often manifests only at death’s door, or at the point of utter despair known as “hitting bottom.” This is where humanity seems to be headed. In some cases, however, the addict is prevented from hitting bottom by an intervention, which on the cultural scale might look like revolution. Unfortunately, interventions and revolutions often meet with limited or temporary success, mainly because the impetus for change originates from an external source and leaves the underlying motivations intact.
In the best instance, the bottom can be raised, as it were, by the addict’s own realization of where his behaviour will lead. Not only will it destroy him physically, it will not and cannot bring the emotional security he so desperately seeks. As our spiritual traditions tell us, true and lasting happiness must come from within. Wealth, power, fame, status, good looks, and other externalities that our culture peddles are nothing but fool’s gold—artificial substitutes for the real thing.
Despite what the old ads say, Coke is not the real thing. The real thing, that which we want most and fear most, is intimacy—with others, with our selves, and with our own emotional states, however difficult they can be. Essentially, addiction is a way of avoiding intimacy in all its forms, a turning away from reality. But we have turned away long enough. It’s high time for us to look squarely at our predicament, to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of our culture and our selves, and to take steps toward true freedom.