My post yesterday explored addiction – specifically addiction to electronics. Addiction is any habit that can’t be stopped easily. Some addictions are chemically based. Addiction to coffee, chocolate and cigarettes for instance are hard to break habits because the brain has changed in response to those substances. This is true even after a person has smoked one cigarette, so research has shown.
Other addictions are psychological in nature. People can get addicted to gambling for instance. A chemical component can’t be ruled out by the way: in those cases too there is evidence that there are serious brain changes.
None of this means the habit can’t be broken. It just means that it is hard to change.
I see addiction as an exaggeration of attachment. As I said last week, attachment is seen by our psychologists as perfectly normal – even healthy. There are several things one might say about that, but the thing I want to go into today is that there is a distinct difference in approach between the traditional spiritual approach and the modern psychological approach.
There was an assumption in Buddhism, Hinduism which survived into 19th century Theosophy that spiritual growth was a ladder: many people at the bottom, few at the top. Hierarchy is no stranger to our culture. Our educational system is hierarchical: those who are intelligent enough, get their financing straight and work hard may get a PhD, when others will drop out before graduating high school. I suspect most of my readers are nearer the top of that ladder than the bottom.
Yet the idea of a spiritual hierarchy is suspect in our culture. Why should I need a spiritual teacher? A common question and I’m not sure I have the answer. But is it really so strange to think that in spirituality too, those who devote their lives to it will be ‘better’ at it – at least on average?
How does this relate to attachment again? Well, our psychologists are saying attachment is normal and healthy for normal well-adjusted people. The aim of psychology is to cure the ill, to make them fit for society.
The aim of spirituality is to help normal well-adjusted people become, for lack of a better word, saints. But our culture has to a large extent stopped believing that is even possible. Even the most well meaning of people get some satisfaction out of doing the right thing, so (or so the reasoning goes) they are selfish just like the next guy. I think it’s rather foolish that just because Mother Teresa felt good about the good she did, she therefore is less of a saint. She gave up all she knew, traveled across the world to some of the poorest people in the world, lived on the food she gave them as well, and went through tremendous suffering in the process. And yes, she ultimately knew the satisfaction of success.
Whom among us has that courage? Who are we, who haven’t done anything of the sort, to say that her motivation were as base as those of us who stay in our comfortable homes?
The thing is that in order to get to where she was, she had to let go of a lot of things that most of us consider the normal pleasures of life. That is because she did go beyond the normal.
I wonder: do the words ‘well adjusted’ mean anything when we talk about someone like Mother Teresa? She did not work for her own good, she worked for the welfare of humanity, within her chosen religious tradition. She wasn’t mad or psychologically ill, but I would not call her well adjusted either. She was more of a revolutionary. She went beyond the normal into the saint category.
When Buddha says: let go of attachment he does not say that to make us well adjusted individuals, he says that in order that we may become saints. It is clear that most of us will not take up that cross (to continue in Christian imagery). Most of us don’t really want to let go of attachment. We don’t really want to become enlightened, a blessing to humanity. We might like the idea of that, but the actual reality is beyond us.
For most of us it is quite a struggle, and enough of one, to get rid of our addictions. We may try to get rid of some of them, because they become a problem. Our attachments we leave alone. We only let go when life forces us to do so. When death, illness or disaster strikes we will mourn and let go of the attachments that were forced out of our lives. Which is why we often say that life is the best teacher. I’m not saying I disagree. That’s how I live my life as well.
But there is a further path, a path that targets the root of the problem: getting rid of all attachments, instead of merely those that life forces us to let go of.