writing on suffering and awakening

Addiction and the four dharma seals

More often than not, people look at addiction as a curse—a source of mindless, pointless pain. Even in twelve-step recovery groups, which offer a fuller and more compassionate understanding of addiction than is found most elsewhere, we talk about addiction as a disease—not your fault, but something you need to overcome.

It’s not that this perspective is wrong—addiction can indeed be horrible, causing tremendous suffering both for the addict and the people around him or her. Beginning a process of recovery from addiction in 2011 probably saved my life. But seeing addiction solely as a problem misses the full picture. 

The root of addiction is in the mind: addicts experience the suffering of life intensely, and therefore crave the security of equally intense coping mechanisms like drugs and alcohol. In the short term, this actually seems to work; when I first started getting high every day, I felt comfortable in my own skin for the first time in years. The problem is, of course, that drinking and using doesn’t actually work in the long run—jumping down the rabbit hole inevitably leads to a world of hurt.

But observing the addictive mind can be a great window into some fundamental truths about life.

I recently read an essay by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche in which he discusses the four seals of Buddhism—four basic teachings of the Buddha about the way that life actually is. Rinpoche writes that anyone who accepts these four seals can call themselves a Buddhist; regardless of whether or not they follow any of the religious practices we often call Buddhism.

Rinpoche defines the four dharma seals as follows:

    1.    All compounded things are impermanent
    2.    All emotions are pain
    3.    All things have no inherent existence
    4.    Nirvana is beyond concepts

What I realized, upon reading this, is how clearly these truths are reflected in the experience of the addict.

When I was actively using drugs, I spent my day getting high because I felt awful if I didn’t. My schedule looked something like this. Wake up, get high, lie there for a few hours, get high again when the buzz wore off, repeat. Anything to drive away the pain and emptiness for a while.

But in doing so, I was both resisting and constantly running into the four dharma seals.

First: all compounded things are impermanent. This is another way of saying that nothing lasts forever, or that anything we perceive as separate—whether our stuff, our relationships, or even ourselves, is only temporary. An addict knows this all too well. My primary relationship was with my drugs and the feeling of being high. Every day, I worried about running out, and inevitably, I always did. As soon as I got high, I started to worry that the high would fade, and inevitably, it always did.

Second: all emotions are pain. This seems like a strange thing to say. After all, some emotions feel really good! But again, the cycle of drug use is illustrative. No matter how good I felt when I first got high, that feeling always went away, and leaving me feeling bereft and awful. The harder I chased pleasurable feelings, the more pain I found. 

Momentary pleasures cause us pain when they inevitably end, and more pain if we seek to hold onto them or drag them out. Meanwhile, holding onto pain or trying to drag that out….just causes more pain. There isn’t any way to game the system. If you search for pleasure, you’ll find pain. If you search for pain, you’ll find pain.

Third: all things have no inherent existence. In other words, nothing is solid; everything we hold dear—our lives, our friends, our families, our very sense of self—is but a dream. Perhaps more than anything, this is the truth that addicts like myself are running away from. I desperately want something to hold onto, but that something keeps slipping through my fingers because it isn’t there. All there is is an emptiness inside of me that I would do everything in my power to avoid. That’s why drugs were so attractive; they temporarily took that empty feeling away. But it never stayed away, because it’s the truth. 

Fourth: Nirvana is beyond concepts. We live our lives trapped in our concepts: the thoughts in our minds that define how we see the world. Part of the beauty of using drugs is that they can temporarily shatter those concepts, and give you a new experience. It’s not true nirvana because it’s still just that: temporary, an experience that ends. But it’s a taste of what’s possible, if we do indeed let go of our concepts and stop seeing the world through the veil of our thinking minds. 

Everything people do when trapped in the cycle of addiction is designed to help them escape the truth, because it feels frightening and painful. But we get stuck in addiction because we’re already aware of the truth—we just don’t trust it.

But we don’t need to be afraid of the four dharma seals. After all, they are the gateway to nirvana—the true freedom. To get free—from drugs, from the endless cycle of chasing our desires, from suffering—we can start by turning towards the truths we’ve always been running from and investigating them instead. 

As Buddhas do. 

Ian Cooper