Zen and the art of avoiding addiction


Addiction, in the biochemical sense, is a relatively modern phenomenon, but it turns out that Zen Buddhism has been teaching people to avoid it for hundreds of years.

Along with some friends, I've been reading Wisdom 2.0 by Soren Gordhamer. This book is aimed at hyperconnected type-A people whose cutting-edge electronics and Internet tools leave them breathless. It introduces a few Zen teachings to help them be happier, less stressed, and more focused. In it, Gordhamer recounts the story of a young monk who was visiting his teacher as a long-awaited letter arrived.
The student excused himself when the letter arrived. "Stop," the teacher boomed. "Please stay. I will open the letter later."

"Don't you want to open the letter now?" the student replied. "I know how long you've waited for this letter, and news from your friend is right there in the envelope."

"Yes," said the teacher, "I have waited long, but I cannot open this letter until I have conquered the haste I feel."
The teacher knew that it would be bad for him to read the letter at the moment of peak anticipation and excitement. He actually asked the student to stay and help keep him in the moment until he calmed down.

What did the elder monk know? If he gave in and read the letter immediately, he would take the greatest pleasure from it - and immediately afterwards want more. This would train his mind to seek fleeting pleasures and be disappointed without them.

Throughout the book, Gordhamer consistently uses the language of addiction to describe the relationship of modern information workers with the tools of their connectedness - checking their email, instant messaging, social network services, etc. The quick reward of getting a new message and reacting to it provides a feeling of accomplishment followed by boredom.

I think he's right to refer to it as addiction, because the biochemical basis for addiction works exactly the same way. I'm referring more to substances like cocaine and heroin and not alcohol; the difference is the length of time between the peak of pleasure and the crash. The faster the crash, the more addictive the substance is. I'm not an addiction specialist, but I suspect that if the peak is within the brain's short-term memory (seconds to minutes) when the crash occurs, then the contrast will train the brain to want to go back to the peak - hence enhancing addictiveness. Cigarette manufacturers have known this for a long time, adding substances to their products to hasten the crash so their customers would find it harder to quit.

I occasionally find myself thinking that Gordhamer's book is for people with much more problematic relationships with technology than mine is, but it has some interesting insights. He also provides suggestions for how to apply the ideas to your day-to-day life, which is a good way to train yourself to be calmer and more focused. And we can all use a little help in that department.