The Buddhist Four Noble Truths Offers a Path Away from Addiction – Part 1

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by Paul Garrigan

What are the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism?

• There is dukkha (I describe this as ‘feeling uncomfortable in your own skin’)
• Dukkha is caused by craving
• The way to escape dukkha is to let go of craving
• The Noble Eightfold Path provides a means to let go of craving

The Four Noble Truths as a Path Away from Addiction

Step 1 – Recognise Dukkha

It is almost possible to fix a problem until you see it exists. I discovered this the hard way after years of addiction destroying my life – almost everyone else could see I was a mess, but until I recognised there was something that needed fixing, there could be no progress.

It was a big deal for me to finally admit that I was hopelessly addicted, but taking this step didn’t bring an end to my problems. The reality was that my alcohol enthusiasm was merely a symptom of something much deeper. I felt uncomfortable in my own skin, and it was this that drove me to self-destructive behaviours.

‘Dukkha’ is sometimes translated as ‘suffering’, but I think this wording can be confusing. It would certainly true to say that some forms of dukkha involve obvious suffering (e.g. losing your job), but the dukkha that causes most of our discomfort is far subtler than this (e.g. the thought ‘it shouldn’t be like this’).

The dukkha that drove me into addiction was the nagging idea that I was somehow broken and therefore needed fixing. As a teenager, I was plagued by a pattern of thinking that could be best summed up by the idea, ‘surely, this can’t be it?’ I felt uncomfortable in my own skin, and I desperately began looking for a way to fix myself – this is when my suffering really began.

If you recognise dukkha in your own life, you are ready for the next step which is a diagnosis of your condition. The Buddha was very clear that his teachings were only meant to help people escape suffering, so if your problem is you need to own a Ferrari, you might be better with a different approach.

Step 2 – Recognise Suffering is Caused by Craving

When we first begin practicing meditation, we often have the expectation that we are going to experience 20 minutes of bliss. Then we sit down and within a few seconds our brain gets lost in thought – not blissful happy thoughts, but the same old rubbish that make life miserable e.g. ‘did he give me a funny look when I came in?’, ‘what will I do if I ever lose my job’, and ‘I wish I had a girlfriend’.

It isn’t the thoughts themselves that cause our suffering but our relationship with these thoughts. This internal commentary is just the brain noticing connections (e.g. ‘doesn’t the pattern on that cushion remind you of granny’s curtains’), making observations about what is currently happening (e.g. great movie), and providing useful suggestions (e.g. you notice the time and the brain reminds you that you have an appointment). Suffering occurs when we mistake these thoughts for something more significant and we start having opinions about the thinking (e.g. ‘I shouldn’t be thinking this’) – this leads to proliferation of thought and it is like we have fallen into a dream.

The craving that causes dukkha occurs when we latch onto a thought. The brain is like a chatty toddler, and it tends to repeat a lot of stuff it has heard from other people and some of the ideas it picks up can be pretty nasty and inaccurate. Once we understand what the brain is doing, we no longer take thoughts so personally – if the brain says something ‘you are so fat and ugly’, we can recognise it as an unhelpful observation and nothing more.

Escaping dukkha doesn’t mean that we have to stop thinking – it is not even about getting rid of the ‘bad’ thoughts. It just requires that we stop identifying with our thoughts in a way that leads to suffering. It is all about allowing thoughts to pass through the brain like clouds passing through the sky – they come, they go, and we just let them be.

3. The Way to Escape Dukkha is to Let Go of Craving

The Four Noble Truths are not something we need to believe in. This is practical path that is completely self-confirming. You might have never have heard of Buddhism yet still figured a lot of this out yourself.

Those of us who have reacted to mental distress by pacing up and down, or going for a long walk, have intuitively worked out the first two noble truths. We recognise that being sucked up into a headful of racing thoughts is hell, but by focusing on something physical (i.e. walking), we can temporarily lessen our suffering.

Repeatedly hitting a mental rock bottom is far from an ideal way to escape mental suffering. This is why the Buddha provided a treatment plan that has already helped millions of people escape dukkha. Once we have clearly recognised the problem (our addiction to thoughts), and we accept the solution (developing a different relationship with thoughts), we are then ready to begin treating our condition.

4. The Eightfold Path Provides a Means to Let go of Craving

• Right understanding
• Right intention
• Right action
• Right speech
• Right livelihood
• Right effort
• Right concentration
• Right mindfulness

In part two, we will be investigating the eightfold path more closely to see how it can help us.