Usually, the word ‘addiction’ is used in the negative sense. It has been defined with regard to psychoactive substances such as alcohol and tobacco which, if ingested, alter the mood and/or perception of the person consuming them.
But addiction, in true sense of the word, is not limited only to alcohol and drugs, etc. One may become addicted to gambling, a particular type of food such as chocolate or coffee, sex, pornography, computers, video games, internet, work, exercise, TV, shopping and even spirituality. There may also be so-called good addictions which people may praise such as getting up early in the morning and visiting a temple or church.
The question that may be raised is how to distinguish whether an addiction is good or bad in the ultimate sense. From modern, psychological point of view, a bad addiction is characterized by impairment in behavioural control, craving, inability to consistently abstain, and diminished recognition of a significant problem with one’s behaviours and interpersonal relationships. In other words, addiction is a recurring compulsion by an individual to engage in a specific activity, despite harmful consequences, as deemed by the individual himself to his individual health, mental, or social life.
From the psychology of Yoga, both good and bad addictions are to be avoided because both are conditioning to the material world. Sage Patanjali in his Yoga Sutra says that whatever we perceive with our senses – internal as well as external – can be divided into five groups which he calls vrittis or states of mind. According to him, whenever we perceive anything, it brings a modification in the state of mind. Mind is the key instrument in perception. Mind takes the shape of the particular object perceived. Mind is compared to a fluid which takes the shape of a container in which it is poured. This shape is termed as vritti.
A particular vritti stays for a moment and is replaced by the vritti of the newer perception. But, before a vritti is replaced by a newer one, it leaves an impression called samskara in the chitta or heart. This samskara is the basis of our remembrance of a particular object or action later on. If we perform an action repeatedly, we fortify the samskaras of that action in our chitta. When we perform an action for the first time, we are very conscious of it. But if we have done it many times, we can do that action without much awareness. For example, when we first begin learning how to ride a bicycle, we are very much concentrated on the act of riding. We cannot think of anything else. But once we have learnt riding it and have practiced riding for a long time, then we can ride the bicycle while thinking of our job or some other plan we want to execute. We hardly pay any attention and everything seems to happen automatically. This is because by riding the bicycle repeatedly we have created deep samskaras of how to ride a bicycle. Riding becomes a reflex and does not need much of our attention. We have developed a habit of riding.
Addiction works in a similar manner. The only difference between riding a bicycle without being aware of it and addiction is reward (such as comfort to one’s ego) from the addictive activity. If riding a bicycle would be used for that type of relief or reward, then it will also be considered an addiction. Addiction, then, would mean any compulsive action performed to gain a relief or reward. If such action is harmful to health, impairment in behavioural control, then it is an undesirable addiction. It may lead to guilt, shame, fear, hopelessness, failure, rejection, anxiety, humiliation, and depression. But, if it improves one’s health, wealth, status or awareness, then it may be a welcome addiction. In fact, a person himself, or others, may not recognise this as an addiction.
From the point of spirituality, however, both types of addiction must be given up ultimately. The goal of spirituality is to make one free of all conditioning- good as well as bad, since both are part of materialism. Whether one is bound by silk ropes or iron chains, one is not free. Both must be abandoned to become liberated. Therefore, following even spiritual rules and regulations in an addictive manner (niyama-agrah) is also considered as an obstacle to one’s progress in spiritual life.
We must perform our actions with awareness; otherwise we become slaves of our own mind. Addiction means to become a slave of the mind. To be happy, healthy and prosperous, we must get rid of this slavery and become a free citizen in the true sense of the word.
by Satya Narayana Dasa