The root of addiction

The root of addiction

Dear Rupert,

For a while now I have had some trouble in reconciling some of my behaviour with my understanding of the teachings of Advaita. The fruits of this path have definitely been self-evident in ways that I cannot describe. However, in a very honest and worldly sense, I have also been struggling with an addiction to lust and pornography. 

I obviously feel very conflicted about this. It seems to me that this addictive, lustful behaviour is certainly not in alignment with the truth that Advaita points to. However, when the impulse arises to watch it, my mind creates a convincing dialogue that says, ‘There is no doer. This is a spontaneous occurrence. Don’t resist this. All is meaningless,’ etc. 

I then act out on the impulse, and afterwards, the mind rationalises the behaviour with more of this pseudo-logic, falsely claiming that it never left awareness. This is, of course, coupled with all sorts of guilt, inadequacy and other afflictive emotions. Common sense tells me that something is amiss. 

I have heard many stories of all sorts of so-called sages, holy men, and enlightened gurus who rationalise inappropriate sexual behaviour under a veneer of spiritual ‘truth’. How do we, as spiritual seekers, avoid this tragic pitfall? Especially when we have a deep understanding that this is a path of acceptance and not avoidance? Do you have any practical advice for this? 

With love and gratitude,


Dear Martin,

Addiction of any sort, be it to inappropriate sexual behaviour, alcohol, drugs, smoking or any milder form of behaviour, always has its origin in the belief and, more importantly, the feeling of being separate, limited and located. 

The most common form in which this belief and feeling of separation manifests is in the subtle and not-so-subtle rejection of the current situation – that is, ‘I don’t like what is going on’ and ‘I want something other than what is going on’. 

These two attitudes – traditionally referred to as fear and desire – are the two faces of the apparent separate self. They are two of the most common forms of ‘resistance to what is’. 

In other words, ‘the apparent separate entity,’ ‘resistance to what is,’ and ‘the search for happiness’ via various objects, substances or experiences, are synonymous. 

These three states are, in fact, one and the same state and could also be called ‘ignorance’ or the ‘ignoring of the true nature of experience’. 

Therefore, ‘the apparent separate entity,’ ‘resistance to what is,’ and ‘the search for happiness’ are incompatible with the experiential understanding of the non-dual nature of experience. 

You have seen that clearly and it is that ‘seeing’ which enables you to avoid the pitfall of pseudo Advaita which you rightly diagnose. 


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So let us go to the origin of this ‘resistance to what is’, because if we start anywhere else, for instance, if we were to start with a secondary cause, we would not be going to the root of the problem and, sooner or later, our search will reappear, often in a more virulent form. In fact, the term ‘addiction’ is used precisely to describe this more virulent form of the search that has become chronic and destructive. 

The origin of ‘resistance to what is,’ is the belief that what we are, awareness, is limited to and located within a body. This imaginary identification of our self with a limited object (which, upon investigation turns out, itself, to be imaginary) creates an apparent entity. The real ‘I’ of awareness seems to become the limited ‘I’ of the imagined separate entity. That is, we think and feel that we are a body. 

This apparent entity, being apparently made out of an intermittent object is, by definition, unstable, always threatened with change and disappearance. Hence the fear that resides at its heart and its natural corollary, desire. 

The fear comes from the feeling that when this intermittent sensation (the form in which the body is appearing in this moment) disappears, ‘I’ will disappear with it. And the desire comes from the apparent need to substantiate this fleeting entity we believe and feel ourself to be, in order to perpetuate its apparent existence. 

To begin with this fear and desire manifest in the most innocuous forms of behaviour, the most common of which is unnecessary thinking, the almost constant chatter or commentary that most of us are familiar with.

This innocuous commentary is the simplest form of ‘the rejection of what is’. It is the repetitive background chatter which ensures that attention is almost always diverted away from ‘what is’. This is the primal addiction. 

‘What is’ is deemed too boring, plain and uneventful to be worthy of attention and thinking provides an alternative dream world into which we can escape from the boredom or discomfort of the moment. 


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One honest look at our thinking will show that the majority of it serves no practical, intelligent or creative purpose whatsoever. It is simply a sort of filler that serves to distract attention from the boredom of ‘what is’. The vast majority of our thoughts about the past and future serve only to legitimise and perpetuate this type of thinking. 

However, precisely because this type of thinking is deemed innocuous (in the sense that it has no harmful effect on the body or on society) it passes, for the most part, unnoticed and is indeed encouraged by our culture in general. 

For this reason, it is the most common and effective form of addiction that almost everyone is engaged in, for the most part unknowingly. And therein lies its efficiency at keeping the sense of separation alive. Hence it is the perfect refuge for the apparently separate self. 

However, as we grow up, this subtle thinking is no longer sufficient to keep the anxiety, dis-ease and discomfort of the sense of separation at bay and we begin to turn to stronger forms of avoidance. 

These stronger forms of avoidance are the common forms of addiction with which we are familiar – over working, over eating, excessive activity, addiction to money, excessive use of TV, excessive use of alcohol, smoking, drugs, pornography etc. etc. 

All these forms are simply strategies of avoidance – avoidance of ‘what is,’ avoidance of ‘this,’ avoidance of ‘now’. They are the familiar refuges of the sense of a separate self. 

Society draws a line based on whether the addictive activity in question is of immediate danger to itself, as to the legitimacy of each of these activities, thereby condoning some and condemning others. 

However, from the point of view of ignorance, they are all simply strategies of avoidance and denial. In fact, each of them is simply a variation of the root avoidance – incessant thinking that revolves around the ‘I’ thought. 


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If we go honestly, as you have done, to our experience, we will always find this thinking and its deeper counterpart in our feelings at the level of the body, underneath or behind all subsequent forms of addiction. It all begins with ‘I,’ the body. That is the root of all suffering which our addictions seek to alleviate. 

If society condemns one form of addiction more than another, for whatever reason, we may be persuaded to change horses, but in our hearts this fire of discomfort, avoidance and rejection, and its inevitable counterpart in the search for happiness (which is just another name for addiction) will continue. And we will not truly rest until we have gone to the root of the matter. 

To go to the root of the matter means to go to the source of the apparently separate ‘I,’ not just the belief of the separate ‘I’ but, more importantly, the feeling of such. It is only when the whole mechanism of the apparently separate self has been seen clearly in all its subtlety that we are free of it, that is, that awareness stands ‘knowingly’ in and as Itself, un-apparently-veiled by the belief and feeling of separation. 

It is not enough, as you have discovered, to wash a veneer of ‘Oh well, everything is equally an expression of awareness and therefore nothing matters’ over our beliefs and feelings. This kind of superficial thinking is one of the safer refuges for the apparently separate self in those that have added a veneer of spirituality to their persona. 

The sense of separation is a master at appropriating anything for its own purposes of self-validation and justification, and superficial spirituality is one of its less easily detected forms. Hence the new religion of non-duality. 

However, that is not your case. In your case you have seen clearly and honestly that addiction, in this case to pornography and sex, is a symptom of a deeper and subtler malaise – that of the separate self. 

You have seen that the mind’s attempts to justify this behaviour with convincing and seemingly watertight non-dual arguments are not expressions of true understanding, but rather the mind’s attempts to manipulate and appropriate the non-dual teaching to validate its addictions. 

In this respect, your analysis of the pseudo-logic of the mind and your observation of the process of impulse, action, guilt and justification are spot on. 


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So, what to do? Go to the heart of the matter – the apparent separate self or the apparent veiling of awareness. They are the same thing. 

Explore it both at the level of the mind, that is, the beliefs we have that seem to support the existence of a separate self. You have a good mind. Use it to explore your experience and come to your own conclusion. See that there is absolutely no experiential evidence for such a belief. 

This conviction will initiate a much deeper exploration of the sense of separation at the level of feelings which is the true residence of the apparent self. 

I have spoken and written much about this deeper exploration and this is not the place to embark on it in detail. Suffice to say that without this deeper exploration non-duality remains, in most cases, a belief and, as a result, the peace and happiness that is inherent in the true non-dual understanding will remain elusive and will inevitably compel further bouts of seeking. 

The good news about addiction to porn, in contrast to alcohol, tobacco and drugs, is that the addiction is mainly at the level of thoughts and feelings and does not have a lasting effect on the body which, in the case of drinking, smoking and drugs, is often irreparable or, at least, lasts long after the impulse to indulge them has been dissolved. 

Having said that and in order to facilitate the above I would also recommend one simple physical ‘discipline’. Every time you feel the impulse to watch porn, just pause. Even if, to begin with, it is only for half a minute, put a little space between you and the fulfilment of the impulse. As time goes on this period of time can be extended until you find yourself always as this space, as it were. 

However, don’t expect this space to be peaceful to begin with – it probably won’t be! Most likely, the impulse (which is, in fact, the bare face of the separate self, the separate ‘I’ in its raw form) on finding that it is no longer relieved, will probably display itself in full force. It will rebel. 

Be attentive not only to the thoughts that will try to persuade you that your impulses are perfectly OK, that you will only do it one more time, that it is all an expression of awareness, that there is nobody there doing it, and so on, but more importantly to all the uncomfortable feelings in the body that rise up, demanding to be acted upon and relieved. 

See that the thoughts all revolve around a separate entity that is, when sought, found to be non-existent. It is necessary in most cases to carry out this investigation at a rational level thoroughly, in order to come to this conviction. 

If this conviction has not been reached, the apparently separate ‘I’ will still be very much alive in your thoughts and you will not have the resolve to explore your feelings fully, as a result. 


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Relieved of the thoughts which seem to justify the existence of a separate entity, the feelings are exposed for what they are – raw bodily sensations. These bodily sensations are, in fact, neutral. They only acquire their apparent negativity (and hence their need to be avoided with addictive behaviour) when coupled with the belief in a separate self. 

Robbed of this belief they are seen for what they are, innocuous bodily sensations which, as such, have no power of us, that is, no power to make us act on their behalf. 

Being seen clearly is the one thing the apparent self and its entourage of strategic activity cannot stand. There may and probably will be tremendous resistance both in your thoughts and in your body to this gentle, non-invasive but firm approach. 

However, once the mechanism of the separate self, both at the level of the mind and at the level of the body, has been truly seen through, its foundation has been removed, and it is only a matter of time before the patterns of behaviour which depended upon its apparent existence for their survival, diminish and disappear. 

Having said that, these addictions are very powerful and in most cases this deep explorative approach is best facilitated over a period of time with one in whom peace and understanding are established. 

In the end it is not the exploration that facilitates the peace and understanding, but rather the peace and understanding which allows the investigation and exploration to unfold and slowly, in most cases, reabsorbs, as it were, the apparently separate self and all its patterns of thinking, feeling and acting, back into itself. 


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One last thing: as we sit allowing these thoughts and, more importantly, uncomfortable feelings to arise, it is important not to have any subtle agenda with them, not to ‘do this’ in order to ‘get rid of them’. That would be more of the same. 

Just allow the full panoply of thoughts and feelings to display themselves in your allowing and indifferent presence. In time their ferocity will die down, revealing subtler and subtler layers of thinking and feeling on behalf of a separate entity, until we come to the little, almost innocuous background thinking about which we were speaking earlier. 

This is the sense of separation, the ‘ego,’ in its apparently mildest and least easily detectable form. Be very sensitive to this. Be sensitive to the ‘avoidance of what is’ in its subtlest forms. It is the sweet, furry baby animal that later turns into a monster! 

As time goes on we become more and more sensitive and we see how much of our thinking and feeling, let alone our activities, are generated for the sole purpose of avoiding ‘what is,’ of avoiding the ‘this’ and the ‘now’. 

It is this open, non-judging, non-avoiding allowing of all things which, in time, restores the ‘I’ to its proper place in the seat of awareness and which, as a natural corollary to this abidance in and as our true self, gently realigns our thoughts, feelings and activities with the peace and happiness that is inherent in it.

With warmest wishes and love,


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