Meditation Against Drug Dependence

By Nicholas Ribush

This article on the Buddhist approach to battling addiction was written by Dr. Nicholas Ribush for Around magazine, 1979.

The underlying problem

Since beginningless time, sentient beings have sought only happiness and striven constantly to attain it. But they have always been frustrated by ignorance—not understanding the nature of the mind. The world today is the result of our efforts to escape from dissatisfaction; the rapid pace of our daily lives shows just how desperate we have become.

The happiness and suffering around which our lives revolve are mental experiences, each the result of appropriate causes. Because these feelings are purely mental, their principal causes are likewise mental; because these causes are principal causes, their results of happiness and suffering cannot arise without them; because they are mental, these causes are very hard to see.

Our happiness and suffering also depend on secondary, or conditional, causes. These are mostly physical and are readily perceived through the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Ignorantly, we believe these contributory causes to be the main ones, and consequently devote our entire lives to manipulation of the sense world, hoping to suppress our ever-arising dissatisfaction in this manner. But no matter how much we develop materially, as long as we do not stop creating the principal cause of suffering and create instead that of happiness, we shall never be free of the dissatisfaction that characterizes our existence.

The principal cause of suffering is an action motivated by the desire for the happiness of only this life. This mind of attachment is negative, or deluded, because the action is done in the belief that it will cause happiness, whereas in reality, the result it brings will be suffering. The principal cause of happiness is a suitable action motivated by the desire for happiness in a lifetime subsequent to this one, the mind being free from attachment to the happiness of this life. This mind is positive because the expected and eventual results coincide.

The only way for us to experience happiness in the future is by our creating its principal cause. To do so we have to understand mental continuity—the beginningless and endless existence of each individual’s continuum—then act correctly with the object of benefiting our future lives. We can only do all this while we are human; farsightedness is an especially human characteristic.

Yet most of us believe that this is the only life we shall have and concern ourselves with its happiness alone. Our view of cause and effect is similarly superficial and we expend all our energy in pursuit of merely the secondary causes of happiness. Thus we render our precious human life meaningless, and essentially, there is no difference between our behavior and that of animals.

We are habituated to negative actions and create them automatically. Consequently our minds are replete with the continually ripening seeds of suffering and dissatisfaction. As we try to deal with our present problems in the usual way we create only the cause for more. Among the myriad different methods we turn to in our vain attempts to alleviate our physical and mental suffering is the use of drugs.


Drugs, however, are of limited value. Since negative mental actions are the principal cause of all suffering, even physical illnesses are merely symptomatic of a diseased mind. Where drugs are the best means of treating a certain illness, their use is legitimate, but since drugs can never produce a healthy mind, such treatment is palliative at best. Until our minds are completely free from the actual causes of suffering, any illness can recur, and meditation to destroy the negative mind is the only definitive treatment of disease.

Other instances of drug use constitute drug abuse. Proprietary medicines are frequently involved. Doctors may prescribe them when they are not the best form of treatment and patients may take them for a variety of wrong reasons. Several years ago, the then director of the World Health Organization called into question the very existence of most proprietary medicines, saying that only two percent of them were indispensable and that the rest were largely unnecessary. The situation today is unlikely to be much different.

The use of drugs for non-medical purposes is the main form of drug abuse. Tobacco and alcohol are by far the most commonly abused drugs and their use is an enormous social and psychological problem. In comparison, the abuse of illegal, or not socially accepted, drugs such as opiates, cannabis products, hallucinogens and other mood-altering substances is of much lesser importance.

Whether people who abuse these drugs consider they have a problem or not depends upon their insight into the nature of the mind. All who take drugs do so out of dissatisfaction. Although any relief they experience is only temporary, they are unable to find or even consider an alternative solution. The futility and deludedness of seeking satisfaction through drugs—or any sense object for that matter—can be illustrated well by analyzing the use of a specific drug, for example, tobacco.

The stupidity of using tobacco

Over the years, we human beings have developed many ways of protecting ourselves from the environment and disease so that our lives will be happy and long. But it seems that some of us, having found a modicum of security, do not know what to do next, and in the name of happiness set about shortening our lives and ruining our health by smoking. If we do not appreciate that longevity and good health give us the rare and precious chance of practicing meditation and thereby destroying the principal cause of suffering forever, then we shall see nothing wrong with enjoying the apparent pleasure of smoking at their expense. To overcome this delusion we should understand that smoking is neither satisfying nor the cause of happiness.

That smoking itself is not the cause of happiness is clearly indicated by the great variety of tobacco products and smoking paraphernalia manufactured and the extent to which such things have to be advertised. If this is not evidence enough, there is much more.

Consider the mind of the smoker as he (or she) reaches for his next cigarette. By smoking it he intends to suppress the strong dissatisfaction that has arisen in his mind. This specific type of dissatisfaction has existed only since he started smoking—cigarettes conditioned it and continued smoking has perpetuated it. Instead of alleviating his dissatisfaction, the cigarette he is about to smoke will only help produce more. As he lights up and inhales, there is a temporary fall in the level of dissatisfaction—his mind is still dissatisfied, yet he believes he has found happiness and that the cigarette was responsible. Even before he has finished smoking it, the dissatisfaction has begun to rise once more. Temporarily staving it off again and again is a foolish and endless means of trying to cope with any problem, and no solution at all.

If smoking were truly the cause of happiness, everybody would enjoy smoking, smokers would experience increasing pleasure the more they smoked, and every cigarette would be a source of joy. But many people hate smoking and cannot even bear being together with smokers. Smokers themselves only get sicker and sicker the more they smoke and many times find no pleasure at all. Therefore, smoking is not the cause of happiness.

Because of the toxic effects of tobacco on body and mind, smoking is one of the worst distractions for those who wish to practice meditation, but its major disadvantage is this: the impulse to smoke arises from the negative mind that is attached to the happiness of this life, and each time the smoker follows this negative mind he creates the principal causes of rebirth in lower states of existence and other heavy sufferings for many years to come.


The importance of understanding the nature of the mind in the recognition of problems has already been mentioned. This understanding is also essential for the proper application of the meditational methods that eradicate problems such as drug dependence. It is begins with listening to, reading, and studying the explanations of a properly qualified teacher.

All meditation can be divided into two broad categories: analytical and concentrative. In analytical meditation we subject the teacher’s explanations to logical scrutiny to establish their worth and to generate within us complete confidence in his or her methods of eradicating problems. It is also very important therapeutically, because through it we recognize what our mind is, how it works, what are our deepest needs, and the best means of meeting them. Thus we find, for example, that many of the things we do automatically and out of habit—such as trying to find satisfaction through the use of drugs—are illogical and harmful. As insight grows, wrong actions are abandoned automatically and right ones take their place. All this is fundamental to successful application of the specific meditations given to counteract drug dependence.

Concentrative meditation is based on the above. It leads to stability, tranquility, and single-pointedness of mind. Ultimately we use this concentration to cultivate direct insight into the nature of the mind, thereby destroying completely the ignorance that has kept us in cyclic existence and suffering since beginningless time and attaining liberation and the highest states of mind. Even while we are developing our concentration, we experience increasing peace and happiness and see for ourselves that deep satisfaction arises from within the mind itself and does not depend on materials such as drugs. Such meditation is the true cause of happiness because when done correctly it works for everybody all the time, and the more we practice it the greater the joy we experience. When through it we have eradicated ignorance, we receive ultimate happiness: unconditioned, unsurpassed and everlasting.


Drug dependence is widespread and increasing, but it is merely a symptom of the much more fundamental and common human problem of dissatisfaction. The great advantage of using a combination of analytical and concentrative meditation in the treatment of drug dependence is that it is a curative approach—one that destroys the actual cause of the problem. Most other methods are simply palliative. Furthermore, this approach destroys the cause of many other problems at the same time and leads us to a state beyond suffering. Therefore, at a time when other methods seem to be failing, it would be wise to investigate the place of Buddhist meditation in the treatment of drug dependence.