Addiction: Just Say No Just Doesn’t Work

Taste me, you will see
More is all you need
Metallica, Master of Puppets

The idea of the ‘addictive personality’ is false. Every person’s mind is susceptible to addiction if it is not properly guided, and any experience can become the object of addiction. Understanding addiction requires understanding two types of thought: discriminate and indiscriminate. The latter type is responsible for the phenomenon of addiction.

Two Types of Thought

Thought rules our lives. Our thinking determines the way we experience the world and the direction of our choices. Every action springs from a flow of thought. The distinction between the two types of thought–discriminate and indiscriminate–is succinctly highlighted by contemporary Indian philosopher A. Parthasarathy:

Thinking is conscious thought-force. Not mere mental indulgence when your mind on its own flows towards an object.1

The mind is a store-house of memories and associations. When the mind remains without conscious direction, triggering one can create an unchecked cascade of further associations. This is indiscriminate thought, the mind flowing without supervision to objects of interest.

‘Indiscriminate thinking’ is thus something of a misnomer: it is not thinking at all, as conscious thought-force is absent. The object of attention has not been consciously chosen, and the individual lacks any perspective from outside the flow of thoughts. We become passive consumers of the thought-flow thus initiated, at times helplessly mesmerized by it. This lack of metacognition and control is the lack of objectivity. Objectivity is broadly defined as intellect governing mind, and is the hallmark of discriminate thinking.

Discriminate thought alone deserves the name ‘thinking.’ The intellect discerns a worthwhile target and purpose for our attention, and guides it to that end. Thus, the thought-flow is situated within a broader context, ensuring that it does not utterly dominate the individual’s awareness. Importantly, objectivity encompasses the ability to redirect the thought-flow at any moment.

Indiscriminate Thought & Addiction

Addiction starts with a single experience. We contact an object and gain the experience of pleasure, joy, satisfaction. Later, the mind flows indiscriminately towards the memory of it, and we are prompted to re-contact the original object. Thus, indiscriminate thought prompts indiscriminate action: action initiated by the mind alone, in the absence of intellectual scrutiny and approval.

No enjoyment in life is taboo per se. However, our relationships with life’s enjoyments need scrutiny. Repeated indiscriminate contact of any object or being leads to a state termed neutralisation by Parthasarathy.2 Neutralisation encompasses two aspects: the absence of pleasure upon contact; and displeasure upon non-contact.

To understand the first aspect, consider the example of enjoying mangoes. When they are out of season, there is a sustained period of non-contact. Consuming that first mango of the season brings the maximum possible pleasure. Now imagine consuming a second mango soon after the first. Though the taste is the same, the pleasure experienced is diminished. Repeated contact reveals the law of diminishing returns, the pleasure ultimately reaching a zero-point. This is the first aspect of neutralisation: there is no further pleasure gained upon contact with the object.

FHIch9Neutralisation
(Image sourced from The Fall of the Human Intellect by A. Parthasarathy)

The second aspect of neutralisation is the development of dependency. The contact become so habitual that it needs to be continued simply for us to feel ‘normal.’ Cigarette smoking provides a good example.

A non-smoker neither thinks about nor consumes cigarettes. In the time period soon after adopting the habit, she remains satisfied with (say) two cigarettes per day. The periods between contact are generally characterized by a lack of thought or craving towards cigarettes.

Repeated indiscriminate contact has two effects: it gradually diminishes the pleasure; and it builds the thought of cigarettes more strongly in memory. To compensate for the deficiency in enjoyment, the mind returns to the memory and demands more cigarettes. Over time, the periods without craving begin to diminish in duration. Thus two becomes three, which satisfies for a finite time. Three becomes a half-pack, which becomes a full pack, and so on.

It soon becomes essential for the smoker to have a pack nearby at all times. At some point, any period of time apart from cigarettes induces a potent frustration and anxiety. This is the second aspect of neutralisation: displeasure upon non-contact. Our smoker needs cigarettes constantly on hand just to feel normal. She has developed what C.E.M. Joad describes as “an unconscious habit to satisfy an ever-present need.”3

With neutralisation, we become dependent upon objects and beings around us, but have contacted them in such a way as to make the extraction of pleasure impossible. True addiction, true misery.

Avoiding & Overcoming Addiction

Ensuring a desire does not become an addiction is significantly easier and less complex than overcoming an addiction that has already formed. While there are significant differences in the practical experience of avoiding versus overcoming addiction, the basic principles are the same for both.

Addiction is the effect of repeated indiscriminate contact, i.e. contact initiated by the mind alone. Avoiding and overcoming addiction therefore reduces to managing the mind to circumvent indiscriminate thought. This is the role of the intellect, to manage or guide the mind by consciously choosing the target of our thoughts.

The intellect guides the mind via knowledge, understanding.  The intellect first reflects upon the nature of the mind, indiscriminate versus discriminate thought, neutralisation, addiction, etc. It then reasons and decides what constitutes healthy contact with specific experiences of life–from sensory to emotional to intellectual. A healthy relationship will be defined differently from person to person. For example, one person may decide occasional contact with alcohol is acceptable; a recovering alcoholic may decide that zero contact is the only reasonably safe level.

Whatever limits are set, the purpose of setting these limits is the same: deriving maximum enjoyment from life, without developing dependency. This constitutes our ideal, a goal that lies outside the mind’s immediate, egocentric demands. Having set this ideal as a guiding principle for life, we need the following core practices to ensure we meet it.

 1.  Intellectual Development.

The intellect is the faculty with which we “guide, direct the mind and its emotions, the body and its perceptions and actions.”4 Therefore it is essential to develop it and make it available in daily life. The respective practices of daily reflection and nightly introspection are suggested to ensure this.

2.  Gratitude & devotion.

A mind imbued with gratitude for the benefits and enjoyments of one’s life cannot incessantly demand more. A regular gratitude / devotion practice is highly conducive for maintaining inspiration towards the ideal, and for reducing the pressure of the mind’s demand for contact.

3.  Regulation of contact.

Suppressing or denying the mind is counterproductive in avoiding and overcoming addiction. The desire for anything increases with restriction and prohibition. Attempting to abstain while still entertaining the thought or craving is suppression, and inches us closer to binge and relapse. ‘Just say no‘ just doesn’t work.

Instead, we learn to question the mind’s impulses and demands, engaging with it and redirecting it without suppression. The essence of healthy regulation is the intellect questioning and then deciding to contact or not contact. For example:

What is the mind demanding? Why? What constitutes a healthy contact relationship with this object or being?
What will the effects be if I choose to contact? Is my demand for this becoming more frequent, more urgent?
When did I last enjoy this? Is contact appropriate right now? If not, why not? What greater good does non-contact achieve?

If we choose to contact, it is essential that we do not linger mentally in the experience once it is completed. Such post hoc musings violate the principles of healthy regulation, strengthening the thought-associations and the potential for future indiscriminate contact.

If we choose not to contact, it is essential that we do not linger in ruminating over the experience that we have decided to forego. This is suppression. To redirect the attention, it is helpful to engage in some other (preferably unselfish) productive activity.

4.  Unselfish action

When the personality is under a greater emotional load or strain, we are more likely to succumb to the mind’s indiscriminate demands. Unselfish action shifts the focus of our attention off our own demands by thinking in terms of others’ needs. This maintains our emotional peace and stability, reducing emotional stress and strain. It can be practised anywhere, any time. We simply adopt the attitude of

What is this person experiencing? What do they need?
What can I offer to this situation, group, or person?

It is important to recognize that it is irrelevant whether or not we have anything to offer, and whether or not our attempts to help are successful. The essential aspect of unselfish action is the attitude of seeking to serve another’s needs. As John Milton observes in his poem On His Blindness,

He also serves who only stands and waits.

Drop Dependence, Not Enjoyment

Properly practised, managing the mind is not self-denial or suppression. Our efforts in questioning bring us to an inner consensus and resolution that, whether we accept or decline contact, we have chosen the option that is in our best interests. We remain in control of our own minds and choices. And we retain maximum enjoyment all through life without developing dependency.


Drop Dependence, Not Enjoyment (2:15)


1^ A. Parthasarathy. (2004). Vedanta Treatise: The Eternities. (14ed). Ch.XIV, p.229

2^ Parthasarathy, A. (2008). The Fall of the Human Intellect. (3ed). Ch. IX, p.119

3^ Joad, C.E.M. (1935). Return to Philosophy: Being A Defence of Reason; An Affirmation of Values; and a Plea for Philosophy. p.121

4^ Parthasarathy, A. (2008). Op cit. p.12