Talking to the Dalai Lama about Addiction Science

Recently, I had the privilege of visiting Dharamsala, India, for a dialogue with His Holiness the Dalai Lama about addiction science, as part of a five-day conference at his Mind and Life Institute. I was very impressed at the Tibetan Buddhist leader’s personal interest in the brain, and in his desire to convene a small group of scientists from around the world along with Buddhist contemplatives and other scholars to discuss the topic of craving, desire, and addiction.

Dr. Nora Volkow with the Dalai Lama and other participants in the Mind and Life Conference on Craving, Desire and Addiction in Dharamsala, India
For Buddhists, craving is the source of human suffering; the misery of those ruled by extreme cravings for drugs is just an extreme form of the attachment to material things that compromises any person’s happiness. The Dalai Lama was interested to learn what I had to say about dopamine and the addicted brain, and the loss of self-control that comes when drugs change crucial brain circuits involved in emotion, pleasure, memory, and judgment.

The Dalai Lama put these brain changes in terms of the “action cycle” of karma in Buddhist belief: Once you make a choice to use drugs, consequences are unavoidable. The powerful changes that occur with the abuse of drugs reinforced the Dalai Lama’s belief that it is necessary to “put up the barrier before the floods come”—that is, to focus as much as possible on prevention. His feeling is that education is central to preventing drug use.

He stressed that education must create an environment in which children will have the opportunity to develop themselves, and young people should be taught in such a way that their brains can achieve their full capacities. The environment should also instill a sense of purpose and connectedness, rather than the materialistic values that, he says, cannot produce happiness. “We must bring to children a sense of wonderment about the world, rather than so much negativity,” he said. “And we must bring more simplicity.”

The Dalai Lama said that Buddhism can help best with this goal of preventing drug abuse, both through training the brain to balance emotions and self-restraint (for instance through meditation) and through promoting education and working to create a less materialistic society. He acknowledged that once a person becomes addicted, Buddhism may have less to offer, and said that medical science may be the best solution to treating their disease.

It was gratifying to see the powerful common ground between the Buddhist approach to suffering and addiction science. Both perspectives agree that prevention is critically important and that the emotional part of the brain is crucial to understanding what can go wrong. It led me to think about what we might learn from a discipline like Buddhism about training the brain—particularly given recent research showing benefits of meditation in smoking reduction—as well as how we might devise new neuroscience-based technologies to assist in strengthening self-control circuits.

Whether coming from the perspective of neuroscience or meditation, our aim is to understand how we can encourage self-control, manage our emotions, and offer children a purposeful life that will prevent substance abuse.


The Great Eastern Philosophers: The Buddha

The story of the Buddha’s life, like all of Buddhism, is a story about confronting suffering. He was born between the sixth and fourth century B.C., the son of a wealthy king in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal. It was prophesied that the young Buddha — then called Siddhartha Gautama — would either become the emperor of India or a very holy man. Since Siddhartha’s father desperately wanted him to be the former, he kept the child isolated in a palace with every imaginable luxury: jewels, servants, lotus ponds, even beautiful dancing women.


Young Prince Siddhartha with his bride and servants

For 29 years, Gautama lived in bliss, protected from even the smallest misfortunes of the outside word: “a white sunshade was held over me day and night to protect me from cold, heat, dust, dirt, and dew.” Then at the age of 30, he left the palace for short excursions. What he saw amazed him: first he met a sick man, then an aging man, and then a dying man. He was astounded to discover that these unfortunate people represented normal—indeed, inevitable—parts of the human condition that would one day touch him, too. Horrified and fascinated, Gautama made a fourth trip outside the palace walls—and encountered a holy man, who had learned to seek spiritual life in the midst of the vastness of human suffering. Determined to find the same enlightenment, Gautama left his sleeping wife and son and walked away from the palace for good.


A Chinese painting from the Tang Dynasty shows Buddha discovering illness and old age

Gautama tried to learn from other holy men. He almost starved himself to death by avoiding all physical comforts and pleasures, as they did. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it did not bring him solace from suffering. Then he thought of a moment when he was a small boy: sitting by the river he’d noticed that when the grass was cut, the insects and their eggs were trampled and destroyed. Seeing this, he’d felt compassion for the tiny insects.

Reflecting on his childhood compassion, Gautama felt a profound sense of peace. He ate, meditated under a fig tree, and finally reached the highest state of enlightenment: “nirvana,” which simply means “awakening”. He became the Buddha, “the awakened one”.


A second-century carving of the Buddha receiving enlightenment under a fig tree, surrounded by admiring members of creation

The Buddha awoke by recognising that all of creation, from distraught ants to dying human beings, is unified by suffering. Recognising this, the Buddha discovered how to best approach suffering. First, one shouldn’t bathe in luxury, nor abstain from food and comforts altogether. Instead, one ought to live in moderation (the Buddha called this “the middle way”). This allows for maximal concentration on cultivating compassion for others and seeking enlightenment. Next, the Buddha described a path to transcending suffering called “the four noble truths.”

The first noble truth is the realisation that first prompted the Buddha’s journey: that there is suffering and constant dissatisfaction in the world: “Life is difficult and brief and bound up with suffering.” The second is that this suffering is caused by our desires, and thus “attachment is the root of all suffering.” The third truth is that we can transcend suffering by removing or managing these desires. The Buddha thus made the remarkable claim that we must change our outlook, not our circumstances. We are unhappy not because we don’t have a raise or a lover or enough followers but because we are greedy, vain, and insecure. By re-orienting our mind we can grow to be content.

The fourth and final noble truth the Buddha uncovered is that we can learn to move beyond suffering through what he termed “the eightfold path.” The eightfold path involves a series of aspects of behaving “right” and wisely: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. What strikes the Western observer is the notion that wisdom is a habit, not merely an intellectual realisation. One must exercise one’s nobler impulses. Understanding is only part of becoming a better person.

Seeking these correct modes of behaviour and awareness, the Buddha taught that people could transcend much of their negative individualism—their pride, their anxiety, and the desires that made them so unhappy—and in turn they would gain compassion for all other living beings who suffered as they did. With the correct behaviour and what we now term a mindful attitude, people can invert negative emotions and states of mind, turning ignorance into wisdom, anger into compassion, and greed into generosity.


Art being invited to support philosophy: a beautifully carved eight-spoke wheel commonly used as a Buddhist symbol. The eight spokes represent the eightfold path

The Buddha travelled widely throughout northern India and southern Nepal, teaching meditation and ethical behaviour. He spoke very little about divinity or the afterlife. Instead, he regarded the state of living as the most sacred issue of all.

After the Buddha’s death, his followers collected his “sutras” (sermons or sayings) into scripture, and developed texts to guide followers in meditation, ethics, and mindful living. The monasteries that had developed during the Buddha’s lifetime grew and multiplied, throughout China and East Asia. For a time, Buddhism was particularly uncommon in India itself, and only a few quiet groups of yellow-clad monks and nuns roamed the countryside, meditating quietly in nature. But then, in the 3rd century B.C., an Indian king named Ashoka grew troubled by the wars he had fought and converted to Buddhism. He sent monks and nuns far and wide to spread the practice. 

Buddhist spiritual tradition spread across Asia and eventually throughout the world. Buddha’s followers divided into two main schools: Theravada Buddhism, which colonised Southeast Asia, and Mahayana Buddhism which took hold in China and Northeast Asia. The two groups sometimes distrust each other’s scriptures and prefer their own, but they follow the same central principles passed down through over two millennia. Today, there are between a half and one and a half billion Buddhists following the Buddha’s teachings and seeking a more enlightened and compassionate state of mind.


Modern monks meditate under a fig tree near the place the Buddha first attained enlightenment

Intriguingly, the Buddha’s teachings are important regardless of our spiritual identification. Like the Buddha, we are all born into the world not realising how much suffering it contains, and unable to fully comprehend that misfortune, sickness, and death will come to us too. As we grow older, this reality often feels overwhelming, and we may seek to avoid it altogether. But the Buddha’s teachings remind us of the important of facing suffering directly. We must do our best to liberate ourselves from our own tyrannous desires, and recognise suffering as our common connection with others, spurring us to compassion and gentleness.

Compassion Demands Engagement

The central guiding principle of Buddhism is compassion and concern for the world in which we live. It’s the idea of interdependence—that our actions dictate the experience of others. I don’t think everybody needs to run out and join an aid organization and everyone should feel bad that they’re not doing more for people in need. But I would like to see Buddhists have a braver relationship to engaging with the world—and also, potentially, a smarter one. We’re trained to develop our intellect and develop our wisdom, and it’s not worth very much unless you put it into practice.

– Ashoka Mukpo, “I Survived Ebola. But the Fight Doesn’t End There.”

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Las ideas se confrontan pero los espíritus convergen

¿Qué símbolo define al humano?

El ombligo.

Claro y contundente.

Etimológicamente, símbolo significa un objeto partido en dos. Ambas partes recuerdan que eran una unidad, así pues trabajar lo simbólico sirve para reunificar las dos partes separadas.

Aplíquelo al ombligo.

El cordón umbilical nos mantiene unido a la matriz y cuando se corta deberíamos , en teoría, construirnos como sujetos.

Ser uno.

Sí, femenino y masculino, cuerpo y espíritu, yin y yang. Todo eso que ya nos explicó la mitología griega.

¿Los griegos ya lo contaron todo?

Los mitos griegos, los indios, los esquimales, los africanos…, son todos los mismos.

¿El ser humano ya está contado?

El ser humano es ignorante de sus raíces, y es el papel de la educación, del arte, de la cultura es iluminar nuestro origen, porque si no sabemos de dónde venimos no sabremos a dónde vamos.


El símbolo es una forma pedagógica para ­reencontrar partes de nosotros que hemos ­olvidado.

Deme una clave.

La venganza es una llave. Un mecanismo infinito: la violencia siempre es una respuesta a una violencia anterior quizás olvidada.

¿No podemos detenerla?

Yo propongo, de la forma más simple, reemplazar la venganza por la revancha.

¿Cuál es la diferencia?

Con la venganza yo te hago daño y con eso pierdo parte de mi humanidad. Con la revancha yo no te hago daño, te gano pero no te aplasto, como en el tenis, y entonces crezco.

¿Cómo aplicarlo?

Imagine que en un colegio hay un niño al que han humillado y él se venga, y así el ciclo de violencia se perpetúa. Yo puedo coger a ese niño antes de que se vengue y decirle: “Ahora lo importante es que tú muestres quién eres y desarrolles tus cualidades, porque tú eres un niño extraordinario”.

“¡Pero es que me ha hecho daño!”, protesta el niño.

“Pues conviértete en alguien más fuerte, y cuando seas más fuerte ya no te podrán hacer daño, tómate la revancha”, este es el espíritu.

Es algo muy sutil, póngame otro ejemplo.

Una mujer despechada a la que el marido ha engañado. La revancha sería volver a la universidad y preparar una licenciatura, concentrar la humillación en ser mejor, así el sufrimiento no la aplasta y no querrá aplastar al otro. Va a tomar esa oportunidad para transformarse.

¿Qué le interesa a usted especialmente?

El tema del doble. La parte escondida de uno mismo, la ambigüedad, la ambivalencia, reconocerla nos pacifica y pacificaría al mundo.


…Porque no somos de una pieza, somos seres paradójicos: lo que yo detesto en el mundo suele ser una parte mía que no he resuelto y no quiero ver; el reconocimiento de esa contradicción es un reconocimiento del otro.

Suele estar en un ángulo muerto. ¿Hay algún retrovisor que nos permita verla?

Sí, la memoria es un retrovisor, y sobre todo los sueños. En los sueños nada se olvida.

Pero no recordamos los sueños.

Y cuando los recordamos no los comprendemos, necesitamos ayuda para interpretarlos. Hay una frase de Baudelaire que me toca profundamente: “Yo tengo más recuerdos que si tuviera mil años”. Lo tenemos todo en nosotros, pero lo hemos olvidado para reencontrarlo.

¿Tiene algún remedio?

Sí, un cuaderno de sueños: cada mañana al despertar pones la fecha y lo anotas, tal cual, en bruto y en tiempo presente, sin comentarios.

¿Y si no lo recuerdas?

Escribes: “No recuerdo de sueños”, porque el inconsciente recibe la información de que te interesas por él y en 21 días los primeros sueños empiezan a rememorarse. Es un método poderoso para conocerse y estar más en paz.

¿Tiene más llaves?

La poesía. Yo creo que nuestra humanidad ­adolece porque no sueña lo suficiente y por- que la poesía está asfixiada. Los problemas no son solo económicos o políticos, también son poéticos.

La poesía es una clave para volver a dar encanto al mundo. Es inspiración. Yo le propongo que aprenda de memoria los poemas que le gustan y cuando no se sienta bien, recite en voz alta. Y hágalo también en una cena aburrida, en la que se discute de política, tensa o vulgar.

No sé yo.

Pruébelo, recite a Victor Hugo, verá como todo el mundo se calma. El arte es el medicamento universal.

Hay que bajar del pensamiento a la acción.

Cierto. No podemos quedarnos en el pen­samiento, porque los pensamientos se con­frontan, y en cambio los espíritus convergen. El símbolo hay que encarnarlo, ¿y cómo lo ­hacemos? Pidamos a nuestros niños que cuenten sus sueños, estimula la inteligencia y la ­escucha.

De acuerdo.

Necesitamos una sociedad que oferte arte, poesía, filosofía, sueños… La creatividad es básica tanto para crecer como para envejecer bien. La creatividad nos da la fuerza.

La proyección de la sombra

La proyección de la sombra

Cuando nos sentimos atacados, cuando nos molesta algo de alguien estamos viendo la proyección de nuestra propia sombra

Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) psicólogo y médico psiquiatra suizo, dedicó toda su carrera al estudio de la psique humana. A lo largo de sus numerosos ensayos fue desarrollando primero, su “Psicología Analítica” y, más tarde, lo que denominó “Psicología Compleja”. Jung habla de la psique y no de la mente, porque, según él, la psique abarca todos los procesos de la mente, los conscientes y los inconscientes.

Entre muchas de sus aportaciones desarrolló el concepto de Arquetipo. Por definición, un arquetipo es un modelo original, un ejemplo ideal o un prototipo. Un símbolo reconocido por todos. Para Jung son la forma que le es dada a algunas experiencias y recuerdos de nuestros primeros antepasados. De alguna manera, son como patrones de conducta que se heredan de generación en generación y que están guardados en nuestro inconsciente.

Si por definición la sombra es inconsciente quiere decir que estamos sometidos a ella.

Jung define el arquetipo sombra como el aspecto inconsciente de la personalidad caracterizado por rasgos y actitudes que el Yo Consciente no reconoce como propios. El inconsciente lucha por mostrarse, pero es reprimido continuamente por el ego. La sombra está formada por energía psíquica reprimida que se proyecta en el exterior. Hay muchas formas de alimentar la sombra, Enric Corbera nos los explica en este video. La más usual es la que conocemos como “luchar para ser bueno”. Por eso Jung decía “Prefiero ser un individuo completo que una persona buena”.

Podemos decir también que tenemos creencias-sombra que son las que controlan nuestros pensamientos, nuestras palabras y nuestros comportamientos. Cada experiencia de la vida es una oportunidad de elegir de nuevo, una oportunidad de enmendar viejos errores que nos permite crecer, experimentar y desarrollarnos. 

Integrar la propia sombra nos va a permitir convivir con nuestra luz y nuestra oscuridad. Nos va a permitir ser lo que somos.

Todos tenemos una doble historia, la que mostramos y con la que nos identificamos y la que ocultamos y a la que rechazamos. En Bioneuroemoción®, a aquello que rechazamos lo llamamos ‘la historia detrás de la historia’. Es justamente esta historia oculta la que nos hace repetir situaciones, dramas y patrones que no nos benefician una y otra vez.

Cada persona tiene su sombra. Una manera de empezar a detectarla es cambiar nuestro diálogo interno y aprender a distinguir que cuando nos quejamos de algo o de alguien nos estamos quejando de algo propio. Por ejemplo, si nos lamentamos de que nadie nos escucha, nos podemos preguntar si nos estamos escuchando a nosotros mismos y así sucesivamente. La Bioneuroemoción® nos invita a reconocer la propia sombra para encontrar nuestra plenitud.“Las crisis son magníficas oportunidades para familiarizarnos con la sombra”.Carl G. Jung.