A spiritual solution that gets to the root of the problem is the only sure protection against the lure of self-destructive behavior.
The trout is caught by the fisherman's lure, the mouse by cheese. An irony of the struggle for existence is that living beings are often destroyed by what they desire. But at least the fish and the mouse have excuses: the bait and the cheese look like sustenance. And the fish and the mouse don't know they'll be trapped. Human beings seldom have either of these excuses. The temptations that wreck their lives are quite often pure indulgences known to be dangerous. For example, no one has to smoke for survival, and any half-awake person knows that smoking is dangerous.
Consider the following statistics from the World Health Organization:
• Tobacco kills nearly 10,000 people worldwide every day.
• It is predicted that by 2020 tobacco use will cause over 12% of all deaths globally. This is more deaths worldwide than from suicide, homicide, HIV, tuberculosis, maternal mortality, and motor vehicle accidents combined.
• Half of those who start smoking in adolescence will die in middle age, losing around 22 years of normal life expectancy.
Add the facts that an average cigarette contains 401 poisons and 43 cancer-causing chemicals, and that there are around 1.1 billion smokers in the world (about one-third of the global population aged 15 and over), and we have quite a sobering picture of the world around us. The statistics about other self-destructive behaviors alcoholism, substance abuse, suicide are equally, if not more, alarming. And even among so-called normal people, practically everyone is victimized by some form of self-destructive behavior unwarranted expressions of anger that turn out to be disastrous, unintentional use of caustic words that break hearts and ruin lives, and so on.
A question naturally arises: How does an intelligent human being embark on such a destructive course? Most people know that when they start, say, smoking, they are treading into a danger zone. But the media, friends, and peddlers persuade them to experiment just once. Seeking a break from the humdrum daily life with its inane pleasures, they acquiesce. The impression of instant pleasure gets embedded in their mind, and whenever they face a reversal, they tend to seek immediate relief through smoking. Every successive experience of smoking reinforces the earlier impressions, strengthens the tendency to seek momentary relief, and weakens the voice of intelligence and conscience. Smoking becomes an irresistible demand, a com pulsion, an addiction. Smokers turn into helpless victims, driven again and again to the irresistible.
Here are some methods now in use for breaking addictions:
1. Knowledge: It would seem that if people knew about the dangers, that would deter them from indulgence. Sometimes. But not generally. Knowledge can have the opposite effect. For example, after governmental regulations made it mandatory to display "Cigarette smoking is injurious to health" on every cigarette ad and pack, cigarette sales increased; the warning seemed to evoke a dare-devil spirit in young people.
2. Emotional Support: People often turn to addictions when emotionally let down or betrayed by loved ones. Emotionally neglected adolescents are especially susceptible to addictions. Providing emotional support through personal counseling is a potential solution. But professional counseling often leads to chronic dependence on the counselor. And for many, professional guidance costs too much. Friends can help, but in our fast-paced modern life few people can invest the time and energy needed to consistently provide intensive emotional support.
3. Sublimation: Sublimation involves replacing a gross physical drive with a more refined substitute. For example, an alcoholic might seek refuge in music instead of alcohol. But this can work only if he has a strong liking for music and if his addiction to alcohol is not overpowering. Another problem is that the mental impressions of indulgence in alcohol make it seem far more attractive than its substitute.
4. Willpower: Seeing the physical and emotional pain he is inflicting upon himself and his loved ones, an addict may sometimes by sheer determination decide to give up his perverted habit. Unfortunately few people are able to muster the necessary willpower. Even if successful, they face the grim prospect of an entire lifetime of constant inner struggle, with the fear of succumbing at any moment. And failure often brings with it intolerable feelings of guilt, making living itself an agony.
5. Religion: Statistical surveys have shown that the religiously committed are less likely to succumb to seeking perverted pleasures. Adopting religious principles rigorously also sometimes helps addicts to free themselves. Dr. Patrick Glynn writes in his book God: The Evidence, "It is difficult to find a more consistent correlative of mental health, or a better insurance against self-destructive behaviors, than a strong religious faith."
6. Substitution: Addicts often try to switch their addiction to a less harmful substitute smokers try a nicotine patch or nicotine gum, heroin addicts try methadone, and so on. While this may make the addiction less debilitating, the addict is still not free of emotional craving and mental dependence on external substances. And the substitute drug continues to take its toll on the health and the wealth of the addict. Thus substitution leads at best to lessening of the evil and at worst to its perpetuation, rarely to its elimination.
While each of these methods has had some small degree of success, the real solution to self-destructive behavior lies in understanding its roots. Let's consider the problem from the Vedic perspective.
The Vedic Paradigm
In the Bhagavad-gita (3.36), Arjuna asks Lord Krsna, "By what is one impelled to sinful acts, even unwillingly, as if engaged by force?"
Lord Krsna replies (3.37), "It is lust only, Arjuna, which is born of contact with the mode of passion and later transformed into wrath, and which is the all-devouring sinful enemy of this world."
The background of this dialogue is the fundamental teachings of the Bhagavad-gita: The source of life, the actual self, is a non-material particle of spirit, known as the atma or the soul. The essential need of the soul is to love and be loved and to experience unbounded happiness through loving exchange. Being spiritual by constitution, the soul belongs to a higher dimensional milieu, the spiritual world. There the loving propensity of the soul finds complete fulfillment in the supremely lovable all-attractive person, who reciprocates with the soul's love.
The Vedic texts state, eko bahu syam: the Supreme has expanded into infinite subordinates for loving reciprocation. The Taittiriya Upanisad (2.7.1) explains, raso vai sah: the Supreme is the reservoir of all divine loving emotions. The Srimad-Bhagavatam confirms that the Supreme Person is all-attractive and is therefore best known by the name "Krsna," which means all-attractive in Sanskrit. In the spiritual world Krsna is the pivot of all relationships, and there the soul continually relishes ever-intensifying and ever-expanding ecstasies of love in relationship with Him.
Love necessitates freedom; only when the object of love freely chooses to reciprocate one's love does the experience of love becomes truly satisfying and fulfilling. The soul is therefore endowed with a minute free will to enable him to feel the joy of loving the Supreme Person, Krsna. But when the soul misuses his free will and becomes unwilling to love Krsna, he has to find a substitute in whom to repose his love. Of course, there can be no substitute for the Supreme, and by constitution the soul cannot find happiness in loving anyone other than the Supreme. But for those souls who insist on making that attempt, the world of matter (where all of us currently reside) provides the necessary arrangement for experimentation and rectification.
The Enemy Within
As soon as the soul comes to the material world, his love for Krsna becomes perverted into lust. Lust is a formidable illusory force that offers the soul various surrogate objects of love to experiment with. Lust creates and perpetuates the misidentification of the soul with the material body he is given. Lust causes within all living beings the overpowering drive for gross sexual enjoyment in specific, and all forms of material enjoyment in general.
Modern civilization with its media, culture, social environment, and overall values aggravates lust. The celluloid promises of unending sexual bliss especially provoke wild erotic fantasies. But sexual enjoyment is heartbreakingly brief; dreams cherished for years vanish within moments. Even though what people experience is so pathetically little compared to the hype, the media blitz goads them on.
Sexual enjoyment, especially illicit, is a complicated matter, involving time, money, intense emotions, relationship dynamics, risk for prestige, and so on. And the attempt for such enjoyment, even if somehow successful, leaves one feeling disappointed and cheated and craving for more. If unsuccessful, it creates great anger. Either way the victims are soon so enslaved by lust that the more they try, the more they get frustrated and yet the more they become impelled to keep trying. Eventually the accumulated enormous frustration makes instant relief a desperate necessity. Frustrated people easily fall prey to the lure of quick pleasure offered by intoxicants.
Lust is thus the internal enemy at the root of all self-destructive behavior. The Gita (18.38) describes vividly the nature of all perverted pleasures: they appear at first to be like nectar but in the end are poison. Elsewhere Prabhupada comments, "While one enjoys sense gratification, it may be that there is some feeling of happiness, but actually that so-called feeling of happiness is the ultimate enemy of the sense enjoyer." Why? Because it reinforces the illusion that true happiness can be found in this world.
Lust is present in everyone in varying degrees. That is why everyone, no matter how materially successful he may be, has some tendencies toward self-destructive behavior. People generally become concerned about such tendencies only when they exceed socially acceptable limits. But actually lust throttles the ability of everyone to make meaningful contributions to society and even their own future; the difference is only in degree. From the spiritual point of view, lust is inherently self-destructive; it strips the soul of the unlimited spiritual happiness that is his birthright and forces him to labor for paltry material sensations of pleasure that can never satisfy his immortal longing.
The Only Way to Conquer Lust
Lust, being a perversion of our original, essential nature, cannot possibly be annihilated, suppressed, repressed, or even sublimated. But it reverts to its original nature if we direct our loving propensity back to Krsna through the scientific process of devotional service. Action on the spiritual platform is what Lord Krsna recommends to Arjuna as the key to overcoming lust: "Thus knowing oneself to be transcendental to the material senses, mind, and intelligence, O mighty-armed Arjuna, one should steady the mind by deliberate spiritual intelligence [Krsna consciousness] and thus by spiritual strength conquer this insatiable enemy known as lust." (Bhagavad-gita 3.43) The channeling of consciousness from matter back to Krsna is most easily and effectively executed through the medium of divine sound. The Supreme Person, Krsna, being omnipotent, is fully present in His holy names. Chanting the holy names therefore connects one immediately with Krsna, the supreme pleasure principle. Regular meditation on the holy names enables one to taste happiness streaming down from the spiritual dimension. This spiritual pleasure is so satisfying that it soon frees one from the craving for perverted mundane pleasure like drugs and alcohol.
Millions of people all over the world have discovered the purifying potency of the holy names of God. During the period of the counterculture in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, Srila Prabhupada spread the congregational chanting of the holy names and saved thousands of young people from a condemned life of drug addiction. All over the globe ISKCON devotees who practice mantra meditation everyday for about two hours chanting the maha-mantra, Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare are easily able to eschew all forms of intoxication, gambling, meat-eating, and illicit sex, the main self-destructive activities impelled by lust. The ability to give up these four activities is not necessary to begin chanting, but because they greatly obscure the original consciousness of the soul, abstaining from them helps accelerate the purifying effect of the chanting. While many people today are so captivated and enslaved by lust that they consider life without these activities an impossibility, devotees lead lives that are natural, peaceful, satisfying, meaningful, and constructive, protected as they are by their mantra meditation.
The benefits of chanting do not stop with freedom from addiction, nor is chanting meant only for those victimized by self-destructive behavior. Chanting the holy names of God is a universal, time-tested, nonsectarian method of bringing about the blossoming of consciousness to its highest bloom of pure love for God and all living beings. Chanting frees one from selfish desires, which throttle the flow of the fullness of life. It enables one to find continuous happiness, independent of the state of the body and the external world. Chanting thus heralds the advent of a life of selfless spiritual service to God and all His children. Only this selflessness within individuals can form the basis of lasting world peace and harmony. Srila Prabhupada summarizes: "Without the awakening of divine consciousness within the individual, there is no use of crying for world peace."
Caitanya Carana Dasa, 26, is a disciple of His Holiness Radhanatha Swami. He holds a degree in electronics and telecommunications engineering and serves full-time at ISKCON Pune. He runs a free cyber magazine, The Spiritual Scientist, which gives a scientific presentation of Krsna conscious philosophy. To receive new issues as they come out, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.