East Meets West: Dr. Nora Volkow and the Dalai Lama Discuss Addiction
In autumn 2013, Dr. Nora D. Volkow, the Director of NIDA, went to India to talk about drug addiction with the Dalai Lama, the worldwide leader of Tibetan Buddhism and a renowned advocate for peace and human rights.
Besides his many other humanitarian activities, the religious leader also holds regular meetings with scientists and scholars to discuss the mind and the brain, because these subjects are of great interest to his religion. The Dalai Lama was very interested to hear what Dr. Volkow had to say about dopamine and the addicted brain, and the loss of self-control that comes when drugs change brain circuits involved in emotion, pleasure, memory, and judgment.
For Buddhists, the misery of addiction—being controlled by extreme cravings for drugs—is just an extreme form of the attachment to material things that gets in the way of everyone’s happiness today. We may think that nice clothes, cool phones and cars, and physical pleasures like food or sex make people happy, but Buddhists say these things usually just leave people wanting more and end up causing us greater suffering when we spend all our lives chasing them. It’s like a roller coaster—the “highs” are always followed by lows.
The Dalai Lama told Dr. Volkow that he thinks education is the key to preventing drug abuse. Schools should encourage young people to develop themselves and their brains and to achieve their full capacities. Educators and parents can instill a sense of purpose, connectedness, and compassion, rather than materialistic values that make people slaves to their desires and lead some people to try and solve their problems through drugs.
Compassion can do a lot to help a person’s problems. Do you ever reach out to classmates who seem to be having a tough time, or to new kids in school who need a sense of belonging?
Buddhists like the Dalai Lama believe that happiness and unhappiness are both caused by the mind, and that people can become happier as well as more compassionate by learning to master their minds.
The Dalai Lama spends hours every day meditating, which is the practice of calmly stilling your thoughts and developing better concentration, self-control, and mastery of your emotions. It’s really like a mental workout, building mental muscles the same way lots of folks build physical strength and athletic ability by going to the gym. (You could say the Dalai Lama is like a top mental athlete.)
Hours each day aren’t necessary to get many benefits from meditation. Science is showing that regular periods of even brief meditation can make you calmer and put you in control of situations that used to get the better of you. Recent research suggests meditation may even be useful to help people with addictions. A study showed that cigarette smokers who went through a course in meditation actually reduced their smoking, even if they weren’t consciously trying to quit.
Tell us what you think in comments: Is our society too materialistic? Could better education and teaching people meditation prevent problems like drug abuse and addiction?
Watch this video of Dr. Volkow’s meeting with the Dalai Lama.