An Addiction to the Concept of Self


Addiction is defined as “the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, such as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.” What makes so many of us prone to addiction in its various forms? What causes us to be open to this enslavement? And how do we begin to undo it?


I think it’s important to first understand the root cause of all our addictions. Our major addiction is to the self and all that we consider to be the self, in other words, to my body, my mind, my ego, to my beliefs, concepts and opinions, and to my desires, cravings and attachments. Most of our addictions are to avoid the truth that “I” does not exist as a separate entity, and we use our drugs of choice to help the “self” feel better temporarily. To realize “no-self” is to face true emptiness or the void that we are always trying so desperately to fill.

Our addiction to the concept of self is the most deeply ingrained and the hardest to overcome. To do so we have to begin by seeing into the truth that there really is no self. The self is just a concept, an agreed-upon notion, much like that of a corporation. Over a period of 80 to 100 years, the CEO and all the employees will have changed several times. The product and even the name of the company may also have changed. So what is the company? In fact, there is no company, other than a legal agreement that it exists and persists over time as the same company. The self is just like this. We know that before there was a concept of self, there was no such thing called the self. We all agree when a baby is born that this baby is a self and has a self. But the baby doesn’t have a concept of self. We build that concept up over time, and the more time and energy we invest in the concept of self, the more attached, or addicted, we become to the notion that “I” exists as a separate, solid and permanent entity. Moment by moment, day by day, year by year, the more we have invested in this notion, the harder it is to free ourselves from the addiction of self. Once we have truly realized that there is no self, the easier it is to drop our addictions.

From this notion of self comes all our suffering. When we realize there is no self, there is no suffering, for there is no one to suffer. However, this is not the end of what is possible to realize. Imagine a triangle with “the self” at one end of the base, and “the no-self” at the opposite end of the base. Then envision moving to the apex of this triangle and embrace the two aspects of the one reality: the relative, the self; and the absolute, the no-self. And since the relative and the absolute are one in reality, just two opposite ends of the same triangle, we realize that the no-self is the self.

At this point, we are totally free to choose to be a human being. We can choose our addictions wisely. I choose to have my cup of coffee in the morning. I choose to avoid harmful substances or behaviors. I choose to be attached to my family, friends and loved ones. I choose to be attached to helping all beings awaken – and it too is an addiction!

– Zen Master Dennis Genpo Merzel
Zen Master Dennis Genpo Merzel is the founder of Big Mind Big Heart—A Western Zen Approach to Life and head of Kanzeon Zen International. His latest book is Big Mind, Big Heart: Finding Your Way.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction see below for further information and treatment options:

Sierra Tucson Treatment Center 1-800-842-4487 or from the U.K. 0800 891166

Hazelden 1-800-257-7810

The Meadows 1-800-MEADOWS

Alcoholics Anonymous

Free Addiction Helpline 1-866-569-7077

Narcotics Anonymous

Al-Anon/Alateen 1-888-425-2666

Gamblers Anonymous (213) 386-8789

Stopping Overshopping (917) 885-6887