Blog

Addiction, Meditation, and Contemplative Practice

The modern day perspective asserts that addiction is primarily a psychological and physiological disorder. There are psychological triggers, circumstances, and patterns of behavior that initiate and re-enforce addictive behavior as well as physiological correlates of addiction that further compel it. For example, alcoholism is seen as triggered by a variety of identifiable psychological circumstances sustained by physiological dependence.

The approach to treatment is multi-modal addressing both its psychological and biological aspects. Twelve Steps programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, currently the mainstay of treatment for addictive disorders, have expanded this perspective by emphasizing the role of spirituality. Because of its success in assisting with addiction, it is important to carefully examine the original spiritual vision and intent of AA. This undertaking will point us in the direction of a very different understanding of this disorder.

Roland H., Carl Jung, and AA

In early 1961 there was an important exchange of letters between Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, and the famed Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. Bill Wilson wrote to Jung his desire to relate the fate of one of Jung's patients, Roland H., who Jung had treated for alcoholism. He reminded Jung about his advice to his patient and related how this counsel ultimately led to the founding of AA. Bill Wilson writes in his note that during Roland's last visit to Jung he was advised that neither medicine nor psychiatry had a cure for alcoholism and that his case was therefore "hopeless." When Roland further inquired of Jung whether there was any hope to be found Jung answered yes, "... if he could become the subject of a spiritual or religious experience."

Unknown to Jung, who never again saw Roland H, he left Jung's office and subsequently joined the Oxford Group, an evangelical movement in Europe that emphasized meditation and prayer. Through his spiritual efforts, he overcame his addiction. He returned to New York and through series of inter-connections, Bill Wilson became aware of the experience of Roland H. with the Oxford Group and following his example similarly achieved a remission from alcoholism. Wilson then went on to start what we now know as AA.

What were Jung's recollections about his final meeting with Roland H.? What did he write in response to Bill Wilson's thank-you note to him? Here are Jung's words:

His craving for alcohol was the equivalent, at a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness;

You see, "alcohol" in Latin is spiritus, and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison.

Jung understood that the driving force and root cause of addictive behavior was the addicts unrecognized and unmet spiritual need. In order to heal addiction at its source this natural and unmet spiritual need must be responded to and satisfied in an appropriate and authentic manner.

In Exile

Jung was correct, very correct. He knew and could articulate what we all know and feel - that we are in exile from our true home, our spiritual home. We know this place of exile. We know it through a persistent and vague discontent, dissatisfaction, meaninglessness, and longing that move through our sadness and pleasure. We know it from a ceaseless sense that there is more to life than what we live each day. We know it from our search for meaning and purpose, and from our endless striving and ambition. We know it from those rare glimpses when we touch a deeper presence that removes us from our day-to-day world and briefly opens a doorway to the transcendent and divine. But we can neither hold nor abide in this essence for more than a few moments. Yet neither can we let it go.

Each of us carries within our self this inner presence, this timeless peace, wholeness, and well-being long after we have wandered from our natural home early in life. It is this vague but extraordinary recollection of our true nature that drives us to reunite with it once again. The authentic search and reunion with our inner home is a genuine spiritual path. The false search is called addiction. Addiction is a mistaken path to the genuine impulse for a spiritual reawakening.

It can be said that all addictions - emotional and physical, positive and negative - arise from the natural impulse for the spiritual existence. They arise in response to the human possibility of transcendence - the possibility of a higher life. But addictions are mistaken perversions of this natural impulse to return to our deeper home. They obscure the true path while intoxicating us with temporary pleasures that are inadvertently substituted for the enduring peace, happiness, and wholeness that patiently waits within.

Unless we can diagnose the problem correctly we cannot apply the correct therapy. It is easy and customary to respond to addiction with pharmacological and psychological measures. And they are of value in managing addictions. But they work on the surface rather than at the source. They pull out weeds rather than destroy the root system. That is why in modern times we consider addictions "life long" problems. They return like weeds in the spring when their underground roots have been left intact by partial and limited understandings and treatments.

But what if we could understand addictions correctly - not so much as physical, emotional, and psychological disorders - but recognize them at their source as spiritual problems? Then we could apply the correct antidote, the only authentic and enduring healing elixir. To do so we must approach what is essentially a problem of the mind through the mind - through an expansion of consciousness.

The problem of addiction is really quite simple to understand when approached from the direction of consciousness studies in distinction to psychology. Here is how it goes. Our natural state is one of simple unadorned awareness. It is the gap between two thoughts - two mental movements. As our mind is usually filled with ceaseless chatter what remains of this natural condition are only these small gaps of stillness and naked open awareness. However, there are other moments in life when we can also experience this place of stillness, timelessness, peace, and wholeness. We can experience this in communion with nature, at the peak of athletic performance, through the arts, in the first blush of romance, at the peak of sexuality, at times of awe and wonder, and in meditation.

For a moment, we are lifted out of our usual experience, lifted out of our busy minds into a world that is both familiar and unfamiliar. In these moments all mental - that is cognitive activity - ceases and experience flows freely. We are awake, aware, alive, and one with experience. Here there is neither suffering nor addiction, and not even the usual sense of "I." For a moment, we are in the center of our being. All is complete in this moment. There is no further longing and certainly no addictions. We all know this place. It is the authentic and healing object of our longing and of life itself. But we are unable to sustain this experience because our mind has been trained to default back to thought and cognition -- from who we are to what we've become.

But we continue to long for this heaven on earth. We are tired of being refugees in the inhospitable land of ceaseless mental chatter. We long for home. We long for our self. We seek it everywhere, except where it is - within. Therein lies the entire problem and solution of modern addictions. In our mistaken search for our native home, in our effort to re-experience the peace, happiness, and wholeness of the spiritual life we reach out to counterfeit experiences and turn them into counterfeit gods believing all the time we have found our lost world. Addiction results from this grand and convincing delusion.

Pleasure is the name we give to these counterfeit experiences. Seen superficially they are just that - pleasurable. Seen more deeply they are distractions and diversions that assure suffering by taking us further and further from our authentic self. How could this be? How could we be so mistaken? How could a temporary pleasure that is really nothing more that an experience that relieves a previous moment of suffering be mistaken for the real thing? The answer is through habit, cultural conditioning, false role models, the hypnosis of temporary sensual pleasures, imagined material security, and the ephemeral allure of fame, name, and worldly success. We are taught to seek these pleasures as if they were the real thing. In fact, our entire economy is dependent on sustaining these false gods. And the advertising industry works as hard as possible to support and market this delusion.

What must be apparent by now is that we are all, to one degree or another, addicts. Some of our addictions are socially unacceptable and overtly destructive while others are socially encouraged although they insidiously rob us of life and health. From a conventional mundane perspective, the first is termed addiction and the second normal.

In Summary

By adding contemplative practice to the multimodal approach now used to control the symptoms of addictive disorders we can bring to bear a powerful set of methodologies specifically directed at reversing the sequence of events that leads to addiction. These methodologies, whose theoretical base and practical application have been developed and time-tested, are diverse and highly nuanced. They are grounded in the practitioner/client relationship and a human community of like-minded individuals. Contemplative approaches can be tailored to a wide range of individual capacities, temperaments, and dispositions.

Beyond their capacity to overcome addictive disorders these very same techniques can assist the individual in moving toward greater wellbeing. Although our initial effort is to ameliorate addictive behavior our larger goal should be to assist the individual in "using" the gift of this disorder as a step to a higher level of living.

Elliott S. Dacher, M.D., February 08, 2008. Retrieved 04 August 2008 from
http://www.elliottdacher.typepad.com/weblog/2008/02/addiction-medit.html