It would be appropriate to begin in the customary manner by presenting the statistics that define the extent and cost of addictive disorders – the percentage of population addicted to alcohol and drugs and the related economic burden to society. Wherever one draws the line in defining addiction the numbers are staggering. Let us leave it there. Why, because it is not my intent to define addiction in the usual way as an involuntary, repetitive, compulsive behavior that is dysfunctional to the individual and others. Rather, I shall define it here as a disturbance of consciousness. From this viewpoint, the problem of addiction is the result of an undeveloped consciousness – a problem whose scope extends to and includes what culture considers normal behavior.
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 conventional approach to treatment is multi-modal, addressing both its psychological and biological aspects. Twelve step 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 further 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; expressed in medieval language: the union with God.
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.
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 sense and feel this homelessness. We feel it as a persistent and vague discontent, a nagging dissatisfaction, and an unmet longing. We sense it as an intangible feeling that there is more to life. There are times that we catch a brief glimpse if this other world. Unexpectedly, we experience a deeper presence that removes us from daily life, opening 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 go of the memory of this special experience.
Each of us carries within our deepest self this inner presence, this timeless peace, wholeness, and well-being. It remains with us long after we have wandered from our natural home. It is this vague but extraordinary remembrance of our authentic nature that drives us to reunite with it once again. The longing to re-unite with our inner home is the true spiritual path. The false search for outer substitutes is called addiction. Addiction is a mistaken response to the genuine impulse for a spiritual reawakening.
It can be said that all addictions arise from the natural impulse to re-experience our spiritual nature. 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. 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.
The authentic path home to the center of our being has been well described for millennia across diverse cultures. We find it in the Judeo-Christian tradition as well as the Eastern philosophies, and if we choose to look closely at the roots of western rationality we will find it there as well. But in modern times the spiritual path have been obscured, diluted, or distorted –its core essence has been eroded. As a result we can no longer find our way home in the way that our ancestors could, and that is the source of all addictions. That is the core of the problem.
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 pyschological 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 because their underground roots have been left intact by partial 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.
When approached from the direction of consciousness studies, the problem of addiction is really quite simple to understand. Here is how it goes. Our natural state is one of a simple open and clear awareness. It is like the still gap between two thoughts. As our mind is usually filled with ceaseless chatter, what remains of this natural state are only these small gaps that are quickly overtaken by mental chatter. There are other moments in life when we can also experience this place of stillness, timelessness, peace, and wholeness, which is our natural self. 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 precious moments the chattering mind stops, and experience flows freely. We are awake, aware, alive, and one with experience. In this natural state of being there is neither suffering nor addiction. For a moment we are in the center of our being. All is complete, still, and peaceful. There is no further longing. We all know this natural but forgotten home. However, we are unable to sustain this spiritual experience. Why, because our mind has been trained to default back to automatic mental activity.
Yet, 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 natural 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. In actuality, 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 clear. We are driven by learned habits, cultural conditioning, and the hypnotic seduction of temporary sensual pleasures. We mistakenly chase after material security, fame, name, and worldly success. We are taught to seek and crave 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. We are addicted to whatever brings us pleasure and relieves the isolation and disconnectedness resulting from the loss of our inner home. Some of our addictions are socially unacceptable and overtly destructive while others are socially encouraged, although they similarly rob us of life and health. From a conventional mundane perspective the first is termed addiction and the second normal.
An Integral Perspective
From an integral perspective we experience life through consciousness, biology, social interactions, and cultural institutions. It follows that in order to embrace the wholeness of human life we must understand and address issues of health and disease, including addiction, from each of these arenas of human experience. Failure to do so results in an inability to consider the multi-dimensional nature of health and disease, leading to partial understandings and partial efforts at health and healing. The value of the integral perspective is that it reminds us to consider this multi-dimensional nature of the human experience. However, it is essential to remember that although these four aspects of human experience may appear distinct and can be addressed separately they are in actuality inseparable from each other. Human life is a unified and integrated experience.
In contrast to the integral approach the current understanding and treatment of addiction is largely limited to conventional perspectives and understandings. For example, we are most familiar with attributing health and disease to biological factors and thus we raise the possible role of family-carried genetic tendencies. Psychological interventions such as behavioral therapy have entered the mainstream of western culture following the work of William James in the late 19th century. As a result, psychological theory and methodologies have similarly contributed to the conventional treatment of addiction. Finally, our more recent understanding of social and cultural influences on health and disease – such as age-restricted alcohol, organizations such as MADD, and alcohol awareness programs – have broadened our approach to addiction. It is best that all of these elements are brought together to address the complex and poorly understood phenomenon of addiction.
It must be noted, that unlike these other approaches AA, which was developed outside of the medical and psychological mainstream, was founded on spiritual principles. Its basic 12-step format remains the core approach to a variety of addictive disorders. As with many great movements, the initial intent as articulated by Jung, the need for spiritual development to supplant the misguided search for spirit, is often diluted in practice. The spiritual conversion Jung spoke of requires devotion, a realized spiritual teacher, and a disciplined path. It cannot be attained through rituals, group discussion, or principles unsupported by rigorous theory and practice. The dilution of its core aim has solidified the AA view that addiction is a life-long problem.
Although AA is a very important part of a treatment program its failure in emphasizing the skills and practices of genuine and comprehensive spiritual development obscures the possibility of a permanent cure. Too often addiction to alcohol is transferred to an addiction to AA (certainly a vast improvement,) but what is lost is the opportunity for full spiritual development and the attainment of its innate qualities and capacities, which alone can bring a final cure.
Consciousness and Health
In modern times our focus on biology and psychology has distracted us from the exploration and study of the uniquely human domain of consciousness – its science and methodologies. Yet, it is the potential for an expansive consciousness that most distinguishes humankind from the animal kingdom, and allows for the spiritual transformation and conversion Jung spoke of.
Human consciousness is a series of evolving developmental levels of experience. Broadly speaking these levels ascend from basic instinctual and patterned behavior, to rational cognitive thought, to the open, expansive, and non-cognitive domain of spiritual consciousness. An individual’s developmental level of consciousness and its character – healthy or afflictive – is a major factor in health and disease particularly in those arenas of human experience that are strongly influenced by consciousness.
Addiction is a particular human phenomenon that is related to the unique character of human consciousness much as is stress, anxiety, depression, suffering, and high level well-being. I propose that further advances in the understanding, treatment, and potential alleviation of addictive disorders may depend on our willingness to incorporate contemplative understandings and practices into current multi-modal approaches to addiction. This was the message of Jung and the founding essence of AA.
Addiction and Contemplative Theory
The microscope and its extended versions are central to investigative and therapeutic biological medicine. Contemplative practice, meditation, is central to contemplative approaches to health and healing. Biological medicine is directed at healing and maintaining a health body and physiology. Contemplative medicine is directed at expanding consciousness, alleviating mental suffering, harmonizing physiology, and enhancing the quality of human life. Addiction, seen from the contemporary perspectives of biology and psychology, is conceptualized as a genetic, physiological, and psychological disturbance. However, when seen from the perspective of consciousness theory it is understood as the result of disturbed and undeveloped consciousness.
We have already discussed contemplative theory as it applies to addiction. In summary, the problem begins when we turn our gaze outward toward people, experiences or objects that appear to provide the pleasure, happiness, and ease. However, these external sources of pleasure, that progressively become our attachments and addictions, are temporary and unreliable. They are mistaken false substitutes for the real experience that can only be found within. It is only when we understand our mistaken and misplaced search for the treasures of life that we can turn our gaze inward where they can found at the center of our being.
The confused journey outward is called “normal” life. The wise journey inward to the center of our being is the spiritual life. The former leads to addiction, the latter leads to human flourishing, the great treasure of life.
For greater than two millennia Eastern philosophies and methodologies have directly addressed the core issue of addiction. Contemplative methodologies begin with one of various techniques whose aim is train attention and calm the mind through the use of the mental faculties of mindfulness and vigilance. These approaches are best tailored to the individual, their age, capacities, and temperament. This may mean frequent fine-tuning of the frequency and duration of meditation, and shifting its form, focus and timing in both the formal meditative session and the post-meditation period of daily activities. This may change week-to-week as new skills are developed or new obstacles arise.
Why begin with attention training? Because the mind that is absorbed in relentless mental chatter is not available to be worked with, less understood or transformed. Calming mind-talk allows us to tame our mind, observe it, investigate and understand its dynamics, progressively gain control over habitual behavior, and intentionally access the mind’s open awareness. That is why we begin by calming the mind. It offers the opportunity to take control of our experience, move forward through intention rather than habit, and progressively discover our authentic spiritual life, which as Jung noted is the only cure for addiction.
When proper motivation is present and the appropriate practices are skillfully taught and applied every individual can experience the capacity to work with his/her mind. However brief and unstable the experience of inner calmness may at first be, the fact that it is possible is often a great relief and revelation. The issue is no longer whether addictions can be permanently overcome, but rather one of extending and stabilizing the mind through personal effort. Helplessness and confusion are replaced by hope and empowerment. The taste of the transformation Jung spoke of, however fleeting at first, is directly experienced.
The Larger Issue
Addictions are reflections of an untrained and undeveloped consciousness The individual with an overt and dysfunctional addiction is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. We, you and I, are the remainder of the iceberg. We avoid this challenge to our pride by labeling subtle addiction as “normal.” However, when seen from the perspective of a fully developed inner life, with its qualities of enduring happiness, inner peace, and wholeness, this social norm is seen as merely a culturally acceptable lesser level of dysfunction.
The greater teaching of addictive disorders may be in highlighting the universal and pervasive dilemma of an undeveloped consciousness. The disabilities experienced by the individual with an addictive disorder may one day be seen as an instructive microcosm of the accepted and less seen addictions challenging all individuals. Our aim should not be limited to returning those with overt symptoms to “normal,” but rather, assisting all individuals in attaining the full possibilities of the human condition that are achieved through the intentional development of a higher consciousness.
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.