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?
Michael Berg replies:
A:I Want More
When looking through the lens of Kabbalah, addiction is seen as a positive door to greater personal transformation, provided we understand these urges are coming from the soul, not the body. In a way, it is the deepest, truest part of ourselves saying, “I am not satisfied.”
Kabbalah teaches that we are in this world to achieve lasting and true fulfillment. However, our wires often get crossed and we think this fulfillment can come from physicality. This is never the case. The material world always leaves us wanting more. There is a saying, “If today I have one then tomorrow I want two, and if today I have 100, then tomorrow I will want 200.”
The addiction battles many of us fight are here to push us toward finding a deeper fulfillment, which comes from connecting to the real things in life: love, compassion, sharing and revealing our true essence.
Addiction is simply a misguided yearning of the soul. What happens with alcohol, drugs, sex and money is that they are short-term fixes for this deeper desire. Sure, in the moment, they give us a certain amount of fulfillment, but as we know it never lasts.
Our soul has this massive thirst, and we are trying to quench it with a teaspoon.
Therefore, there are three essential things we can do to begin the process of leaving addictive behavior behind:
1. Realize these yearnings are coming from a true place (our soul) telling us we need to do more, and we can do and be more.
2. Begin a process of both realizing and connecting to our true essence by focusing, meditating and becoming more conscious of our thoughts, behaviors and true potential.
3. Do actions that take us out of selfish behavior. Become a more giving person. This helps us be less busy with ourselves.
Being addicted doesn’t make us bad, weak or hopeless. Just the opposite. It means we have a unique soul that wants more. We aren’t satisfied with the status quo. We have a burning desire to connect to something bigger than ourselves. And as we come to understand the source of our desires, and stop letting our addictions distract us from our true essence, we can find a lasting, uninterrupted level of fulfillment.
Michael Berg is co-director of the Kabbalah Centre™.
Zen Master Dennis Genpo Merzel replies:
A: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. For more on Genpo Roshi’s work, visit www.bigmind.org.
Cynthia Bourgeault replies:
A:It’s not really a question of “mind over matter” because the mind IS matter!
As recent neuroscience has demonstrated, every habit lays down its own neural pathway i.e., it carves its own rut track in the brain – and the inertia around these pathways is considerable. The disruption of ANY happy pathway brings with it considerable discomfort and resistance. So you’re quite right in lumping together habits and addictions; the difference between them is more one of degree than of kind. One can be addicted to coffee, alcohol, porridge for breakfast, endorphins, heroin, meditation, exercise, sex or God! The difference is only that the classic “chemical dependency addictions” add to our already full plate of cognitive and emotional distress and at the interruption of a habit, physiological distress as well.
Most of the moral and spiritual training of Western minds over the past two millennia has been couched around instilling “good habits” – or at least replacing unhealthy behavior patterns with healthy behavior patterns. But there has been a school of spiritual training in all the great traditions that claims that real spiritual maturity is the ability to be habit-free: to be able to bushwhack through consciousness without laying down ANY of those familiar but deadly ruttracks.
My own teacher Rafe belonged to this school of thought. On his prayer desk, he kept a quotation from the British spiritual teacher Maurice Nicoll: “Faith is a continual inner effort, a continual altering of the mind, of the habitual ways of thought, of the habitual ways of taking everything, of habitual reactions.” Rafe took that saying deeply to heart. From time to time, he would spontaneously uproot his established patterns and preferences in order to keep his spiritual life (as well as his mind) supple, and to experience that pure rush of freedom that comes from being able to sit in the chaos of a disrupted habit – like an anthill that’s just been kicked in – and transform the pain into the razor’s edge of pure consciousness.
To do this, however, is an advanced spiritual skill. It requires an ability to sit in the presence of powerful emotional currents – pain, grief, yearning, fear – and experience them as pure sensation rather than as part of the story we keep telling ourselves about who we are. This is an acquired skill, whose foundations are in meditation and conscious breathing.
Both habits and addictions, in my experience, are a kind of shorthand we resort to for getting through our lives because we lack the spiritual/energetic force to stay present to the field of our own “pure awareness.” Our habits are primarily the SYMPTOMS of our low level of Being, not the CAUSE of it. So my own preference is to work a little each day on increasing my tolerance for Being (or presence or pure awareness – they’re simply different ways of speaking about the same vitalized energy field of consciousness). Once that force of Being is strong enough within us, then dealing with habits/addictions is like taking off a raincoat once the sun is shining.
Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, writer and retreat leader. She is founding director of the Aspen Wisdom School in Colorado and principal visiting teacher for the Contemplative Society in Victoria, BC, Canada.
Deepak Chopra replies:
A:Addiction Is a Mystique and a Mystery
Human beings become addicted because we are complex. Addictions are like a jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces are on the table but no one quite knows what the whole picture should be. Here are the main pieces:
1. The addictive substance or behavior
2. Brain chemistry
3. Social pressure for and against addiction
4. A vulnerable psyche
5. The X factor
It’s important to understand all five elements, because leaving anyone out leads to false hope and tragically, temporary cures (or no cure at all). If you have a family member who’s an addict, don’t form an opinion until you have looked at every piece of the puzzle. You don’t want to fall into the trap of blame and shame, which is always waiting when addiction starts creating intense stress in a relationship.
The addictive substance or behavior: This piece of the puzzle has always grabbed the headlines. A hundred years ago it was “demon” rum and whiskey. In the fifties, the demon became heroin, now it’s crack. In reality, no substance is a demon. The ability of a drug to induce pleasure isn’t an evil. There must be another element, or a number of them, to turn any substance addictive. Millions of people try cocaine, heroin, LSD and marijuana and then walk away. The ones who can’t walk away are different, and it’s that difference we must isolate and heal. The same goes for addictive behavior such as overeating or craving power or the need to control.
Brain chemistry. Drugs change the brain by affecting receptors in your brain cells that exist for pleasure and the cessation of pain. If you take any substance long enough, the brain adapts by altering its receptors, and then the trouble begins. The burned-out addict is actually a burned-out brain. When pleasure receptors are overloaded, then they no longer transmit signals of pleasure. Instead, the addict finds himself fending off pain. This becomes the chief reason for getting high, and it marks a far more desperate phase of addiction. When your whole purpose in life is not to feel agony, existence becomes hollow and meaningless.
Social pressure. Although we all have an image in our minds of the secretive addict shooting up or drinking alone, society always plays a part. Cocktail parties are social events that permit people to escape social rules. They are temporary vacations from inhibition. They are also group bonding sessions, as is passing a joint. Social pressure is complicated. It can work to encourage belonging, but it can also throw you out of the group and make you an outcast. Addicts experience both sides. Before they are labeled addicts and shunned by society, they went through an early phase of trying to belong. The net result is a deep confusion about where they stand with family and friends.
Vulnerable psyche. Addicts aren’t weaker than other people, nor are they morally deficient, irrational, stupid or undisciplined. All those labels are used by outsiders who want to judge against the addict. If you discard moral self-righteousness, the reality is that addiction preys upon some kind of psychological wound. It seems to cure the wound at first. The first high is often described by addicts as a kind of miracle cure or religious euphoria. Their reaction is extreme because at a deeper level they are seekers of healing. A hidden trauma or unconscious need has been searching for a cure. It quickly becomes obvious, however, that addiction mimics a cure – it is actually only a distraction or an empty escape. What the addict really wants – a sense of meaning, a grip on reality, a self that doesn’t feel impaired – still hasn’t been found.
The X factor. Having figured out the first four pieces of the puzzle, a great deal of good can be done. Addicts can be brought to healing and self-knowledge. They can be weaned off substances and their brains (slowly) returned to a more balanced chemical state. Yet there remains the X factor. Call it a predisposition, karma, the unconscious or a perverse urge to self-destruction. For some addicts, the journey of addiction is existential. They want to experience a kind of “left hand path,” to pick up a term from Indian spirituality. Wrestling with the devil tempts them into a private melodrama of the soul. The lure of temptation is seductive to everyone, not just addicts. Ultimately we want to come through to the other side. The point isn’t self-destruction (except in some rare cases), but finding safety and a better reason to be alive.
Added up together, these five pieces give us understanding about what creates addicts. They also explain why we are such an addicted society. As the result of more leisure, money and the absence of old moral strictures, along with a craving for distraction, modern America is an addict’s paradise. The term is used ironically – in which we are all free to define our own existence. In other words, we are free to explore human complexity. This isn’t to make light of addicts. They can cause enormous harm to themselves and others (always remembering that the greatest harm by far isn’t caused by exotic or illegal substances but by alcohol).
It turns out that there will never be one picture of addiction, even when all the pieces are on the table. Each addict is unique. The pieces fit together differently from one person to another, and in the end, the X factor counts for a lot. As long as addiction enjoys a mystique that is at once forbidden, criminal, tempting and scary, no one will discover a rational solution. Too much of our irrational side comes into play. Hard as it may be, coming to terms with any addiction means coming to terms with the complexity of a life journey, with all of its dark passages and hidden motivations.
Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes replies:
A:Over the years as a psychologist, I have treated countless patients who have suffered from one form or another of “addiction.” Whether it was the woman whose whole body was marked with needle marks from her secret heroin addiction, the young girl addicted to binging and purging or the good-looking athlete, wasting hours of his days with video porn...all suffered terribly from something that has most likely plagued humankind from the beginning of time – addictive behavior.
Addiction, in my view, has two basic elements. These include the tolerance and withdrawal phenomenon. Tolerance basically means that over time, more and more of the addictive behavior or substance is needed to achieve the desired effect. Withdrawal essentially means that the individual has a very painful physical and/or emotional reaction when the substance or behavior is ceased. Addiction is probably one of the most costly and serious problems facing our culture today. If each of us stops to reflect, we can probably all come up with at least one negative addiction we have or have had in our lives that has caused pain and suffering.
There is much controversy in the medical and psychology worlds in terms of what the exact nature of addiction is. I tend to gravitate toward a multi-leveled, biopsychosocial model as a theorem for explaining addiction. Although historically addictions were usually regarded in terms of psychoactive substances, such as drugs, that when ingested caused chemical alterations in the brain, the current thinking has broadened to include other compulsive behaviors such as pathological gambling, shopping, eating, etc. In our current lives, even “working” can be addictive. In fact, so commonplace are addictions, that we have adopted the terminology “oholic” for many behaviors, e.g., alcoholic, shopaholic, workaholic and so on.
Without getting too technical, it is now accepted that the human brain, like many animal brains, is organized to prefer one outcome over another. In essence, “all sentient beings have developed in such a manner, through natural selection, that pleasurable sensations serve as their habitual guides” (Darwin, 1958:89). Basically what this means is that most addictions can be traced to an activation of the brain’s pleasure and reward systems. What I am saying is that humans and other animals will seek to find pleasure and for the most part, avoid pain at all costs. This makes intuitive sense as well as being a biological reality. Now the question becomes whether or not one’s individual will can ignore, overcome or avoid the temptations of those habits, which ultimately turn from pleasurable and rewarding to destructive and often life-shattering addictions.Why some people become more prone to addictions than others is a matter of great debate. The arguments range from a strict “disease” model suggesting a biochemistry of addiction, perhaps with genetic basis, to a “choice” model (Szasz, 1973) suggesting that the addict is a person who chooses a taboo substance or behavior to a low-risk lifestyle. Regardless of the causes, addictions can be costly and cause tremendous suffering for not only the “enslaved” person but for their families, friends and society in general. If you or someone you know is addicted to substances or destructive behaviors, it is never too late to get treatment. Denial and shame are often deterrents to seeking assistance. Never lose hope that you or a loved one can get help and beat an addiction. People can make miraculous recoveries from the powerful grip of addiction. I have seen it!
Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes
Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes is a leading psychologist with a private practice in New York City for the past 15 years. See her website, drkarennyc.com, for more information.
Shaikh Kabir Helmsinki responds:
A:I’m sure there are addiction counselors who could share their knowledge and give excellent answers to these questions at the psycho-physical level. In the end, however, most addiction counselors themselves would acknowledge that the spiritual level is where these questions will be most adequately answered.
First of all, let’s be compassionate with ourselves and toward people who try to deal with the pain of life through addictions. These are sometimes the most sensitive people among us. What we experience as the pain of life is really a call to the transcendent level of human experience. Addictions are both misguided attempts at self-transcendence and ways to numb ourselves. Intoxication shuts down parts of the mind, frees us of inhibitions and opens us up (sometimes). Sexual addiction brings a rush of emotion and sensation. Other less dangerous addictions are still just numbing dead ends in the long run.
Meditation, and any true spiritual practices, such as meditation, singing/chanting or body-prayer, may also be repetitive activities, but they point us toward a dimension of experience that is not a deadend of physical dependency, but, rather, an infinite opening to an ever-changing reality. This connection with the transcendent level of experience is not an abstract aloofness. The experience of the sacred and holy leads us back to life. It can be integrated with the immanent experience of our daily life, livelihood and relationships. We need to bring the transcendent, the holy, the sacred into our lives. But it is in the nature of addiction to also be in denial, to justify our futile, repetitive, self-defeating ways.
Transformation becomes possible when the soul in its state of addiction can say: “I don’t want to feel this way, live this way or be this way. Help me...”
The Infinite understands all languages and answers, and in some way, all calls.
Have you noticed the intensification of time lately? There’s so much pain and confusion out there. At the same time, the Infinite is beckoning, inviting with an unprecedented insistence.
Kabir Helminski is Shaikh of the Mevlevi Order, Co-director of The Threshold Society (sufism.org).