Addiction and Compulsion
The obstacle is the path.
When we maintain awareness, whether we know it or not, healing is taking place...a door that has been shut begins to open…As the door opens, we see that the present is absolute and that, in a sense, the whole universe begins right now, in each second. And the healing of life is in that second of simple awareness...Healing is always just being here, with a simple mind.
--Charlotte Joko Beck
Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed.
--Thich Nhat Hanh
We’re not hopelessly lost ever because there’s always this possibility of a fresh listening, a coming to. It’s a thought that we’re hopelessly lost, and to hear that as a thought and not to be fooled by it.
Nothing is holding us back from awakening...We are the one who imprisons and we are the one who liberates. When we accept that responsibility we have finally gained spiritual maturity.
Events happen, deeds are done, but there is no individual doer thereof.
The universe is full of action, but there is no actor.
Are you breathing? Or are you being breathed? You need not answer. There is no essential difference.
Enlightenment is first of all coming to understand that there is no self in the conventional sense...and it's in the process of letting go of that notion that one experiences what one truly is in the universal sense. That's when enlightenment comes -- when you realize that you are not in control. And because of that, you are very much in control.
--Vernon Kitabu Turner
Choice implies consciousness – a high degree of consciousness. Without it, you have no choice. Choice begins the moment you disidentify from the mind and its conditioned patterns, the moment you become present. Until you reach that point, you are unconscious, spiritually speaking. This means you are compelled to think, feel, and act in certain ways according to the conditioning of your mind….Presence is the key. The Now is the key.
Please don’t believe for a moment that someone else’s hands are pulling the strings. Oh no, don’t believe for a second that you’re only a puppet. You are the hands that pull the strings of attachment. You are both puppet and puppetmaster. But how to explain scissors to one who’s never seen or used them? How to convince a puppet that scissors even exist? How to convince someone (listen closely now) that there is no need for scissors because the strings themselves never existed except through our belief in them? Just walk away from the puppetmaster. He cannot hold you. Turn quickly and see his face. It is only yours.
--Mel Ash, from The Zen of Recovery
The enduring paradox and the wonder of a spiritual awakening is the return of power. But this power has a completely different feel to it. It is impersonal. Without the bondage of self, the power of the Ocean plays out without resistance. All our actions as waves flow with liquid harmony....totally beyond any possibility of personal control.
--Wayne Liquorman, The Way of Powerlessness
We don’t really know how letting go happens. We want to know so we can make it happen…But gradually we find that letting go really isn’t our job. Rather, our task is to learn how to let things be exactly as they are.
Abandon yourself to God.
--The Big Book of AA
What if you let go of every bit of control and every urge that you have, right down to the most infinitesimal urge to control anything, anywhere, including anything that may be happening in this moment? Imagine that you were able to completely and absolutely give up control on every level. If you were able to give up control absolutely, totally, and completely, then you would be a spiritually free being.
Effort is a sign of conflict between incompatible desires. They should be seen as they are – then only they dissolve.
We want to be only good, and we want to remove all evil. But that is because we forget that good is made of non-good elements....You cannot be good alone. You cannot hope to remove evil, because thanks to evil, good exists, and vice versa.
--Thich Nhat Hanh
Whatever action happens, whether you eat icecream or meditate, at that moment you could not have done otherwise.
--Ramesh S. Balsekar
I am the divine expression exactly as I am, right here, right now. You are the divine expression exactly as you are, right here, right now. It is the divine expression, exactly as it is, right here, right now. Nothing, absolutely nothing, needs to be added or taken away. Nothing is more valid or sacred than anything else. No conditions need to be fulfilled. The infinite is not somewhere else waiting for us to become worthy.
Spiritual liberation frees you from the misery-inducing fantasy of perfecting yourself. In this moment, I am what I am; you are what you are; we’re both the dance of the cosmos. Liberation isn’t the act of breaking free of this. Liberation is knowing it can’t be otherwise.
Sometimes we use the image of breaking out of a shell: really there is no shell to break out of, and yet we create and seem to be in a shell. Being in this shell is being in hell, so we speak of breaking out of the shell. Of course, while we are in hell, living in hell is our practice. In fact, being present in hell is breaking out of hell.
--Elihu Genmyo Smith
Our culture operates with the idea that healing means the absence of pain, but I've come to understand that healing doesn't mean that our pain and suffering go away. Healing is learning to live in a different relationship with our pain and suffering so it does not control us. The only way in which I can heal my wounds, the only way in which I can awaken, is to live in the present moment in mindfulness, breathing in and breathing out.
--Claude Anshin Thomas
Whatever confronts you, there is your entry—to knowing less, seeing more!
Awaken, be free, be yourself. You are the joy of the world. The light that shines in darkness. You are a blessing to the universe. Love yourself always. When you love yourself, you love God. Forget about the past. Never dwell on the past. Remember, ….You are total freedom, right this instant.
The universe is not bound by its content, because its potentialities are infinite; besides it is a manifestation, or expression of a principle fundamentally and totally free.
Controlled or not controlled?
The same dice shows two faces.
Not controlled or controlled,
Both are a grievous error.
--Mumon’s Comment, “Hyakujo’s Fox,” The Gateless Gate
What is addiction?
In a sense, addiction is our basic human problem (although in another sense, nothing—including addiction—is ever actually a problem). It doesn't have to be addiction to alcohol or drugs. I would define addiction as any habitual behavior or substance-use that feels out of control, compulsive, self-perpetuating and destructive. Addiction often involves an inner conflict between the desire to stop and the desire to keep going, both of which are a movement away from the present actuality of Here / Now, and a movement toward something that is imagined to be more desirable, whether that something is the addictive pleasure or the dream of being free from the addiction. Trying to stop is part of the addiction (and is different from actually stopping).
It should be noted that seeking pleasure and avoiding pain are survival mechanisms that make perfect sense in a purely biological context, but no other animal smokes and drinks itself to death. Obviously, what begins as a natural survival mechanism can get in some way displaced, misdirected or exaggerated in human beings with our complex capacity for imagination and conceptual abstraction. Capitalist-consumer society, which is a creation of the human mind (the human mind being itself a creation of the universe or consciousness), actually cultivates addiction. Paul Mazer, a Wall Street banker working for Lehman Brothers in the 1930s, was quoted in a documentary as having said: "We must shift America from a needs – to a desires – culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed…Man's desires must overshadow his needs." And I believe it was the current CEO of Apple whom I heard in an interview describe their mission as "creating something you didn't know you wanted that once you have it, you can't imagine living without." Capitalism and the advertising industry have devoted themselves to creating a sense of lack in virtually every aspect of modern life from politics to spirituality, and then offering to fill it with things we don't really need that won't really make us happy. It’s no surprise that addiction is a major problem.
Whether or not you’ve had addictions or compulsions of the obvious sort, almost everyone (if not everyone) has experienced addiction in some form. Most people are addicted to painful, habitual, compulsive ways of thinking. Many people have an addictive relationship to normally healthy activities such as eating, sex or work. On a global scale, we are addicted to fossil fuels, even though this addiction threatens to destroy us, and humanity also seems addicted to painful cycles of conflict and war and to all the factors that create conflict and war. Many of us are addicted to chasing pleasurable or exciting experiences. We are often addicted to the accumulation of various things—information, knowledge, wealth, friends, possessions, power, status. We can be addicted to identities of various kinds, both positive and negative. We can even be addicted to the spiritual search—to seeking rather than finding, to becoming rather than being, to chasing spiritual experiences or comforting answers. At the bottom-line, most human beings are addicted to surviving as this apparent form we identify as "me" and to maintaining the illusion of control and personal authorship of our lives. To some degree or other, addiction and compulsion is something we all know.
Faced with uncomfortable feelings such as anxiety, irritation or hurt, or with painful stories about being inadequate or misunderstood, or with feelings of being trapped and helpless, or with energies and sensations in the body that seem unbearable, human beings typically look for a way out or a way to soothe ourselves. And while avoiding pain and seeking pleasure or comfort (fear and desire) are conditioned biological survival functions that make perfect sense in a certain practical context, in human beings with our complex brains, these basic survival instincts can get carried over into the psychological realm in ways that can easily become dysfunctional and destructive. Driven by imaginary fears and misdirected desires, we overeat, over-spend, work compulsively, think compulsively, drink alcohol excessively, smoke cigarettes, shoot heroin, or whatever it is that we do. The more we seek pleasure and run from pain in these compulsive and addictive ways, the more painful it gets. It's like a case of poison ivy where the more we scratch, the more it itches and the more it spreads. Momentary highs are followed by devastating lows. Sometimes the hangover is even part of the addiction—we’re addicted to self-punishment, or we find failure less threatening than success.
The particular shape this avoidance and seeking takes in each one of us has to do with nature and nurture – genetics, neurology, neurochemistry, childhood experiences, conditioning, social pressures, environmental forces, the condition of the brain, and so forth. Some people get caught up in addictive behaviors only very minimally, while for others, it snowballs into something that destroys the very fabric of the person's life and often many other lives as well. Some addictions are very mild, others are fatal. Some people are drawn to over-working, some to alcohol, some to heroin, some to child molesting or serial murder.
Obviously, there is a natural desire to recover, to heal, to be free from such painful cycles. But as I see it, true recovery has to be rooted in the recognition that EVERYTHING is the activity of one undivided whole, a unicity that includes ways of being we consider healthy and ways of being we judge to be pathological. From our limited human perspective, we can’t know how it all goes together or what’s best for the universe, even though we often think we do. It is ALL the movement of one seamless and boundless whole, and ultimately, the whole show (including both what we call addiction and what we call recovery) is an inconceivable, ungraspable, unresolvable, dream-like appearance happening to no one, an appearance in (and of) consciousness, a momentary expression of this radiant presence that is beyond all our attempts to judge or categorize it. Realizing this is the end of shame, guilt, blame, self-hatred, hatred of others, and the desire to punish. We see that everyone is acting in the only way possible in this moment, that all of it is blameless and impersonal, that no one is actually in control or separate from this unicity, and that we can't ever really know what will or "should" happen next. This is the larger context within which I approach recovery.
What is the best cure for addiction?
There is no cure that I know of that works for everyone or that always brings the desired results. There are many factors that play into addiction and compulsion, so I would always caution against the assumption that there is any one-size-fits-all explanation or any one-size-fits-all solution that will explain or cure every addiction or work for every individual. New discoveries are happening all the time in neuroscience and in our understanding of the brain and the mind and how it all works. People mistakenly assumed for a long time that certain conditions such as depression or addiction were entirely moral, psychological or spiritual problems only to discover more recently that many other forces are obviously at work including neurochemistry, genetics, physical and emotional trauma, brain injuries or abnormalities, and a host of other physical, emotional and socioeconomic conditions. Compulsions (such as finger-biting) and addictions (such as alcoholism) may each come from different problems in different areas of the brain. We can find differences between different addictions, and between addictions and compulsions, and we can find similarities. In this article, I am emphasizing the similarities, the common ground, but I don't mean to deny the differences either. And I encourage all of us to keep an open mind and not imagine that we know everything there is to know about addiction and recovery.
Apparently, for example, the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual has dropped the terms alcoholism and alcohol abuse entirely, and now refers to it as alcohol-use disorder. Addiction recovery is very much an evolving field. May we be open to ever-evolving discoveries and insights.
Recovery is in some sense a matter of grace, otherwise known as luck. The urge to stop an addiction, and the ability to remain sober is not something that happens for every addict. Many of our greatest spiritual teachers have been active alcoholics. One contemporary Zen Master drowned in his bathtub, drunk. Whether any of the cures on offer will work for any given individual is ultimately a happening of the Totality. That said, there are things that do seem to work in some cases. But if they fail, don't take it personally. Likewise, if they succeed, don't take it personally.
Although there are many different approaches to addiction recovery, in one way or another, I would say that recovering from an addiction always has something to do with the transformative power of awareness and with learning how to be with the itch of our fundamental fear, discomfort, unease or restlessness without scratching the itch and making it worse. It has something to do with learning to be present and awake without running away and without expecting perfection. It has something to do with paying attention and waking up from the trance of conceptual thought (all our ideas, beliefs and assumptions about life). Some people in the recovery field use the model of powerlessness and surrender, others use the model of finding our true power and learning how to make better choices. In my experience, both of these models have validity and can be helpful. We don’t need to choose between them, or pit them against each other, or make one right and the other wrong. They are simply different ways of conceptualizing, mapping and working with the living reality—different maps with which we can potentially find our way home. (Home, of course, being the place we have never actually left).
There is no single "right" way to recover. The best path for another may not be the best path for you, and what looks like failure may be the perfect unfolding. There are many self-declared "experts" in the field of addiction who seem thoroughly convinced that they know everything there is to know about the subject. I've heard many of these experts make assertions with absolute certainty that my own experience shows me are wrong or at the very least highly questionable and debatable. So, don't assume that anyone knows everything there is to know.
What is my experience with addiction and compulsion?
If you've read any of my books, you know that I have firsthand experience with addiction and compulsion. I sobered up in 1973 from eight years of near-fatal, bottomed-out, over-the-top, alcoholic drinking. I used to be a heavy cigarette smoker and drug user (marijuana, psychedelics, heroin, cocaine, PCP, uppers, downers—you name it, I took it), but those habits fell away by the mid-1970's soon after I sobered up. And then after decades of sobriety, I had a much milder experience with occasional addictive drinking that happened off-and-on in my late 50's. I've had a finger-biting compulsion (dermatophagia, classified as an impulse-control disorder) since childhood that still flares up. I have had addictive tendencies at various times in my life with any number of substances and behaviors, everything from caffeine to obsessive thinking. Over the years, I’ve explored many different approaches to addiction and compulsion. In the end, I can't really explain why any of these addictions ended when they did. I tried to quit smoking many times without success, and then on the last try, I never lit up again. I have no idea what was different about the last time. Addiction and compulsion (and the falling away of addiction and compulsion) are movements of life itself. Our judgments of these happenings and the meaning we give to them can always be questioned, as can our attempts to understand and control them. We can easily become addicted to having explanations and answers and theories and beliefs about addiction that we identify with and defend. So, I encourage all of us to remain open to new insights and new information, and to look freshly in this moment, not knowing what might be revealed.
I sobered up from near-fatal alcohol (and drug) abuse in 1973 with a physician-therapist who used an unconventional approach—a combination of gestalt therapy, transactional analysis, feminist therapy and short-term radical therapy. My therapist didn't believe in the disease model of alcoholism or the 12-Step approach that has dominated the recovery field in the United States. She didn’t believe that a person was "an alcoholic." She even thought it was possible to drink again in a non-addictive way after dealing with the underlying issues. She used the model of choice, not powerlessness, and she considered addiction an unskillful choice that had been made unconsciously. The reasons for this unconscious choice could be uncovered and recognized, and then we could (consciously) make a different (healthier) choice. My therapist felt the power belonged to the person (or more accurately, to awareness) and not to the substance.
When I began therapy, I made a contract with my therapist that I wouldn't drink without talking to her first. For almost a year, I didn't drink at all. Then with her permission, I tried having a drink. It went well, and my therapist agreed that I could drink if I wanted to, in moderation. This seemed to work for me overall. I did get totally drunk a handful of times early on, but even on those occasions, I never felt any urge to keep drinking on the morning after, and I never again went on a binge (as I would have before). And in the years that followed, I rarely drank, and if I did, it was very moderate...a glass of wine, a beer, nothing more. There were whole years that went by, once even a whole decade, without a single drop of alcohol. And I no longer smoked cigarettes or did any recreational drugs at all. Most of my friends were non-drinkers, and none of them drank heavily. It seemed that alcohol was a complete non-issue. I lived what was basically a sober (drug and alcohol free) life for almost 30 years.
During this time, I got involved in Zen and eventually began working with a former Zen teacher named Toni Packer whose work emphasized the choiceless nature of reality and the absence of a separate self with personal free will. This seemed to be the exact opposite of the approach taken by my therapist. I spoke to Toni once about my finger-biting compulsion, which was still happening. She suggested not trying to get rid of it. That was radical! Instead, when it happened, she suggested simply allowing it to be just as it is, and giving it open, nonjudgmental attention—the same open attention I might give to my dearest friend. In other words, feel the sensations in my jaw, my fingers, my shoulder, my stomach…see the thoughts, including the desire to stop and the judgments of myself…hear the sounds of the airplane passing overhead and the caw-caw-caw of the crows…feel the breathing. Just listen openly to the whole thing, without judgment, without intention, without looking for a result. “You can’t impose improvements,” Toni told me. “With will-power comes resistance. Check it out for yourself.”
Toni also encouraged me to look for the “me” who seemed to be living my life and making my decisions. Really go into it with awareness, she suggested, and see if this apparent chooser/controller/author can actually be found.
All I found was conflicting thoughts: “I want to bite,” “I want to stop,” “I can’t stop,” “I should stop,” “How can I stop?” “If I just get this one loose end, then I’ll be satiated,” “I have to bite,” “I’m addicted,” “I’m a neurotic mess,” “It would be unbearable to feel what I would feel if I stopped,” “I’m stuck, this is hopeless,” “It’s been going on for a long time,” “It’s out of control,” “I’ll never get free,” “I should be able to control myself,” “This is sick,” “I want to be free from this,” and on and on—endless thoughts. It felt like a tug-of-war between “me-the-observer” (who wants to stop) and “me-the-addict” (who wants to bite). But the more closely I paid attention, the more it was obvious that both of these “me’s” were nothing but thoughts and mental images, accompanied by sensations in the body. I could also see that no one was “doing” any of this; it was all happening by itself. It was all a compulsory movement of nature that had nothing to do with “me,” because this “me” who was supposedly at the controls was only a mirage.
As Toni pointed out, whichever side of this tug-of-war, whichever belief or impulse, had more energy in any given moment would win out in that moment, and biting would then happen or not happen. And then thought, posing as “me,” would come in after-the-fact, and take credit or blame: “I’m a spiritual success because I had the will-power to stop,” or “I’m a failure because I didn’t have enough will-power to stop.” I saw how thought creates the mirage of “me” who has “done” one thing or the other, and is deemed “successful” or “unsuccessful” as a result. And then more thoughts about this “me” quickly follow: “I’m on my way to a new, improved, better me,” or “I’m a hopeless case, doomed to fail.” Either of these thought-trains will in turn generate a response in the body, good feelings or terrible feelings, elation or depression.
My therapist had done something similar when I was trying to quit smoking. She had me do “gestalts” where the two sides of me would have a dialog. I would sit first in one chair being the voice of the one who wanted to quit, and then I’d sit in another chair being the voice of the one who wanted to light up. Back and forth I’d go, listening to both sides. I wrote about this in my second book Awake in the Heartland. Here is an extended excerpt from the section in that book about addiction that includes my description of this gestalt work:
Addiction feels out of control, yet paradoxically it is a mechanical pattern, a controlled way of being out of control in order to get control.
We can always stop an addictive behavior if we want to stop. But the problem is, we want to indulge, sometimes more strongly than we want to stop. “Wanting to stop” becomes a future plan. Indulging is the instant gratification, the pleasure that we want now. Stopping is our future hope. Someday we will be saved, life will be better, we will stop. But meanwhile, we’ll have just one more.
Can we choose what we want? Don’t answer from belief, look and see.
The addictive habit is an old and familiar pattern that we have learned. It happens automatically. Some feeling or thought arises, and suddenly we want a drink, a cigarette, a sexual encounter, or our favorite train of thought (maybe dreaming about what we will someday become, or thinking compulsively about all the ways we’ve been mistreated and victimized).
And this isn’t just a vague take-it-or-leave-it kind of desire. It feels like an irresistible, compelling force. It seems like something we must have or do, like our very survival is at stake. And in some cases, as the addiction progresses, we will do amazing things to satisfy it. We will drive for miles in the middle of the night to buy cigarettes, and we will keep smoking even though we are dying of emphysema. We have to do it. Or so we think and feel.
If it becomes obvious that this habit is also painful, we experience the desire to stop. Now we have two conflicting impulses: one that urges us to indulge and one that urges us to stop. At different moments, each of these impulses seems to be “the real me.” One is the Good Girl, and one is the Bad Girl. When I was in therapy sobering up, my therapist had me do “gestalts” where I would move between two chairs, alternately taking the voice that said “indulge” and then the voice that said “stop.” It was illuminating to hear what they each had to say. I recommend this exercise.
“You should quit smoking because you’re going to get lung cancer, and it’s costing you a small fortune, and you’d feel a lot better if you stopped.”
“Oh come on, stop trying to be such a good girl. You should smoke because you love it; it feels good. Who cares if you get lung cancer, you’re having fun, and you’re going to die anyway. It’s sexy to smoke, and besides, you won’t be able to write if you don’t smoke. What the hell, lighten up and light up.”
Each voice seems to have some real validity and value to us. The one who wants to stop is the caring, intelligent, rational, healthy, mature, adult. The addict is the irrational, reckless, daring, spontaneous child. In myself, I called them the sober nun and the drunken lover. They each represented a vital part of my life. If society manages to suppress the wild and reckless part, then it may be that it can only come out through addictive behavior. The challenge is to find less painful and more creative ways of allowing all aspects of ourselves to come into being. As I sobered up, that was indeed the process I went through. I had to discover that I could dance, say what I felt like saying, write books, take risks, be spontaneous, and make love without being drunk.
“I have to smoke a cigarette,” is a thought. “I can’t stop,” is a thought. “I should stop,” is a thought. “I will stop,” is a thought. Where do these thoughts come from? Are “we” in control of them? And what determines whether we act on them? Are we in control of that?
Again, watch it in action as it happens in your own life. Notice how compelling certain thoughts are, for example if you’re angry at someone, or worried about something, or lost in some pleasurable fantasy.
The more any habit is repeated, the stronger the compulsion gets.
Likewise, the more presence and awareness there is, the more presence and awareness there is. Putting it into words that way makes it seem like presence is something that comes and goes, something that can get bigger or smaller. Perhaps a more accurate way to say it would be, the more awareness is aware of itself, the more the content is seen for the transient, insubstantial, dream-like appearance that it is.
Before we truly “sober up" once and for all, there are many moments when the addiction is over, when we actually don’t want to drink or smoke or bite or whatever it is. But then it comes back and seemingly “overwhelms us.” How does that happen? How does it shift?
The same thing happens with so-called awakening. There are moments of clear seeing, and then the old view comes back and seems to overwhelm us again. Empty, spacious awareness appears to contract back down to the tight little reactive capsule of “me,” the character in the story. How does that happen? How does it shift? Is there any choice involved?
This is a question to live with. Watch and see, moment to moment, how these shifts occur, between clarity and mind smog, between freedom and compulsion. Taking the smog personally, or viewing it as an obstacle, is just more smog. Simply be curious about the whole movement—the flip back and forth—see it, observe and investigate it. Don’t settle for anyone else’s answers. Look for yourself.
To whom do these apparent flips occur? Is there some individual who owns these experiences, who has them? Or is that merely an idea, a mental image, a sensation?
(excerpted from Awake in the Heartland, pp 65-67)
Through meditation, many silent retreats, and my work with Toni Packer, I was abiding more and more in the open awake presence, the boundless awareness, in which there is no sense of separation or limitation. The sense of being a separate individual self, encapsulated inside a body, was falling away. In the years that followed, I spent time with a number of Advaita and satsang teachers and radical nondualists. I read the words of Nisargadatta Maharaj and others whom I didn't know in person. I did The Work with Byron Katie. I went on retreats with several different Buddhist teachers. And over time, it was realized, ever-more fully, that I am not limited to, or encapsulated inside, the bodymind. This changed how I related to all my neurotic quirks and imperfections—the old habit of taking them personally and giving them meaning was falling away. My finger-biting compulsion continued, but over time, it happened less often and with less severity. And more importantly, the shame I had felt over it for so many years began to dissolve. Shame is based on the belief that there is a “me” at the controls who “could” and “should” be able to stop this. As that illusion was seen through, the shame went with it. I found that I was more and more at peace with the Joan-character being exactly as she is.
When I was in my 50's going through menopause and my mother was dying, I was living in Chicago to be close to her, and I started drinking wine in the evenings. While it was nothing compared to the over-the-top, near-fatal drinking I had engaged in decades before—I wasn't putting away huge quantities of hard liquor in combination with all kinds of drugs; I wasn't waking up in strange cities in bed with strangers, or in jail; this was one to four glasses of wine at home in the evening, and not every evening, not even every week or every month; there were long periods where I didn't drink at all—nevertheless, I could feel that it had an addictive edge to it. It felt compulsive, often excessive, and seemed clearly harmful to my overall well-being. I "decided" several times to stop drinking completely and be permanently abstinent, and then after a while, I would start drinking wine again. But each time, it seemed to become clearer (not as an idea, but as a felt-reality) that this was not a healthy path for me, and the periods of drinking got shorter and happened less frequently. I even went to AA meetings for a while, and I have great respect for AA, and I learned a lot from it, but it never quite felt like my path. Basically, for the decade during which this was happening off and on, there was simply an open, nonjudgmental attention to the whole happening—feeling the urge to drink, seeing the thoughts for and against, feeling how it felt to drink and how it felt the next day—simply being aware of the whole unfolding, without looking for a result. I trusted awareness, and I trusted the process. I knew in some way that I can't explain that I wasn't headed back to the life-threatening alcohol abuse of my youth. Eventually, the drinking stopped and didn't come back. I haven't had any alcohol for a number of years now, and I don't plan to ever drink again and doubt that I will, although I've learned that I can't be sure what the future will bring.
My finger-biting compulsion has fallen away for longer and longer periods of time in recent years, not because I've been actively trying to stop, but it has periodically just stopped happening. The urge to do it just disappears, out of the blue, sometimes for months at a time, and then returns again, also seemingly out of the blue. Even if it flares up periodically for the rest of my life, I no longer find that a terrible prospect. I’m grateful to it for all I’ve learned from it. If alcohol and cigarettes and drugs had been my only addictions, I would have ended up believing that anyone can choose to stop—just like “I” apparently did. But because of my experience with finger-biting, I was able to see and experience directly that this controller is an illusion, that no one is directing this show. This has given me compassion for child molesters, serial killers and others who are compelled to do far more harmful things. I have found peace not by getting control and perfecting Joan, but by recognizing my total helplessness as the illusory separate self and by realizing the perfection of what is, just as it is.
That doesn’t mean I’ve lost interest in being free of habits and compulsions. That interest is part of the perfection of what is! But I'm no longer attached to the results or taking addictive behaviors personally and giving them meaning. Over these many decades, I have continued to explore many different approaches to addiction and compulsion. I've tried Scott Kiloby’s Inquiries and Byron Katie’s Work. I've explored Rational Recovery and any number of other approaches. And in the decades since I first sobered up, I've done other kinds of therapy and many years of meditation, inquiry and other forms of awareness work such as Feldenkrais and other somatic work.
I'm very grateful that I'm not still drinking myself to death, doing every drug imaginable, smoking several packs of cigarettes a day, and flying into uncontrollable rages as I was fifty years ago, but I recognize that sobering up was not something "I" did any more than being a drunk was my doing. And although my life as a drunk was very hurtful to myself and others, I can see that it wasn't all bad either – in many ways, it has been a source of wisdom, compassion, insight and greater intelligence. It's also very clear here that "Joan being drunk" was no less a manifestation of the living reality than "Joan being sober." In reality, everything is one, whole, seamless, undivided flow from which nothing stands apart, and in the end, there is no way to separate "the good" from "the bad," except conceptually, in the mental map.
With my finger-biting compulsion, sometimes there is the ability to stop. But sometimes it just keeps happening uncontrollably. Sometimes I give it complete attention, without judgment and without any attempt to stop it. Counter-intuitively, when that open attention and complete acceptance happens, the biting always ends, not forever after, but in that moment. This open attention and total acceptance is not an ideology or a belief, but rather, it is a felt-absence of resistance and seeking – being completely present and aware without judgment or interpretation of any kind, without wanting the biting to stop, without giving it meaning, without taking it personally as “my” problem or “my” failing. Then, instead of the chewed fingers being seen and interpreted as a sign of failure or deficiency, as proof of what a loser I was, they can be seen as simply a happening of life, like the howling wind or the torn bark of a tree. Seen through the story of personal failure, there is suffering and despair. Seen without that story, there is a natural sense of love and openness in which everything, even chewed fingers, seems beautiful and holy and worthy of being here. Wanting this compulsion to be gone forever and never come back only seemed to strengthen it by reincarnating the sense of me (the victim, the screw-up) in conflict with this habit that was supposedly ruining my life (in the story). As has often been noted, what we resist persists, because by resisting something, we are giving it importance and power. Allowing this compulsion to be here and to dissolve in its own time has felt like true freedom. The thinking mind (posing as me) can't make this allowing happen through an act of intention or will—that doesn’t work. It is a relaxation of that very movement of the mind that wants to control and manipulate everything. In a sense, it happens when it happens. But at the same time, there is an ability right here (sometimes, not always) to let go. And there is peace here with both the allowing and resisting, both of which are seen as simply impersonal movements of life, different appearances in a dream. What I truly am is beyond the dream.
How do I work with addiction?
The main thing I recommend for undoing addiction, based on my own experience, is simply giving non-judgmental, open attention to what is happening right now in this moment without seeking a result or trying to change it in any way – allowing it to be just as it is, meeting it with total acceptance and with a kind of open curiosity and interest. Let's take alcoholic drinking as an example. If you're not yet ready or able to completely stop drinking, then is it possible to give complete, open attention to the whole process of drinking as it happens, to meet this whole happening with tenderness and love?
Notice that first impulse for a drink – what triggers it? Are you feeling something that seems unbearable, something you can’t stand to feel—a mood, a physical sensation, an emotion, an energy in the body, a storyline, a memory, a state of mind? Is it possible just for one minute to pause and allow this unwanted experience to be here, just as it is, and to simply experience it? We often think that this feeling will kill us, that we must get away. But if you stop for a minute and turn toward this feeling that you are running from, if you allow yourself to feel it fully, is it actually unbearable? Does it actually kill or overwhelm you?
Before acting on it, is it possible to pause for just a minute and actually feel the intense desire for a drink? What is this desire, this urge (and this sense of urgency) actually like? Where is it in the body? What thoughts are showing up? Are you imagining the drink? For a minute or two, can you fully experience the bodily sensations that go with this urge for a drink—the unease, the excitement, whatever it is? If you go right into the core of the sensations themselves with awareness, is there anything solid or substantial there?
And then the whole process of "deciding" whether to give in to this urge or whether to resist – how does that so-called decision-making process actually unfold? What are your thoughts telling you? Is there a battle between the “Good Self” who wants to stay sober and the “Bad Self” who wants to drink? You might try listening to what they each have to say, as I did in my gestalt work with my therapist that I described above.
And then buying the bottle, opening it up, pouring the first drink – what does each moment in this process feel like in the body? And the first sip, what is that like? And how do you feel after one drink – what is pleasurable about it, what isn't? What moves you to have a second drink? What is this urge – do you really want another drink, or is there a fear of what you might feel if you don't keep drinking? How do you feel after that second drink – do you actually like how you feel? What do you like about it and what don't you like? What do you feel like the next morning? What thoughts and stories are arising?
Simply giving open, non-judgmental attention to this whole unfolding process and observing it every step of the way. You'll learn a lot. There are no "right" or "wrong" answers to these questions, and the answers may be different at different moments. It's all about being effortlessly aware and discovering what is actually going on as opposed to what you think is going on.
The more the light of awareness shines on habitual mechanisms, and the more clarity there is about how they work, the more possibility there is for something else to emerge. The urge for a drink may still arise, but it may be possible not to go with it. And when it isn't possible, then you drink. And you notice what that's like. Maybe over time drinking happens less and less, and maybe alcoholic drinking falls away completely at some point. Maybe at some point a clear decision to stop emerges, or a decision to go into some kind of therapy or recovery program, or whatever it might be. It is never actually "your" decision, it is the action of Life Itself.
Can we choose to stop an addiction?
As I said before, we can always stop an addictive behavior if we want to stop. But the problem is, we want to indulge, sometimes more strongly than we want to stop. We don’t choose our desires or impulses, and when we have conflicting desires, as is usually the case with addiction (the desire to stop and the desire to indulge), we don’t control which is stronger in any given moment.
Because it involves the apparently involuntary and compulsive engagement in activities that we like to think are voluntary, addiction is a wonderful place in which to explore this whole question of choice, free will, and where true power resides. This is an exploration that is available to almost everyone if we understand addiction in the broadest sense of the word. Very few of us can say that we have successfully carried out all our well-intended New Year's resolutions, or that we have never chased after pleasures that that we knew were harmful and ultimately unsatisfying.
Most people think it is a matter of choice whether or not we drink excessively or bite our fingers or commit serial rape, but when we look closely and carefully, either with science or with meditative inquiry, we may find that everything is arising out of an infinite web of interdependent causes and conditions from which no one is really separate and over which no one really has control. We may discover that addictive and compulsive behaviors are like a form of hypnotic entrancement. It's as if we have been hypnotized or conditioned to injure ourselves (or someone else), and we are unable to stop. It is an impersonal and conditioned movement of the whole universe, not an act of independent free will.
So, if everything is arising out of an infinite web of interdependent causes and conditions, does that mean that there is no way out, that there is nothing we can do to step out of this downward spiral?
If you are convinced you know the right answer to that question one way or the other, I would invite you to drop that answer and for just one moment, to not know what is or isn't possible.
I've discovered through meditation and inquiry that there is no central agent (no "me") inside this bodymind making "my" decisions or initiating and performing "my" actions. I've seen very clearly that every desire, impulse, thought, action, idea and choice comes from the whole universe and cannot be controlled by this mirage-like phantom-executive who doesn't actually exist. At the same time, I have experienced that a therapy based on awareness and choice worked beautifully for me, and that a host of seemingly intentional activities such as meditation, martial arts training, the Feldenkrais Method and Hakomi work have transformed this bodymind in many ways. This has taught me not to land or get fixated on one side of any conceptual divide such as “free will vs. determinism.”
In 12-Step programs, they speak of recognizing our powerlessness (as the thinking mind, the phantom “me,” the main character at the center of "the story of my life"), and turning our life and our will over to a power greater than this false self, greater than the thinking mind, abandoning ourselves to God. Some people understand this "Higher Power" or "God" in a dualistic way as a separate force, but for me, God is simply Here-Now, just this, our True Nature. Surrendering, opening the Heart, abandoning ourselves to God, simply means letting go of the attempt to grasp and control life with thought, and dissolving into the spacious presence that Eckhart Tolle has called "the Power of Now." The Advaita sage Robert Adams calls it "the Power that knows the way," and he points out that, "You are that Power yourself." By “you,” he means this unbound awaring presence, this present awakeness, this seamless and impersonal intelligence-energy that is being and beholding everything. You are That. This awake awareness includes the thinking mind and the wonderful capacity for creative, imaginative and rational thought. It is not other than all that, but it is much bigger (and much subtler) than any of that. It is what illuminates all of that. Surrender is about dissolving into this boundless presence and fully embodying it Here / Now.
Of course, in one sense, we can’t not embody it since this is what we are. It is all there is. But in another sense, consciousness can become confused and hypnotized by its own creations—lost in its own dream. And so, consciousness has dreamed up meditation and satsang and nonduality and Zen and Advaita and psychotherapy and recovery programs and all sorts of ways of waking itself up from this trance that is our human suffering and delusion.
When we are awake Here-Now, we realize that everything is the Holy Reality. God is All There Is. When we are deluded, we think God is over there somewhere—outside of me—and that I’m a hopeless mess, and life is one big problem. Recovering from addiction is a never-ending, life-long, present moment unfolding that involves waking up here and now from all these thoughts, stories and beliefs that tell us that we are a separate fragment, bound and encapsulated, lost and lacking. Recovery is about waking up from the hypnotic and habitual entrancement in old habitual ways of thinking and acting. It involves being able to experience disturbing or unpleasant energies and sensations without needing to turn away or numb out. It involves a shift from personhood to boundless presence, from thinking to awareness, from trying to control and manipulate life to relaxing into the natural and intelligent flow that life is – being just this moment – without seeking a result. It is the end of grasping and trying to escape (not forever after, but right now).
How does that shift happen? In a sense, no one knows how it happens. Is it a choice? We can't really say. No description can capture reality. The common assumption is that we all freely choose our thoughts and actions and that we control the movement of our attention, and thus, anyone can stop an addiction if they want to stop, and anyone can choose or decide what to want. If we look closely, we find this isn't really true. Upon careful observation, this “decider” or “author” of our thoughts turns out to be itself a thought or a mental image claiming control over what is actually an automatic process, much of which happens at a level below conscious awareness, and all of which is inseparable from the entire universe. Believing the story of free will leads to guilt, shame, blame, frustration and vengeance whenever we or others do not act in the ways we think everyone should. But then, if we get caught up in an absolutist version of nonduality, we may fall into error in the opposite direction by believing that “no self” or “choicelessness” means there is nothing that can be done to end an addictive pattern or to wake up. People in radical nondual circles sometimes get the idea that deliberately doing anything violates some basic tenet of Advaita or nonduality. If everything is perfect as it is, they reason, and if there is no self with free will, then who would want or be able to change anything and why would they want to? But this is a misunderstanding of Advaita and nonduality. It is, as one teacher aptly put it, hanging oneself in an Advaitic noose.
Change is the very nature of life. Each of our actions, abilities, desires and insights are part of how totality is functioning, as is our ability to discern the difference between wholesome and unwholesome activities. In one sense, it's absolutely true that everything is perfect (or complete) just as it is, including addiction, and yet, it's equally true that the desire to recover from addiction and to heal what is hurting us is also perfect. Meditation, psychotherapy, yoga, bodywork, somatic awareness work, satsang, Tai Chi, recovery programs, social action programs to protect the environment or to relieve suffering and correct various forms of injustice – all of these are ways that life is functioning, ways that human beings come together to clear up confusion and wake up to new possibilities. All of this activity happens very much in the same way that white blood cells work together in the body to fight infection and clear up diseases. It may seem as if "I" am the one making choices, having intentions, and taking action, but if we look closely, we can't find anyone running the show. All of our intentions, urges, thoughts and actions – all of our apparent "choices" and "decisions" – are the activity of the whole universe, just as the white blood cells are an activity of the whole universe. Boundless unicity includes both the cancer cells and the white blood cells, both the parasite and the host, both addiction and recovery, both Buddha and Hitler. Nothing is left out. And none of it is personal, meaning no one individually does or owns any of it. The "me" who seems to be thinking "my" thoughts and making "my" choices is only a mirage, a phantom, an illusion. In this sense, we speak of there being no self and no choice.
But that doesn't mean that we “should” or “must” therefore sit on the couch for the rest of our life "doing nothing" and waiting for some outside force to put food into our mouth. In fact, we will choicelessly be moved by life to act in one way or another. When the right conditions come together, the bodymind can learn or be trained in all kinds of ways so that it has more choices, better choices, more control, more refined control, more possibilities, or however you want to put it. A skilled athlete has more choices, more control, more possibilities for how to move her body than someone without that training and practice. A skilled writer has more choices, more control, more possibilities for how to express himself clearly in words than someone who is illiterate. And in the same way, it is possible (when it is) to learn skills in recovery programs, in therapy, or through meditation that give us more insight, more choices, more possibilities, and more ability to respond constructively rather than destructively to certain feelings, urges, discomforts and upsets. Learning happens – learning to be with the itch and not scratch it, and noticing that when we can let it be, the itch eventually dissolves by itself.
So, although there is no choice in one sense, we still have to apparently make choices and "decide" to do whatever life is moving us to do. In one moment, that might be shooting heroin, and in another moment, it might be going into a recovery program. We have no choice! And yet, paradoxically, there is response-ability right here, for “I” (in the deepest and truest sense, prior to name and form) am the One-without-a-second, boundless awareness, the Ultimate Subject, the Supreme Self, the “I” to which we all equally refer—I am That.
So, ultimately, we can't really say that we have a choice or that we don't have a choice—both formulations mistakenly assume the separate existence of someone apart from this seamlessness to be either in or out of control. When we land on either side of this false (conceptual) duality (choice or no choice), we miss the living reality, which cannot be pinned down by any formulation or conceptualization. So, instead of getting stuck in any ideology or belief about the way life is, is it possible to simply live with an open question: In this moment, right now, what is it like to be drinking or smoking or biting my fingers or whatever it is? Does this activity have to continue right now? What would happen if I didn't do this right now? Is there another possibility? In this moment right now, is there a choice? Don't think about these questions, don't answer from the past or from ideology, but really look and see! And don't assume that the answer in one moment will be the same in another moment. Reality is alive!
How does our sense of being a separate self play into addiction?
Perhaps the most fundamental human addiction is maintaining and defending the imaginary self (the “me”) that we think we are. We have been taught to conflate the undeniable sense of being present and aware with the story of being a separate self, encapsulated inside a separate body, looking out at an apparently substantial world that supposedly exists outside of consciousness. This story is so deeply conditioned and so widely believed that, if we don’t look too closely, it seems like this is our actual experience. Meditation and inquiry are ways of looking more closely and seeing that our direct experience is actually seamless and boundless.
But when we don’t see that, when we believe that we are a separate somebody, there is always a sense of lack and vulnerability, and a search for what seems to be missing (love, happiness, peace, enlightenment), always imagined to be "out there" somewhere. We are forever defending our self-image, trying to become somebody special in one way or another, and often afraid of fully being the unique expression of the universe that we actually are, trying instead to conform to social, cultural or parental expectations and fit ourselves into a tight box. Perhaps this thought-sense of separation and alienation is at the root of all the uniquely dysfunctional ways in which human beings seek pleasure and try to avoid pain.
Getting drunk or stoned, being lost in fantasies about the future or in mindless television programs or in the virtual reality of our hand-held device, stuffing ourselves with food, having non-stop sex, working constantly, smoking cigarettes, shopping for things we imagine will bring us happiness, we find momentary relief from the burden of being "me." For a moment, we are free from our story of lack, free from desire, free from our imaginary fears and our sense of unworthiness, free from the sense of being helpless and out of control. Of course, this freedom is short-lived and the overall cycle is one of endless seeking and dissatisfaction. I'm not suggesting that all of the above activities are inherently pathological or that we should strive to purify ourselves of everything that might be considered a distraction, an avoidance or an addiction—because that very obsession with purity would itself be only another form of addiction—but we can begin to sense and feel when we are doing something in a way that actually hurts, and then maybe we can begin to question whether there is a different possibility.
When we look closely, we find that this separate self, who seems to be at the center of all our stories and at the root of all our problems, is actually a mirage-like appearance composed of ever-changing thoughts, images, memories, stories, beliefs and sensations. Some functional identification with the bodymind and some functional sense of boundaries and agency are necessary for survival, but the sense of separation and personal control that creates our human suffering involves the belief that we are freely choosing everything we think, want and do, and a persistent sense that this "me" should be doing a better job. The false sense of separation involves a psychological fear of death or annihilation that goes way beyond the biological survival instinct—we lose touch with the wholeness and interdependence of life, and we become exclusively identified as a supposedly separate fragment. Our self-image seems to be ever in need of being enhanced and defended—and this kind of self-concern is beyond basic survival needs and has nothing to do with being true to the unique expression of Totality that each of us is as a human being in the play of life (i.e., our genuine personality, sexual orientation, felt gender identity, vocational callings, fashion preferences, religious inclinations, political leanings, and so on)—in fact, this kind of image-concern often leads to suppressing many of these things in the name of "fitting in" or "being acceptable." This phantom "me" may well be the root addiction of which all other addictions are in some way symptomatic.
Surrender and Not Knowing
Surrender and powerlessness has to do with recognizing the absence of individual control. It has to do with relaxing, softening, melting, dissolving, letting go into an openness that is the opposite of control or will-power—a letting go or relaxing into being this moment, just as it is. It is the falling away of all our efforts to escape from or resist the present moment. Instead of fighting the addiction, we get curious about it. We approach each moment of this unfolding not as an enemy that we must vanquish or a thing that is ruining our life, but as the Beloved. We see everything as God. Surrender doesn't mean surrendering to the bottle, taking your hands off the steering wheel of your car, being a doormat, staying in an abusive situation, allowing racism or other injustices to continue unchallenged, or not taking appropriate action to fix a problem. It means totally entering the present moment, the eternal Now. Being this moment. Being aware. Being present. Of course, there is no way not to be the present moment, and there is no one apart from the present moment to enter it, but these words are simply a pointer to a kind of relaxing, opening, dissolving and allowing that must be felt into and discovered much in the same way that we discover how to swim or ride a bicycle. No one can really explain to us how to do any of this, but other people can often help us to discover this for ourselves. That’s why we have spiritual teachers and sanghas and recovery groups and therapists and so on. It’s why we have books and maps and articles like this one.
The thinking mind always wants to map things out and figure out what causes what. It wants a strategy for achieving what it considers to be improvement and success. This is a survival function, and in a certain context, it works quite effectively. And within that conceptual construction of cause and effect, it certainly seems that psychotherapy, meditation, martial arts training, and various forms of awareness and recovery work all had something to do with bringing about "my" transformation from drunkenness to sobriety. But when we look more closely, we can't really find a solid boundary between the darkness and the light, or between "Joan" and the rest of the universe. So while it can be functionally useful to have the idea that psychotherapy or a recovery program may be a helpful resource in breaking free of an addiction, the problem comes when we imagine that this solution will always bring about the desired results, or when we believe that there is an executive at the helm who can (or "should") accomplish this task on command or at will, or when we expect perfection or believe our dualistic and simplistic ideas about good and bad, or when we think that one polarity can (or should) triumph permanently over the other, or when we believe that there is any single recipe for transformation that will work for everyone. Whenever we believe those kinds of dualistic ideas, it becomes a set up for guilt, shame, blame, frustration, despair or self-righteousness.
What about 12-Step programs like AA? And is permanent abstinence necessary?
I have great respect and appreciation for AA and other 12-Step programs. There is much about AA that I loved. I found the program both eye-opening and heart-opening, and it is obviously tremendously helpful and life-saving to many people. I loved being with such a diverse group of people from every walk of life, many of whom I would never otherwise know. I loved how honest, unpretentious, open and self-disclosing people are in these meetings. I’ve never encountered any other group that was this honest and this down-to-earth. I also love that AA is a leaderless program, free of charge, that has sustained itself over decades without a hierarchy. Every time I attended a meeting, I learned something important and had insights into my own life, and after the meeting was over, I would almost always feel the same way I do after an hour of meditation: grounded, awake, alive and open. I love the way they look at your whole life, your "stinkin' thinking" and everything else, not just the overtly addictive behavior.
AA believes that alcoholism is a progressive disease that follows an inevitable trajectory. They believe that complete, permanent abstinence is the only real solution, whereas the physician-therapist with whom I sobered up in 1973 thought it was possible to drink again in a non-addictive way. Which is right? (The thinking mind always thinks in dualistic, binary divides: either /or—one must be right, the other must be wrong).
Although many people in the addiction field (including AA) believe that total and permanent abstinence is the only real solution to addiction, in the case of some addictions, such as overeating, complete abstinence from the addictive substance is not an option. Clearly, many people can learn to do something in moderation that they once did excessively in an addictive way. But this doesn't seem to be possible for everyone or in every situation, and as I learned, even when moderation seems to be working, the addictive pull can flare up again years after it seems to have faded away, and this pull can be very strong and irresistible. I discovered that flirting with moderation can re-stimulate the desire and keep the false promise and allure of addiction alive. We're playing with fire, and by our example, we may be encouraging others to play with fire as well. Even if it works for us, for some of those others, the results may be catastrophic. Permanent abstinence, when possible, is probably the safest and most reliable recovery path, and arguably the best and most generous for the well-being of all, but it may not be the best path for everyone, and we don’t really know what is best for the universe.
Contrary to what AA believes, in my return to addictive drinking, I did not plunge deeper and deeper into the addiction. Although I don't plan to ever drink again, I still don't believe that drinking occasionally in moderation is an utter impossibility for me, and I have no fear (as some in AA do) that if I have a sip of alcohol, I'll be plunged back into terminal alcoholism. But I do see the potential dangers very clearly, and I don't want to harm myself or the world around me through alcohol abuse, so my intention is to remain alcohol-free.
I don't regard alcoholism as an incurable disease, the way AA does, and I don’t believe that a person is necessarily an "alcoholic" for life and always powerless over alcohol, or that AA is the Only True Way, and that anyone who leaves the program or recovers in any other way, or anyone who dares to question the disease model or the necessity of permanent abstinence is doomed to failure and will never truly recover. I'm glad I sobered up through an approach that empowered rather than disempowering me, an approach that had room for questioning, exploring and being open to new information. I'm equally grateful to have realized the complete powerlessness (or non-existence) of the phantom thinker-chooser-author who claims to be running this life. I've seen firsthand that reality cannot be boxed up in any one formula and that many different approaches to recovery can be effective. Every approach has different strengths and weaknesses and different potential pitfalls. And whatever road to recovery we find ourselves on, I've discovered that what matters most is not the past or the future or forever after. What matters most is the present moment, because really, that is the only moment. Trying to solve our problems in the future never works. 12-Step programs talk about taking one day at a time, and the truth is that we can only solve a problem now. That is the single most important key to liberation. Focus on right now, not yesterday or tomorrow or forever-after. This is the crucial moment, right now. Waking up cannot be postponed.
Many people in AA will tell you to take what works from the program and let go of what doesn’t, but there are also many hard-liners, and AA has totally dominated the recovery field in the US in a way that has pushed out other approaches. That, in my opinion, is not a good thing. I seriously question turning a pattern of behavior (such as alcoholic drinking) into a permanent identity ("I am an alcoholic"). Of course, I do understand and appreciate the importance of moving past denial and fully acknowledging the problem, but I don’t think that defining and identifying ourselves as "an alcoholic" (or as any fixed "thing") is necessary for that. There are also any number of rules and ideas in AA that make no sense to me, such as not taking pain medication if you’re an alcoholic—I’ve never abused or had any addictive tendencies with pain medications, so why on earth should I avoid them if I’m in physical pain? It also seems untrue and oddly punitive that in the AA system of award "chips" for sobriety milestones, if someone has a slip, no matter how long they had been sober or how small the slip, they return to zero. This may serve as a kind of deterrent, but it still seems oddly inaccurate. For example, in my own case, although my main sobering up that changed my life dramatically was back in 1973, in AA terms, I've been sober for less than a decade. That doesn't feel to me like an accurate reflection of my own life experience. I also question the encouragement in the program to never stop attending meetings, and I wonder if AA itself may not in some cases become almost a new addiction—something people come to depend upon for their social life, their spiritual life, and for a sense of meaning and purpose. Of course, one could do worse, and a big part of why AA encourages people to keep coming forever is to be of service to other alcoholics, especially those who are new in recovery, and that emphasis on service I admire. Overall, I have much respect and appreciation for 12-Step programs. I would never say they are the only, or even necessarily the best, road to recovery. But they can be a true spiritual path, and to my surprise, I discovered that it is a path and a perspective that can be remarkably congruent with nonduality, Buddhism and Advaita.
Some people find AA intolerable because it talks about God and prayer, but for me, God is simply another word for awareness, presence, Here / Now—and prayer is another word for "being here now" or "true meditation" or "listening presence." As I see it, the self that is powerless over drinking (and over everything) is the thinking mind and the mirage-like character imagined to be at the center of “my life.” The true source of all power is the unbound awareness that is beholding and being everything, the pure intelligence or unconditional love that is the unconditioned ground of being. When there is a surrender to that boundlessness, a surrender to being fully present Here / Now, then something very different takes over. It’s like when you want to jump from one stone to the next in order to cross a rushing river, you have to go beyond thinking and trying to control the situation. You have to let go of the thought that you might fall. You have to leap into a kind of trust that the universe will carry you from stone to stone. You surrender yourself to the arms of God, as it were. In sports, this is known as being in the zone. There is a felt-sense of being the Whole and acting effortlessly. There is no separation, no limitation, no second-guessing, no hesitation, no fear, no grasping, no control. And yet, you land perfectly on every stone.
Nothing is really a problem—not even addiction
In the absolute sense, you land perfectly even when you hesitate and fall on your face. The so-called mistakes in life are simply another aspect of the seamless whole from which nothing ever stands apart, and they are often the grit that creates the pearl. So, when we hesitate or fall on our face or get drunk or bite our fingers or yell at our partner, we don't need to take it personally or get lost in stories of failure. This, too, is the movement of life, inseparable from the times we are “in the zone,” leaping perfectly. Really, there is no “me” going back and forth between these different experiences. They are like waves on the ocean—all part of a single, inseparable, undivided movement, and ultimately, only appearances in a dream.
Everything is the way it is because the whole universe is the way it is. Some bodyminds have more stormy weather than other bodyminds, just as different cities have different weather conditions. We each contain the whole universe, the saint and the sinner. It is indeed very liberating to realize that addiction and the freedom from addiction are not personal faults or achievements, and that whatever is showing up could not be otherwise in this moment than exactly how it is. When you really see that there is no separation anywhere and no independent self in control, then nothing that happens is taken personally anymore. This is a huge relief. As J. Matthews puts it: "Not in your drunkest, sorriest, most hysterical moments, not even then can you fall out of this clear and sacred perfection."
And yet, at the same time, being awake to that sacred perfection is perhaps the greatest gift we can offer to ourselves and to all beings in this troubled world. So, I encourage us all to see if it is possible, Here and Now, in this very moment, to wake up from the bondage of addiction in whatever form it may be appearing. And if the addiction doesn't stop in this moment, perhaps it can be recognized that this, too, is the perfect expression of what is. Never assume you know what the next moment will bring, and whatever it brings, none of it is actually personal, nothing is ever truly lacking, and no one is ever really lost. There is, actually, no one separate from the whole to be lost or found, in or out of control, a success or a failure—those are all just ideas and beliefs. Reality is all-inclusive, and nothing that appears has any actual substance or duration. The "ultimate medicine" for all our human suffering and all our apparent problems is the recognition of that clear and sacred perfection that is right here, ever-present, always already fully awake and totally complete.
We may think life without the addiction will be unbearable, but my experience is that the truth is exactly the opposite.
And if we can't stop an addictive activity in this moment, then can this activity be seen without judgment or resistance, in the same way a thunderstorm or an abstract painting might be seen? What is this if we don’t call it “addiction” or “compulsion” or a “problem”? Can all of this be approached with curiosity and love?
Can we recognize that we don’t actually know what’s best for the universe or how anything “should” be?
Can we appreciate how tenacious and alluring these habitual patterns are and thus have compassion for all who are caught up in them? Can we also discover firsthand how utterly powerless and insubstantial these habits are in any moment of waking up?
In the end, it doesn't really matter whether this waking up happens by recognizing our powerlessness or by cultivating our response-ability and power to choose wisely. Travel far enough to the east and you'll end up in the west, and vice versa. The approach and the perspective that resonates and that works for you in this moment will tend to show up. In the next moment, it may all be different. So always be prepared to see something new and unexpected. And above all, recognize that there is no “you” doing ANY of this!
For more on the kind of awareness-based approach to addiction that I have described, I would recommend my own books, three of which (Nothing to Grasp, Awake in the Heartland, and Bare-Bones Meditation) talk extensively about addiction, and also several of my other "Outpourings" on this website such as Exploring What Is; Open Listening: Awareness Without a Method; Resting in the Happening of this Moment; Enjoying the Perfection of Imperfection; How to Awaken; and How Simple Can This Be. You can also watch a talk I gave on addiction (“Recovery is Now, Awareness is the Key”) to the Buddhist Recovery Network in 2019 here.
I would also very highly recommend a number of the other authors on my recommended book list: Eckhart Tolle, Toni Packer, Pema Chodron, Rupert Spira, Anthony deMello, Joko Beck, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jon Bernie, Ajahn Sumedho, Tara Brach, Gangaji, Adyashanti, Scott Kiloby, Cheri Huber, S.N. Goenka, Isaac Shapiro, and J. Krishnamurti. In one way or another, all of these teachers come from, and point to what is always already whole and complete, while also offering a path of inquiry and meditative exploration to fully realize, integrate and embody the nondual understanding.
Pema Chodron's excellent book Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears is one of my top recommendations on this subject, very highly recommended, as is her audio CD Don't Bite the Hook, and many of her talks that are available now on YouTube.
Jeff Foster has a beautiful chapter on addiction in his book The Deepest Acceptance.
Scott Kiloby, a non-dual teacher and author, founded The Kiloby Center for Recovery, which he says is the first substance abuse treatment center in the U.S. to focus primarily on mindfulness. Scott has developed a wonderful set of inquiries and a way of undoing addictive patterns, and he has a number of excellent books including Natural Rest for Addiction: A Radical Approach to Recovery Through Mindfulness and Awareness and The Unfindable Inquiry: One Simple Tool to Overcome Feelings of Unworthiness and Find Inner Peace.
The Integrative Restoration Institute (iRest), founded by Richard C. Miller, a clinical psychologist and teacher who was a student of Jean Klein, includes work with chemical dependency. iRest has served diverse populations including veterans, homeless people, people in prison, people rescued from human trafficking, and people experiencing issues such as sleep disorders, PTSD, chemical dependency and chronic pain. Richard's work integrates the nondual wisdom of Yoga, Tantra, Advaita, Taoism and Buddhism with Western psychology, and his approach is to help people to recognize “their underlying peace of mind that is always present amidst all changing circumstances of life.”
Rupert Spira talks and writes beautifully about addiction—its root and its resolution—in many places, but I especially recommend the excellent chapter on “Addiction and Non-Duality” in his book Presence: The Intimacy of All Experience (Volume II). Also, the chapter called “Surrendering Everything to Presence” in his book Presence: The Art of Peace and Happiness (Volume 1).
There has been a veritable surge of books in recent years offering new ways of seeing and understanding the 12-Steps. Zen teacher Mel Ash has a wonderful book that I highly recommend called The Zen of Recovery; Advaita teacher Wayne Liquorman has written The Way of Powerlessness: Advaita and the 12 Steps of Recovery; Buddhist Insight Meditation teacher Kevin Griffin has put out several books on the subject including One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the 12 Steps; Fred Davis has a book called Beyond Recovery: Non-Duality and the Twelve Steps; Rami Shapiro (a nondual Jewish rabbi who has also immersed himself deeply in both Vedanta and Zen) has written two books on recovery: Recovery: The Twelves Steps as Spiritual Practice and Surrendered: Shattering the Illusion of Control and Falling into Grace with Twelve-Step Spirituality; Franciscan priest Richard Rohr wrote Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps; Trappist monk Thomas Keating wrote Divine Therapy and Addiction: Centering Prayer and the Twelve Steps, and there are many others coming out all the time. Buddhist teacher Vimalasara (Dr. Valerie Mason-John) has written extensively about addiction and healing from trauma, and she has co-founded the Buddhist Healing and Insight project. Sailor Bob Adamson and Paul Hedderman are two nondual teachers who have both been in AA and talk openly about it. Noah Levine has created a Buddhist-oriented Refuge Recovery program.
Readers interested in different approaches to addiction beyond those mentioned above might check out, Dr. Lance Dodes, Dr. Carl Hart, Kiera Van Gelder, as well as a number of others you can find on my link page: Geneen Roth, Gabor Mate, Grace Bell, Joey Lott, Valerie Mason-John. See also the excellent chapter on addiction in Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad's book The Guru Papers; and the final chapter, "Summary and Conclusion," from J. Matthews's book Radically Condensed Instructions for Being Just as You Are (Those two books are on my recommended book list). Another book I recommend is The Hidden Gifts of Addiction: The Direct Path of Recovery by Victor Bucklew. I also recommend a powerful book called Love Unbroken: from Addiction to Redemption by Susan Thesenga and her daughter Pamela Thesenga about Pamela's recovery from life-threatening addiction through the use of Ayahuasca and a variety of other different treatments. And there's Rational Recovery and Smart Recovery. Although I dislike his dogmatism and his hatred of AA, and although I disagree with some of his assertions about addiction and certainly with his often-abhorrent right-wing political views, I did find some valuable insights in Jack Trimpey's book Rational Recovery. The key in Trimpey's book I found most valuable was this: "What is to stop anyone from quitting the use of a substance? Whatever appears as the answer to this question is the sound of the Addictive Voice." Trimpey's approach centers on Addictive Voice Recognition, and is the opposite of AA, emphasizing empowerment and responsibility rather than powerlessness and surrender. There is also an alternative to Rational Recovery called Smart Recovery that has a similar approach but without the dogmatism, the opposition to AA, and the right-wing politics. Other secular (not overtly spiritual) approaches that emphasize insight, awareness and cultivating response-ability may utilize the tools found in Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy, Gestalt Therapy, Transactional Analysis, Hakomi, The Work of Byron Katie, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), and other modalities.
For more on the radical nondual perspective that everything is a choiceless happening, I recommend my own books, and several of my other "Outpourings" on this website such as It's Hopeless: Talk & Dialog and Interview with Amigo 2004, and also the books on my recommended book list by Darryl Bailey, Gary Crowley, Leo Hartong, Sailor Bob Adamson (who talks openly about his history of addiction and recovery through AA), Gilbert Schultz, John Astin, Peter Brown, Nathan Gill, Wayne Liquorman (a recovering addict himself who has written about recovery) and Karl Renz, plus several other books also on my recommended list including Incognito by the neuroscientist David Eagleman and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I also recommend Arold Langeveld, a Dutchman who approaches addiction work from a nondual perspective—there’s here's a link to his website on my link page, and you can read a conversation between Arold and myself here.
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