Understanding the nature of addictions is the key to working with them.
Events happen, deeds are done, but there is no individual doer thereof.
Choice implies consciousness--a high degree of consciousness. Without it, you have no choice.
Your suffering is your own activity. It is something that you are doing moment to moment. It is a completely voluntary activity…all you are doing is pinching yourself. When you realize that, you just take your hand away.
People frequently ask me questions regarding addiction. In a sense, addiction is our basic human problem. It doesn't have to be addiction to alcohol and drugs. I would define addiction as any habitual behavior that feels out of control, compulsive, and destructive. Most people are addicted to painful ways of thinking. Some people have an addictive relationship to normally healthy activities such as eating or sex. As a society, we in the United States are addicted to oil. But whatever the behavior or substance, the basic underlying mechanism is something that probably every human being has experienced in some form.
Addiction seeks pleasure, pain relief, escape from suffering, numbness or excitement. Avoiding pain and seeking pleasure are conditioned survival functions that make perfect sense in a certain practical context. But in human beings, these basic survival instincts can become seriously misdirected in ways that are extremely destructive. The more we seek pleasure and run from pain in compulsive and destructive ways, the more painful it gets. Momentary highs are followed by devastating lows. The solution to this downward spiral is to stop indulging in the addictive substance or activity.
Can we choose to do this? Many people ask me if “no self” and “no choice” means there is nothing anyone can do to end an addictive pattern. People wonder if trying to stop smoking or drinking violates some basic tenet of Advaita or radical nonduality. If everything is perfect as it is, and if there is no self and no free will, then who would want or be able to change anything and why would they want to? This is a misunderstanding of Advaita and nonduality.
Change is the very nature of life and your actions and abilities and desires and insights are part of how totality is functioning. In one sense, it's absolutely true that everything is perfect just as it is, including addiction, and yet, it's equally true that we have a natural desire to wake up from entrancement and suffering.
Conceptually, as a description of reality, we can say that everything that happens is the result of infinite causes and conditions and that there is no independent executive calling the shots -- in this sense, we speak of there being no self and no choice. But 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 to learn skills in recovery programs or in therapy or in meditation or wherever that give us more choices, more possibilities, and more ability to respond constructively rather than destructively to certain feelings, urges, discomforts and upsets. We can become aware of how we are pinching ourselves – how we are doing our suffering – and in seeing that, quite naturally, we stop.
Yes, in the larger sense, all of this learning happens out of infinite causes and conditions and could not be otherwise in any moment than exactly how it is. No independent executive is "doing" any of this. But still, it can happen (when it can). So although there is no choice in one sense, you still have to play the game. There is a power right here that acts and you are that.
Whatever life moves us to do to refine and enhance the functioning of the bodymind is wonderful. I'm very grateful that I'm not still drinking myself to death, smoking several packs of cigarettes a day, and flying into uncontrollable rages as I was forty years ago. It certainly seems that psychotherapy, meditation, martial arts training, and various forms of awareness work had something to do with bringing about that transformation. So there is nothing wrong with so-called "self-improvement." The problem comes when we think there is a self to improve, or when we fall into the erroneous presumption that there is an executive at the helm who can accomplish this task on command, or when we assume that there is any single recipe for transformation that always works, because when we believe those ideas, it becomes a set up for guilt, shame, blame, frustration, despair or self-righteousness.
There are many approaches to working with addiction. The best path for another may not be the best path for you, and what looks like failure may be the perfect unfolding. Whether an addiction stops or continues, it cannot be otherwise in any moment than how it is. When you really see that there is no separation anywhere and no independent self, then nothing that happens is taken personally anymore. This is a huge relief, and for this liberating realization, I recommend my own books and also the books on my recommended book list by Darryl Bailey, Leo Hartong, Tony Parsons, Sailor Bob Adamson, Nathan Gill, Wayne Liquorman, Chuck Hillig, Jeff Foster, Gary Crowley and Karl Renz. The most effective way of undoing addiction that I know of is non-judgmental, open awareness of what is happening right now in this moment without seeking a result or trying to change it in any way – simply seeing it clearly. For more on that kind of approach, I would recommend my books, all of which talk extensively about addiction, and also my article on “Meditation and Inquiry,” one of the outpourings on this website, where I talk about how an addictive thought pattern was dissolved through meditation and awareness. Also for more on this kind of approach, I would recommend a number of the other authors on my recommended book list such as Toni Packer, Eckhart Tolle, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Anthony deMello, Gangaji, Joko Beck, Pema Chodron, Cheri Huber, Thich Nhat Hanh, Claude Anshin Thomas, J. Krishnamurti and Mary O'Malley. And I'll say more about that kind of approach later in this article as well. In addition, and in a somewhat different vein, I recommend the excellent chapter on addiction in a book called The Guru Papers, which is also on my recommended book list.
There are many recovery programs available such as AA and other Twelve Step programs, Smart Recovery, and many others that you can find through the internet. Although I do not agree with many of his ideas and opinions, I got some valuable insights from reading Jack Trimpey's book, Rational Recovery. In particular, I found his AVRT (Addictive Voice Recognition Technique) quite useful, and some of his thinking about addiction and his challenges to the recovery movement are provocative and interesting, but his fanatical dogmatism and right-wing views on many issues are totally abhorrent to me. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (Steven C. Hayes), other forms of psychotherapy, meditation, yoga, changes in diet, and somatic awareness work such as Feldenkrais can all be helpful in recovery. The support of a recovery group, a therapist, or a true friend can be very important. But there is no one right way, so don't assume anyone else knows what's best for you.
Most in the addiction recovery world believe that total and permanent abstinence is the only real solution to addiction, but in the case of some addictions, such as overeating, complete abstinence from the addictive substance is not an option. I sobered up in 1973 from alcoholic drinking by working with a therapist who believed that permanent abstinence was not always necessary. I was completely alcohol-free for almost a year, then with the permission of my therapist, I tried drinking again in moderation. I got drunk a few times early on in this process, but for most of the next thirty years I rarely ever drank and never in excess. Years went by between one beer and the next, most of my friends were non-drinkers, I rarely had any desire to drink and no desire to drink excessively. This recovery model seemed successful. Then after thirty years, I began drinking again in a way that felt addictive. The amount I was drinking and the frequency of it were very mild compared to the kind of wild drinking I had done thirty years earlier, but I could still feel that it was addictive and, for me, dangerous and unhealthy. For several years, I simply watched it with awareness until a clear decision emerged not to drink at all anymore. This decision came from beyond the mind, not from some exertion of will-power. I now recommend complete and permanent abstinence whenever possible as the safest and most reliable cure for addiction. That may not be the only route or the best route for everyone, but trying to do something in moderation that has previously been addictive can definitely be dangerous, like playing with fire, and it can invite self-deception, denial and setbacks. For one thing, it keeps the desire and the possibility alive. It keeps the door open. It takes self-awareness and honesty not to pull the wool over your own eyes.
However you recover from an addiction, be aware that old habits may recur and that addiction is a powerful force. Even after decades of being free from an addiction, it can return, as I discovered. Anything that goes away can come back, and anything that comes, can go away again. Don't ever assume otherwise. This is true not only for things like drinking and smoking, but it applies to addictive thought patterns and emotions as well, and it is why I often say that there is no permanently enlightened person. The wisest people I know don't define themselves and they remain open to being surprised.
If you're not ready or able yet to stop the addiction completely, or if moderation is your aim and not total abstinence, then I would suggest giving careful, non-judgmental, open attention to the addictive activity whenever it occurs. This is what I did when I found myself drinking again in an addictive way, so let's take drinking as an example. Pay attention to the first impulse for a drink -- what triggers it, how does it happen, what does it feel like, what goes on -- what is this urge itself actually like – what thoughts are showing up, what mental images, how does it feel in the body -- and then the whole process of "deciding" whether to give in and indulge, how does that unfold, what are your thoughts telling you -- and then buying the bottle, opening it up, pouring the drink -- what does each moment in this process feel like in the body – and then 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 something else going on – how do you feel after that second drink -- simply paying attention and observing. 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 paying attention, being aware of your thoughts, feeling sensations, discovering what is actually going on every step of the way. When you realize that you are pinching yourself, and when you see how it happens – what the allurement is, how it seduces you, how you do it, how it hurts – naturally, you stop.
The more the light of awareness shines on these habitual mechanisms, and the more clarity there is about how they work, the more choice and the more possibility there is. 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 and intention to stop emerges, as it did for me.
And if sobriety doesn't happen and drinking continues, then it could not be otherwise. Whatever happens in each moment is the result of infinite causes and conditions. 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. There is no one to blame because everything is the cause and the effect of everything else. But don't think that this description of reality means that there is nothing to do, or that everything won't change in the next moment.
There is often tremendous social pressure to indulge in addictive behaviors. People who are indulging tend to prefer the company of others who are also indulging. It often takes real courage to be the only one in a group who is not indulging in something. One reason I have decided to completely and permanently stop drinking is that I want to be supportive to others who are trying to live without drinking. But that doesn't mean I think everyone should renounce alcohol. There are some spiritual teachers who encourage everyone, addicted or not, to totally renounce alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, television, movies that contain violence, caffeine, sugar, meat, and the list goes on. This kind of renunciation and purity may lead to real clarity and well-being, and it may be truly beneficial, but it can also become a self-righteous form of puritanical control and perfectionism, which is often the flip side of addiction. Different ways of living may be appropriate and beneficial at different times in our lives. There is no single way that is right for everyone all the time. Follow your heart, not the crowd.
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. This is the understanding of radical nonduality. But don't mix up the relative and the absolute or confuse descriptions with prescriptions. Although unicity is all there is, and everything is the cause and the effect of everything else, you are not separate from unicity. Don't get stuck in concepts and beliefs about “no self” and “no choice.” As one satsang teacher very wisely put it, don't hang yourself in an Advaitic noose. If you're pinching yourself, by all means stop (if you can). You may think life without the addiction will be unbearable, but my experience is that the truth is exactly the opposite.
----copyright Joan Tollifson 2010----