Set Me Free: The Roots of Addiction

Ben-Shahn-Liberation-The painting by Ben Shanh, is called Liberation, depicting young girls playing outside beside the rubble of WW2 on the day of their liberation by allied forces.  When we are in the grips of an addiction our personal lives can feel like a war zone, and the longing for liberation becomes our only hope.

We are multiply addicted in 21st century Western World—to drugs, alcohol, pornography, work, television, personal devices, work, caffeine, destructive relationships. An addiction is any substance, process, or person that is destructive and yet we continue to organize our lives around. In the absence of our chosen addiction we feel like we will not survive. It’s a matter of life and death.

We can also be addicted to thought. This is my “drug” of choice. Let me be clear that thinking itself is a spiritual activity when it is conscious. But when thoughts have us, it is a sign that we’ve abstracted ourselves from our reality.  Much of what we call “the search for meaning” is actually such an abstraction. Meaning is not hiding under a rock somewhere. It is directly and immediately revealed as we bring our full presence to our experience. However, when there is a failure of empathic connection (love), one strategy for dealing with the trauma is to shift into abstract conceptualization. The meaning is actually very clear—love is not available—but we cannot integrate this truth because it is too painful. And so we learn to move the energy away from our broken heart and think about life rather than experience it directly (which would elicit grief). Much academic abstract conceptualization is actually a form of suffering in my experience. This is why we use the figure of speech, “it is academic at this point”, meaning, that  you can think about it all you want, but reality itself has spoken conclusively. Again, when thoughts have us (compulsive thinking) we are not free. This is why there is so much focus in meditation practice on witnessing how busy the mind is, and discovering that much of our thinking is pointless.

There are many theories of why we are so susceptible to addiction, but for me it comes down to the truth that we are creatures who long for attachment. Like all mammals we desire to bond with an other. In the safety and security of the emotional bond with another human being—love—we thrive. Intuitively I feel like that is the feeling that we are seeking when we come into relationship with the addictive substance, process, or person. There is a promise of deliverance from the suffering we feel if our earliest bond with our mother was insecure, leading to anxiety.

In the beginning, it works. We feel a temporary relief, even euphoria, as our anxieties fade into the background, and a feeling that it’s going to be okay flows through us. In the case of drugs and alcohol we need more and more of them for this effect to kick in, to the point that we simply take ourselves out of the equation—we pass out or experience oblivion in one form or another. Relief becomes a form of death. Then we begin to organize our lives around our drug of choice, ensuring that we have access to it at all times. The very feeling we’re wanting to escape, anxiety, becomes our constant companion, relievable only by more of our drug of choice. And the vicious cycle consumes our life. We are consumed by what we consume, whether it is food, sex, drugs, TV, work. And we discover, (hit bottom), that it is no substitute after all, for the love we are seeking.

Dr. Mia Kalef also speculate that it is possible, indeed probable,  that during the birth process itself, we form an attachment with the chemicals of the anaesthetic administered as a matter of course in modern hospitals. If our mothers were drugged, as most are, that chemical finds its way into our blood stream, including our brains—during the birth process we share a single, physiological and emotional system with our mothers. Subsequently, under situations of stress and suffering, we seek relief through substances that can evoke the same anaesthetic qualities—effecting dissociation from our bodies which is the intent of this medicine. It doesn’t even need to feel “good” in these situations, just familiar. The condition of dissociation feels “normal”, and when we are “threatened” by an experience that integrates body, mind, and soul, our impulse may be to seek a dissociative “correction”. We self-administer the intervention which the anaesthetist administered at our mother’s birth when the pain became unmanageable.

The way out of all addiction is the way through. It is bringing conscious attention to the precise feelings and impulses that trigger our desire for the substance, process, or person. Typically, driving this impulse is the need for emotional attachment. Because we have compensated with the addiction, we will need to develop the competency to resource ourselves directly. This will involve owning our vulnerability ( I need you), asking for connection, and learning to accept love. The experience of being receptive to love will typically involve allowing a lot of pent up grief for what we didn’t get.

There is a resurgence of research on the effectiveness of  various plant medicines, including ayahuasca, peyote, ibogaine, and mushrooms (psylocibin) and psychedelics (such as LSD), along with MDMA, in treating addiction.  This is, in part, because these medicines relax our compensation (defence) systems, reveal early trauma and failures of attachment, and also stimulate the production of hormones such as seratonin and dopamine, which are associated with pleasure and unitive feelings that are also present (along with oxytocin) in a healthy mother/child bond. These medicines also open the individuals up to the dimensions of soul and spirit, which is in itself healing of the materialistic assumptions of modern society. It is of critical importance to recognize the difference between the recreational use of these various medicine and psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy or taken in the context of a sacred ceremony with an initiated shaman.

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