Joseph Campbell once wrote something to the effect that when people say they are searching for the meaning of life what they are really searching for is an experience of being alive. This felt experience of being alive, and the realization of its absolute value is what I call “intensity”.
We all come into the world exuding intensity and feeling it, naturally. We have to be taught to dial it back. This occurs when a parent experiences a baby or infant’s feelings as overwhelming to her/him. They are interpreted as overwhelming because their own feelings as infants/children were overwhelming to their parents. The alternative is to have the internal and external resources to recognize that all feelings are just that—feelings that come and go as information about how a little one is experiencing her environment. When the feelings are strong, they are contained, that is, the little one is allowed to have the feelings and is comforted, held, attuned to throughout.
When containment is not possible, because of a parent’s own trauma, they will be shut down, either through neglect, physical punishment, disconnection, etc. Or the parent may simply break down in a show of helplessness, which the young one interprets as being responsible for. A core unconscious belief forms that says, “I am responsible for your misery”, and “my feelings hurt those around me”. These beliefs last a life time. Whatever the method of non-containment, the message that the little one receives is clear. “My feelings are unsafe.” “If I feel I will be punished, left alone, or cause the only person upon whom my survival depends to be rendered helpless.”
And so we learn to shut down our feelings. With the loss of the capacity to feel our life, intensity is extinguished. All we know is that something is terribly wrong. We feel separate from life, alone, vaguely unhappy. Which, we may tell ourselves, is strange, because I’ve got a pretty good life going, by most conventional standards. We may then begin our “search for meaning”. This is a compensation for not being able to feel those early feelings.
But as I learned in a psychedelic psychotherapy session, it was the loss of a felt connection to life, to myself, to the other, and to sacred mystery, and not the loss of meaning. The mantra came to me: “Contact, not content”.
Enter alcohol, cannabis, porn, compulsive reading, serial relationships ending in heartbreak, entertainment, social media, etc., etc. (the list of possible addictive sources is literally endless).
Our addictions seems to serve two purposes both of which involve the language of “feelings”, which can be confusing when it comes to healing. One of these purposes which I hear clients articulate is to simply “feel something”.. In the beginning, the substance, process, or person which is our addiction helps us indeed to feel something. It’s a relief to temporarily feel alive. But whatever aliveness we thus feel is temporary and ultimately illusory. The relief that the “hit” brings is brought on by increasingly larger doses as we habituate to its effects. And even if we have a fleeting feeling of being alive, we haven’t actually dealt with our true feelings.
The paradox is that even as the addictive substance makes us feel temporarily more alive, it simultaneously serves a deeper underlying purpose— to dampen, dull and block our true feelings, feelings like sorrow, shame, rage, hatred, etc. that have been simmering there – often since childhood. We want to feel alive, yes, but we don’t want to feel the feelings that would make us feel alive again. My personal discovery in my healing journey, and in clients, is that these deeper feelings were repressed because they were too overwhelming; they were unbearable when they first arose because there was nobody there to contain them. We formed an unconscious belief that to feel them would be to be destroyed, or to destroy the other upon whom our life depends. Recovery from addiction means discovering that this belief was once true, (our survival did, in fact, depend upon repression—at least according to our very young way of perceiving the world), but it is no longer true. We need to have an experience of allowing these feelings (without being re-traumatized by them) and discovering that they are bearable. More than this, they are the royal highway upon which the life force may breach the walls of our survivalist self (“ego”). Upon feeling what had been previously too threatening to feel, we again feel connected to ourselves, to others, to nature and to sacred mystery—a connection we may have tried to create through thinking, concepts, reason, but always as a pale substitute for the actual feeling of life itself. I’d love to hear your thoughts. (Art by Valerie Patterson)