Addiction & The Spiritual Quest

By Gabor Mate. 

A barrier for many people when it comes to Twelve-Step work around addiction is Step Two, evoking a higher power: [We] came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

The resistance is natural if the Power is identified as the God by whom the child felt betrayed. Recall the cry of the cocaine-and heroin-dependent Serena after the death of her grandmother. “You know what I think about God? Who is this God that keeps the bad people behind and takes away the good people?” I was familiar with the rage that poured from her. The same anger vibrated in my chest whenever as a child I saw or heard the word God. “What kind of God would let my grandparents be murdered in Auschwitz?” I used to ask, scornful of anyone who accepted the fairy tale of a good and all-powerful Lord. Like Serena, I thought it was the death of a grandparent that embittered me—but I see now that an even greater loss was the loss of faith within my heart.

Children do not understand metaphors. When they hear “God, our Father” they do not know that these words can stand for the love, unity and creative power innate in the universe. They picture an old man somewhere up above the clouds. To Serena, he may even resemble the grandfather who used to rape her.

“The depressed person is a radical, sullen atheist,” wrote the French psychotherapist Julia Kristeva.”  At heart the addict may be the most radical and sullen atheist of all—regardless of what her or his formal religious beliefs are. Early stress is a potent inducer of addiction not just because it impairs brain development and emotional growth, but also because it destroys a child’s contact with her essential self and deprives her of faith in a nurturing universe. “I had no mother—God forgot me—and I fell,” says a doomed young girl of fourteen in Robert Browning’s play A Blot on the ’Scutcheon. Serena, in her deep depression, lives in cosmic isolation. Her core anguish is that her sense of trust and connection with the infinite within her and without has been severed. Given all she has suffered, the God they told her was all she needed could not hold her faith intact.

For any young person, if the deity she hears about is not manifested in the actions of the people who make up her world, the God-word turns into hypocrisy. If she does retain an image of God, it’s likely to be the vindictive moralizer who judges her mercilessly or the impotent sky phantom I rejected as a child.

We can see the Power in other ways. In the grip of his habit the addict experiences himself as no more than a puny ego that must scratch and grasp and scrounge for every miserable scrap of satisfaction. Honouring the greater power could simply come in the form of finally recognizing the impotence of that small ego, the utter incapacity of its ways to keep a person safe or calm or happy. “I don’t believe in God,” a Narcotics Anonymous member told me, “but at least with Step Two I’ve accepted that I’m not Her.”

636012140600629192-1758221562_sedona-retreat-spirit-quest-az-lg3 “When you know yourselves, then you will be known,” Jesus told his followers, “and you will understand that you are children of the living father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you dwell in poverty and you are poverty.”

Even as they speak to eternity, the great teachers employ the language of their particular time, place and culture. The real wisdom is not in the literal meaning but in the spirit of their words. So it is possible to think of “living father” as religious code for the source of life, a reality that exceeds the powers of language to express directly. I believe all of us human beings, whether we know it or not, are seeking our own divine nature. Divine in this context does not mean anything supernatural or necessarily religious, only the truth of our oneness with all that is, an ineffable sense of connectedness to other people and other beings and to each and every shard of matter or spark of energy in the entire universe. When we cease to remember that loving connection and lose touch with our deep yearning for it, we suffer. That is what Jesus meant by poverty. It’s also what the contemporary spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle sees as the fundamental source of human anxiety:

Basically, all emotions are modifications of one primordial, undifferentiated emotion that has its origin in the loss of awareness of who you are beyond name and form. Because of its undifferentiated nature, it is hard to find a name that precisely describes this emotion. “Fear” comes close, but apart from a continuous sense of threat, it also includes a deep sense of abandonment and incompleteness. It may be best to use a term that is as undifferentiated as that basic emotion and simply call it “pain.”

Addiction floods in where self-knowledge—and therefore divine knowledge—are missing. To fill the unendurable void, we become attached to things of the world that cannot possibly compensate us for the loss of who we are.

If I forget, thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Is the Biblical psalmist merely vowing fealty to a geographical location in this sacred oath, to man-made buildings and houses of worship? I see another, universal meaning that makes much more sense to me: when I neglect that which is eternal within me, I detach from the authentic source of my strength and lose my voice. That, I find, is how it goes in life.

In a state of spiritual poverty, we will be seduced by whatever it is that can make us insensate to our dread. That, ultimately, is the origin of the addiction process, since the very essence of that process is the drive to take in from the outside that which properly arises from within. If we “prefer not Jerusalem”—the “City of Peace” within—above our worldly delights, we fixate on external sources of pleasure or power or meaning. The sparser the innate joy that springs from being alive, the more fervently we seek joy’s pale substitute, pleasure; the less our inner strength, the greater our craving for power; the feebler our awareness of truth, the more desperate our search for certainty outside of ourselves. The greater the dread, the more vigorous the gravitational pull of the addiction process.

Anything can serve as the object of the addiction process, including religions that promise salvation and freedom. The physical entity called Jerusalem has itself become a fetish for many people of several faiths, with bloodshed and hatred being the consequence. It is no accident that in all major religions the most rigidly fundamentalist elements take the harshest, most punitive line against addicted people. Could it be that they see their own weakness and fear—and false attachments— reflected in the dark mirror addiction holds up to them?

Misplaced attachment to what cannot satiate the soul is not an error exclusive to addicts, but the common condition of mankind. It is this ubiquitous mind-state that leads to suffering and calls prophets, spiritual masters and great teachers into our midst. Our designated “addicts” march at the head of a long procession from which few of us ever step away.

For many people, the higher power concept need not be concerned with a deity or anything expressly spiritual. It simply means rising above their self-regarding ego, committing to serve something greater than their own immediate desires. I recall what a speaker at the AA meeting I attended had said. “As you study the Big Book and you serve people and help the community, your heart softens. That’s the greatest gift, a soft heart. I wouldn’t have believed it.”

Our material culture tries to explain even unselfishness as arising from selfish motives. It is often asserted, cynically, that people who act in kindly ways, without any benefit to themselves, are doing so only to feel good. Neuroscience does not support that view: the brain area that lights up as a person performs an altruistic act is not the circuitry activated by pleasure or by the anticipation of reward. According to a recent study, a key contributor to humane behaviour is the posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC), a region at the back of the brain whose function includes awareness of other people’s emotional states.  It seems that we are wired to be in tune with one another’s needs, which is one of the roots of empathy. “Perhaps altruism did not grow out of a warm-glow feeling of doing good for others, but out of the simple recognition that that thing over there is a person that has intentions and goals. And therefore, I might want to treat them like I might want them to treat myself,” said one of the researchers—Scott Huettel, Associate Professor of Psychology at Duke University Medical Center, in Durham, North Carolina. The golden rule may be inscribed in our brain circuits, not as a commandment but as an essential part of who we are.

There is a quality or drive innate in human beings that the Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl called our “search for meaning.” Meaning is found in pursuits that go beyond the self. In our own hearts most of us know that we experience the greatest satisfaction not when we receive or acquire something but when we make an authentic contribution to the well-being of others or to the social good, or when we create something original and beautiful or just something that represents a labour of love.

It is no coincidence that addictions arise mostly in cultures that subjugate communal goals, time-honoured tradition and individual creativity to mass production and the accumulation of wealth. Addiction is one of the outcomes of the “existential vacuum,” the feeling of emptiness engendered when we place a supreme value on selfish attainments. “The drug scene,” wrote Frankl, “is one aspect of a more general mass phenomenon, namely the feeling of meaninglessness resulting from the frustration of our existential needs which in turn has become a universal phenomenon in our industrial societies.” For “drug scene” we can also read: “the gambling scene… the eating scene…the overwork scene” and many other addictive pursuits. Human beings, in other words, do not live by bread alone. The higher power, if we wish not to think of it as God or as anything that even remotely smacks of religion, can still be found if we look past ourselves and find some meaningful relationship with the universe outside the confines of our egotistic needs.

While often expressed as a rational rejection of traditional religious belief, much of people’s resistance to the higher power concept is really the ego’s resistance to conscience and to spiritual awareness, to the part of us that recognizes truth and wants to honour it. The grasping ego fears its own annihilation in bowing to something greater, whether to “God” or to the needs of others or even to one’s own higher needs.

“Each carries within himself the all,” wrote Joseph Campbell, “therefore it may be sought and discovered within.” According to this seminal American writer and lecturer, all heroic myths are prototypes of what is the greatest journey of all, the quest for spiritual truth inside the soul. There is only one story, Campbell showed, only one quest, one adventure, what he called “the monomyth.” And there is only one hero, though he or she may appear at different times in different cultures in a thousand guises. The hero is the human being who dares descend into the darkest depths of the unconscious—to the very source of our creative power—and there confronts the monsters thrown up by the fright-stricken infant psyche. As the hero pursues the journey, the phantoms and dragons all vanish or lose power or even become allies.

The psyche of the addict is populated by demons more frightful than those many other people have to face, but if she undertakes the quest, she’ll find they are no more real and no more powerful. The reward at journey’s end, the treasure the hero has been seeking, is our essential nature. The aim, Campbell asserted, is “to realize that one is that essence; then one is free to wander as the essence in the world. Furthermore, the world too is of that essence. The essence of oneself and the essence of the world: these two are one.”

Trauma in the strict sense is not required for a young human being to suffer the loss of essence, the sense of oneness with all that is. Infants come into the world fully present and alive to every possibility, but they soon begin to shut down parts of themselves that their environment is unable to recognize or accept with love. As a consequence of that defensive shutdown, says the psychologist and spiritual teacher A.H. Almaas, one or more essential qualities such as love, joy, strength, courage or confidence may be suppressed. In its place, we experience a hole, a sense of empty deficiency. “People don’t know that the hole, the sense of deficiency, is a symptom of a loss of something deeper, the loss of essence, which can be regained. They think the hole, the deficiency, is how they really are at the deepest level and that there is nothing beyond it. They think something is wrong with them, something is basically wrong.”  Such thoughts are not necessarily conscious but may take the form of unconscious beliefs. In either case, we develop behaviour patterns and emotional coping mechanisms to cover up the emptiness, mistakenly believing that the resulting traits represent our true “personality.” Indeed, what we call the personality is often a jumble of genuine traits and adopted coping styles that do not reflect our true self at all but the loss of it.

There are people who are not addicts in the strict sense, but only because their carefully constructed “personality” works well enough to keep them from the painful awareness of their emptiness. In such a case, they’ll be addicted “only” to a false or incomplete self-image or to their position in the world or to some role into which they sink their energy or to certain ideas that give them a sense of meaning. The human being with a “personality” that is insufficient to paper over the inner void becomes an undisguised addict, compulsively pursuing behaviours whose negative impact is obvious to him or to those around him. The difference is only in the degree of addiction or, perhaps, in the degree of honesty around the deficient self.

Spiritual work and psychological work are both necessary to reclaim our true nature. Without psychological strength, spiritual practice can easily become another addictive distraction from reality. Conversely, shorn of a spiritual perspective we are prone to stay stuck in the limited realm of the grasping ego, even if it’s a healthier and more balanced ego. Our soul-needs for meaning and connection remain unsatisfied. Therapy strives to make the deficient self stronger by uncovering the sources of a person’s emotional pain and releasing the rigid defensive patterns built up against it. Spiritual exploration ploughs the same ground but is less concerned with “fixing” or improving things than with rediscovering what is whole and has not been absent, just obscured. As Edmund Spenser wrote, “For there is nothing lost but may be found, if sought.”

What form of spiritual seeking a person chooses is determined by place, culture, belief and personal inclination. On this question there can be no prescriptions; nor would I be the one to provide them. In retrospect I can see that the God rage I trembled with as a small child was the beginning of my movement toward enlightenment, a goal that I may yet be far from attaining. I may have the equivalent of several Mount Everests left to scale, or perhaps I have only to reach out with my little finger to rend the veil of illusion between my soul and the most sacred realities. I cannot know and it’s useless to speculate. Being on the path is what’s important and we each need to tread a path on our own, no matter how many may have walked it before us. “Be a lamp onto yourselves,” the Buddha advised his followers, just as Jesus taught his disciples to seek the Kingdom of God within. I have found a way that feels right to me and I look to the teaching wherever I recognize it. The world has never lacked great spiritual guides, precepts and practices, but surely it has had a shortage of people willing to learn.

The ego’s tragic flaw is to mistake form for substance, surface illusion for reality. As long as the ego rules, we are all like the Hebrews who wandered the desert on their way to the Promised Land, “a stiffnecked people.” We keep rejecting truth, bow to the Golden Calf and scorn what would save us. As the present state of the planet indicates, we’re not fast learners, we human beings. Each generation must absorb the same lessons over and over again, groping its blind way through the realm of the Hungry Ghosts. The truth is within, which is why outward-directed attempts to fill in the void created when we lose touch with it cannot bring us closer to the serenity we long for. Late in the fourth century Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in what is present-day Algeria, wrote in his Confessions a passage that could be read today at any Twelve-Step gathering:

Unaware of my own needs, I resisted what would make me less needy…yet starvation did not make me hungry since my system rejected spiritual nourishment—I was not fed with it, and the more I starved, the more would nourishment make me queasy. My soul, sick and covered with sores, lunged outward instead, in a mad desire to scratch itself against some physical relief.

Spiritual awakening is no more and no less than a human being claiming his or her own full humanity. People who find themselves have no need to turn to addiction, or to stay with it. Armed with compassion, we recognize that addiction was the answer—the best answer we could find at one time in our lives—to the problem of isolation from our true selves and from the rest of creation. It’s also what keeps us gloomy, sad and angry. Not the world, not what’s outside of us, but what we hold inside traps us. We may not be responsible for the world that created our minds, but we can take responsibility for the mind with which we create our world. The addicted mind can project only a universe of grasping and alienation. “I just knew my little world and what I wanted was what I revolved around,” the newly abstinent cocaine user Judy once said. Many of us conduct our lives just in that way. It’s for us to choose consciously what world and what future we wish to live in.

Once a student’s eyes are open, instructors appear everywhere. Everything can teach us. Our most painful emotions point to our greatest possibilities, to where our authentic nature is hidden. People whom we judge are our mirrors. People who judge us call forth our courage to respect our own truth. Compassion for ourselves supports our compassion for others. As we open to the truth within, we hold safe a space of healing for others. They may do the same for us.

Healing occurs in a sacred place located within us all: “When you know yourselves, then you will be known.”


The above essay is taken from the book ‘In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts’  by Dr Gabor Mate, Chapter 34, pages 387 – 397.


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