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Stop Thinking of Addiction as Evil

To seek freedom from dependence via opposition is to be trapped in what the ancient Hindus called samsara

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By Brian Donohue

05/19/14

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If the conclusion you’ve drawn from the 2.5 minutes of Alan Watts above is that television is evil, then you’re not paying attention. Suspend your prejudices for a moment (you can pick them up later), and listen again.

The substance of any addiction is not evil. Even addiction itself is not evil. True, it is harmful, impractical, isolating, self-destructive, and occasionally suicidal. Many nations, including our own, are addicted to war, to violence as a way of relationship, of life itself. It is all the same: you are with us or you’re with the enemy; you’re at the bottom of a bottle or you’re dry as dust; a slave to Lady H or one of the masses; a WOW freak or a stupid newb; you are either working and profiting and driving yourself 50 or 60 hours a week or you simply lack the stuff to make it in this world; you’re either seeing the latest episode, game, or reality drama or you’re missing out. We have built a society of addiction. Addiction is normal among us; addiction is the new black.

But to call it evil is to dismiss it. There is no more efficient broom available for sweeping things under the carpet than the brand of evil. When we tag something as evil, we can therefore kill it, and it is gone, forgotten, no longer subject to study or discussion. That is what we do with enemies, and we do it well.

Addiction, however, is more elusive, more difficult to manage in this way. For one thing, it is again so pervasive as to be ordinary. Evil, by contrast, must be special, supremely associated with terror. Evil must be simultaneously rare yet common enough to make constant conflict with it an ongoing necessity. That is, rare in its might, threat, and capacity for inducing fear, but a continual, omnipresent danger requiring vigilance and violence on an imperious and unrelenting scale.

Addiction, of course, has none of these special characteristics in such a peculiar combination. We do occasionally try out our evil-broom on some of our addictions. We are with some success doing so now with cigarettes and their users. We push smokers further and further into the margins of abasement. We have criminalized addicts of cocaine and crack; drivers with a certain level of alcohol; and even users of such non-addictive substances as pot and LSD. Yet the pall of addiction continues to spread over and through us, building its vast network of chemical and electronic walls, in which every individual is isolated within a cubicle of fantasy, a narrow grave of lights, shadows, and escape.

So it is not merely that we are losing the war on drugs; we have already lost the war on addiction. We have in fact surrendered; the war is well over, but no semblance of peace has been achieved. Civilized humanity — the so-called developed world — is living under a new occupation. It is not an occupation of territory, but of sanity. We have met the terrorists, and they are us.

Well then, what do we do? How can we fight such an insidious army of occupation, what arms must we take up against it? We have, at least superficially, pursued the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the wars on everything from terrorism to schizophrenia for decades, with no attenuation of the enemy. Mere opposition fails us; it has no other effect than delivering the energy of our contest to the opponent. Dependence cannot be overcome through anti-dependence; there is no such thing. True and lasting independence cannot be achieved with a sword of conquest; it must be revealed within the laboratory of awareness, far away from the field of battle.

To seek freedom from dependence via opposition is to be trapped in what the ancient Hindus called samsara, or a vicious cycle of delusion and the addiction thereto. A well-known quotation from a Western source will deliver a better or more familiar idea of what we mean here: Einstein famously defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” That’s samsara.

Now it might be argued here that addiction is not about “expecting different results.” But if we give it a moment’s thought, we see that addiction is all about varying the superficial circumstances of our habit, with a latent expectation of wonder, even of revelation. We watch different kinds of shows on the same television; we may go to the bar or sit alone at home with our bottle; we can consume many different kinds of food in an eating disorder. We do in fact vary the social conditions and manifest circumstances of our addictions, all out of an unconscious or preconscious need for a change to our samsara, our desperate desire for “different results.” In other words, we try to fill that hole within ourselves by digging it deeper.

So it is time to put down the shovel as well as the sword. Recovery is a matter of exploration rather than exhumation. We must use the hands of awareness rather than the spade of ignorance. That is to say, we need to feel rather than think our way through addiction. As Watts used to say, thought is a perfectly marvelous servant but a poor and dangerous master.

But I am not suggesting that we reverse the roles and make feeling the master; and nor would Watts, were he with us here today. In fact, the key to Einstein’s definition of insanity is not in the expectation of results, nor in the repetition of the same action or thought, but in the notion of “doing” itself. For if we can transform our experience of action, we can also dramatically alter our conception of purpose or intent.

Addiction is fueled by compulsion: the desire for action that is aberrant or irrational. Normally, we understand that irrationality as that which is socially irrational, unacceptable or repulsive to the majority of people around us. In ordinary, reasonably healthy circumstances, we can handle the weight of social expectations: we are rarely troubled by what kinds of clothes we are expected to wear at work or to a party. But if we’re told that we can’t drink this or smoke that just because we’d be separated from our society for continuing to do so, well, that’s often not good enough. An addictive habit is too strong to submit to societal demands for change; and anyway life on the margins is often not all that uncomfortable after all.

So how can we effectively judge, condemn, and remove these compulsive actions? Well, we could start by abandoning judgment and giving up on playing the boss. For playing the boss is itself a kind of addiction, a compulsion to a power of authority which we do not merit nor would want if we were clear-sighted about it. How many marriages are destroyed by this compulsion? How many jobs and fortunes are lost; how many wars begun and dragged through a fathomless pit of blood, all from this obsession with an illusion, the infantile dream of there being a top to which I must rise and from which I must command?

Feel the walls of that grave with your hands of awareness and ask: where are the roots of this illusion? Again: you do not need a shovel or excavating machinery to find them; they are right there, at the tips of your fingers. It is all within easy reach; and none of it has a thing to do with evil. We can see that, if we can give up for only an instant the illusion of control. For once we do that, in sincerity and humility, then in the very next instant we fall through every region of hell and into the great fullness of space. And we find that the cosmos is just as supportive and beautiful and nourishing below as we had ever imagined it to be above.

Once you have visited this space and no longer fear losing your connection with it, you can, as Watts used to say, play the game of your life in sincerity rather than seriousness. The game is the illusion — of self and other, terminally separate and often in conflict; of man and nature similarly opposed; of life and death fighting their war of mutually assured destruction. The illusion, again, is defined and fed by the compulsion of control; so perceiving the illusion and releasing the compulsion is not to end the game but to contextualize it in the most critical way. To do this is to pull out the roots of addiction.

Brian Donohue has an MA degree from Long Island University in clinical psychology, and has worked in private practice as a therapist with a loosely Jungian perspective. He has worked with depressed people, anxious people, and people undergoing major life changes, challenges, and crises. Read more at briandonohue.org.

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