More and more I am coming to the conclusion that the mechanism of addiction is at the core of all our suffering. It is what is keeping us in the world of illusion and it prevents us from seeing what is true. It is what misleads us into believing a misperception and to continue to hold on to it. This is what is meant with ignorance – to turn a blind eye to who we really are and to ignore the need to transform.
To rather stay in the state of illusion and tremendous suffering is the hallmark of addiction.
I sometimes get to speak about addiction and I often use the following allegory: the German word for addiction is “Sucht” – a word that sounds as if it was derived from the verb “suchen” – to seek, but the etymological roots are actually in the verb “siechen” – to waste away of a disease. To me the above includes all we need to know to describe an addiction – wasting away while seeking for redemption in all the wrong places.
So let us explore the mechanism of addiction, in particular how this is related to the illusion of separation and inasmuch it can be both, an obstacle but also a trigger for awakening.
Ego formation is a process. At the core of it is a learning, a fixation. Something we get to know and we attach to it, form a belief. There are a million things in a day that contribute to ego formation. When we encounter a new situation we scour our brain for comparable experiences and modalities and this is how we generate our response. If we are successful, this memory will be stored and so we build a response pattern which awards our human form a sense of security.
Ego formation is inherently about keeping us safe and sound. Physical security and survival are primary human needs and this is why all sentient beings are able to generate a stress reaction, a mobilisation of all capabilities of the body to ward off a threat. Stress is another word for resistance, which is the primary response mode of ego formation.
Addiction to me means the obsessive repeating of an action that creates the illusion of being safe, or in control. The target of this action is a false refuge – a learned pattern that is associated with a sense of relief.
Basically anything we do in a day can turn into an addiction. It is just a matter of concurrence – a situation, stress, a reaction and a sense of relief.
I used to smoke. I started late, in my mid-twenties on night duty. I was overwhelmed, overworked and completely out of my depth. Everyone smoked in that hospital and I think I was hooked within a week. Smoking kept me awake, alert and I had something to hold on to. From the early beginnings of smoking in between waiting for the next ambulance to come in, it took me nearly twenty years and many attempts to finally quit. Often it would work over weeks and months, but the moment I encountered a stressful situation, I was on again. As a matter of fact, observing my own behaviour it often occurred to me that I was that I was definitely acting compulsively, but I was not necessarily addicted to the substance, as I never had withdrawal symptoms. So there seems to be a relation between compulsive behaviour and addiction.
Any compulsive or addictive behaviour starts with a sense of relief. Basically it is an experience that turns into a mental fixation and this is what conditions the reaction. At the core of compulsive behaviour is anxiety. There is a fear, a sense of unease, or an unpleasant feeling that we keep trying to avoid. What is underneath of this unpleasant feeling is a stronger feeling, and that in turn can again lead to an even more pronounced affective sensation or emotion. The body does not have words or mental concepts to communicate with us – it makes itself known through feelings. And the ego – the conditioned mind – has learned early on to muffle these expressions of what is true.
If something is not true, it will make itself known to us. And then we have a choice to listen to it – or we don’t. As it goes, many, many times what is true is in direct conflict to what we want to be true – the illusion. And this is what the egoic mind will try to uphold by all available means, even at the cost of a gag order to the screaming body.
We know when we are lying to ourselves, each and every time. It hurts, it is painful, it is uncomfortable and above all, it disturbs the balance of the body. We live in an perpetual conflict between the direction of the thinking mind and the purpose of the heart. This is what is at the core of an addiction – choice. It is the choice to uphold a lie because we do not want to face the truth about ourselves.
I am thinking back of my own smoking days. I liked to smoke, but the compulsion started to bug me. It was like the drive to light up a cigarette had taken on a life of it’s own. I had given up many times, but I always felt like I was left without protection, defenceless and vulnerable. To adopt a strategy of distraction helped to decrease the tension – like exercise or changing routine. But this only helped to a degree, because I never got to the root of my compulsive behaviour – I never understood that it was my own fear of truth that kept me in this vicious cycle.
Two things happened that healed me. One was a looming health issue that was clearly related to the smoking. Such things have a tendency to suddenly bring about the willingness to transform. The other incident was an encounter with a teacher who put me on the spiritual path, without me realising this on a conscious level. But the moment I opened up to the possibility to explore the unknown, the compulsion was gone and never returned.
I get to work with addictions quite a bit in my professional work and I am getting more and more interested in it. I believe the distinction between compulsion and addiction are fuzzy and I do think we are all addicted to some degree. It is what is at the core of the doings of the ego, building a stronghold and a rampart to protect us going near what it considers to be unsafe. The mechanism of addiction has inherently to do with security and the egoic mind will always choose what is familiar over the unknown. Even if the familiar situation does not work, like the job, the relationship, what we do or do not do all day long and in particular who we think we want to be and try everything to uphold it.
When I work with people and addiction, one of the first things to look at is this fear of truth. Fear is the henchman of the ego and it will build an impenetrable protective wall around what is true. It will prevent us from having access to inner wisdom and from perceiving that willingness to change. It is a fear of being unsafe, opening up and letting go of old beliefs. This is at the core of spirituality too, because realising truth sets a transformation in motion. A change on many levels that does away with everything that is untrue. This is the fear many have – and this is at the bottom of the terror of awakening: not wanting to see the truth about oneself because it has this tendency to uncover and reveal everything that is untrue – without exemption. And who is ready to see all of it, who is ready to face the detachment of all the little lies and illusions we have made up to fit in and to live our life according to our own standards.
Fear of truth is what keeps people in the illusion and fear of truth is what keeps the addiction going. But what is that fear of truth? What can be so terrible that someone would rather continue to suffer than to just open their eyes and start living congruently?
I think it is coming back to the fear of change and the unwillingness to give up control. It is like hanging on to the edge of the abyss with all one’s might, or swimming against the tide with all one’s strength. Eventually, the forces of nature will prevail and then there is a letting go. Many times this is an experience of sudden peace and spontaneous surrender, going along with a willingness to allow consciousness to move take over.
Complete honesty is and a willingness to detach from old identifications, believes and behaviours is at the core of a spiritual practice. To practice presence is the method, because the first step is to just accept what is true. It is about finding my own truth and to value it higher than what is familiar and safe. This is the leap of faith one has to do in order to evolve –and to stay awake.
Eventually, we all have to discover our own truth, because authenticity looks different for each of us. But there is one thing I have discovered and it is always true – help is always available. I walk alone on my path, but many are on the journey. And we want nothing more but to help each other.
And this is why addiction is about choice.