The roots of addiction
Over the past few years I have spoken to hundreds of people all over the world who call themselves "addicts". Let us be clear - it is not only "addicts" who are addicted. We are all addicted in different ways - to work, to money, to alcohol, to pornography, to gambling, to sex, to fame, to power, to being right, to proving ourselves, to checking our e-mails every five minutes. We can even get addicted to spiritual teachings, to meditation, to gurus, to retreats, books and satsangs. But the core of all addictions is the same - our addiction to ourselves. Our addiction to maintaining and improving the story of "me". And underneath all of it, our addiction to moving away from this moment - to escaping discomfort and finding release. Our addiction to the next moment...
I remember when I was young, how I would come back from school sometimes, feeling lonely and sad and misunderstood, probably having been bullied or made fun of on the school bus, and would head immediately to the fridge or food cupboard, and, when nobody was looking, I would gorge myself on whatever snacks I could find. The food made the sadness go away, or so it seemed. For a few precious moments, I felt warm, satisfied, full - no longer empty and incomplete. It appeared that the food had made my "hunger" go away. It had filled the emptiness. And my stomach...
I did not really want food, of course, but love and acceptance. I was eating to make the pain of living go away. Even at that young age, I was eating to live! But of course, I had no way of articulating this at the time. I just felt hungry! I just felt the urge to eat. It was not really food I wanted to eat - it was love, and life. I wanted to feel alive. I was trying, and failing, to eat life. I was trying to eat myself.
This was a cosmic hunger - a deep longing to be met, to be held, to be seen, to be validated. And if other people couldn't do it, perhaps the chocolate would. This was an expression of a deep, lifelong hunger to remember who I really was - as the vast ocean of consciousness in which waves of thought, sensation and feeling are deeply allowed to come and go. I was ignoring my true addiction - to remember who I was, and falling into an addiction to what I was not. It would take me years and years to realise this, and to begin to turn towards my pain rather than away from it, and to remember rather than forget myself, and to discover that who I truly am can never be addicted.
Later in my life, the addictions shifted to other objects and to other people, and then finally the whole thing was projected onto my search for enlightenment. Enlightenment became the ultimate addiction object. I lived and breathed spiritual teachings, until even they began to have side effects. But nothing satisfied until the whole cycle was broken, right where it had begun.
As individuals, we are all addicts, in the sense that we all run away from the moment to some extent. We all push away thoughts and feelings, try not to feel them, numb ourselves to them, distract ourselves from them, medicate or meditate or shop them away. For a while, it seems as though the food, the alcohol, the sex, the guru, the drug, the fame, has the "power" to take away the sadness, the pain, the feelings of loneliness and helplessness and isolation, and ultimately death itself. It seems as though the person, object or substance has the power to "fix" life. (No wonder we talk about getting our "fix"). But of course, soon the "effect" wears off, the "high" disappears, and there is some kind of comedown, some kind of guilt, and those unloved and unwanted waves return, sometimes more intensely than ever, and we are back in heavy identification. And then we crave the next release, the next lifting of the veil. And then we need more of the person or substance. And the cycle continues. What breaks the cycle?
Turning towards our discomfort rather than away from it, however crazy that sounds, is where the cycle can begin to be broken. Meeting these unmet waves in ourselves - the sadness, the loneliness, the fear, the helplessness - and coming to see that they all have a home in us. As the ocean of consciousness, we are vast enough to hold all of them. They are all allowed in us, but they cannot define us. And so turning towards our urges rather than away from them, finding a way to be with ourselves now without moving into "future", that's how the mechanism of addiction can start to melt.
Often when an urge arises, we either try to numb ourselves to it, try to not feel it, or we act on it. We often judge the urge and make it bad or wrong or even "sick". But there is a middle way - this meeting that I speak of, this deep acceptance, this 'being with', without an agenda. Meeting an urge takes the urgency out of it and renders it timeless and - ultimately - harmless. Sitting with an urge, letting it burn, allowing it to be there in all its intensity, and then watching all those thoughts and images that come up - you know, the ones about the gorgeous chocolate cake, or the beer, the thought-movie of you happily drinking or eating, all your problems gone, those movies of imminent release and salvation and love and peace - and allowing them to be there too. And being with all of the sensations that come up, even the uncomfortable ones. And then also allowing the fear - that strange, primal superstition - that if we allow the urge to be there then we will end up "acting on it", or it will "stick" and never go away, or it will overwhelm us. All the judgements whirling round. Feeling that we quickly need to "do something" about the urge. And beyond all this, remembering yourself as the wide open space, the vast ocean of life in which all of these waves are already being allowed. And knowing, then, that no amount of alcohol, or sex, or drugs, or chocolate, or words or pictures or feelings can give you this place of deep acceptance in this moment - for it what you already are, and have always been. What you crave on the deepest level is already here. You are what you seek, as all the authentic spiritual teachers throughout the ages have been reminding us.
We are only seeking ourselves, in a million different ways, and the chocolate or alcohol or casino winnings never had the "power" to bring us home, ever. Our gurus never had the power we projected onto them. We lose faith in the cigarette and alcohol gurus, and return to ourselves, trusting our own experience deeply once again, in a way that perhaps we could never do when we were children. Addiction crumbles from the inside. For what we are is naturally at peace, naturally non-addicted, naturally complete, without needing external people or objects to complete it. This is where the cycle of addiction - which is the cycle of self - can be broken, right where it begins. This is the exploration that all addiction, and indeed all suffering, invites us to, whether we see ourselves as "addicted" or not.
If you would like to explore this perspective further, there is a chapter on addictions in my new book "The Deepest Acceptance"...