A wise friend of mine always said that what we experience in life is more important than what we believe, because it’s experience that actually gets into our bodies and makes us who we are; whereas our beliefs can be abstract, something we think is true, but that hasn’t fully sunk in, and parts of us can doubt or even disagree with our beliefs, sometimes without our knowing it. I agree with that, but I also know that what we believe can sometimes shape what we experience. We can end up seeing what we experience through the lens of our thoughts and ideas, even if the experience suggests something different. This is an observation you can find in many spiritual traditions, especially in Buddhism.
Of course, the word “spiritual” itself can be a red flag for some people, because of their past experience—some identify it with religion, and had a terrible experience with that; others think of it as vague and meaningless, a catch-all for almost anything that could better be defined as psychological, emotional, philosophical, or something else.
Since this blog is focused on spirituality and meditation, and because so many regard addiction as a spiritual problem, with many of the forms of treatment also working from that basis, we should probably stop and ask ourselves every so often, what do we mean by “spiritual”?
To me it has to do with the core of who we are, and what makes us who we are and motivates how we see the world and what we do; and it’s a term for the whole of who we are, and the basic condition that underlies everything, before things that arise and pass away, including our sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Others define it differently, so it’s helpful if we remember that sometimes we can be talking apples and oranges with someone without even realizing it.
So, what is the value of looking at addiction as a spiritual problem? How does it help us?
I think there are a few reasons this can be a useful way to frame addiction. Doing so gives us a holistic, total, bird’s-eye view of the matter; which means we can better address all of the elements that play into our addictions, rather than putting them in different boxes and treating them separately. And from a spiritual perspective, all human suffering has a spiritual root, and all who suffer experience some form of addiction, whether they know it or not, which means that we are not as different from “everyone else” as we often think we are: that “normal” people and “addicts” belong to the same camp, suffering from similar problems, just with different particulars and to different degrees.
From a spiritual perspective, all human suffering that isn’t unavoidable, because it’s based in physical circumstances beyond our control—disease, accidents, natural disasters and the like—comes from our being cut off at the root from the source of our being; feeling separate from life itself, from happiness, and from others. Feeling cut off produces a sense of inner emptiness; and this creates the urge to fill that emptiness with—something. When the feeling becomes strong enough, painful enough, we become desperate enough to try filling it with almost anything, and start seeking for an antidote as strong as the pain and become willing to risk using dangerous and harmful “remedies” to fix the problem. It’s no coincidence that using narcotics to feel better is called “a fix.”
But as is sometimes pointed out in various spiritual traditions, this is like drinking salt water to cure our thirst. It seems like it should help; it’s cool and refreshing, after all. But because it contains salt, which is dissolved and hidden in the water, an ingredient that actually produces thirst, the attempt is hopeless. The problem just gets worse. We crave relief more and more and become increasingly reckless in trying to satisfy the craving.
“Craving” in the old English of the bible is called “coveting”—as in, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, manservant, maidservant, livestock, or anything that is thy neighbor’s.” In Buddhism, it’s called “attachment” or “desire,” and is one of the so-called “Three Poisons” of the Buddha: attachment, aversion, and ignorance. But regardless of what it’s called, all of the traditions recognize that when we are cut off from our essence or core, we feel empty and hurting, and try to compensate by filling the hole with stuff: money, sex, drugs, excitement, furniture, art, or grabbing your neighbor’s donkey—you name it. But none of it works, because the stuff comes and goes, while the emptiness remains, because it is core, and it has nothing to do with stuff.
But like I said at the top, what matters most is what you experience, not what you believe; and that works for the solution, as well as the problem. If you got dragged to church as a kid and lectured about how sinful and awful you were, religion could be one of the secondary causes of your addiction, rather than something that will help. Or if you had New Age parents that made you sit without moving in meditation when you were eight and wanted to go out and play, the word “spiritual” may be about as welcome as going to the dentist for a root canal. What helps and heals should always come before labels and definitions. And there are ways you can think about addiction that have similar benefits to following a spiritual path without employing that language or imagery.
If you have trouble with even the “Higher Power” talk of the 12 Step traditions, know that part of the value of that for some is that it helps them to feel connected to something greater than themselves, and therefore less isolated—one of the real tendencies of many addicts, and a dangerous one. Pride, stubbornness, or shame can make us want to go it alone and “fix it ourselves.” Bad idea. One of the effects of addiction is to distort how we think and feel about things. We need someone reliable, whether groups and sponsors, therapists or clergy, or just wise friends, to bounce our thinking off and do reality checks.
But isn’t someone who “talks to God” or their “Higher Power” like someone talking to Santa Claus, or an imaginary friend? Maybe. Undoubtedly that can happen. But there are other possibilities, as well. Maybe in taking their minds off trying to solve their problems alone, and imagining a much greater, wiser, infinite mind, at least some of these folks are accessing a deeper wisdom within themselves. Maybe the construct of a higher person or “Big Mind,” as they say in Zen, helps them to get past the negative and limiting view they have of themselves and tap into the resources of the body and the nervous system. It could be they’re using some of those vast areas of the brain that science says most of us don’t use, and about which we know very little. And the humility of admitting we don’t have all the answers by ourselves doesn’t hurt, either.
Neuroscientists and sports trainers alike have discovered that rehearsing changes mentally—such as visualizing practicing a Karate form or shooting hoops—can often work as well as actually practicing in the physical world. Perhaps prayer sometimes works like that—reorganizing our minds and opening new neural pathways for reinterpreting our experience of ourselves and the world.
So if you have trouble with religious or spiritual concepts, you could try thinking outside the box and imagining that you are asking your unconscious, or connecting to the same intelligence that patterns the incredible complexity of the galaxies or the structure of the cells in our bodies; to feel that you are connected, a part of everything, not a lone two-watt bulb shining dimly in a closet somewhere.
In the end, it doesn’t matter so much if you are “spiritual but not religious” or “secular but not religious or spiritual.” What matters is that you find a fresh perspective that works for you and enlarges your sense of self, helps you to see your gifts and strengths and not just the pieces that went wrong, and focuses your attention on creating a present and a future for yourself that you want. If you can see that future so clearly in your mind’s eye that it feels real in your heart, it can attract you to it and make it easier to take the steps to build it in the world. Then you can thank God, your Higher Power, the angels, or the organic wisdom of Nature, if you want. Gratitude is a good thing whether it has an object or not. It connects us to good things. Is that spiritual? “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” It’s the sweet smell of a great life that counts.