Carl Gustav Jung hypothesised that spiritual practice in search of a sense of ‘wholeness’ in life is the best antidote for alcoholism. Isn’t spirituality an antidote to our innumerable lifestyle addictions that have led to the climate crises too, asks Seetha Ananthasivan
Do you know a single adult human being who is not ‘addicted’ to something or other? I don’t seem to know any. Even a sannyasi roaming the Himalayas is addicted to his way of life – and often to some foods, activities or substances. Young children may be strictly speaking not addicted – but inevitably pick up addictions as they grow up.
I am using the broad word ‘addiction’ to cover a range of human behaviour that are acquired – other than instinctual ones, that we just cannot change – habits, compulsions, obsessions, addictions to food, alcohol, nicotine, drugs; psychological addictions to TV, mobile phones, social media; and to beliefs that we will not allow to be questioned.
As human beings, we seem to be susceptible to a whole range of addictions and compulsive behaviour. Has nature made the human mind vulnerable to addictions? Are all beings on earth creatures of habit, each to his own, and humans merely have more of these on account of a more complex brain-mind?
Choose your addictions well
Beyond instinct, many creatures acquire ‘learned’ and ‘conditioned’ behaviour that becomes habitual or compulsive. We can then call them addictions. Many of these have a positive value for survival or well-being. It is a rare animal however, who rushes towards destruction – like the lemmings that run in herds towards certain death. But human beings, apart from the positive addictions, are more prone to ones that are dangerous or harmful in the short or long run.
At the root of addiction are desires. Where does one draw the line between desire for survival and affirmation of life, and a desire that is surrender to self-destruction?
When we talk of addictions, we usually imply the ‘harmful kind’ – compulsive behaviour that is dysfunctional to the individual and others or is something that the person hankers for or suffers withdrawal symptoms from when unable to indulge in the addiction.
But when such behaviours have the sanction of society to be considered ‘normal’, we don’t call them addictions – we simply think of them as our way of life. Many aspects of our lifestyle – the houses we live in, the vehicles we use, the food we eat – all can be called addictions that are considered acceptable or legitimate. Just one modern day item will serve to illustrate this – sugar, addictive and harmful in the long run but completely acceptable and ‘normal’ in most cultures today. So also the frequent consumption of meat, even though there is evidence that it is responsible for a range of diseases and for over 18% of global carbon emissions.
Climate change and the depletion or degradation of natural resources is at last making us see the writing on the wall and take a hard look at the addictions that we have considered normal and even good. There are many scientists who say that we have about 10 years to reverse the trend of carbon emissions, or else we will be hitting the tipping point in the climate crisis. Do we have any option but to choose our addictions carefully and well?
Addictions – A Search for Wholeness?
One of the most meaningful perspectives on addiction was enunciated by the famed Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Gustav Jung. Interestingly his views were central to the vision of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), till date the best system to help alcoholics to wean away from alcohol.
When one of Jung’s clients, H. Rowland, was unable to give up his addiction even after a year of treatment with him, Jung advised him that “neither medicine nor psychiatry had a cure for alcoholism” and that the only hope would be
“… if he could become the subject of a spiritual or religious experience.”
Rowland then joined the Oxford group, an evangelical-spiritual movement that focused on meditation and prayer and was able to completely recover from his addiction.
The co-founder of AA, Bill Wilson, who had been inspired by this story to form its 12 step programme – wrote to Jung to thank him for his insight. He received Jung’s reply which contained these priceless insights on addiction, which I quote from his letter published in the “The Big Book Bunch”(www.bigbook bunch.org):
“His craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.*…
I am strongly convinced that (any) evil principle prevailing in this world leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition, if it is not counteracted either by real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community. An ordinary man, not protected by an action from above and isolated in society, cannot resist the power of evil (addictions)…
You see, “alcohol” in Latin is “spiritus” and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum”
Spirituality: the Best Antidote
To ‘manage’ alcoholism, the medical and psychiatric systems generally include psychological and biological treatment only. Inspired by Jung’s wisdom, the AA includes a social and spiritual approach and it has proved to be much more successful.
In alcoholism, the issue of addiction is loud and clear. But with many of our addictions which are clearly responsible for climate change and ecological degradation of many kinds, the issue of addiction is hidden by the tacit acceptance of society that they are “normal”. In the case of alcoholism, the dysfunctionalities of the addiction are immediately visible – but in the case of our lifestyle addictions, the dysfunctionalities are not clearly visible and need to be clarified and understood by us through the work of scientists, activists, media, etc; – we need to understand the root problems of the globalised capitalist system with its rapacious growth at the cost of Nature and human equity. Typically when we are addicted to the products of this system, we end up defending it rather than seeing its destructiveness.
Many addictions do not seem to be simple direct ones –like alcoholism – they include a dependence on a complex web of “goods and services” – like education, modern foods, the banking system, transport; aspirations for careers, holidays, lifestyles; and addictions to psychological processes – like compulsions for power, desires to indulge our sight, hearing, taste-buds, etc., in various ways.
The split between mind and spirit propounded by Descartes and a belief that material growth will bring us happiness perhaps hastened the focus on material, outer growth in the West and now across most of the world. In the last two centuries the per-capita material possessions have probably increased a hundred-fold or more. Yet one encounters a pervading discontent.
Hasn’t the Industrial Age caused an increasing alienation with nature, with one’s own spirit, one’s sense of wholeness and oneness with creation, which in turn has made us more prone to addictions, in a misguided attempt to find wholeness?
To turn to recovering from addictions, a holistic approach seems to be the answer, including emotional, physical, intellectual understanding and spiritual involvement. The movement towards sustainability is a movement away from many of our addictions, which will need not only sustainable technologies and economics but also educational, emotional and spiritual transitions and transformations. Of these, a spiritual approach is the oft-neglected one. In India and Eastern countries people seem to put ‘spirituality’ in a different basket altogether, often along with religion. Hence we have a large number of people addicted to a material world and also deeply committed to some spiritual tradition.
Most religions have constantly cautioned us against over-indulging the senses and pampering the ego. In India and the East, historically, the epitome of human experience was a return to our natural self – the beckoning iconic words being sat-chit-ananda, satyam-Shivam-Sundaram, nirvana, satori etc. – experiences of a state of consciousness where the focus is inward, on stillness of the mind, on meditation and surrender to a universal consciousness. Many sages and gurus have devised disciplines and practices to limit the ‘chatter of the mind’ and be in touch with the spiritual consciousness.
Today we have lost our way from being connected to our spiritual source as Jung says, and hence have been taken over by addictions. If we are to evolve further from being Homo Addictus, we need to get to terms with this reality, and try to find our way back to a sense of wholeness and connection with the spiritual in Nature and in ourselves as part of Nature.
In a sense, we see a spiritual revival everywhere – more swamijis, more yoga and meditation centres, more programmes and practises of all kinds that cater to a groundswell of people who are searching for “something more meaningful”. We also see a small (but growing) number of thought leaders all over the world who are building awareness on the importance of spiritual and ‘inner’ growth as part of the antidote to climate change and self-destructive materialistic growth.
Perhaps these are all early signs of Homo Addictus evolving into Homo Spiritus!