If you research the reputable sources on the Internet or other media, you’ll find a pretty extensive list of potential causes for addiction.
Some blame it on our DNA.
Some say it has to do with the breakdown of the family at an early age.
Some pin it exclusively on social or “nurture” factors.
Some pin it exclusively on physiological, neurological and/or other “nature” factors.
Some say is almost entirely a child development issue, a lack of love from parents or lack of attentiveness to the emotional needs of a child.
Some say it’s just the natural human survival mechanism that became pathological along the way.
Some say it’s a mixture of these factors.
Others say it’s basically all of these factors together.
An extensive amount of scientific research is being done to find the cause somewhere inside the brain.
Everyone seems to have good intentions. They want to understand addiction in order to be able to treat it effectively. Some who have been studying addiction feel very adamant about the fact that they have found the cause.
The hope is that, if the cause is discovered or has already been discovered, then surely the cure will be right around the corner.
But do we know that? Do we know the cure or healing for addiction necessarily comes as a result of discovering the cause or causes? Each day we hear of new causes for cancer, but still no cure. And much of the idea that addiction can be cured comes from the belief that it is a disease. That’s only one way of formulating it. Many spiritual traditions, which are thousands of years old, have been putting forth practices that dissolve addiction. They never had to call it a disease in order to dissolve it.
How does someone’s certainty around their scientific research help me in the moment I feel deeply drawn to take drugs, drink alcohol, or go on a sweet binge again? Most of us who are or have been seriously addicted cannot afford to wait around for the discovery of the right cause, let alone the cure. We have to take matters into our own hands in order to find a life that is worth living, one that is not enslaved to these substances and activities.
Let me propose an alternative. Instead of trying to pinpoint the cause, why don’t we look at the mechanism of addiction as it arises for each of us, moment by moment. Why not develop the skill of being aware of exactly what is happening within our own experience in the moment addiction is active, what thoughts, emotions, sensations, triggers, anxieties, stories, and pain?
I am not proposing that we merely have an intellectual discussion about these things. The Internet and the science and psychology journals are full of those kinds of discussions. And some of them are very good. I don’t even intend here to dismiss all the attempts to understand addiction intellectually or to study the brain or the causes. That can certainly continue. Who knows, something may result from all of that.
What I’m proposing is that we don’t wait around for someone to discover the cause or the cure. We begin discovering, instead, what actually happens in our awareness the moment we reach for an addictive substance. This kind of mindfulness or awareness does not come easy for most of us at first. But it can be developed within all of us, if we are open and ready for the discovery to take place, if we are ready to stop looking exclusively to the intellect and to start looking at our own experience. Being aware in the moment is the key here, not having intellectual knowledge.
Here’s what I discovered in looking at my own experience.
First, I discarded all of my knowledge about what causes addiction, for that knowledge did not help me in the moment I wanted to reach out for a substance or activity in order to escape my pain. When I say I discarded all knowledge, I mean I took moments of resting in presence without thought in order to be alert to the thoughts, emotions and sensations that were arising when I wanted to reach out. I did not rely on thinking. I became aware of it.
I discovered what Buddhists have been discovering for thousands of years. The entire mechanism of addiction can be seen within awareness. The first thing I noticed is that, right before reaching for an addictive substance or activity, there is a thought (usually a set of words or a mental picture) that references the substance or activity (I call that the “ghost image.”). Along with that thought comes a bodily sensation that seems to fuel the craving for the substance or activity. I found this to be the case every single time I felt an addictive urge. There was always a thought stuck to or velcroed to bodily energy (I call this the Velcro Effect).
Through the practice of resting in alert, aware presence, those thoughts became easier and easier to witness and those energies became easier and easier to feel. The more aware I was of those thoughts and sensations, letting them arise and fall freely, without trying to change, analyze or get rid of them, the less urge I felt to actually engage in the behavior of reaching out. The thoughts themselves would either quiet or start to seem faint. The emotions and sensations were felt directly and often released. During this process, I began to feel all sorts of repressed emotions, such as anger, anxiety and shame. But each of these emotions could be felt and allowed and eventually released also.
Simply glancing at these thoughts and sensations, however, was not enough. They carried such power and momentum. Deep meditative body work was necessary. I would spend at least an hour each day, and sometimes more, quietly resting my attention into the denser sensations in the body that seemed to be associated with the reaching for certain substances and activities. During these periods of meditative rest, I would notice the space around each sensation and let the sensation float freely in that space. I came to find that the mind always has an agenda for these sensations. Mostly, it wants to get rid of them. But that is resistance. And whatever I resisted, persisted. So noticing the space around the sensations (mostly with a quiet mind) and letting the sensations float freely took the self-will out of the mix. Simply put, the space around the sensation has no such agenda. It allows and accepts the sensation as it is. This undoes the mechanism of repression and avoidance that is such a big part of addiction. It took a while, many months in fact, but eventually those dense, repressed energies began to dissolve. As sensations in various parts of my body dissolved, the addictions that were associated with them dissolved too.
Here I sit writing this piece from the Kiloby Center, a facility that now uses this mindfulness and presence approach with clients on addictions. And as I watch most of the rest of the world scrambling to understand and find the cause for addiction, I can’t help wondering, “But why?” Have you taken a look yet? We don’t need that information. It’s great to have it. But we don’t have to wait for it. Addiction can be healed through this kind of direct, experiential investigation within awareness. Through this investigation other beneficial effects arise including a greater sense of well-being and peace, less anxiety and stress, and less ego. And so our purpose in being more present in our lives is about much more than just dissolving addiction. It’s about truly living and enjoying life. Can a scientific discovery ever achieve this for us? Or shall we take matters into our own hands?