Addiction has been understood in terms of a spiritual craving for wholeness, freedom, and transformation. It is not by coincidence that the Latin root of “addict” connotes the idea of a willing slave, or one who has become enslaved by so many acts of willing devotion.
Once the pursuit of the special release from self, the self-transcendence, which comes with using a particular substance or activity, becomes the organizing principle of the person’s life, the hedonic habit takes on a life of its own. What initially promised freedom from the bondage of self or freedom to become someone else turns out to be a “rapacious creditor” bleeding the borrower of “all self-sufficiency and will to resist its demands” .
The “habit” becomes obsession and eventually fragments the person until his or her will to resist is rendered impotent, or powerless. The admission of this powerlessness is an intensely personal event, which functions as the first step toward actual freedom.
From this phenomenological interpretation of addiction, we can begin to see how it is linked to spirituality. This insight was captured well by the psychiatrist Carl Jung in his letter to Bill Wilson: “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.”
In other words, the highest form of religious experience counters the most depraving poison – high spirit against low spirit.
In his Varieties of Religious Experiences, the philosopher William James related a similar insight about this interaction in the opposite direction: “The only radical remedy I know of for dipsomania (another name for alcoholism) is relgiomania.”
These insights have been validated more recently by neuroscientist Patrick McNamara. In his book, The Neuroscience of Religious Experience, McNamara makes the convincing argument that religion may have evolved in the first place to facilitate the process of unifying the fractured human person by means of a spiritual experience. The same spiritual craving for wholeness, self-integration, and freedom that motivates the use and abuse of a variety of substances and activities is also that which frequently motivates people’s involvement in religious and spiritual communities.
From this phenomenological interpretation of addiction, we can begin to see how it is linked to spirituality.
Evidence of McNamara’s insight can potentially be observed among the contemporary movement of mutual-help fellowships, such as AA and their Twelve Step Program. According to their preamble, “AA is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength, and hope with each other to help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.” To be organized around the purpose of achieving recovery and helping others is certainly a crucial piece in transforming an individual’s purpose and meaning.
Another one of the reasons for the success of the AA fellowship in facilitating these transformative experiences is their emphasis on its members telling stories about “what they were like, what happened, and what they are like now.”
The continued practice of telling such stories not only serves to remind the storyteller of the despair and anguish associated with using alcohol, but also to remind them of how far they have come. It functions to facilitate a sort of deductive reasoning, where what exists today appears to have required what preceded it.
Therefore, gratitude is a frequent theme in these stories. Telling these stories also requires learning to look at oneself, and especially one’s relationship with alcohol, differently. It is a major piece in transforming that way of seeing oneself in the world that extends into a way of being.
The twelve steps are also about cultivating an expanded consciousness through a reinterpretation of one’s own actions and reactions towards the people, places, and things around him or her.
The morality emphasized in these steps encourages personal responsibility for one’s actions, consideration of other people’s cares and concerns, and thus, a kind of fitness in terms of the person’s conscience. They are a systematic method of actualizing the spiritual awakening that have consistently been exhorted by many of the world’s great religions.”
1. Blum, K., Thompson, B., Oscar-Berman, M., Giordano, J., & Braverman, E. (2013). Genospirituality: Our Beliefs, Our Genomes, and Addictions. J Addict Res Ther, 4(162), 2