Addiction as a Path to Liberation

We are all, consciously or unconsciously, seeking liberation. We all wish to be free of suffering, to be able to be our true, authentic selves, to be able to clearly see things as they really are.

Disturbances in our lives, like addiction, often seem to be in the way of our liberation. Yet so many things that seem to be in the way actually are the way! Our addictions are not random occurrences. They hook us because they offer us something our souls need in order to be free. Our addictions can show us what our souls are seeking so that we may ultimately meet those needs in more integrated, more permanent, less destructive ways.

Rather than removing your addictions, the work of liberation involves adding something else to your life, some new, more holistic way of achieving the same ends. When you get the things your addiction has been trying to give you all along, the addictive impulses start to fall away.

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Addiction as a Path to Liberation
Steve Bearman
July 10, 2012

You and I are walking a path together. Whether or not you're aware of it, we are all on the path to liberation because whether it’s a conscious process or an unconscious process in you or both, we all are trying to get free. Freedom means a number of things. One thing it means is that: we all want to be free of suffering. Nobody wants to be weighed down or plagued by the kinds of challenging emotions that make it hard just to be a person. We would like to be free from the kinds of limiting beliefs that we've taken on that make us think that we're smaller than we actually are and act less powerfully than we actually can. We want to be able to be our whole real selves in cultural communities that condition us to conform and be how we think we're supposed to be, instead of who we really are. And even more than that, our minds seem constrained. It's hard to think clearly. We have a motivation to distort reality to make it into something that allows us to feel better about ourselves and so it’s hard to see things as they truly are--to see clearly. And liberation also means that. It's part of our nature to seek liberation. It's something that all humans do, whether or not we're aware of it. And especially when we're unaware of it, but even sometimes when we know we're trying to become free, we find that there are disturbances in our lives--things that we don't think should be happening but that are actually part of our individual path to liberation. They're part of how we get there. I'm going to talk about a number of these different disturbances over a series of video blogs and the one I want to talk about today is addiction: Addiction As a Path to Liberation. I mean, by addiction, pretty much what everybody means. I'm talking about repeating patterns of behavior that you get caught in--maybe repeating patterns of ingesting particular substances that you get caught in--that are designed to help you feel a certain desirable way and probably to keep you from having to feel some way that you don’t want to feel. But addiction is more than that. In addition to the simple, obvious, positive feeling that addiction gives you, whatever you're addicted to is also giving you something deeper. There is something that your soul needs that you are not getting and the reason you're addicted to the thing you're addicted to is that it helps you to get it, and you really actually need it. The way Ram Dass talks about this is, he says that addiction is almost always an attempt to get closer to God, or if you are not someone who speaks "God", an attempt to be more connected with the universe, to be more continuous with the world around you--less isolated and cut off as an individual. If you think, for instance, about alcoholism, alcohol does a couple of wonderful things. One thing that it does is it makes us less judgmental--it frees us from judgment. People talk about this all the time. You lose your ability to discern good from bad and so, whatever comes your way seems alright. Whatever comes out of you seems alright. And as problematic as this may sometimes be, if you’re somebody who is walking around trying to discern what’s okay and what’s not okay all the time, then freedom from that makes it so that you can just enjoy whatever comes your way and accept the world as it is, and yourself as you are, which also means that you get free from inhibition. You're able, on alcohol often, to just be your real self, to let it all hang out, to not worry so continuously about whether you're being socially acceptable or presentable. Instead you can just be how you are when you are more free. Freedom from judgment and freedom from inhibition both make us more continuous with the world around us, and in that sense closer to God, because we're less cut off and isolated. And so, if you find yourself wanting to drink a lot, it's because there’s something like that that alcohol gives you that you desperately need--that kind of social freedom is something that people, some people never otherwise have. And the same thing is true of all addictions. It may be that the thing that you're addicted to gets you closer to God, or it may be that it gives you something else that you desperately need. But whatever that thing is, you really need it. The goal here is to find out, if you dig a little bit, what is it that you're really getting from your addiction? And then eventually, how do you get that thing in a way that is more holistic? The problem with alcohol is that it’s addictive because after the effects of alcohol are over, you are more contracted than you were before you drank in the first place. The expansion that it gives you, because of the nature of the substance and how it operates on your brain, is temporary. And it causes a contraction later on that makes it even harder to get the things that you drank in the first place to get. And you have to drink more in order to get them. And so finding a more holistic way to get those things means that you don’t experience the negative after-effects. Instead, you just get to have integrated into your life, social ease and freedom, the ability to be more your real self without inhibition, the ability to accept whatever comes your way without judgment. And those may be things that you really need--that your soul needs. There’s no one thing that each particular kind of addiction gives a given person. For instance, I worked with someone once who was addicted to pot, and what he found was that it allowed him to be playful. He had become so serious as an adult and pot allowed him to laugh and play, and he needed that. I worked with another person, a woman who found that she actually got out of smoking pot, that she didn’t have to be so productive because her whole life had been oriented toward thinking that she needed to produce in order to be worth anything. And so she found that she could just be okay with just enjoying life and not have to do anything to enjoy it. Those are different kinds of things. Even though they sound similar, if you're smoking pot, you’ve got your reason for doing it. If you're a workaholic, it may be that you are desperately seeking some way to contribute to the world--that you want to do things that are really meaningful and if the work that you're doing doesn’t really do that, you’ll keep doing more of it, in search of what is the thing that’s going to give you a sense of meaning. Now most people think of workaholism as just, it’s a behavior that you engage in to avoid something, and that may absolutely be the case. But there’s also something essential in it for you, and finding out what that essential thing is for you, for the particular behavior or substance that you're addicted to, that’s the first part of the process. Once you get there, there’s a second step. And that second step is: Find out how to get more of that thing that you're getting from the addiction, in other ways. Don’t worry about the addiction. Most people have an approach to this that's a prevention approach. They try to stop themselves from doing something they don’t think they should do, like smoking pot or working too much. What I'm talking about is a promotion approach. You find other things to do, other ways to be playful, other ways to contribute and get a sense of meaning, besides the addictive thing. If you do enough of that, if you promote enough of these new behaviors instead of trying to prevent the old behaviors, the new behaviors eventually crowd out the old behaviors because the new behaviors are actually better. They're more integrated into your life. They're more holistic. The effects don't go away once the addictive behavior or the addictive substance wears off. And so your self, your whole way of being, will naturally gravitate towards these new behaviors once they get rooted in place. Now, it’s true that you could be addicted to something like cocaine or heroin, where the substance is just so dramatic in its effects--it has such a strong effect on your physiology--that you have to find some way to temporarily interrupt that behavior. You’ve got to get the support and the community around you to interrupt the taking of the substance in order for you to have any chance of being able to find out what it was really giving you, so that you can get that in new ways. But for most of us who just have our run-of-the-mill, mild, everyday addictions, you don’t even have to worry about the addictions. Just don’t try to stop doing something--try to do something else, that if you find after a while that it's giving you the thing that you need, your soul will be more fulfilled. It will be that you're closer to living the life that you are meant to live, instead of the life that you were told you were supposed to live. And that is what liberation means: Finding out how to holistically integrate the things that you need that you're getting from your addiction, bringing you step-by-step closer to your own liberation. Thanks for walking the path with me.

About the Author

Steve Bearman, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He founded Interchange Counseling Institute in 2002 and is the lead teacher of Interchange's San Francisco-based year-long counseling and coaching training. When he's not counseling people, leading workshops, and advocating for social justice, Steve climbs mountains, adventures in the urban wilderness, explores the edges and limits of what's possible, deconstructs everything, and finds new ways to put it all back together.