“Do you have that sense that something is missing? A feeling in your gut that you’re not good enough? That if you tick off some action, whether it’s eating a Twix, buying some shoes, smoking a joint or getting a good job, you will feel better? If you do, it’s hardly surprising because I believe we live in an age of addiction, where addictive thinking has become almost totally immersive. It is the mode of our culture. Consumerism is stimulus and response as design for life. The very idea that you can somehow make your life all right by attaining primitive material goals – whether it’s getting the ideal relationship, the ideal job, a beautiful Berber rug or forty quids’ worth of smack – the underlying idea, ‘if I could just get X, Y, Z, I would be okay’, is consistent and it is quite wrong.”
Russell Brand, "Recovery"
Russell Brand, comedian and religious scholar (also actor, author, journalist,
ex-husband to Katy Perry, meditator, and addict), has recently published a book called “Recovery: Freedom from Our Addictions,” discussing his unique approach and personal experience with the 12-step rehabilitation process first introduced into Alcoholics Anonymous by Bill Wilson in the early 20th century. These canonical 12 steps, founded upon a spiritual approach to overcoming addiction through abstinence, community, and service are noted not only for their efficacy in helping people recover from addiction, but also for their relevancy in dealing with the more essential struggles of life. In his book, Brand makes some poignant connections in his analysis of addiction to the mundane realities of consumerism. Instead of following a narrow understanding of “addiction” as a physiological compulsion and dependency surrounding use of a chemically addictive substance, Brand identifies it as the extreme conclusion of a materialistic consumer culture.
In 12-step recovery programs, assistance in overcoming one’s addictions is sought on the basis of understanding that one is powerless over their addiction. This relinquishing of control identifies the fundamental schism in looking outside of ourselves for a sense of wholeness – it simply doesn’t work. This is consistent with the second truth expounded by Shakyamuni Buddha 2,500 years ago, identifying desire and attachment (both to things and to deluded perceptions of reality) as the root of suffering. To acknowledge that we are not, in fact, able to internally manage our relationship with consumption when we are already in an addicted state is a profoundly important realization on a number of levels. For Dharmic traditions, this necessitates the role of the guru. Even though our essence is inherently awake, because we are knee-deep in the mire of our samsaric addictions (i.e. to our deluded perceptions of reality), we need a guru to point out our inner guru and show us the nature of our minds. This usually involves following a program of some sort.
There is a trend, particularly in secular circles, to view 12-step rehabilitation with a degree of disdain and skepticism. Many are wary of the spiritual language included in traditional literature, others write the ostensibly dogmatic approach off as "cultish." The concepts of abstinence, helplessness, and "once an addict, always an addict" are frightening and off-putting, quite contrary to the more pervasive notion that we, as humans, can effectively moderate our behavior and feelings if we try hard enough. We are resistant to the concept of adhering to a program. However, as Russell frequently points out, we It’s important for us to understand that addiction is not a malady that simply affects heroin users and alcoholics. We are all bred to be addicts – it's the obvious extreme conclusion of a consumption-based culture. We are taught that the more we consume, the happier we'll be. This dangerous mentality has infiltrated every aspect of capitalist culture, from food (using the term lightly) to sex and romance (why do you think open relationships are so popular now?). Consumerism takes advantage of our inbred physiological and karmic propensities towards dualistic thinking and desire/attachment in order to make us into better customers. Corporations regularly take advantage of our most primal psychological and emotional experiences, such as sexual arousal, to leech profits out of us. They convince us (oftentimes with overtly manipulative superlative language) into believing that a new iPhone is somehow going to remedy the existential anguish of being human (read: a customer and laborer).
But by engaging with this meaningless economic model of reality we are only perpetuating the cycle of suffering. Our painfully isolating individualist view of society - a mainstay of the neoliberal movement - creates perfectly fertile ground for addiction, particularly to substances like alcohol which seem to provide some momentary relief from suffering. But what we're really seeking is connection. Science backs this up, particularly in the area of addiction research. We need connection - with one another, with the natural world, and with the experience of something greater (or more essential) than our “selves” - in order to recover from our addictions, whether to alcohol, sex, or our dualistic and deluded perceptions of reality. It is egocentricity itself that seeks external phenomena to feed its “self.”
The vital principles of renunciation and community are common amongst most spiritual disciplines. Even though some traditions of Buddhism (i.e. higher tantric traditions) fancy themselves to be non-renunciate by nature, the very foundation for traversing a Dharmic path is renunciation of samsaric modes of existence. This is perfectly illustrated in the Four Thoughts to Turn the Mind towards Dharma, a foundational meditation in Tibetan Buddhism that traditionally precedes even preliminary forms of ritual practice. These “four thoughts” are intended to guide the practitioner away from destructive behaviors by revealing their true nature and destined effects. It is meant to spoil our delusions (including many of our hopes and fears) and scrub away any blissful ignorance that our psyche may be clinging to. The intensity is intended to leave an impression on the practitioner’s mindstream so that a genuine earnestness and fervency can arise and motivate them to seek liberation. We need to cultivate this kind of renunciate mind if we want to transcend our addicted states, however they may manifest for us.
In the context of addiction recovery, an exercise like the four thoughts provides a clear and rational evaluation of our current state, mired in the muck of samsaric addiction. Before we can authentically decide to undertake a program like Buddhist practice, 12-step recovery, or any other system of self-development, we have to acknowledge the flaws in our current mode of existence. Particularly in a culture steeped in consumerism, we need to actively seek inspiration to relinquish our addictions. For those without neatly-defined addictions to ostensibly dangerous or illegal substances, identifying a problem in the first place can often be difficult. Sex addiction can be played off as having a healthy and varied sex life. Alcoholism is constantly glamorized in media and popular culture. If we follow the system that is laid out for us, we can easily fall into the misperception that life is strictly about the accumulation of “cargo” and that engaging in a system of perpetual consumption is somehow going to support a happy life.
So what are these four thoughts? They usually include contemplations on the preciousness of human life, the impermanence of all compounded phenomena, recognition of cause and effect, and investigation of the defects of cyclic existence. While traditional explanations of these four meditations rely on Buddhist philosophical notions about karma and rebirth, the essential points are actually incredibly relevant to the struggle of the consumer and the addict.
The Preciousness of Human Life. In both the Buddhist tradition and modern scientific thought, human life is one of the utmost rarities in the phenomenal world. While many animals possess phenomenal cognitive abilities and complex social structures, the human capacity for abstract language and imaginative thought sets us apart from any other animal species alive today. Our unique intellect provided us with the miraculous capacity to control our own evolution with our minds as opposed to our genes. We didn’t need to grow fins and blowholes to swim to Australia – we simply built boats. The human mind is a fascinating thing with seemingly infinite potential. It is, in fact, a kind of “wish-fulfilling jewel.” However, humans have long been reduced to organic machines used strictly for the purpose generating profit. We are always laborers and consumers first in capitalist society, to the bitter detriment of our basic humanity. In our culture, we measure the value of sentient life not by its miraculous conscious awareness (unequivocally the most amazing phenomena we’ve ever witnessed), but by its profitability and individual “job” in society. The commodification of life itself has led us into such dark places as slavery and human trafficking, but the same underlying principles give us the 40-hour workweek and Social Media empires. The unique human capacity to comprehend, create, and share imaginative notions (like “heaven” or “the economy”) creates high-stakes situations for humans. People can be led to devote their entire lives to abstract concepts, both benevolent and sinister, even going so far as to kill or be killed for it. Nationalism is a great example of this. Despite the fact that borders only exist as a theory written on paper, humans are very willing to kill other humans to defend the sustained perception of this shared fiction. We should be in awe of the human body and mind. But this awe should be accompanied by a distinct understanding that the potential of humanity can be used for good or for ill, depending on how we take advantage of our own human birth. By signing our life away to corporations, to the pursuit of wealth, to our addictions, we are wasting the potentiality of our very own wish-fulfilling jewel.
The Impermanence of Compounded Phenomena Flux is the only constant in our observation of the universe. The very manifestation of phenomena is made possible only through the medium of impermanence. This is our own nature, as well. We are all going to die much sooner than we anticipate. One day we will wake up and it will be “today.” This is a terrifying notion for most humans, particularly those of us who live in rather insular societies in our relationship with death. We worship youthful productivity and hide the elderly away, pretending that they are an “other” that can be subjected to substandard treatment due to their decreased profitability. Our avoidance of impermanence produces massive amounts of suffering, because we are refusing to deal with the fundamental nature of phenomena. Impermanence doesn’t simply relate to our experience of life, however, but also the trials and joys that take place within its perceived bookends. Our love affairs, friendships, pets, and health are all impermanent, but so are our sorrows and difficulties. Our experience is nothing if not pliable, with countless conditions coming together at each moment to produce our own personal projection of reality. This is not the philosophy of capitalism, which is predicated on a virtue of infinite growth within our unfortunately finite system. This understanding can be depressing, and without a proper view can certainly inspire an existentialist descent into crisis. It is important to understand that the impermanent nature of phenomena doesn’t make it meaningless. In contemporary Mexican culture, we see the deification of death as Santa Muerte, recognized as the great equalizer between all living beings. We all die, even the most arrogant rulers and highest spiritual masters. But to perceive this very impermanence as the play of divinity and wisdom helps to kick us out of our wallowing myopia and see that phenomena is not as fixed and permanent as it seems. For the addict, pursuit of a sustained state of bliss is central to their compulsive behaviors. This is the same thing we all do when we go on a post-breakup shopping binge or seek out a random hook-up. We are seeking a change in our fundamental state of being through the consumption of a commodity. But none of these external stimuli have the capacity to give us lasting fulfillment or contentment. They only have the capacity to waste our limited time on making other people rich while we perpetually dehumanize ourselves and others.
Cause and Effect In Dharmic traditions, the concept of karma (literally meaning “action”) identifies both observable cause and effect and the repercussions of actions over many lifetimes. Instead of relying upon a notion of a divinity that assigns moral judgment to an act, moral actions are believed to carry their own energetic weight that precipitate predictable effects over the course of time. This energetic weight is based on the intention, action, and subsequent satisfaction of the individual performing the act. That is to say if someone intends to kill someone, succeeds in killing them, then takes pride in having killed, this is a wholly negative act that will result in more severe karmic effects than, say, unintentionally running over a squirrel in one’s car and then feeling bad about it. Cause and effect binds us all, though it is not considered to be some kind of concrete reality. Neither, necessarily, are the laws of physics, for that matter, which many wisdom traditions claim to have means of transcending. Even quantum physics identifies that many of our everyday perceptions of “real” phenomena are illusions (or, more accurately, projections). But due to our inability to abide in a perceptive state of quantum reality, we go about interacting with other atoms/beings through our projected fictions and accumulate karmic baggage in the process. The idea of taking responsibility for our actions and behaviors is primary to the 12-step recovery process, including an individualized process of confession and purification. This is massively beneficial for the psyche. To hold on to the weight of our past actions and traumas holds back our capacity for recovery, and maintains a partition in our minds between our projected “light” and “shadow” elements. As long as we resist integration of our past grudges, traumas, fears, and missteps, we will remain a fragmented individual. Through taking a moral inventory of our past, we may begin to notice trends in behavior and subsequent circumstances, piecing together some of the ways that our past actions have affected the lives of others and ourselves. Acknowledging that our actions will have measurable effects is primary to any kind of functional engagement with the world around us, and primary to acknowledging that our often-destructive ways of living should be re-evaluated and augmented. While some systems of ethics rely on a kind of moral law set forth by an omnipotent deity, karmic systems rely on self-responsibility and an objective view of behaviors. Performing a negative karmic act does not make you “bad,” it simply predicts the future conditions that will be experienced in a person’s mindstream. Addicts are not bad people, even when they perform bad actions. They are simply acting from a place of suffering, and destructive behaviors will only create destructive circumstances. This all becomes increasingly important when looking at issues of consumption. Cause and effect does not just affect our lovers, enemies, and close acquaintances. Particularly in a global economy, each of our actions as consumers has far-reaching effects that most of us ignore. Our clothing may be made by sweatshop workers in Bangladesh for pennies. Our apples might be shipped on petroleum-propelled planes from South America, covered in pesticides that poisoned the local water supply and caused a local cancer surge. Paying for food at Chik-fil-A may mean that a few of your pennies will support organizations that promote torturous gay “conversion therapy.” Our actions, particularly economic actions, inform our karmic imprints on the world. To take responsibility for our actions is an important step in turning away from dangerous cycles of consumption and addiction.
The Defects of Samsara Samsara, known as khorwa in Tibetan, is the apparent universe of cyclic existence, where sentient beings play out their karmic dramas over successive lifetimes and pretend that everything truly exists. The state of the addict, like that of the consumer, can run through the entire gamut of sentient existence as laid out in the Buddha’s teachings. God-like states of drug-fueled euphoria may quickly devolve into hellish torment. Violent stampedes of shoppers on Black Friday isn’t dissimilar to the gnawing craving of the hungry ghosts, while the extreme aggression of the asuras may be seen in the alcoholic’s rage. Our animal instincts may be abused through escape into pornography or dangerous sexual behaviors, or perhaps through the self-imposition of blissfully ignorant states. Capitalism, the medium through which most of us experience reality on a day-to-day basis, is an inherently doomed system. It relies on the principle of perpetual growth, but our environment is finite. We are already reaching the edges of what we can sustain, which has ushered in an ecological emergency that is only just beginning to unfold. But perhaps more importantly, it has altered our basic notions about what human life is for. While the Christian right likes to speak on the sanctity of human life, these Randian theists have greatly supported the transformation of humans into organic machines by twisting traditional doctrine to support the neoliberal agenda. Consumerism will not save us, regardless of how “green” it may be. If we want to improve both our quality of life and our longevity as a species, we need to abandon our obsession with consumption and pay attention to the underlying needs hiding beneath our craving. More of _____ will not bring us lasting happiness. We must identify the defects of this way of thinking and correct the ways that it has negatively affected our life. Like samsara, the cycle of addiction will not end itself, unless we speak of premature death as being an “end” to suffering (not the case in rebirth-based systems). We must identify it as a defective system, abandon its pursuits, and seek liberation for ourselves and others. This comes at the beginning of the 12 steps, when addicts are led to recognize that their mode of existence is not working in bringing them happiness. More importantly, it must be understood that addiction doesn’t have the capacity to offer happiness. It is on this basis that we can acknowledge our powerlessness over it and our need for a source of refuge. By seeing the folly in the cycle of addiction, it is possible to seek other options.
Addiction recovery, in the 12-step system, is personally founded upon the acknowledgement that we are powerless over our addictions, and that our lives have become unmanageable within our existing system. This is not different from the path of the Vajrayana practitioner. We must acknowledge that the pursuit of fleeting momentary happiness from the base of egocentricity is a dead-end road. Due to our many emotional and cognitive obscurations to innate wisdom, we are unable to recognize and sustain awareness of our true nature. Our unchanging innermost nature is Awakened Mind, yet it is perpetually obscured by “veils” of ignorance. These veils, like our addictions, keep us from seeing reality as it is, and without the aid of a teacher and a program for spiritual development it is functionally impossible to uncover this underlying potential. Freedom is ever-present, so close we could taste it (if it had a taste), but without a guide to point it out to us we run the risk of wasting away in ignorance, never realizing that the proverbial diamond was under our pillow all along.
For the Vajrayana practitioner, the next steps after fully integrating the Four Thoughts would include persistently taking Refuge in the manifestations of awakening (i.e. The Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha), acquainting ourselves with our compassionate Enlightened Mind, purifying our gross and subtle defilements, accumulating merit through the cultivation of generosity, and integrating with the awakened state of the enlightened masters and meditative deities. The 12 steps provide some overlap, with refuge taken in a “Power greater than ourselves,” purification through confession, and overall cultivation of a more selfless mode of existence. Together, these paths provide an excellent opportunity to abandon our deluded programs of existence and work towards individuation, clarity, and spiritual awakening.
My root teacher, Lama Tsultrim Allione, teaches a method for overcoming addiction and fear (and other apparent “demons” lurking in our psyche) through investigation of our neuroses’ underlying wants and needs. This process, expounded in her groundbreaking book “Feeding Your Demons,” reverses the oppositional struggle with our shadow elements and imbues our psychological process with compassion and understanding. Many have found integration of Feeding Your Demons into their recovery process to be highly effective and beneficial not only in their rehabilitation, but in their overall experience of life. This and many other methods for healing are available to us once we make the decision to turn our minds away from patterns of mindless consumption and towards a more direct relationship with our minds and the world around us.
It should be noted that for those dealing with serious addictions, medical and psychological assistance is always advised. Tibetan Medicine has long identified the link between mental and physical health, particularly in the effects of diet and behavior on the mind, so an integrative approach to recovery including nutritional and herbal support (as well as proper medical oversight) is optimal when approaching the treatment of addiction.