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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Addiction and Aversion - The Root Causes of the Ego's Suffering

"We are not allied with any sect . . ."
We are so fortunate that Bill, Dr. Bob and the collective consciousness of A.A. as a whole chose not to ally our movement with "any sect, denomination, politics organization or institution." Since they did, it allows the alcoholic addict who is an A.A. member to explore all of the world's religious and wisdom traditions to find what they may have to add to his or her sobriety. (Remember, "we have no monopoly" and we ought to be "quick to see where religious people are right.")

The Foreword to the Second Edition of Alcoholics Anonymous, first released in 1955, tells us that there are a broad range of A.A. members from many religious backgrounds: "Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Hindus, and a sprinkling of Moslems and Buddhists." The same Second Edition of the 'Big Book' also includes the Spiritual Experience Appendix for the first time. In it we read that, of the then 150,000 or so members, "With few exceptions our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves."

It was the majority view that this "unsuspected inner resource" (after all, who would think to look in "there" for a Higher Power, much less God?) was seen as "the essence of spiritual experience." And, we are told, that  the "more religious" A.A. members of the time called it "God-consciousness."

This is great news, really, as a bevvy of scientists, philosophers and ardent spiritual seekers - from William James in his Varieities of Religious Experience, to Bill Wilson's friend Aldous Huxley in his Perennial Philosophy - have identified this inner religious or spiritual experience as a universal phenomena amongst all of the world's wisdom traditions, in all ages.

I had such an experience the night I put down the bottle and the bag. Yet, it was another 15 years (four-and-a-half of which I spent outside of A.A.) before I would experience this for the second time. Fortunately, an old-timer who reached out to me, a renewed interest in Buddhism, and the only 'enlightened' member of A.A. (or any non-member, for that matter) that I've ever met, were able to help me understand what this experience and its potential was.

I was urged to "study all religions" until I could see the "sameness" in them all. Turning to my interest in Buddhism and the Advaita Vedanta (a Hindu yoga school), I began to practice meditation, with instruction from my enlightened friend who had been a daily meditator for 35-odd years. Through this, I came to understand the nature of my mind (an epic "alcoholic mind") and the cause of all my suffering: my "think, think, thinking!" Buddhist teachings helped me to clarify the nature and cause of that suffering, together with the "common solution" that is offered to us all in A.A.

Our alcoholic addiction drives the sufferer to look for a "solution" to his or her problem. And we are presented with a "common solution" to the underlying problem of our alcoholic addiction: a power greater than the human "ego" or "self" that drives us blindly.

In Bhuddist teachings, the Buddha identifies "addiction" and "aversion" as the root causes of 'suffering,' or, what he called dukkha (i.e., the feelings of insufficiency, impermanency and insatiable emptiness that results from the things, peoples, places, roles and all the ideas which we cherish, being ultimately incapable of satisfying us). What the Buddha meant by "addiction," however, was an addiction to the self-absorbed thoughts (Bill's "painful inner dialogue") of the "ego."

In the normal sense of addiction, we think of a person who must constantly and continuously take a drug - and, yes, alcohol is a drug, even though it is in a liquid form and legal in most countries - failing which, he or she suffers 'withdrawal' symptoms; physical distress accompanied by mental anguish and suffering triggered by the body and mind of the addict not having the substance it is used to in its system. These symptoms, of course, kick in and cause a craving that the addict will pay almost any price to fulfill. Anyone who has long witnessed another going through detoxification knows that to say that an addict suffering withdrawal from alcohol or any other such physically addictive drug is "irritable, restless and discontent" is quite the mild understatement of the hard truth.

If the alcoholic addict gives in to the cravings of the withdrawal symptoms he or she picks up, with "little or no control" over how much is consumed. And, we know that one more is never enough. Of course, all addicts are naturally adverse to the consequences - both physical and mental - that result from the non-fulfillment of the craving, so many 'pick up' and once again begin to chase the ever-elusive high that once relieved all suffering. Only when the alcoholic addict is free from the physical cravings, can he or she begin working on the real problem; the addiction of the mind to its self-centered, self-conscious way of thinking, and the seemingly imperative need to act on these thoughts despite the potential effects they have for herself or others.

"A double-minded man is unstable
in all his ways."
(James 1:8)
Self-examination and meditation allow us to become familiar with the specific thoughts that repeat themselves over and over, as well as the way that we are conditioned to think (i.e., our "attitudes," or habitual way of thinking; and God only knows, we love a habit!). With familiarity, we can then face, and face down, the skewed thoughts that keep us "irritable, restless and discontent" until they are dealt with. We find that there are really two "selves" - the narrow "self" of ordinary human egoic self-consciousness, and the higher "Self" of an enlightened (or if you prefer, God) consciousness.

End the addiction and adversion, the Buddha taught, and you end suffering. But to do so, one needs to see that the addictions and aversions are fruitless and non-realistic, figments of the smaller "self." Our addictions to the thoughts of the people, things and ideas that we must 'get' or 'hold onto' is illusory. All things are impermanent, and in any event they are ultimately unfulfilling and insufficient to permanently satisfy our addiction to what they represent to us. ("It is divinely impossible to satisfy the human ego," the inimitable Chuck C. used to say.) The new car you must have, is only satisfying until someone dents it with their car door. Then it is suddenly problematic and - presto! - you are once again suffering.

Similarly our aversions can never be permanently averted. In life everything is impermanent, and we will eventually lose everything, even our lives. Cars break down, as do relationships. We lose family and friends, either due to indifference or death. Looks fade, the heat of a true love cools to something deeper or evaporates, and the money will be spent. We will all have to face and face down our fears, sooner or later.

But how to end the addictions and aversions and, thus, the suffering? The Buddha lays out an eightfold path to the end of suffering (the fourth of his Four Noble Truths); Judaism has the Ten Commandments and 633 mitzvots; Christianity has the Golden Rule ("Love God, and do unto others as you would have them do unto you"); A.A. has the Twelve Steps. All are legitimate means to treat the conditions of suffering caused by the human ego.

" . . . self-examination, meditation and prayer . . ."
We are fortunate people. The 12 Steps give us a "spiritual tool kit" and specific directions, so that we may build happy and purposeful lives.

In Dr. Bob's simple admonition, we learn to, "Trust God, Clean House, and Help Others!" Working the Steps on a daily basis, and engaging in the interwoven and logically interrelated practice of "self-examination, meditation and prayer" gives us what Bill describes as "an unshakeable foundation." It is a foundation shared by all the world's great wisdom traditions, as is the spiritual or religious experience of higher, God-consciousness that it is designed to produce.

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