“I am whole and perfect in every way.” From a spiritual perspective, life’s journey can be seen as an attempt to reclaim this truth. In fact, even our addictions can be a result of our attempts at restoration. Even our addictions can come out of the attempt to restore the connection to our true nature. Addictive behavior is categorically a response to the felt sense that something is out of balance, that we have forgotten our essential self, forgotten the truth of who and what we are. In our addictive behavior, we are usually looking for something outside of ourselves to help us manage something that feels disturbed or broken within. It’s a solution to the problem of the fragmented self. In his book The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz introduces us to the concept of “the domestication of the human”—the process whereby we receive messages about, in his words, “who we should be, what we shouldn’t be, who we (are), and who we (are) not.” That’s what I’m talking about here as spiritual disconnection. It’s the separation from our essential nature.
We come into this world as spiritual beings intuitively experiencing our oneness with Source. If you look at a very small child, you recognize this connection with the pristine self. My first book Conscious Being opens with the following story that illustrates this: A young couple had a toddler, and then they had a second baby. When they brought the baby home, they realized the toddler was tiptoeing and sneaking into the infant’s room at night. Because they were curious about this, they put up a baby cam to record what the toddler was doing in the room. To their surprise they discovered that the toddler was leaning over the crib and saying to the infant, “Please tell me about God. I'm beginning to forget.”
This is a powerful demonstration of the domestication of the human. We come into this world seeking the love that we know we are. We are designed to receive love, to see our love reflected back to us. But many of us don't experience that as small children. Or we do, but it’s not enough. It’s mixed up with other conflicting messages. From a very early age, life begins to teach us the opposite of what we come here intuitively knowing. We come into this world knowing our essential nature and our oneness with Source, but very quickly “the tall people” begin to teach us otherwise. These adults, often very loving and well-meaning, begin (quite often unconsciously) teaching us about “the world.” They teach us attitudes and approaches to life like competition, fear, scarcity, and separation.
I love the phrase “domestication of the human” because it calls to mind the domestication of wild animals. When we domesticate animals, we call it “breaking them,” or “breaking their spirit.” That's what happens to human beings as we enter this realm of existence. Most of us get taught all sorts of things that are a fundamental lie about who and what we genuinely are.
CORE FALSE BELIEFS
If we’re born with a solid connection to our divine nature, what happens to that connection? Most of us come into a world that teaches us about fear, separation, and competition. We learn things about ourselves and our world that are contrary to the fundamental truth that we are whole and perfect. Adults, often well-meaning, try to prepare us for the world by teaching us to fight, to wall off our emotions, to criticize. These lessons are based on lies that I call “core false beliefs.” The deepest root of addiction is this: we learn and we appropriate core false beliefs, which break the connection with our true nature. This fragments us and pushes us to turn outward for validation, love, and peace of mind.
Our core false beliefs, which frequently stem from generalized unresolved trauma and spiritual disconnection, may leave us feeling broken. In response, we might look for things to make that feeling go away. That is often the foundational malady of addictive behavior. I have seen it repeatedly: What is most often at the core of addictive behavior is this sense of brokenness within and the search for something outside ourselves to help us manage the resulting discomfort. Looked at in this way, addictive behavior can be seen as a strategy, even a brilliant strategy, for survival. When our sense of self is fragmented, when we see ourselves as fundamentally broken, that’s a very, very painful way to live. We feel like we're surviving rather than thriving, walking around with a sense of separation, a feeling of fear, a belief that we can’t reveal our true selves because there’s something wrong with us. And when we discover something like gambling or sex or drugs, it can bring us relief from that terrible pain. Many clients have told me that their addiction was the most consistent relationship in their life. That’s a powerful awareness.
Addictive behavior is a strategy that may work for a long time; it might succeed in protecting us from the desperation that might otherwise overwhelm us. I, myself used drugs and alcohol to numb the pain of my core false beliefs; my substance abuse kept me from killing myself or losing my sanity. For me, drugs and alcohol were a brilliant strategy that worked well—until they stopped serving me.
It’s not just a matter of basic survival or avoiding suicide or insanity. Our addictive strategies can help us make sense of the world and find relief from pain and suffering. If we have a core belief that the world is not safe—if that is our lived experience, our reality—then we tend to develop strategies for making these beliefs more bearable. We might shut down emotionally, refusing to open to others. We might implement stringent physical security measures to try to protect ourselves and our families. We might become overly controlling. These things serve not only to keep us from spiraling into a state of chronic anxiety but also to validate our core false belief in the inherent danger of life.
We often hear addictive behavior described in other terms—as a disease, or as a coping mechanism. Both can seem inherently negative in connotation. They suggest that that there's something wrong that needs to be fixed. “I am an addict and that’s what’s wrong.” In the western medical model, the problem is the disease of addiction, and it’s addressed by treating the symptoms, whether they be physical, social, or emotional. And calling addiction a “coping mechanism” suggests that a person is less able to function than “normal” people and needs the crutch of the addictive behavior to get along in life.
Both perspectives have their place in our recovery. But they are limited. They both see addiction as the problem rather than as a sign that something is out of alignment internally, on the spiritual level. They are based on a negative assessment of addictive behavior (“it’s the problem”), and this makes it difficult to see anything else. Reframing addiction as a brilliant strategy, as a self-preserving human response to a problem, removes the negative judgment from our perspective and invites us to ask ourselves a couple of key questions: “What is my addictive behavior a response to? What problem is it trying to solve?” As a brilliant strategy, addictive behavior—whether it using drugs and alcohol, gambling, sex, work, etc.—can serve to bring relief from a profound sense of uneasiness in the world, of disconnection and fragmentation. Recognizing addictive behavior as a brilliant strategy gives us clarity about what’s authentically happening inside. It tells us something about the wholeness we are truly seeking. It tells us, with terrifying clarity, where we're stuck, where we're shut down, and where we're closed off. Then we can simply ask the questions: “Is this strategy still working? Is it still serving me? Is there a better way?”