A Reflection on Addiction and Grace:
Its Spiritual Correlations and Potentials
“To be alive is to be addicted. To be addicted is to [stand or to live in the need of Grace.” This statement was made to me by Dr. Gerald May, a psychiatrist and spiritual director. He was my supervisor and the clinical director of the Shalem Institute, in Washington DC , where I received my training in spiritual direction. He was the author of Addiction and Grace. (Harper and Row)
At first, I recoiled when I heard those seemingly harsh words- I was defensive and I thought that it was an unfair, sweeping generalization, a sweeping indictment that we were all supposed share, another curse, that felt like it was an additional form of original sin. But, as we began to discuss its meaning in our personal and spiritual lives, I came to realize the truth that statement had for me, and for all of us.
This evening, I will share with you some of the connections I have made between the concepts of addiction and attachment, between addiction and spirituality, and conclude with a working model that blends insights from my work with the concept of spiritual emergence that can result in forming a new look at grace, and adding to the dimensions of human freedom. This model will represent the basis for our later discussion and how any of us can make sense of suffering, addiction, and our need for spiritual awareness, change and growth.
Like Dr. May, when we become more aware of ourselves we are better equipped to handle any of life’s difficulties. Self-knowledge is the most universal factor that links all the world religions; it is the cornerstone of spiritual maturity. As this applies to freedom for addictions of any kind, St. Paul reminds us, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is our freedom.” (II Cor. 3; or Galatians 5 The fruits of the Spirit, gentleness, self control etc.)
As we become more spiritually aware or discerning, we can assess our problems and progress more clearly- that is, without remorse or guilt. Such negative emotions only retard growth or recycle blame and shame, all of which works to keep us unworthy, imprisoned, trapped.
Instead, we can accept and practice increasing our self-knowledge and spiritual awareness. With this change of attitude, we can welcome an inventory of one’s feelings and experiences and evaluate them as opportunities for developing an identity that values wholeness and holiness.
This more spiritual and nonjudgmental perspective names every addiction we have and identifies them clearly. Addictions of all types are undisclosed, undiscovered, or disguised spiritual needs; in other words, addictions are counterfeit spirituality that hides or masks our need for our lifelong acceptance and replenishment of God’s grace, peace and love. ( From Matt Fox’s interviews etc.)
These behaviors, once they are learned and rehearsed. act as crafty forgeries; as counterfeits and substitutes for the spiritual ideas and nurturing we need most. Addictions and attachments create false desires and physiological cravings that substitutes for the work ,energy and dedication we need to grow beyond our toxic beliefs about ourselves, others, God, and the world.
There has been a lot of attention given to the multiple problems included within drug abuse in our society. Thousands of books and articles have created libraries full of data. These well researched sources have always tried to neatly and scientifically categorize drugs into legal and illegal, or into their many physiological and pharmacological effects. When drug awareness and education are taught with that emphasis, the results are recreational chemists and gourmet users. It would be far better if our understanding of drugs was more democratic and universal. It would be more suitable and hospitable to understanding its scope and depth if we realize that almost any substance or activity can be used as a drug.
What is a drug? Some time ago, when I first began to CO-teach classes in drug education, I learned that a drug could be defined as anything that could alter your mind, your mood or your motion. Mind, Mood, or Motion… in short, anything -any substance, outlook, attitude or activity taken or used to alter one’s basic reality!
Under these parameters, we, as individuals and we, as a society, have to admit that we condone many forms of addictions and consider them quite normal!
In fact, our culture seems to breed, even encourage many addictions, compulsions, and all varieties of dysfunctions- we can hardly limit it to just illegal substances. I look forward to the day when we are honest about all the various kinds of addictions we promote- when there is finally sufficient concern to alter our focus away from only the illegal drugs and put our attention on alcohol, tobacco, sugar, and caffeine, food additives, etc. Simply the list of legal, lethal killers.
Additionally, if we really desire to be honest, our society supports and condones strong addictions to work, success, money, and material achievement. We encourage addictions to social approval, clothing, shopping malls, beauty, overt sexuality and many forms of image making and ego identification. Maybe worse of all, is the addiction to money and its collusion to political power, its risk-taking, and its war-making.
Just to round it off, there are addictions to exercise, TV, sex, family ties; to substances like chocolate, fried foods, even addictions to wanting to be helpful, to seeking help from others, or trying to save people from themselves! DID I MISS ANY ??? Over the years, I have developed or experienced at least one from every category.
To summarize, anything can be used as a drug, therefore can be potentially abused, and possibly addicting. Dependencies, attachments, addictions of all sorts are intrinsic parts of the human condition, a part of everyone of us that stands in the need of Grace.
Medically speaking, Dr. May defines addiction this way: He said that whenever 4 of these 5 following characteristics are witnessed, a state of addiction is present. They are:
1) When there is an increased tolerance for larger amounts
2) When withdrawal causes physical or emotional distress
3) When a person engages in continual self-deception and/or social denial
4) When there is a conscious loss of will to stop or change the destructive behavior
5) When there is a distortion of attention, or a skewing of the importance placed on the activity itself-
so that it preoccupies or becomes “an all consuming central activity in daily life”
Addictions exist whenever a person feels internally compelled to give it inordinate energy. It is a state of compulsion, obsession, or a state of preoccupation that enslaves our will and imprisons our freedom. In more spiritual terms, addictions diminish us; reduce our ability to act, choose, respond with love to the realities that are around us, and within us. When we are addicted, we react out of distorted ego needs- we find ourselves asking,” what am I going to get out of this ?” the intention here is to define all activity by a self-centered, often manipulative, and egotistical whim.
Religiously speaking, addictions act as rivals to God; as idols and as counterfeit deities that vie for our attention, care, that rob us our freedom, time or love because they demand service and obligatory worship. Currently, our society’s reinforced drive for pleasure, power, and possessions have formed an unholy trinity in our cultural lifestyle. This troika has been quite successful in keeping many of us away from finding our true, spiritual selves; these demands keep us numb and keep us distant from forming and maintaining meaningful connections and relationships, away from finding God within us or all around us. Such preoccupation also keep us from working for justice, equality, and human dignity as children of one human family, equal children of God.
As citizens of the United States, we belong to and we maintain the most addictive society in the world. From Madison Ave. to Marshalls, we are bombarded with all the things we want, need, or “just have to have.” We promote and advertise all kinds of compulsions and dependencies everyday. With the advent of Mass media, the Internet, and around the clock advertising, they have become almost automatic; ingrained. Our whole culture is geared around consumption. If you buy this, it will make you . . . (fill in the blank… happy, healthy, sexy, popular, and a great success… somehow better more acceptable… We fail to ask ourselves, to whom? For what purpose? At what cost?
In the medical establishment, the case is one of clear and blatant hypocrisy- legal drug abuse by prescription rivals almost anything for sale that could be found on our streets or back alleys. Maybe, if brutally honest, we should change our national motto from “In God We Trust,” to “Drugs R US.”
But cultures do not change before the people within them do, so I will not go on with my acerbic social commentary except to say that the desire for a better world begins and ends within each of us: daily, one step at a time. None of us are totally free, just as no person is without recourse to transformative spiritual power, intentionality or will, or the possibilities of an inbreaking grace. Most cogent and important to all of these considerations that lead us to healing and freedom might be this:
We are, and we live in constant relationship to one another, and the quality of those relationships can become the determining factor that eventually frees us of our worst attachments. As a part of the shared social reality, we are to assist and empower one another to understand what freedom means, and what living more spiritually can do or accomplish. Our world exists and is maintained by our shared unity; by our declaration of interdependence that is Godly and gracious.
What is grace? What kind of inspiration do we need to break attachments, overcome addictions, really change our lives? If you received a traditional religious or church based education or if your exposure to religion was mainline or conventional, you would define grace as:
“[the unmerited, undeserved, loving care that God gives to all humans.]” Accordingly, grace isn’t something you can earn, nor can it be purchased, nor can any amount of so-called ascetic “good” behavior ensure it or provide you with it. It’s just there- ready and waiting -latent not dormant, given, not deserved.
Some Western theologies state that such God-given grace is our only way out because human nature is so sinful and depraved. Only by professing a strict creedal faith or only under the direct authority of a church’s rites and rituals can anyone ever receive or maintain a sufficient sense of grace in their lives. I prefer to take off these leaden and overly laden theological shoes and remove the heavy burden of obligatory beliefs.
I would declare that ANY real or truly spiritual community can act as a support agency or facilitator for God’s gracious insights, transformation, and healing. This community might not conform to the traditional pulpits and pews, or be the usual church, temple or synagogue. It could also be an ashram, a peaceful place in nature, a “step” meeting, sacred time in someone’s arms or a deep sharing circle among intimate friends.
If we take Jesus’ definition of church and expand it a little, we would be able to confidently say that a spiritual community exists ” wherever two or more are gathered in My name”; wherever and whenever there is a loving, holy, and sincere connection that can be found. Church can be experienced or made accessible whenever we find ourselves in the compassionate presence and/or involved in the transformative power of a holy intention. (or genuine and shared esoteric ritual)
Most theologies concur that grace is involuntary and on that basis, “irresistible”. We can not tell when it will appear, or how it will manifest its blessings to us. Because we are loved by God, we are given grace sufficient to amend our lives and save our souls. (our psyches or our consciousness). However, even when we willingly follow that theological reasoning, most of our Western churches declare that” we are all sinners who fall far short of deserving the grace of God.” I can swallow hard and begrudgingly agree with this assumption, IF that view also means that we all have our rival attachments and demeaning addictions and we all have need of God’s empowering grace to free us and heal us.
This approach has its value when it corrects the faulty arrogant notion that audaciously states that we are in total control of our lives, and that we can overcome anything with sufficient personal willpower. Such an extreme view, is neither helpful nor accurate to our interdependence with God which is a fact of total consciousness and complete spiritual being. Neither is it accurate, fair or compassionate to declare that we are totally powerless. While I know that this latter approach has found favor among many of the Anonymous groups, and I have seen it work its miracles, for some 30% of all addicts, I cannot agree with its emphasis on labeling someone as having a disease that they are totally powerless or defenseless to overcome. While it successfully avoids pernicious moral judgments, it does very little to reinforce human dignity or self worth.
As I have come to define it, understand and experience it, the grace we need comes from the grace we are willing to seek, the grace we are willingly to change our egos for, or the grace necessary to accept a new spiritual and ethical standard for our lives. For me, that grace is the one that uplifts me with a blend of loving acceptance and contains a higher incentive or a holy idealism. It is a grace that hold two factors in a dynamic synthesis- it is grace and will, extremity and opportunity, it is readiness and the willingness to follow-through.
In more traditional theological and metaphysical language, it is the experience of “SYNERGISTIC GRACE. (A term first discovered or named by Philip Melcanthon, a early Reformation theologian who first postulated that grace and will must work together in some way) Synergistic grace is based on our invitation and our willingness or readiness to respond to it.
As we invite it into our awareness in two ways: We can either consciously welcome the influences of an active grace by direct behavior change, or as it comes to us unconsciously through our gradual preparation and continued openness to those subtle mental, emotional, and spiritual changes that percolate upward into our conscious awareness. Both ways can change us dramatically.
Ironically, this manifestation of grace comes most readily when we are the closest to despair, or when we feel the most desperate. It comes when our personal willpower is defeated, when our ego games and distortions no longer work, and like some large psychic black hole, finally implodes in our hearts or draws us into its vast emptiness. It occurs when our gnawing neediness can no longer by satisfied by our manipulative strategies or repeated denials. This synergistic grace of God manifests when we are at our lowest ebb which is the exalting paradox: when we are the farthest from our egotism, when we are the most desperate, lonely, divided, and ready to change, that is when God’s presence comes closest to us, and becomes most real and true.
As Meister Echkart refers to it, [ God is not found in adding more things to our lives, more activities and diversions, instead God is found through subtraction, through emptiness and letting go- through simplicity and subtraction our readiness makes room where in we can find the God that is within all things, even our suffering].
This transformative event is an act of God that moves our awareness into the state, the great mystics have generally called, “Holy Surrender”. Holy, because it transcends our accustomed and accumulated ways or routines and allows us to give them up or surrender them to a greater love and a larger hope.
I firmly believe that it is this cooperative grace, this synergy of grace and will, and not grace alone, is what breaks the bonds of our personal forms of imprisonment. It is necessary and vital that we actively participate in our own healing and wholeness each day. For as we actively participate in keeping ourselves locked within our attachments, our dependencies, our suffering, we are capable of changing our focal points and emphasis, and we can act to reinforce our healing insights and maintain our breakthroughs in our daily lives. Our all too human, all too common path is this: We lock into our addictions and dependencies, until God frees us or gives us the key…
Then it is our task to remember how not to imprison ourselves again or to become aware of what can be “healthy substitutes” for any and all of the other addictions we had let go for our freedom to be realized.
There is a bit of proverbial wisdom that states,” Our human extremities are really God’s opportunities.” For the most part, that’s true. How many of us would have changed our behavior one iota, if we remained successful at it? If we did not feel increasingly ground down under its whirring blades or burdened by its emotional grinding stone? Until we are willing to give up on our hurtful and futile drives or neediness, our inner lacks, and our personal fears, would any of us honestly say we were truly ready and willing to make spiritual progress, really ready to decide for meaningful and lasting change in our lives??? And if, as I suggest, that addictions of any sort are, in reality, our undisclosed, undiscovered spiritual yearnings, unless we intentionally make the ground of our soul ready to receive the holy seed of transformation, we will lie barren, addicted, and unfulfilled.
Unless we decide to invite or make ready our consciousness, either through spiritual discipline, preparation, or holy courage, we will not change. We are given, through grace and our own free will, the ability to follow through on God’s opportune blessings and inspiration and receive real inner peace– that loving assurance we had never felt before, a love and a peace we can desire and deserve.
Lastly, I have found it helpful to look at our various afflictions and attachment this way: That our addictions assist us by taking us to the point where we are compelled to find God and to discover our true spiritual identities. Our addictions and afflictions teach us about where God needs to be in our lives, and where or kinds of inspiration can make us whole again: whether that area is in our families, relationships, our sense of belonging, fulfillment or usefulness.
Wherever we need more freedom, God is to be found. Addictions are our upside-down blessings; because without their pain and their suffering we might never know or come to experience the spiritual depths of our souls- its true joy, peace, love. If being alive also means being addicted, then we all share in an equal mutual human necessity to grow, evolve and change. Similarly, we can seek out various spiritual communities that genuinely acknowledge this truth and provide the resources necessary to support its discovery among others and our society at large. And we can join their ranks without censure, without trying to hide any guilt, shame or any of the fears we have wrestled with in life.
It is my hope that this interfaith community that is being founded will become such a spiritual community and become a place where we can learn how to face our afflictions and addictions with compassion and courage. I also believe that as we are becoming such a spiritual community of mutual blessings, each of us will experience a sense of knowing about the wisdom necessary for freedom and spiritual growth and that in genuine community, the quality of loving support can be abundantly found. AMEN
Pastoral Prayer: Readiness for Grace (A dialogue with our hands)
Dear God, Father/Mother/Spirit that is the source of our higher realities, and giver of healing gifts that are good and gracious….
How is it that you must test me so? I’m really trying, but You know that… Why is it that I am not free of my suffering???
Then God said, “Open your hands… How can you hope to pray with such clenched fists, or receive Me by hanging on fiercely to something you love or believe you need more than me?”
But God, I said, “I can’t let go; its my whole world.”
Am I less than that?” said God.
No, that’s not what I meant …. Well its like this… I cling to what makes me happy; it soothes me, and I can be sure of its pleasure or rewards. I can’t let go of it, unless I let go of my control over my life.
And God said, “Let go… reach for me, and I will be there. Step out, and I will catch and support you; Open your heart, and I will bind up your wounds…”