But what if we see them as common human responses to life? (Some addictions can be serious and life-threatening and in no way to I want to make light of them, but point to aspects that underlie addictive patterns.) What we label “addiction” can be seen as a means to an experience of something besides the present moment, because that present moment is too painful, uncomfortable, unbearable or causes suffering. We ultimately want relief, an escape, a release, more peace, or to be more comfortable.
Emotions can be extremely uncomfortable. Sorrow, sadness, anger, grief, frustration, or even intense pleasure or joy can be very uncomfortable for some. Physical pain - either from extreme injuries, serious disease, or low-level chronic illnesses- can be unbearable and cause suffering. Even our thoughts can be self-sabotaging, self-critical, or somehow keep us from achieving our goals in life. These human experiences can be too much for us to handle. So we find something to help.
A friend recently shared this Tim Ferriss interview with one of the world’s leading addiction experts, Dr. Gabor Maté. Dr. Maté worked for many years with people struggling with addiction. He's also an advocate for using plant medicine (in some cases) to help people overcome their addictive patterns.
“Addiction”, as Dr. Maté defines it, is when there is a craving for a pattern (or substance), a negative long-term impact of engaging in it and the inability to give it up. After his work in treating addiction over many years, he saw that addictive patterns start in childhood, as we develop coping mechanisms in response to our environment. The patterns helped us at one time deal with difficulties early in life, but are no longer helping us in the present to live the life we are desiring. We respond to our current environment in automatic patterns that began as our brains developed as children. Dr. Maté emphasizes that NOTHING IS WRONG with us to have these reactions, emotions, or sensations and for reaching for something to help. What if our addictive patterns are our responses to something arising in our consciousness that we don’t know how else to deal with? He also encourages us to refrain from blaming the environment, but to accept is as it was (or is in the present). If we see nothing is wrong with us or our environment, we start to get curious about how we are responding.
Many addictive behaviors are automatic and unconscious, we don’t even know we are doing them…until we do. I’ve found myself reaching for the 2nd or 3rd cup of caffeine (or alcohol), chocolate, tobacco, or diverting my attention to endless internet surfing, etc.
Once I notice, sometimes, I stop and catch myself, remembering what is happening and drop into the experience of discomfort. Other times, I notice, and yet the pattern is so strong, it still plays itself out. But what HAS shifted, is that I don’t blame myself, shame myself, beat myself up or punish myself anymore (or anyone else). I simply see it as a pattern, accept it and take a moment to drop in further. What is it I am avoiding that is leading me to this? What is this pattern trying to show me right now? Might it simply be an old pattern from childhood replaying itself over and over again? What is actually needed in this moment beyond the addictive pattern?
With the curiosity, I feel more empowered. I get to explore what is underlying my response and addictive pattern - a call for deep healing. I see how the pattern is impacting me - the truth of the impact. And I get to learn what it is ultimately trying to teach me - my higher self knocking on the door.
Supportive people can welcome and accept us as we are, and point us in the direction of expansion and growth. Some can even help us repair the old wounds, so that we do not have to live in the outdated pattern anymore. Other non-humans, such as plants, herbs and animals, can also offer us support, through their presence, acceptance and non-verbal ways of teaching us who we are.
Having practices we routinely return to, can also help us in the healing journey. We naturally have practices we gravitate towards to bring more ease and peace. These practices can be spending time in nature, listening to music, making art, yoga, meditation, qi gong, mantra, prayer, and any other rituals where we slow down from our normal lives to pay attention to something else. These practices help us develop our inner healing capacity and expand expand our consciousness. We can grow our own inner resources to be with ourselves in the painful and uncomfortable experiences, and can shift the old patterns into ones that better serve our life path.
One powerful tool that isn’t the right fit for everyone is the use of psychedelics and plant medicines. Plant medicines have been an integral part of my own healing journey. Anyone feeling called to work with these medicines, I would highly advise doing your research on any medical contraindications, finding reputable healers and guides, and to prepare for proper committed psychological preparation and integration. (I have been helping people prepare and integrate their plant medicine experiences for the last 5 years. You can read more about one of my own early plant medicine experiences in this blog post and learn more about my work here.) I agree with Dr. Maté when he says that these experiences can open doors in healing, because they quickly bypass the ego (the formed, conditioned mind that holds these automatic responses). He cautions they can not be taken in isolation and that these experiences have to be integrated into our lives with the support of others and development of practices. Otherwise they can become only a memory of experience and not useful in healing on a deeper level.
It’s in finding the right mix of support and practices, that we can shift these old patterns. It is most commonly a gradual process over time (possibly with miraculous leaps too!) that bring us to a healthier, up-to-date operating system where we have access to our true potential.
At times, it might not be the time to dive into our pain and discomfort, sit with it, process it, and heal it. Especially traumas - deep physical, emotional and psychological wounds- can be intensely debilitating to experience again, without the proper support. The things we turn to can be medicine, supporting us with qualities we need in the moment: grounding, pain relief, nourishment, energy, or simply a break. However, the spectrum of what we at one time use as a medicine, can become a poison or turn into an addiction without conscious awareness.
It’s up to us to determine where that line and balance is. How do we come to terms with the range of impacts? Can we tell ourselves the truth- are we actually able to give them up? With some of the so-called hard addictions, the long-term negative impacts may not only be consequential to living our lives, but also life-threatening, and yet we are still unable to let them go. For some softer addictions, we may be able to let them go - for a day, a week, a month at a time- working through the pattern with moderation. Sometimes, this can in fact teach us at a more sustainable pace, bringing stability to new patterns.
Here, we find at least a moment of peace and truth, free from the pain and suffering we were experiencing. This is an important moment- in that moment, we are a reminded of how it feels to live without suffering. While some addictive patterns numb us out, we are free of the suffering for a moment. With other patterns, we may have access to other parts of ourselves that get overshadowed by the pain. Maybe we have more creativity, realizations and insights, we feel more comfortable and safe in our bodies, or we can see clearly what actions to take. Our higher wisdom is not only pointing us to healing, but to what we are beyond the healing, beyond the addiction, beyond the pain.
The journey through and beyond addiction is the teacher, teaching us about our humanity. There is nothing wrong with us, but everything perfectly human about us. Each and every one of us.
Many blessings for our journeys,
Protectress of Mother Earth, Energy Healing, Plant Medicine Integration, Coach, Writer