Solution Talk: Transformation

“No problem can be solved by the same level of consciousness that created it” (Albert Einstein). Emotional addiction is a central process in consciousness. We are hyper-alert to an emotional siren that will set us off toward more seeking, more manipulation of our exaggerated needs. If Albert is correct, it follows that a raised consciousness is necessary to recovery. I am simply calling it transformation.


Haiku Stairs – Hawaii

Life is a series of transformations. Many theorists have created maps of human development with anywhere from two to ten stages. Moving from one stage to another is a transformation. The childhood stages happen almost automatically, propelled by biology and the care of families. By adulthood (some would say adolescence) transformation becomes more intentional, requiring more support from the culture and contact with the natural world. It relies on self-emptying, which lets something new get in.

Ken Wilber describes a 1-2-3 process of transformation.¹ The first step, fusion, is where you are at now – your current worldview. A better way of relating to everything is enfolded within you, but you are not conscious of it. Next comes differentiation, the unfolding. It sounds pretty but it feels more like falling apart, even dying. Yet in the process you glimpse something new, a taste of the next stage. It is, by definition, an expanded view – more tolerant, more plurality. Finally, there is integration, where you put yourself back together and regain stability.

An important concept in Wilber’s psychology is that the new stage does not replace, but instead integrates the previous stage. The old self is not rejected. It is part of something bigger.

Ken Keyes gives us one of these maps which anticipate where we are going. He describes seven “centers” of consciousness.² The first three are the addictive centers of unhappiness: security, sensation and power. The next two are in the recovery zone and the last two are transcendent. Let’s consider the recovery centers.

Love Center

Transformation also requires a practice. The essential practice in the crossover from emotional addiction to recovery is to “uplevel” your supposed need for satisfaction into a preference. More optional than a need or even a desire. We can prefer lots of things. No limit, really. When something else arrives we can accept it if we only preferred it. Your tolerance for the objective environment and subjective experience increases.

To go further, you realize that everybody else is also struggling with or driven by their emotional addictions. They do not act for the purpose of thwarting your happiness. You do not need to change them, though you would prefer their own recovery.

Cornucopia Center

In this center, you have everything you need. It is a world of abundance (“cornucopia” means “horn of plenty”) instead of a world of scarcity. Your standard reaction to anything is either, “It’s OK,” or, “It’s enough.” This center of conscious stands in contradiction to the addictive attitude, which says, “It’s never enough.”

Even life’s challenges and provocations are giving you what you need – the opportunity to practice your recovery.

  1. Wilber, Ken. The spectrum of consciousness. Quest Books, 1993.
  2. Keyes, Ken. Handbook to Higher Consciousness. Berkeley, Calif: Living Love Center, 1975.

Solution Talk: Pathways To Sobriety

People in recovery structure their stories along the lines of “what it was like; what happened; what it is like now.” There is a curious tendency to emphasize the first part – the problem. Alcoholics call it the drunk-a-logue. Therapists call it the problem-saturated story. The solutions are surely mysterious and even people who have experienced one may not always have the language to conceptualize it or describe it.


Tianmen Mountain Road (China)

If the solution involves a transpersonal strength – a higher power or something larger than ourselves – there actually is no language available to describe it. All spiritual language is necessarily metaphor. There is a saying attributed to Henrich Zimmer: “The best things in life cannot be told. The second best things are misunderstood. The third best things are everyday conversation.” Spiritual solution talk is second best.

I have come across three solution paths in my travels and two are overtly transpersonal. There are, I assume, many other possibilities. Again, I am concerned with emotional sobriety. Sobriety (or harm reduction) from substances or behaviors is and should be the immediate problem. In the case of certain substances recovery requires intensive medical care. Go there first.

For “users and players” emotional sobriety is the second, further journey. For everybody else, they might start out on one of these three paths:

  • the path of Higher Consciousness – using the thought of Ken Keyes and Ken Wilber
  • the path of Divine Therapy – using the thought of Thomas Keating
  • the path of Twelve Steps – from Bill Wilson and Alcoholics Anonymous

In the next three blog posts I will attempt a sketch of each one, adding how I make sense of them in an integrated life.

The Primary Addiction That We All Suffer

We all know about substance addictions and we have heard about some “process” addictions like gambling. Recently, more attention has been paid to sexual addictions (a double-hot issue since both sex and addiction are loaded with shame, for some reason). If we have managed to avoid these dreaded conditions then are we in the clear? Nope. We still have the very first addiction, and the most insidious.

Peasants Quarrelling in an Interior - Adriaen Brouwer

Peasants Quarreling in an Interior – Adriaen Brouwer – 1630

Our primary addictions are to serenity strategies, set up in early childhood when the ego is getting organized. Emotion is the energy that keeps us attached (addicted) to our (largely unconscious) strategies. When things go well we are temporarily content. When the world does not cooperate, we have a variety of afflictive emotions and we double down on the strategy. Life is a see-saw battle with an elusive destination.

Thomas Keating identified three serenity strategies that emerge in the child to augment true needs that are lacking in an imperfect world.¹ He called them “programs for happiness.”

  • Safety and security – I need continuity and consistency. I am not a fan of change, risk or the unknown.
  • Esteem and affirmation – I need to be reminded that I am good and valued almost constantly. I am very averse to criticism.
  • Power and control – I need to exert influence. I do not like unpredictability, freelancers and rebels.

Ken Keyes also described three types of primary addiction.² He called them the “lower centers of consciousness.” He proposed an alternative for esteem and affirmation.

  • Sensation – I need a steady supply of pleasurable sensations. I get bored easily.

All of these programs are emotion-backed, which is why we experience them as really important. If the emotional demands to have our programs run well can be down-regulated to preferences, the attachment/addiction can subside. First, though, you have to raise awareness. The world is not thwarting your fundamental right to be happy. When you are unhappy, YOU are unhappy.

Since a serenity strategy or belief is at the root of the addiction, a lot of people call it a “thought” addiction. This picture is also quite close to well-established cognitive personality theory (Beck and Ellis). I am calling it the “primary” addiction because it is prior to any process or substance issue, which are just desperate escalations for a failed core strategy.

OK, but isn’t this “addiction” language a bit over the top? Can’t we reserve that term for the drunkards, the potheads and the like? I think not. Consider how the DSM-5, the bible on abnormal psychology, defines a substance use disorder. Only two are required for a diagnosis.

  1.  “taken in larger amounts … than was intended” – I went overboard on my strategy.
  2. “unsuccessful efforts to cut down” – Your emotions will scream if you cut down.
  3. “great deal of time is spent … to obtain” – I run my strategy constantly and will go out of my way to run it better.
  4. “craving” – I really, really want my [insert strategy here] in this situation.
  5. “failure to fulfill major roles” – I might be more driven by the strategy than the role and they do not always align.
  6. “social or interpersonal problems” – People are irritating me because they are not cooperating with my strategy.
  7. “activities are given up or reduced” – Consider the opportunity cost for my strategy.
  8. “physically hazardous” – Some people risk their health to pursue their strategy.
  9. “physical or psychological problem” – I know it’s not good for me but I do it anyway.
  10. “tolerance” – I need more out of my strategy than ever.
  11. “withdrawal” – I am miserable if my strategy is interrupted for any period.

Addiction really is, as Keating said, the human condition. Thus we are all in solidarity against and recovery from dysfunctional attachments across the spectrum.

  1. Keating, Thomas. The Human Condition: Contemplation and transformation. Paulist Press, 1999.
  2. Keyes, Ken. Handbook to Higher Consciousness. Berkeley, Calif: Living Love Center, 1975.

Addict, Alcoholic? Keep Calm and Recover On

Primitive reason says that if you have an addiction then you are an addict and if you are addicted to alcohol then you are an alcoholic. Addict, alcoholic: words that still carry highly negative connotations. They commonly infer a pitiful fringe of “proper” society. Inferior, undisciplined, weak-minded, unpredictable, unreliable. It’s a hard profile.


Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon

Without surprise, then, we can see why those who suffer from the more painful addictions do not want to admit to the condition. This denial saddens me, first because you cannot heal what you cannot face, but secondly because there is a missed opportunity to open a big door that leads to a smaller door into the larger recovery room of emotional sobriety, which we all need.

It is almost axiomatic that only great suffering will knock you off the treadmill of life and onto the path of human transformation – the spiritual journey, the next level of consciousness, continued maturation, or whatever you want to call it. Without a crisis, it is too easy to stay on auto-pilot, regarding your emotional addictions as emotional entitlements, to say nothing of the addictions of consumerism, group-think and righteousness.

Thus, the more obvious addictions to debilitating substances and behaviors, while very painful and wholly unfortunate in and of themselves, are also a strange blessing, if they get you in the first door of recovery. Otherwise, finding the second door is very difficult in our present culture. Although the labels of alcoholic and addict may look bad at first, remain calm, get on with your recovery and look forward to something deeper and better than you could have imagined – something that turns these shunned labels upside down. You are still on the fringe of society, but now it’s the healthier fringe! The mainstream remains unconscious in their subtle addictions.

The Twelve Steppers came up with anonymity in order to provide cover for entering the first door. They remain grounded in humility by announcing within the group, for the rest of their lives, “Hi, I’m Joe, an alcoholic.” Yet it’s more than humility. It’s also gratitude, for because of that once awful word, they went on the further journey.


Emotional Sobriety is the End Game for Recovery

Addiction begins in early childhood. We are hardwired to seek happiness that only a perfect union can provide. As the autonomous Self emerges from ages two to four, displacing our primal unitive experience with our mothers, we begin devising strategies for obtaining happiness from the environment. It is a poor substitute for the real thing and, since it depends on others and outside forces, it is doomed to fail repeatedly.


Numb / Overwhelmed

Whence comes many of the afflictive emotions: frustration, disappointment, irritation, sadness, and if those are intolerable, then anger. In the first place, we are dependent on the these programs for happiness. As the addicts say, “You need more and more of what doesn’t work.” In the second place, we are very attached to our emotional experience when our programs are disrupted. Emotion feels like truth; we are entitled to it and we will defend it with great effort. Instead of mindfully reading our emotions as signs of our inner patterns, our emotions are the bottom line; they define us. This relationship is how I understand emotional addiction.

Here’s how two teachers on addiction versus healthy union describe the problem. First, Bill Wilson, writing with reference to bouts of depression in the journal, Grapevine, 1958:

Those adolescent urges that so many of us have for top approval, perfect security, and perfect romance—urges quite appropriate to age seventeen—prove to be an impossible way of life when we are at age forty-seven or fifty-seven.

Suddenly I realized what the matter was. My basic flaw had always been dependence – almost absolute dependence – on people or circumstances to supply me with prestige, security, and the like. Failing to get these things according to my perfectionist dreams and specifications, I had fought for them. And when defeat came, so did my depression.

Then, Thomas Keating, in a little book, The Human Condition, Paulist Press, 1999:

The combinations of … two forces – the drive for happiness in the form of security and survival, affection and esteem, and power and control, and overidentification with the particular group to which we belong – greatly complicates our emotional programs for happiness. In our younger days, this development is normal. As adults, activity arising from such motivation is childish.

Thus, the manifest addiction to a substance or a behavior (e.g. gambling), is only the top of the stack. Remove that and you are still left with emotional addiction. Alcoholics call this stage “the dry drunk.” The real end game of recovery is emotional sobriety. I also refer to it as equanimity, though the 12-step groups prefer “serenity.”

We are all emotional addicts. Some people are in recovery.

Radical Marriage: Anyone Will Do (in theory)

What is the point of working on my marriage if my partner isn’t doing likewise? Doesn’t it take two people to make a relationship work? Should I bother to seek individual counsel and direction?


Two Men Courting Girl’s Favor, Norman Rockwell, 1917

Remember that you create half of the relationship. Anything that you do better, in either giving or receiving, can only improve the situation. Of course, you cannot arrive at a consummate marriage, a reciprocal union, from only one side. But you can move towards it. Your healthy human needs will not be adequately addressed by your stagnant partner. (This is a problem that needs a separate discussion.)   But you can grow in wisdom and love and partially reshape a relationship that will then look and feel different to both of you. Your personal growth continually renews and updates the invitation to your partner to join you in a dialogue of eros.

The soul purpose of life is to grow in capacity to love. Philosophy and psychology alone will not get you there. Love is too big of a mystery to tackle in the abstract. A bottom-up approach is needed. Start with an example, not a concept. Perhaps this soulful purpose adds to the basic desire for romantic coupling. Grow to love this specific, flawed, frustrating, infuriating, ordinary person in front of you. If you can love any one particular person unconditionally, unrestrictedly, unreservedly, then you can love anybody. Then you will know a greater love than connects all things. Ironically, what seems like an individual, one-sided endeavor actually helps you participate in something even more inclusive than your marriage. So, yes, working on “relationship issues” by yourself is still worthwhile.

In this sense, it does not absolutely matter who that specific person is. The beauty and the suffering of marriage is that any person, fully revealed, is difficult to love. Some are more difficult than others, of course, and we all might prefer a shallower learning curve. Since perfect love is not attainable and all are equally worthy of love, you are ultimately tackling the same project with whomever you choose; it just has a different shape. And it’s the same project no matter how many times you choose.