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.

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.

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.

Marriage Must Satisfy This Equation

The success of a marriage depends upon the relative values of four variables – really, two instances of two variables, one instance for each partner. Let’s call S the Shadow, that part of the self where wounds hide (some call them defects of character; I call them wounds). Wounds are revealed, first to oneself and then to the other, in an act of intimacy. Then let E stand for Enlightenment, a common word for maturity in many spiritual traditions. Carl Jung and others called it individuation. The “light within” that comes through spiritual and psychological maturity (wisdom) illuminates and integrates one’s shadow into the whole person (healing). In marriage, enlightenment provides visibility and calm when your partner’s shadow is cast over you.


The Ouija Board – Norman Rockwell – 1920

Each partner has wounds, more or less, and each partner is enlightened, more or less, which makes for two instances of these variables. Thus we have Shusband and Swife, Ehusband and Ewife and the marriage predicate is:

(Ewife > Shusband) & (Ehusband > Swife)

E > S means that one has enough enlightenment to stand in the other’s shadow with equanimity and compassion. Put a different way, one can hold the other without becoming overwhelmed, offended, defensive, resentful.

This “equation” might seem rather obvious, but here is the real point. Nowhere is it stated what are the literal values of E and S. There is no cultural standard value of E or S. There is no threshold above which you can say, “Well, her shadow is obviously too dark” or below which you can claim, “He is a certified dimwit.” The variables are always relative – too dark for his brightness, too dimwitted for her shadow. Without objective standards there can be no blame.

Instead of deciding who is on the wrong side of the non-existent human norm, the way forward, either within the marriage or after the divorce, is two-fold. Grow further towards enlightenment and integrate more of your shadow. A couple has to meet each other half-way in this work. A newly single person wants to be in a better position for the next time.