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Addiction is a modern epidemic that has taken thousands of lives and diminished countless more worldwide. In the first part of this ongoing series, addiction was defined as being “the continued use of a substance (or behavior)—alcohol, drugs or food, or other processes such as gambling, shopping or sex—despite the increasing negative consequences to the individual’s health, mental state or social life.” Twelve-step programs explain alcoholism, akin to addiction, as being, “a physical allergy linked to a mental obsession rooted in a spiritual malady.” Together, the addiction/alcoholism paradigm can be explained as the first truly holistic disease.
We looked beyond yoga’s current form and uncovered its deeper essence as a spiritual psychology that offers an intimate student-teacher relationship along with a multi-faceted personal practice, replete with tools for healing and transformation. A regular yoga practice can dramatically improve the lives of those who suffer from addiction by helping reduce symptoms and reverse the causes.
The Power to Change
Yoga’s sister philosophy, Samkhya, posits a formless consciousness at the core of each individual as the foundation for all positive change. When conditions are sattvic, or “right,” this unchanging seer, or cit, imbues our lives with abundant confidence, wisdom, and joy. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, yoga’s foundation text, is a guidebook for cultivating more sattvic conditions.
Yoga perceives the human system as five interconnected, interactive dimensions, or mayas. The first layer is the overall physical body, or annamaya—the level to which the entirety of Western medicine is confined. As we look deeper, we find the breath body, or pranamaya, which guides our physiological functions. The next level is the manomaya, or mental layer, which incorporates the senses, processes information and incites behavior. Then we have the vijnanamaya, or the conditioned mind, which is home to our preferences and values. Lastly and closest to the core is the anandamaya, or emotional body, representing our inherent potential for a lifetime of sustained joy.
Using yoga’s methodology for healing, there are four specific steps you can follow that will help guide you on this quest for healing and change. The first key begins with observing the symptoms, or heyam. Next, you must discover the cause or hetu; then set specific goals for change, or hanam. Finally, these measures can by met by implementing the proper tools, or upayam. This classic therapeutic model is highly effective regardless of whether the problem presents itself as a physical, mental or emotional one or in the case of addiction, as a combination of them all.
The Downward Spiral
While addiction creates negative symptoms at every level, the deepest problems exist in the subtle levels of the mind. We can identify these levels as the mano, vijnana and ananda mayas. We can better understand these effects by examining the disease’s progression, commonly referred to as the “addictive cycle.”
The cycle begins when an individual is exposed to negative mental patterns and behaviors through their parents, teacher or peers. Violence, dishonesty or severe, prolonged criticism can all contribute to the accumulation of negative patterns of thinking. The accumulation of this type of negativity creates uncomfortable emotions such as anger, shame, and guilt, as well as a general feeling of discontentment with self. Once someone becomes conditioned with this negative pattern of thinking and then ingests alcohol, drugs or a combination of both, they usually experience instant bliss—a sudden transcendence from their usual state of being. As most addicts will attest, indulging in the substance or activity was an initial, euphoric relief from years of conscious or unconscious suffering.
Since these individuals usually lack the necessary insight or support for any acknowledgment or resolve of their issues, the temporary freedom from negative thoughts and emotions is a powerful incentive to indulge. Over time this pattern will repeat itself with greater frequency and intensity.
It Just Gets Worse
Prolonged use and abuse lead to a lifestyle that is increasingly addiction-centered. The individual often feels guilty about their behavior and will attempt to hide their habit from those closest to them. As the addiction escalates, behavior becomes more erratic until friends, family, and co-workers eventually begin to express their concern and discontent.
Unfortunately, the addict usually responds to their heartfelt appeals with powerful defense mechanisms fueled by denial, delusionality, and rationalization—intrinsic aspects of the addictive cycle. At this point, the addict is incapable of processing negative feedback or modifying their behavior in any sustainable way. Periodic abstinence is evidence only of the addict’s ability to temporarily or intermittently exhibit control over their behavior and is not a sign of progress; it is merely another confounding characteristic of the addictive cycle.
As irresponsible behavior and dishonesty increase, so do feelings of shame and guilt. Over time life conditions worsen and the individual becomes more isolated, angry and hopeless. Simultaneously, the addict develops a tolerance and eventually needs more of the substance or activity in order to feel the same comfort and joy. At this point, the cycle is complete. The individual has degenerated from user to abuser to full-blown addict.
Addiction manifests in the manomaya as severe mental mismanagement. The addict’s ability to learn and grow from life experiences is profoundly diminished by the mechanisms of denial, delusionality, and rationalization. Perhaps you have used or heard one or all of these excuses.
Denial is defined as, “rejecting the facts despite clear evidence of their veracity.” This includes denying the fact entirely with such rationalizations as, “I didn’t get fired because of my drinking, the company was just downsizing.” Minimizing the seriousness of a given situation is a common form of denial.
Being delusional is a condition in which the individual clings, with absolute certainty, to beliefs based on false evidence or no evidence at all. “Okay, so I failed at quitting pot ten times so far. This time I’m sure I can do it.” Twelve-step programs refer to this as the definition of insanity, “doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
Finally, rationalization can be defined as, “providing false motivation for an action.” Rationalization can be characterized by absurdities like, “It’s not an addiction, I just throw up so I don’t get sleepy at work.” These defenses highlight the basic deception and dishonesty that fuel the addictive cycle.
Fountain of Sorrow
The Yoga Sutras label these tendencies collectively as avidya, or “misperception.” Sutra II:5 defines avidya as, “mistaking the impermanent for the permanent, the unclean for the clean, the painful for the pleasurable and the unconscious for the conscious.” This aptly describes the full-blown addict, who literally dies trying to sustain an intrinsically impermanent high, who embraces and defends habits and attitudes that are physically, mentally and emotionally toxic, who confuses the ever-increasing pain of addiction for pleasure and who continually misperceives their habitual, unconscious indulgences as a conscious choice.
Avidya is a central concept in yoga. According to Patanjali, misperception is the root cause of all human suffering, or duhkha, and the fundamental obstacle, or klesa, to achieving our goals. The more exaggerated the patterns become in the full-blown addict, the easier it is their avidya and the suffering it creates. But the tendency to misperceive is universal, and the same patterns that haunt and torture the addict will negatively affect us all, at one time or another, throughout our lives.
There and Back
Like a photo enlarged for improved viewing, the addict’s life-and-death struggles and salvation are an easy-to-read roadmap for our own personal challenges and their possible resolution. If a hopelessly strung-out junkie or liver-diseased alcoholic can return from the depths of despair to a life brimming with hope and gratitude (as frequently happens in twelve-step programs), then surely the rest of us can overcome our worst habits and find our way back into the light.
To the extent that we allow ourselves to be inspired by the addict’s journey, it becomes obvious that our greatest suffering and most grievous errors can serve not as a source of shame but as a beacon guiding others back to the clarity and joy that is our true nature, the reason we all came to be.
Read: Part one, part three, part four, part five, part six