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Addiction Recovery: The Spiritual Path

May 31, 2015 10:27PM
By Dr. Chas Gant

In previous Natural Awakenings articles on addiction (January and February 2015), some important mind-body factors in recovery were discussed. The fictitious duality of mind and body was shown to be an inseparable concept. Spirituality was mentioned in a vague way, as an important adjunct to this unitary mind-body approach. Here the discussion wraps up with a more expanded discussion of the whole notion of spirituality and how it is an inseparable issue from mind-body, suggesting that an authentic, holistic approach to recovery or any health matter, is incomplete without incorporating mind, body and spirit into a seamless mix.

The obvious limitation of an exclusive mind-body approach, however espoused in the healing arts and integrative medicine, is that it is concerned with the well-being of the self, the ego, the identity as a separate entity.

Fully 80 percent of our brain, with its primitive, ancient, reptilian behavioral compulsions, its old limbic emotionality and its more recent cognition and intellect, is devoted to perpetuation of this separateness of self. However, our most recent neurological structures, the prefrontal cortex and associated brain structures, while also providing supportive enhancements to self-survival, have been shown through psychological and brain imagery studies to promote selflessness, an empathetic concern for the survival of others including non-human lifeforms.

It has been suggested that had we not evolved this tempering, compassion-oriented, prefrontal part of our brain that, like a race car with no brakes, we would have been stunted with very smart, dominance-obsessed, reptilian brains and we would probably have driven ourselves into extinction through unrestrained addiction to power and violence.

The world’s great religions are roadmaps to spiritual awakening, and they all suggest ways, such as through prayer, contemplation and meditation, to enhance the function of what we now know as the human prefrontal cortex. Like any part of the brain specialized for a certain task, such as motor function, emotional appreciation, sensory experience or intellect, the prefrontal cortex confers the experience of awareness of thoughts, feelings, actions and sensation.

It is a truth-telling device, conferring the experience of self-observation. The life Jesus of Nazareth was a model of selflessness and self-honesty. Muhammad was clear that the highest jihad, often mistaken to mean war, was a jihad or “struggle of the heart” against fear, hate and craving—the baser, limbic instincts that enhance egoism and separateness. The Buddha suggested that the primary addiction is addiction to self, and from that all other addictions stem.

Step two of the 12-step philosophy, the basis for Alcoholics Anonymous and related treatment models, was morphed from Judeo-Christian traditions and monotheism. It reads, “ believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” and suggests that the very process of connecting to something greater than a separate self, whatever that is for one personally, is the central answer to addiction.

Psychologically, the separate self seems to compulsively seek to complete itself by reaching outside for magic solutions. Love addicts are obsessed with finding the perfect partner. Food addiction attempts to fill the empty heart. Sex addicts seek the all-fulfilling sexual encounter. Power addiction, perhaps the most insatiable of all, looks toward control and adulation as its solution. Addiction to social causes, or professions and work, can drive compulsions. Let’s not forget “recreational” (alcohol, tobacco), prescribed and illicit chemicals. Religiosity, political ideology, gambling—the list is endless. A separate self somehow becomes disconnected from a greater existence and then seeks to find its happiness through compulsive activity at reconnecting, but never can.

Spirituality begins by understanding how contradictory addiction is. There must be a more sustainable, less dangerous way to find inner peace and happiness other than achieving the temporary satisfaction of getting one’s gambling, chemical, control, ideological, sensory, money, sexual, love or food “fix”. All of these fixes obviously harden the sense of separateness—deepening its craving to find an answer—desperately trying to find a way to maintain its self-identity, its uniqueness, its existential aloneness and nevertheless, be happy. All spiritual traditions, in one way or another, start with the same belief: that separate identity and ego needs to be dropped in order to discover who you really are and to be sustainably happy. Likewise, our attachment to addictive elements that seem real and permanent need to be dropped as well.

At first, this transition may seem difficult and painful. Withdrawal from our fixes, like a withdrawal from drugs and alcohol, can seem like exquisite torture. However, to others who have been getting ready to “let go,” “surrender” or “turn it over” for some time, to borrow 12-step language, the transition is easier—like a snake wiggling out of its skin that was cramping its body to take on a larger form.

Whether you rip the skin of your old separate identity off or slowly let it fall away, the metaphor fits exactly as to how the self, which was once limited to its skin, connects to something larger and expands.

It’s not that the ego is too big and deserves to be punished, despite the fact that its addictions and compulsions stir up all kinds of mischief. Rather, the ego was limited—too proud to ask for help, and never big enough to selflessly lose its isolated, separate identity or connect with or experience the universal love it had always craved. Yet it was always there—waiting quietly—for a few quiet moments of meditation, prayer and contemplation, to be discovered.

Dr. Chas Gant, M.D., Ph.D., is an author, physician and educator, specializing in functional medicine, molecular health and healing. For more information, call 202-237-7000, ext. 152 or visit

To hear Dr. Chas speak on this topic at a free seminar/webinar, visit for a date and location.



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