JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. I'm Jeffrey Mishlove. Our topic today is addiction and the spiritual quest. With me is Christina Grof, who is the co-creator of Holotropic Breathwork and the founder of the Spiritual Emergence Network. Christina is the author of The Thirst for Wholeness, and coauthor with her husband, Dr. Stanislav Grof, of a number of books including The Stormy Search for Self, Spiritual Emergency, and Beyond Death. Welcome, Christina.
CHRISTINA GROF: Thank you.
MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to be with you.
GROF: A real pleasure to be here.
MISHLOVE: When we think of addiction, many people still don't feel that there might be a connection with the spiritual quest. In fact they almost seem as if they're at opposite ends of the spectrum. Yet it was, as you point out in The Thirst for Wholeness -- a phrase that comes from the great Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, something that took place many decades ago. He recognized, in a letter to the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, that there's a relationship between alcoholism and the spiritual quest.
GROF: Yes, I would never have understood that there was a connection between the two, because they seemed really opposite ends of the spectrum. And certainly growing up, the image of an addict or an alcoholic was of some kind of low-level human being who had no self-control, kind of no ethical standards. That was the prevailing image, and I think it is still the prevailing image in some people's minds.
MISHLOVE: We sort of struggle to say whether alcoholism is a moral illness or a medical.
GROF: Well, there was a real revolution, I think, in the mid-fifties when the American Medical Association, among others, recognized alcoholism as a disease. And that kind of opened the door to treating addiction as something more than a moral or ethical problem. You know, now we weren't bad people trying to be good; we were sick people trying to get well. I of course think that it's beyond that. Of course there are the physical manifestations of addiction, particularly chemical addiction. There are the emotional-mental-social problems, aspects of addiction. But I also now understand that there's a deep spiritual part to addiction, and that the addict is really looking for something, and looking for it in the wrong places.
MISHLOVE: Many spiritual thinkers, and I suppose particularly in Buddhist philosophy, suggest that all of our longings, our attachments, and our addictions are ways in which we try to fill an inner emptiness that has to do with our alienation somehow from the divine.
GROF: And I think that's very much the dilemma of the addict. When I began my own recovery from alcoholism, I immediately saw the connection between addiction and spirituality, but also suffering. There's a Buddhist idea that the root of all suffering is attachment, and I began to think that the addict or the alcoholic is simply an exaggerated form of the rest of us as we deal with attachments -- that every human being has attachments, something that they cling to or hold onto, but not every human being is an addict. And so an addict is kind of on the very far end of the spectrum of the rest of us.
MISHLOVE: Although it seems as if our definition of addiction is changing daily.
GROF: Yes, yes, and I think that's a very good thing. I hate to think, if I had gone into recovery from my own addiction thirty years ago, what the atmosphere would be like. So it is changing, and I think a lot of that change is coming from the grassroots level, from people who have struggled with their own addictions, who have come into recovery, who are supported by a community of other people who have also made that journey and are discovering that this is about quality of life; this is about the spirit much more than the physical or medical implications of addiction.
MISHLOVE: Of course there are those implications. Some people just have strong attachments, and other people get addicted, and perhaps there are genetic factors or family factors that are involved in that. I think the interesting thing for me about alcoholism as a model of a classic addiction is that on the one hand, while we tend to look down on people who are alcoholics, when they go through the process of recovery they have the opportunity to enter onto a path of growth, a path of integrity and spirituality, the discipline of which might be compared to a monk in a monastery.
GROF: Absolutely, absolutely. And people who have no interest in so-called spirituality or in traditional religions will go through a process of hitting bottom, of giving up, of surrendering, and from there there's nowhere to go but up. And a lot of people that I see who are in recovery and have been in recovery for some time are following a path of recovery the result of which is an incredibly improved lifestyle, but also a deep wisdom that comes, and a deep understanding that is like someone who has been doing a specific spiritual practice for some time.
MISHLOVE: Your case is a unique one, because you were already a rather well known figure in the field of transpersonal psychology before you began to enter into a process of recovery from alcoholism.
GROF: This is true, and it was very humiliating for that very reason. I thought of myself as a transpersonal person; I thought of myself as a spiritual person. I've been drawn to spirituality ever since I was a child. When I became an alcoholic I had a spiritual teacher; I was meditating, I was identified as this devotee of someone on the path. And that actually became part of my denial system -- you know, how could I be a lowly alcoholic, how could I have a problem with this sort of mundane stuff, because I was such a spiritual person? But I was a very unfortunate alcoholic, and had to go through the process of coming to terms with that, of hitting bottom, of realizing that I wasn't all that different from anyone else who had my same problem, and from that place of humiliation, humility to begin to live my life in a much more honest way. What happened was in the process of hitting bottom I did have a profound spiritual experience -- not in a church or a synagogue, but in a treatment center, and it was what I had been looking for for a very long time. And so it began to show me immediately that there was this deep connection between the spirituality that I had always sought out and also this yearning inside of me that I had mistakenly filled with alcohol.
MISHLOVE: I suppose your case is unique, in that there had been so much preparation in terms of the spiritual work you had been doing, and then you were able to sort of use the process of recovery from alcoholism in combination with that background, to come to a point where now you're the author of a book about it.
GROF: Well, it was both a help and an obstacle, because I had to really become ordinary. I had spent a lot of time in kind of non-ordinary worlds and being interested in the spirit, and I had to get right back down to ground zero. And then what was very surprising was that in the recovery community there were spiritually-based recovery programs, and I became familiar with, for example, the twelve-step programs, and I began to realize that something like the twelve steps contains within it the same wisdom as other spiritual traditions that I'd been attracted to. It was in much more ordinary kind of grounded language than a lot of the traditions I'd been interested in, and there was this large community of people who had been doing the work who knew how to guide me that I could ask questions and ask for support. And it was like coming home.
MISHLOVE: In other words, if we look at Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs, which are the major programs in the Western culture that are treating these problems, the cure for alcoholism is a spiritual path.
GROF: I think so. I mean, there's the reality that people can't improve the quality of their life unless they stop doing their addiction. So first of all, take care of the physical problem, stop the addiction, work in a very down-to-earth way with doing that. And then once that's kind of established, begin to work on -- I see addiction as a mosaic, that there's the physical, the emotional, mental, social, and also the spiritual. And I think they all need to be addressed in order for successful recovery. So some people will get into their recovery and in about four or five years they will begin to discover some underlying issues -- emotional issues, or family issues, or abuse issues -- that they hadn't allowed themselves to feel because of the buffer of their addiction. So those need to be attended to. But then there is also the spiritual, and I believe so strongly that unless the spiritual aspect of addiction and addiction recovery is addressed, that the quality of recovery is really limited.
MISHLOVE: Well, I suppose it's very risky, when there are so many unique individuals out there struggling with these issues, to suggest that one model should fit all.
MISHLOVE: And it's very presumptuous for me or for you or anyone to tell somebody who's going through the agonies of recovery, that, "Oh, this is a spiritual path you're on."
GROF: Right, right, exactly. They'll say, "What do you mean, spiritual? This doesn't feel spiritual." You know, "I'm craving my drug." That's where the wisdom of the community comes in -- to be able to talk regularly and listen regularly to people who have had the experience and who may be further down the road than we are, and to learn from them. And then just keep putting one foot in front of the other. I like what the twelve-step programs say about one day at a time. You know, let's just deal with this present moment as best we can, and then we'll see what tomorrow brings.
MISHLOVE: Well, one of the key aspects of the twelve-step program, as I understand it, is the idea of surrendering to a higher power, the understanding that at the level of the ego we're out of control.
MISHLOVE: We don't have power over our addiction; our addiction has power over us. And if we're going to gain mastery of our own lives we have to call upon something larger than what we normally think of ourselves to be.
GROF: Absolutely. And in this way it's really not different from many other spiritual traditions which require some kind of surrender of the ego. There's a lot of confusion, I think, with that particular step, of how do I let go. I remember hearing a man saying, "You know, for the last forty years I've been taught in my society that as a man I should be powerful. And now you're asking me to become powerless?" Or people who have had a history of abuse or oppression in some way, who have struggled to gain some sort of power; they will say, "You're asking me to give up the power that I have worked so hard to achieve?" The irony is that by stepping aside as an ego, that there's a deeper power that's just right there waiting, and it's that power that people are then able to tap and use in their healing and recovery.
MISHLOVE: And I suppose one of the other ironies of all of this is that many people find, under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, that it brings them closer to a kind of -- I think you use the term pseudo-mystical experience. They believe it gets them in touch with their larger self. They believe that they find God in the bottle somehow.
GROF: Well, this is what William James recognized to be true, what Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous wrote about, this kind of pseudo-mystical experience. What Bill Wilson said is that addicts and alcoholics are seekers. They want to know about the mysteries of God and life, but they've made the mistake of looking in the wrong places. I hear it all the time from people in recovery. You know: "When I took my first drink, when I took my first drug, when I had my first sexual high, when I felt that first rush of power, that was my first spiritual experience. And then I spent the next ten or twenty or thirty or forty or fifty years trying to recapture that, and instead was spun further and further out of control into addiction."
MISHLOVE: And I suppose, if one looks closely at all of the spiritual literature, one of the pervading themes in every culture is the ability to discern a genuine experience from a pseudo-experience.
GROF: Yes, I think that's true, and unfortunately I think one of the most tragic examples of that is the pseudo-spiritual experience. I've seen so many lives that have been ruined. It becomes a very self-destructive path, when it could be something so evolutionary.
MISHLOVE: I suppose part of the tragedy has been that in our culture, when people first experience that taste of something extraordinary, something larger than themselves, they often don't have a context for it. It may never occur to them that what their soul is really yearning for may be a way of life, a larger sense of being. They may actually think that it is the alcohol, or it is the particular drug, or it is the sexual thrill, that's creating it.
GROF: I think that's true, and we are a quick-fix culture. You know, we want instant gratification at every turn, and what this kind of spiritual quest requires is a long-term commitment to some sort of spiritual life, to practicing a certain set of principles, to doing certain kinds of spiritual practice, whether it's twelve-step practice or Buddhist meditation or Christian prayer, and that gradually over time one's life changes dramatically.
MISHLOVE: I suppose it's fair to mention in passing at least that in some ancient societies -- the rites of Dionysius, or the rites of Bacchus -- inebriation, intoxication of various kinds were integrated into a temple, an ongoing spiritual community.
GROF: Yes, and I've wondered, what is it that was different about that culture than about ours? It seems to me that in that context that there was a mythology, there was a kind of cultural understanding and wisdom and support, where these kinds of rituals could be integrated into the community as a whole, and also an understanding that the spiritual experience is something important and valuable. You know, I think until the last couple of decades our culture lost that, and we have been regaining it very quickly.
MISHLOVE: At the height of our Western materialism. Of course, there's always been a spiritual movement here or there, but there is a sense in which the culture as a whole was moving towards a kind of secular materialism, and spiritual experiences were totally denigrated. And yet we've always talked about spirits when we drink alcohol.
GROF: Well, that's the thing. It's like we're reaching for the spirits rather than the Spirit with a capital S. Another thing that you mentioned, Jung's letter to Bill Wilson -- another thing that Jung wrote in that letter was his formula for the treatment of alcoholism was spiritus contra spiritum, or the use of the Spirit, with a capital S, against the ravages of the spirits. And I believe that that is a very -- even though he was talking about alcoholism -- that this is a useful formula for any kind of addiction.
MISHLOVE: But the fundamental principle is that if you can discover at the deepest level what we're really yearning for, what we're really searching for, and if we can replace our substitute gratification with something authentic, we have a chance of really building a life again on a more solid foundation.
GROF: Absolutely. And I've heard a lot of people -- a lot of recovering addicts, and others -- talking about this kind of free-floating yearning for something, some missing piece in their lives. Whatever it would be, what it would be would help them to feel all right, as though they belong here. And unfortunately they tried to fill that sense of emptiness or incompleteness in the wrong ways.
MISHLOVE: You felt that yourself as you went through your recovery, and I think there's a great irony, because here you were already meditating. You were already on a spiritual path. Could you talk a little more about your process?
GROF: Well, again, I was certainly involved in my spiritual life before I became actively alcoholic, and it was during a very chaotic time in that spiritual life that I began to use alcohol as a tranquilizer, really, to kind of medicate some of the inner chaos, and then became a full-fledged alcoholic. In those years I was kind of addicted to my spirituality in a way, using it as a way to escape pain, using it as a way to keep myself out of my everyday life, in part.
MISHLOVE: Well, there are many pitfalls and pathologies amongst people who pursue a so-called spiritual path. You know, there are so many ways that we have of dodging whatever the real issue is for us, and looking good at the same time.
GROF: Well, I think I was doing some of that. I mean, I think I had also a very serious, real intent. But it wasn't until I hit bottom with my drinking, which in a sense was the surrender experience I'd been looking for in other places -- really, completely letting go as much as I could at that time. And it was then that I discovered a more solid, down-to-earth, daily practice, and that spirituality really became more and more integrated into my everyday life. I see spirituality as something that is part of everyday life, not as something that is separate.
MISHLOVE: Now, as we use the term spirituality, it means so many different things in many different contexts. But I suppose in one sense we could strip it from all of its cultural baggage, and say ultimately what you're dealing with is confronting yourself at a deeper level; that we spend so much of our daily life filling our time with various activities and satisfying our attachments and addictions, and what it seems to amount to is kind of avoiding something within ourselves -- perhaps that sense of alienation.
GROF: I think you're right. The spiritual experience, or spirituality, to me has to do with direct experience; it has to do with an experience, as you say, of some deeper source, in ourselves and possibly in the external world.
MISHLOVE: And when you give up an addiction, then you're confronted with what it was that was pushing you.
GROF: Yes. And this isn't about sitting on the mountaintop in bliss and white light all the time. As you know, the spiritual path is very gutsy, is very painful at times. It requires a lot of courage, a lot of commitment at times, and can be joyful and wonderful and rewarding in the long term. I certainly wouldn't trade any of my path for anything.
MISHLOVE: Well, it's wonderful that you can say that, and I know at the same time you're not encouraging anybody else to follow you.
GROF: Oh no, no, no. I certainly would not recommend -- let's emphasize that -- addiction as a way to find one's spiritual life. It's too dangerous. We read in the paper every day the consequences of addiction and the number of deaths as a result. So this happened to be my path. It was something that happened to me, and I feel very fortunate to have lived through it and to have gained from it.
MISHLOVE: You mentioned the humiliation -- in fact you even write about how humiliating even at the time it was, to spend the days with your spiritual teacher and then come home at night and start drinking.
MISHLOVE: An interesting thing you wrote about was the sense in which people often confuse low self-esteem and a kind of humiliating self-image with spiritual humility.
GROF: Yes. Well, I think that so-called spiritual humility, that sort of pseudo-spiritual humility, can be a cover for low self-esteem or a sense of shame -- you know, someone who's focusing constantly on other people. You know: "Don't think about me. I'll take the smallest piece. I'll spend my life taking care of you and devoted to you." There is a truly selfless spiritual aspect to that, but I think also there's the shadow side of that where people can use their spirituality, or use that sense of humility, to cover low self-esteem.
MISHLOVE: Well, it's so subtle, what we're talking about. You know, the very word spirit ultimately means the essence, the innermost part, and it's always subtle. It always seems to be that whenever you think you understand something true about spirituality, there's always the dark side, or the ridiculous or perverted side of that very same understanding.
GROF: Well, it sometimes seems to have this strange sense of humor. There's both the very clear, light side, and there's also this kind of dark side. I think it helps to maintain a sense of humor, and just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
MISHLOVE: Well, Christina Grof, you've been very courageous in sharing with the public at large the agonizing journey that you have gone through in recovering from your own addiction -- courageous both because of the suffering, and also because you were already a public figure in high esteem at the time. I really appreciate your sharing that with me and with our audience.
GROF: Thank you, Jeffrey.
MISHLOVE: Thanks for being with me.
GROF: It was a real pleasure. Thank you.
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