Addiction Management Blog

Archive for the ‘Action 5: Create’ Category

Theater as a force of creativity, inspiration, and healing

Monday, July 15th, 2013

I am big believer in balancing our efforts to intervene on the pathological side of the equation of life issues, with efforts to enhance individual strengths, talents, and creative life energy. When we solely focus on problems, like addiction, depression, and trauma, we often – quite surprisingly and opposite to what you may think – get more of the same. The reason has to do with how systems operate in life, and the fact that there is a big difference between interventions aimed at reducing and stopping addictive behavior, and taking action to creatively bring something cool into the world that gives your life meaning and purpose.

One of my favorite books on this topic is The path of least resistance: Learning to become the creative force in your own life by Robert Fritz. He says: “There is a profound difference between problem solving and creating. Problem solving is taking action to have something go away – the problem.  Creating is taking action to have something come into being – the creation.” He goes on in the book to explain how the actions are very different, and why spending time creating cool things may in fact lead to better outcomes than focusing on getting addiction to go away. Now I say all of this because I believe one of the most creative, inspiring and healing forces in life can be found in theater. Yes, you heard me correctly, theater!

Whether you watch theater, decide to get into acting, or engage in set design, lighting or some other aspect of the production, being involved in theater is a way for the soul to nourish creative desires. While I am fortunate to have the opportunity to experience amazing theater multiple times a year in New York City, I can honestly say that theater in my home town of Portland, Oregon rivals the best of what I have seen on Broadway. Some of the most amazing productions come from Portland Center Stage that recently put together the following video in honor of theater and all that it can provide us. Enjoy!

Addiction and the Perennial Philosophy

Saturday, April 13th, 2013

perennial_philosophy_coverWe have known for a long time that among the most powerful ways to overcome addiction is through spiritual interventions. The essence of such approaches is that addiction is a problem of the ego, of our lower self, of the body. By harnessing the powers and energy from our higher self, from the part of us that is unchangeable and connected to the source (God, Buddha,  Allah, Atman …your choice), we can overcome most anything in life. This philosophy is at the heart of twelve-step programs, but it really goes far beyond recovery. In fact, it is about our ultimate work on this earth – awakening to our true nature.

I will admit I have been slow to all of this. I was not raised religious and the rare times I made it to church were with friends on holidays primarily for the food. Even more, I was raised in a family that valued science, and awakening to our true nature was not something that fit well into randomized clinical trials. So it took many years of wandering before I stumbled upon the Perennial Philosophy, something that made a lot of sense to me.

Perhaps you too have heard about it, or maybe not. Although I am sure there is a more elegant way to describe it,  I understand it like this. If you ventured back in history and gathered up all the wisdom on how to live life from all the great mystics and enlightened beings from all the world’s religions and spiritual traditions, and then boiled down their essential message, they would all speak universal truths, which is the Perennial Philosophy. It is the commonality in all religions, it’s what links them all together no matter how different they may appear on the surface. For me, this is very much like the scientific method. We have a bunch of researchers, who over time, using a variety of techniques, study a phenomena from various perspectives and all arrive at the same conclusion, informing reality as we know it!  Of course science is not perfect because it is conducted by people who can make mistakes, but history has shown that it is pretty darn good at helping us understand the world.

UntetheredSoulMech-#1.inddSo for me, the Perennial Philosophy bridges the gap between science and spirit, and has been a game-changer in life. If awakening to our true nature is our primary purpose on this earth, then it sure simplifies a lot of things! My to-do list is now much, much smaller. And so many things that I believed to be critical to a good life, things that I had to have, now seem not so important. Less really is more! What exactly is the Perennial Philosophy? There are two ways you can discover the answer. You can use your lower self, your ego, and read all about it. A good place to start is Aldous Huxley’s well-known The Perennial Philosophy. Or you can read about it in many of Ken Wilbur’s books, or get a nice summary on Wikipedia. But in all honesty, this method is a bit like reading all about a cool place you want to visit. It will give you some background, the lay of the land, but in the end it is not the cool place, is it? To really experience and understand the cool place you read about, you have to visit the cool place!

If you really want to understand the Perennial Philosophy you have to experience it through your higher self, through contemplative practice. There is no other way. Meditation, in all its forms, is the primary vehicle for developing a contemplative life, although there are other ways. With practice, you will discover the self behind the self. The part of you that has always been there, that does not change with your thoughts and feelings, and is capable of pure awareness. If this all sounds a bit warm and fuzzy, check out the bestselling book The Untethered Soul. I will admit, it has been a very slow journey for me. Perhaps the most important thing I have learned thus far – if you never take trip, if you never go inside and really see what is there – you are missing out on something very cool, beyond cool, actually.

Siddhartha’s path out of addiction

Saturday, June 30th, 2012

I’m not sure how I missed reading Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha (Hilda Rosner translation) in high school, but I did. It’s one of those enchanting books I wish I would have read earlier! If you are unfamiliar with the story, I encourage you to read it and soak in its many wonderful messages about life. I have no intention of recapping the story here, but instead want to use parts of the story to illustrate one path out of addiction.

Siddhartha is a man on a mission, on a journey to the center of Self, to a place where Self is merged into unity, or the All. On his way to enlightenment he has many interesting adventures, including a period of time where he hangs out with the beautiful Mistress, Kamala. “She played with him, conquered him, rejoiced at her mastery, until he was overcome and lay exhausted at her side.” She enticed him into the world of the ordinary, a life of attachment. “The world had caught him; pleasure, covetousness, idleness, and finally also that vice that he had always despised and scorned as the most foolish – acquisitiveness. Property, possessions and riches had also finally trapped him. They were no longer a game and a toy; they had become a chain and a burden.

I find it interesting that as Siddhartha descends deeper into his attachments, Hesse beautifully describes addiction. “He played the game as a result of a heartfelt need. He derived a passionate pleasure through gambling away and squandering of wretched money….He won thousands, he threw thousands away, lost money, lost jewels, lost a country house, won again, lost again. He loved the anxiety, that terrible and oppressive anxiety which he experienced during the game of dice, during the suspense of high stakes. He loved this feeling and continually sought to renew it, to increase it, to stimulate it, for in the feeling alone did he experience some kind of happiness, some kind of excitement, some heightened living in the midst of his satiated, tepid, insipid existence.

And like so many who suffer from addiction and relapse to numb the pain and despair of an insipid existence, Siddhartha too experiences the consequences of his actions. “And whenever he awakened from this hateful spell, when he saw his face reflected in the mirror on the wall of his bedroom, grown older and uglier, whenever shame and nausea overtook him, he fled again, fled to a new game of chance, fled in confusion to passion, to wine, and from there back again to the urge for acquiring and hoarding wealth. He wore himself out in this senseless cycle, became old and sick.

For those who struggle with addiction, and their family and friends forced to endure a life on the edge, there is an insightful lesson in the story of Siddhartha.

I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment and sorrow, just in order to become a child again and begin anew. But it was right that it should be so; my eyes and heart acclaim it. I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace, to hear Om again, to sleep deeply again and to awaken refreshed again. I had to become a fool again in order to find Atman in myself. I had to sin in order to live again.

For someone who reaches enlightenment, it’s strange imagining Siddhartha sitting by a river thinking about suicide. But he does. And in the pain of the moment, “he understood it and realized that the inward voice had been right, that no teacher could have brought him salvation. That was why he had to go into the world, to lose himself in power, women and money; that was why he had to be a merchant, a dice player, a drinker and a man of property, until the priest and Samana in him were dead. That was why he had to undergo those horrible years, suffer nausea, learn the lesson of the madness of an empty, futile life till the end, till he reached bitter despair, so that Siddhartha the pleasure-monger and Siddhartha the man of property could die. He had died and a new Siddhartha had awakened from his sleep. He also would grow old and die. Siddhartha was transitory, all forms were transitory, but today he was young, he was a child – the new Siddhartha – and he was happy.”

So often when addiction is the problem we believe heading off to treatment is the answer. No doubt treatment can be helpful and at times life-saving. But this story is a powerful lesson in how change, even the most challenging of changes, are possible when we access what is already inside us. Atman. The All. “To much knowledge had hindered him; too many holy verses, too many sacrificial rites, too much mortification of the flesh, too  much doing and striving.” Too much treatment, too many self-help meetings, too much reliance on evidence-based practices and medications. Too much action. Sometimes, the path of no-action, the path of contemplation – of sitting, listening, and just being is the path out of addiction.


You’ll never be the same again

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

Sins and Needles…when creativity transforms addiction

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

Ray Materson was a straight “A” student, President of his sixth grade class, and a youthful child looking ahead to a bright future. Then a combination of risk factors both in his family and school peer group, led Ray down a dangerous path where alcohol and drugs became his best friends. Before long, his drug-seeking behavior resulted in a twenty-five year sentence for kidnapping and armed robbery. In his autobiography, Sins and Needles, co-written by his then wife Melanie, he details his journey into drug abuse, life in prison, and a discovered talent for embroidery that eventually leads to his sobriety and salvation.

I love Ray’s story because it so clearly illustrates why “create” is part of the MRC Solution to addiction. It is positive psychology at its best, optimizing life, providing meaning and hope, and unlocking innate talent that is more powerful than addiction.

Recently, Ray and I spoke on the phone. I appreciated his candor and honesty about his life, and his reponses to some of the questions that remained for me after reading the book. Without giving too much away, Ray’s tenancity for his art and willingness to allow the correctional system to do its job,  eventually results in a second chance at life. His website documents many of his achievements and has a great video presentation showcasing his work, as well as a personal interview. He summed-up what helped him most deal with addiction by saying: 1) my art work, 2) personal affirmations specific to self-esteem, 3) support from other people, and 4) a higher power.

Successfully dealing with addiction is not for the faint at heart. It is a challenging road, requiring significant effort at many junctures in life. Has emboridery solved all of Ray’s troubles?…of course not. But in talking with him, it is clear that through his art he has learned to speak his truth. He has learned to speak of his pains and joys, his successes and failures, and his fears and hopes for the future. Godspeed Ray.

Who is the best at living the longest?

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

This past week I had a few minutes to spare in Washington DC, so I dropped by the National Geographic Society headquarters and discovered a project that has significant relevance to successfully solving the problem of addiction. Writer and photographer Dan Buettner embarked on a journey around the globe in search of communities that optimized lifestyle for longevity and happiness, places he calls blue zones.  He boiled down his research for the book Blue Zones into principles for living a long and prosperous life. Here is a great summary of the book he did for TED:

For those who struggle with addiction, the keys outlined in the book (and the speech above) provide a road map for translating the MRC solution into reality. Let’s look at how they line up:

Successfully dealing with addiction requires identifying those things in your life that are chronic issues, and then developing strategies that appropriately keep these things in-check. When we expect to permanently solve a chronic problem we set ourselves up for failure because there is no cure or end to these issues, they require ongoing attention. Addiction, diet, chronic medical issues, time and exercise are all things we must learn to successfully manage. In Blue Zones, the keys that line up with manage include:

  • Learn to move naturally. Those who live to be 100 rarely engage in rigorous exercise. Instead, they incorporate  walking, gardening, yoga and other less body-stressful movements into their daily routine. Developing a healthy lifestyle free from addiction necessitates learning to move in the world in a new way, in a natural, physically and emotionally pain-free way.
  • Slow down. Our culture perpetuates addictive behavior by encouraging lifestyles where multi-tasking, reliance on technology, and instant gratification become packaged in a speedaholic existence. Not so for those who live in blue zones. An important aspect of successful long-term management of addiction is learning to slow down, become conscious of how you spend your time, and align it with what is most important in your life.
  • Eat and drink wisely. Food and drink are common objects of addiction, and although abstinence from alcohol is possible, we cannot stop our relationship with food. The same goes for those who struggle with sexual addiction. It is not possible to remain abstinent from sex, we are sexual beings by nature and healing requires finding healthy ways to express our sexuality. The key is moderation, balance, and of course, eating more fruits and vegetables. Red wine has also been shown to increase longevity, but if it creates more problems than benefits (e.g., abuse, relapse) it should not be on your list.

There are some life problems that we should not manage, but solve, permanently. Homelessness, debt, acute pain, many developmental constrictions/deficits, legal problems, and suicide ideation. None of these things are healthy to manage over a long period of time, and our work should focus on resolution. Two significant problems most addicts need to resolve are lonliness and isolation. The key that lines-up with resolve is:

  • Be Connected to Others. Those who live the longest put family and loved ones first. They belong to communities that nurture and protect each other. Many share their spiritual faith in community, and hang out with people that have healthy habits, both physical and emotional. I have written a lot about how the essence of solving the problem of addiction is disconnecting from object-relationships and learning to engage in healthy, intimate connections with people. But to do this very often requires resolving barriers to human relationships. These barriers include unresolved trauma that lead to isolation, developmental stuck points, and debilitating shame and grief. This work is not easy, but necessary for relationships to blossom.

Many who struggle with addiction spend all their time on the pathological side of the equation. Treatments, interventions, fixes, cures, treatments….all intended to reduce or stop addictive behavior. This stuff is important, but at the same time it needs to be integrated with actions that optimize life.  Sometimes taking a break from intervening on addictive behavior and directing energy to what we want out of life can actually produce the outcomes we seek. Those who live in blue zones:

  • Have a clear purpose. They call it “ikigai” – the reason for which you wake-up in the morning. If your ikigai is that you don’t want to drink, smoke,  or act-out today, well…this is not a very compelling reason to get out of bed, it just gets you to focus on what you don’t want! The key is redirecting your life energy towards creating what you do want.

For additional information on blue zones, checkout the author’s website: bluezones and the book.

The trauma of death…and the gift of life

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

It was just like any other day, arriving home from high school, popping into the kitchen for a snack. The phone rang and I can still hear the words of my best friend’s older brother as if it was yesterday … ”John, you should sit down. Last night Doug took his life.” Let me be clear, Doug was not an addict. He was an exercise fiend and taught me the ways of the gym, inspiring me to never stop lifting weights. His death was a tragedy, the end result of an intractable seasonal affective disorder that left him incapacitated during the winter months. I was asked to be a pallbearer at the funeral, and remember very little from the experience. It was emotionally overwhelming…traumatic to say the least.

Only recently have I began to understand how significant his death has been in my life, and how early trauma has played a role in my experiencing numerous deaths as traumatic. A few years ago very close friends all died tragically in a plane crash in Alaska, and a couple of years ago a cousin took his own life. Collectively, these events have made it very difficult for me to be completely conscious, emotionally open, and accepting of death when it occurs. For many who struggle with addiction, death is one of those topics that goes straight to the core. In fact, death goes deep with all of us.

It is challenging to fully live in the present if we have not faced on some level our own mortality. More and more I find myself staring into the mirror wondering “who is that guy“…wondering where the youthful look, hair, and energy have gone. As I watch my son with boundless energy want to stay up all night building legos, I remember the late nighters in college that came effortlessly. Now, I can’t wait to crawl into bed early and let my body rest. Perhaps it has something to do with the increasing pace of life, but I know also that before long (if it has not already happened), I will be on the downside of the curve. Life is finite, my own death inevitable. I also know that as I grow older I will increasingly lose those I love most. But the gift of life is that we can use it to prepare for death – our own and others. It should not be an overwhelming, paralyzing experience. How am I working the issue of death?

  • Trauma resolution: I am identifying traumatic life events, particularly those that have been closely linked to death, and then slowly, safely, allowing myself to connect the memories to the emotional experiences. Trauma work ultimately is about integration: head, heart, body, mind, spirit, feelings, thoughts, behaviors - all aligned.
  • Meditation: I find meditating on death a great way to peel the onion, remove the layers of fear, and connect with a core part of myself that does not fear dying and realizes that we ultimately die as we live.
  • Meaning/Purpose: As I get older I realize more and more the importance of identifying what gives my life meaning, and then aligning my actions with that purpose. Family first, everything else second.
  • Grief/Sadness:  I feel…experience…stay with…breath…
  • Unfinished Business: I know there will always be unfinished business, that is part of life. So for me this really is about the present, and how I am spending my time. It’s not so much how many “to do’s” I was able to check off the list, but more about whether I had the right things on the list to begin with.
  • Visit those who are gone: No, I don’t participate in seances, but visting the gravesites of those I have known is a concrete way to embrace my own mortality.
  • Faith: It all comes down to faith, the forcefield of life. Death is the great mystery, and what’s on the otherside is reflected in my relationship to that which is beyond myself. The infinite.