Addiction and the Perennial Philosophy

We 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 Philosophysomething 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.

So 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.


  1. Katie Kurtz says

    Hi John, I am in Debbie’s Drug Education Program, and you spoke to us last wednesday. Your presentation was very informative, and I enjoyed what you had to say very much, I appreciate your experiences and your outlook on addiction and treatment.

    I like this post because I often feel like we look past this step in treatment. I think there are a lot of stereotypes around spirituality mostly because I think a lot of people get in confused with religion. I am sure the two are closely tied together but I think from person to person it can be different. The narrative I see and hear most often is people who went away for jail time or time spent in a rehab center, owe their recovery to god. I am sure this helped the individual in the recovery process, but I am sure it’s more than that.

    I had mentioned in class that I just had a best friend enter a rehab program about a month ago. When listening to your lecture in class many things scared me and empowered me in terms of my friend getting the correct treatment. To me this person didn’t have any risk factors. She came from a pretty stable home, got amazing grades all though school from elementary to college. She was engaged in many sports and extracurricular activities which she excelled at ALL of them! She was someone I looked up to, and she’s my best friend.

    I drank before her in high school because she didn’t agree with it. She soon began drinking probably our senior year of high school and all though college, but I never noticed a problem because it’s what we all did in college. I didn’t notice her problem until she moved away for a job in LA. I could go more into detail but I would be here awhile. She finally hit rock bottom 3-4 months ago and it took her about a month of being back home to realized she needed to go into rehab.

    I had mentioned in class that she has taken up smoking while staying at this rehab center. When you said that alcohol and tobacco hit the same part of the brain I was instantly worried for my friend. It made me think that she’s just trading one for another and she’s really not getting the help she needs. I wonder how this program is set up, it’s scary to think that they aren’t working on her strengths and rather working on her problem. I would be interested to look into this program more, and see if they are applying the Perennial Philosophy.

    Thanks again for your presentation in class, your website is very helpful as well! :)

  2. admin says

    Katie, thanks for the feedback and thoughts about your friend. It’s hard to know what impact rehab will have on her, but as discussed, most programs miss many important things that I feel are important for long term success. Since she is your best friend, it is never to late to share with her what you learn. And encourage her once she gets discharged to seek out good outpatient care, ideally with a skilled private practice clinician. And yes, tell her that her continued smoking is a very high risk factor for relapse, not to mention that it defeats her recovery if she gets cancer! She is lucky to have you as a friend.


  3. Rachel Stout says

    I’m also in Debbie’s class and I haven’t read “The Perennial Philosophy” yet, but it sounds like being self-aware and finding a source to connect to are essential to overcoming addiction. I’m quite lucky in that I’ve grown up in a household that had a strong emphasis on connecting with church, community, and family so I’ve always felt like I’ve had a good network.

    We also have tons of food on holidays and I quite appreciate that myself. In fact, my church currently encourages people to come by offering free breakfast and by having a “free table” laden with bread, fruit, and other produce that is quite often from people’s fruit trees or gardens. Knowing someone cared enough to feed you is another wonderful way to feel like you’re connected with your community.

    It sounds like “The Perennial Philosophy” really might be a good read for me right now. I’m not quite mastering the “less is more” concept – especially with labor day sales singing their siren song in my ear. I don’t want to trivialize people’s addictions by mentioning my love of shopping, but thankfully it’s the only personal experience with which I can have a semblance of relating.

  4. admin says

    Rachel, sounds like you have a strong church community that has helped you learn and grow your faith. I do think you would enjoy Huxley’s book, but before you read it, consider reading Larry Dossey’s book One Mind. It’s a little different, but I think might provide you interesting food for thought.

    Yes, shopping is a nice way to connect with addiction. When the pursuit of buying things replaces what is most important in life, then shopping behavior can be a pathway to a deeper understanding of life. Of course we all shop for things, the question really is when does it get in the way of living?

    Thanks for the comment


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